An Ounce of Loyalty or a Pound of Cleverness

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On October 25, 1962, a US Navy boarding party carried out a search of the Lebanese freighter MV Marcula which was suspected of carrying Soviet missiles or ancillary equipment to Cuba. It was the first ship boarded and searched as part of the naval quarantine imposed during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The MV Marcula was boarded and searched without incident. The interception took place approximately 500 nautical miles east of Cuba, a distance chosen by the US Navy because it placed its ships beyond the range of aircraft based in Cuba. A prudent decision, it would seem, until one considers that President John F. Kennedy had asked the Navy to set the quarantine line at approximately 300 nautical miles to give Nikita Khrushchev more time to make decisions on how to ratchet down the intensity of the crisis.

Read on.

For reasons that remain unclear, today David Ignatius launches a full frontal assault on civilian control of the military:

The tension between Rumsfeld and the uniformed military has been an open secret in Washington these past four years. It was compounded by the Iraq war, but it began almost from the moment Rumsfeld took over at the Pentagon. The grumbling about his leadership partly reflected the military's resistance to change and its reluctance to challenge a brilliant but headstrong civilian leader. But in Iraq, Rumsfeld has pushed the services -- especially the Army -- near the breaking point. The military is right that the next chairman of the JCS must be someone who can push back.[Emphasis added]

Does Ignatius have even the vaguest idea of civil-military relations in the United States? Has he read Title X, USC? Or does he have a clue as to what the impact of “pushing back” might be?

First some background. The general officer corps is not made up of shrinking violets. Don’t let the exteriors fool you. When you are dealing with general and flag officers of the three- and four-star variety you are dealing with very bright, highly educated, hyper competitive, type-A personalities who value their own opinions highly, who haven’t come in second-place in anything recently and who are used to having their way. For instance:

When a fellow Army Ranger, a twentysomething, recently asked the 51-year-old [LTG David] Petraeus how many push-ups he could do, the general offered a contest, dropped to the ground and won after doing 75 in a minute.

While not every three-star can do this, the competitive spirit it demonstrates is universal. So the idea that you have a bunch of generals and admirals suffering in silence is just baloney. There are too many high-powered egos and too much prestige at stake to expect to find a lot of people curled up in fetal positions in dark corners in the Pentagon, other than mid-level staff officers, that is.

As a counterpoint to Ignatius’s column it might is helpful to briefly outline the history of the military’s efforts to “push back” against its civilian masters.

Most people are familiar with the most famous example of “push back.” That which resulted in the recall of GEN Douglas MacArthur. Still controversial but the quintessential example of a military insubordination.

When GEN Curtis LeMay commanded the Strategic Air Command he had a disagreement with the President and Secretary of Defense on how to respond to an impending nuclear attack. Official US policy was that we would not respond until a nuke had actually exploded. LeMay demurred:

In one account, when told that his proposed launch-on-warning policy was "not national policy," LeMay reportedly replied, "I don’t care. It’s my policy. It’s what I am going to do.”

In another incident during the Cuban Missile Crisis, according to Robert Kennedy’s memoir, the Chief of Naval Operations, ADM George W. Anderson had the Secretary of Defense physically escorted from the Naval Operations Center.

The Army effectively engaged in “push back” during the Great Kosovo Adventure and half-stepped its way to preventing Task Force Hawk from ever using its Apache gunships against the Serbs.

Usually the “push back” is behind the scenes, but sometimes it becomes spectacularly public, like the Revolt of the Admirals where a coterie of admirals loudly and publicly fought their own service secretary and the secretary of defense over the fate of naval aviation and aircraft carriers. They won. It doesn’t always work that way.

Relatively recently we were treated to the spectacle of the Army Chief of Staff, GEN Eric Shinseki, trying to roll the Secretary of Defense on the procurement of the Crusader field artillery system to the extent of using his Title X authority to dissent from the Department of Defense budget recommendation. It didn’t work out very well for him.

GEN John Singlaub publicly “pushed back” against Jimmy Carter’s pledge to withdraw troops from Korea. Things didn’t go well for him either because “push back” goes in both directions.

