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Can troops get too much love? Military struggles with a dark side on Veterans Day

As troops in war zones become accustomed to directing civil society, rather than the other way around, and are lauded at home, concern rises within the military that some are coming to see themselves as 'warrior kings.' For Veterans Day, a closer look at this worry.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / November 10, 2010

The sun rises as US Army soldiers walk during a joint Iraqi security operation in al-Noor village in Kirkuk province, north of Baghdad, Iraq, Nov. 10. Veterans Day will mark a nationwide celebration of America’s war fighters.

Maya Alleruzzo/AP

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Veterans Day will mark a nationwide celebration of America’s war fighters. But amid the forthcoming fanfare comes an inkling of official concern that some US troops, after a decade of hard battles and well-deserved tributes, may be letting the earnest expressions of gratitude – now a staple of stump speeches, sports events, and airline travel – go to their heads.

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Having assumed an increasingly political role abroad and then returning to ovation and deferential treatment back home, some US officers appear to be starting to feel the slightest cut above their civilian masters, worry some senior military officers – an inclination, they add, that would portend problems for American democracy.

Officials are quick to stress that this is hardly the case for the vast majority of service members. But they point to a growing belief among some troops that they have a professional obligation to dissent with – and even to disobey – lawful orders from politicians in power if they deem them to be injurious to US strategic aims, unnecessarily risky for troops, or, in some cases, simply objectionable to their own moral principles.

In acknowledgment of this, a US Army directive outlining how commanders should lead discussions of civil-military relations with their troops is currently awaiting Pentagon approval.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, for his part, outlined the hazards of soldiers who might be tempted to “do end runs around civilian leadership” in a 2008 speech to West Point cadets. “This temptation,” he warned, “should and must be resisted.”

Yet the temptation appears to be on the rise, say military officials and historians. Given responsibility not only for security, but also for governance, education, and economic development in wide swaths of territory in Iraq and Afghanistan, a generation of US officers has become accustomed to being “warrior kings,” says retired Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap, who until June was the deputy judge advocate general of the Air Force.

In America’s current conflicts, “they are able to direct civil society to do this or that, and I’m concerned that they have internalized that,” he says. “When you’re used to running an Iraqi village, and literally being a warrior king, you may have ideas about yourself that may not fit well with democracy and the military.”

Some officials point to the recent example of Col. John Tien, who, as portrayed in Bob Woodward’s book, "Obama’s Wars," warned President Obama against rejecting the Pentagon’s request for more troops in Afghanistan. “I don’t see how you can defy your military chain here,” he is reported to have told the president. The exchange prompted questions within the military about the point at which candor ends and veiled threats begin.

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