The Last Remaining Target of The Legitimation Crisis

One cannot criticize the military. That is the rule. The military is always perfect, composed only of heroes. Failures are always and ever political errors from ignorant civilians in government. Any criticism is seen as unpatriotic. This ideology is used as a baseball bat to cover political decisions implemented through military means.

In this context, it was interesting to read these two pieces over the weekend. The first one is a rather long read, but worth the time, by Thomas Ricks examining the structural and organizational factors at the root of systemic failures:

“Since 9/11, the armed forces have played a central role in our national affairs, waging two long wars—each considerably longer than America’s involvement in World War II. Yet a major change in how our military operates has gone almost unnoticed. Relief of generals has become so rare that, as Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling noted during the Iraq War, a private who loses his rifle is now punished more than a general who loses his part of a war. In the wars of the past decade, hundreds of Army generals were deployed to the field, and the available evidence indicates that not one was relieved by the military brass for combat ineffectiveness. This change is arguably one of the most significant developments in our recent military history—and an important factor in the failure of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

To a shocking degree, the Army’s leadership ranks have become populated by mediocre officers, placed in positions where they are likely to fail. Success goes unrewarded, and everything but the most extreme failure goes unpunished, creating a perverse incentive system that drives leaders toward a risk-averse middle where they are more likely to find stalemate than victory. A few high-profile successes, such as those of General David Petraeus in Iraq, may temporarily mask this systemic problem, but they do not solve it.

Ironically, our generals have grown worse as they have been lionized more and more by a society now reflexively deferential to the military. The Bush administration has been roundly (and fairly) criticized for its delusive approach to the war in Iraq and its neglect of the war in Afghanistan. Yet the serious failures of our military leaders in these conflicts have escaped almost all notice. No one is pushing those leaders to step back and examine the shortcomings of their institution. These are dangerous developments. Unaddressed, they could lead to further failures in future wars.”

As they say, read the whole thing. And if this reminds you of failing corporate leaders leaving their companies close to bankruptcy with nice golden parachutes, you are correct. It is roughly the same dynamic at work here. The higher the level, the lower the accountability.

The second unusual piece comes from the Independent and this is usually the kind of pieces we read about the rank-and-file, not the brass:

“The accusations leveled against three Army generals over the past six months are as varied as they are striking, the highest-profile of a growing number of allegations of wrongdoing by senior military officials.

A one-star general was flown home from Afghanistan this spring to face criminal charges, including sexual assault. A four-star general formerly in charge of the increasingly vital Africa command was accused of financial mismanagement, accepting inappropriate gifts and assigning staff personal tasks.

And a three-star general who oversees the U.S. Missile Defense Agency was described in an inspector general report as an abrasive and verbally abusive boss.

The investigations have become an embarrassment for the Army, raising questions about how thoroughly the military has screened senior leaders before putting them in crucial assignments.

The Defense Department’s inspector general reviewed 38 cases of alleged wrongdoing by senior officials in 2011, and substantiated the accusations in nearly 40 percent of the them, up from 21 percent in 2007. The total caseload this year is on track to exceed last year’s.

“It’s always concerning when senior leaders have issues, because we have very specific faith in senior leaders,” Gen. Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff, said in a recent interview. Odierno said all such cases are taken seriously, but argued that “we can’t allow a few to detract from the honorable service of many.”

The investigation into Gen. William E. Ward, the former chief of Africa Command, is being closely watched at the Pentagon, where rank-and-file officers wonder aloud whether senior leaders will be reticent to punish one of their own.”

This is interesting because, so far, the military had escaped the legitimation crisis that has hit pretty much every other institution from the polity, to the economy, to religion and family and, of course, the media. One of the consequences of the legitimation crisis is the questioning of privilege and calls to greater accountability. It remains to be seen whether these two articles are part of a larger trend. But it speaks volume to the power of the military, as social institution, that it is the last one to be called into question.

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