Colonel H. R. McMaster in Dereliction of Duty : Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam carries the “push back” theme to an extent that makes me uncomfortable. He faults the Joint Chiefs for not actively working to block the Johnson Administration’s build up in Vietnam. Whether this was an abrogation of their Constitutional duty, as McMaster asserts, or whether McMaster’s book is a descent into a “betrayal” myth more appropriate to the Weimar Republic’s Reichswehr than to the US military is arguable… just not here and not today.

This book is only noted because of the particular significance it has in this Ignatius column:

When Bush thinks about picking the next Joint Chiefs chairman, he might recall an unusual gesture by Myers's predecessor, Army Gen. Hugh Shelton, who told his service chiefs to read a book called "Dereliction of Duty." Its subject was how the Joint Chiefs failed to challenge Defense Secretary Robert McNamara adequately during the Vietnam War. It took the Army decades to recover fully from Vietnam; that's a history the next JCS chairman must not repeat.

This choice of reading material adds some color to one of the most interesting incidents covered in the 9/11 Commission Report:

At some point during this period, President Clinton expressed his frustration with the lack of military options to take out Bin Ladin and the al Qaeda leadership, remarking to General Hugh Shelton,“You know, it would scare the shit out of al-Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp.

Clinton’s frustration was understandable when he was confronted by a military “pushing back” against the civilian leadership by offering unresponsive and overly elaborate military options. Shelton can take credit for not only avoiding what he may have perceived as another Vietnam in Afghanistan, but managing to shove the blame for military inaction off onto two Administrations.

This resistance was not unique to the military’s relations with the Clinton Administration, though the Clinton Administration’s relationship with the military services was nothing short of abysmal. In 1981, Ronald Reagan wanted plans drawn up for an invasion of Libya. The Joint Chiefs didn’t want anything to do with that operation and they killed it by so weighting it down with troops and equipment that it became unfeasible. In fact, they tried the same stunt with Grenada in 1983 and ended up being forced to execute their own plan.

But back to Ignatius. There has always been a healthy tension between the military and its civilian leaders. It is no accident that Title X requires that if a potential Secretary of Defense has served in the military that at least 10 years have elapsed since his retiring or resignation and being sworn in as SecDef.

The military is not a branch of government. It has no special rights to set its own policy in contravention of the directives of the senior leadership. Any thinking human should recognize that military insubordination is not a healthy thing in a democracy. The idea of heavily armed men “pushing back” against their civilian leadership should scare the bejeezus out of us all, regardless of our politics.

As Dr. Peter Feaver notes in “An Agency Theory Explanation of American Civil-Military Relations during the Cold War”:

Civilian principals have the right to ask military agents to do something that ultimately proves costly, foolhardy, and even disastrous. Military agents have an obligation to advise honestly about the consequences of proposed courses of action but in the final analysis they must obey even dumb orders. This is a crucial premise and it flows directly from the principles of democratic theory under which the elected representatives of the people have the right and duty to rule.

We shouldn’t want it any other way.

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An Ounce of Loyalty or a Pound of Cleverness 7 Comments (0 topical, 7 editorial, 0 hidden) Post a comment »

The paper you linked on the Revolt of the Admirals clearly shows that the admirals were soundly defeated in their attempted "pushback", despite their superior doctrinal positions.  The paper more-or-less argues that the Korean War saved naval aviation after the Admirals lost the appropriations  contest with the Air Force and the Department of Defense.

"Pushback" didn't get the Navy what it wanted in that case - in fact, it took a war for them to make up the lost ground.

Today because I'm too competitive and I knew that it was going to be good, especially because I haven't seen you post in a long time -- I was wondering where you went.

I was right.  I could have some small quibbles with it if I really, really tried hard but in my opinion you just blew Ignatius right through the back of the building, and you're underpaid.

Or can you cook?

I grabbed the reference without reading it carefully as a backgrounder on the Revolt of the Admirals. It never occurred to me that it wouldn't back up the conventional wisdom on the incident. I shall try to find another reference that agrees with me.

Because it's damn fine post, not easily contendable.  Usually Ignatius writes decent stuff but his latest was appropriately shred into little tatters.

...or is Mr. Ignatius just on this side of calling for a man on horseback?

 
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