Active-duty US troops become outspoken critics of Iraq war
Their public critiques represent a shift in the military's culture.
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Acceptable target: the systemSkip to next paragraph
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Colonel Yingling's target was institutional, not personal.
"He is going after the system – training, experience, the promotion system that produces mediocre generals because all the innovators get fed up and leave," says retired Army Col. Dan Smith, a military analyst with the Friends Committee on National Legislation who fought in Vietnam and later taught philosophy at West Point.
Military sources in Iraq and Washington also voiced their criticisms on the record in "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq ," Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks's best-selling 2006 book, The blogosphere is filled with soldiers grumbling, not only about lengthy repeated tours but also about the wisdom of invading Iraq in the first place.
Is all of this a good thing?
"In these times when so few have any personal experience of the military, it is good to have their voice in the public discussion," says retired Naval Reserve Capt. John Allen Williams, a political scientist at Loyola University Chicago who teaches civil-military relations.
But some observers worry that active-duty personnel speaking out in this way begins to trespass on the constitutionally mandated civilian control of the military.
"The notion that the military defends democracy but does not practice it still seems sensible to me," says John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense-information website in Washington. "We have sufficient serious problems with civil-military relations without adding a politicized military as just another interest group."
There are obvious reasons for not speaking critically of one's superiors or the mission: harm to one's chances for promotion as well as potential legal difficulties from going too far under the UCMJ.
But here, enlisted men and women may have more freedom to speak out since the "contemptuous words" provision applies exclusively to officers. The seven soldiers who signed the column in The New York Times are infantrymen and noncommissioned officers with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division.
"To believe that Americans, with an occupying force that long ago outlived its reluctant welcome, can win over a recalcitrant local population and win this counterinsurgency is far-fetched," they wrote. "Yes, we are militarily superior, but our successes are offset by failures elsewhere. What soldiers call the 'battle space' remains the same, with changes only at the margins."
Enlisted men freer to speak
However harsh the language, the soldiers' status may protect them from military discipline.
"Enlisted men, so long as they ensure that they explicitly state that they are expressing their own opinion, can say anything they want, which is exactly what these men did," writes active-duty Army Lt. Col. Bob Bateman in a blog at the online information-exchange and discussion site Small Wars Journal.
But he takes them to task for asserting that they have knowledge about conduct of the war which is "way above and beyond their positions."
"The fact that they, like me, wear uniforms should not convey some sort of magic pixie-dust validity to their opinions on events way beyond their personal experience, just as it does not for mine," writes Colonel Bateman, recently back from Iraq himself.