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.

Maya Alleruzzo/AP
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.

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.

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.

The concern is echoed in military institutions of higher learning. “We have come to the conclusion that we as an Army need to better educate our soldiers about proper civil-military relations,” says Col. Sean Hannah, director of the Center for the Army Profession and Ethic at West Point. “We have had some weak and not-so-weak signals out there that we need to look into this.”

One recent signal defense officials cite is an article published last month in Joint Forces Quarterly, the professional journal for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In an essay, “Breaking Ranks: Dissent and the Military Professional,” Marine Corps Lt. Col. Andrew Milburn grapples with an “officer’s customary obligation to obey” and what he calls “his moral obligation to dissent.”

The military officer is “conferred great responsibility” and an ethical code, “which grant him moral autonomy and obligate him to disobey an order he deems immoral,” Milburn writes.

This disobedience could involve refusing to execute an order, as well as “slow-rolling” it, military parlance for delaying a request for as long as it takes to exhaust whomever is making it.

Milburn argues that “the military professional’s obligation to disobey is an important check and balance in the execution of policy.”

Most troubling to senior military officials was an accompanying survey Milburn conducted of his fellow students at the Marine Corps War College in January. Though his sample was an “admittedly small” group of 20 field-grade officers, he found that they all agreed “without exception” that there are circumstances under which they would disobey a lawful order.

The article was roundly blasted as evidence of a dangerous trend in military thinking. “I was frankly shocked by the article,” says Richard Kohn, former chief historian of the Air Force and current chairman of the curriculum in peace, war, and defense at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Something is deeply wrong in the development of officers if they could believe these things.”

In a typical example from his piece, Milburn argues that the order to disband the Iraqi Army might have been reasonably disobeyed, since it could have been predicted to fuel the insurgency with “thousands of armed, trained, and disgruntled young men with drastic consequences for American forces.”

He asks: “Would not the military chain of command have been justified in refusing the order?”

No, it would not have, says Paul Hughes, a retired Army colonel who led the Iraq Study Group’s military and security expert working group. Mr. Hughes was an adviser to the US Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq while on active duty, and was critical of the Bush administration’s handling of the war upon his retirement.

Yet the beliefs expressed by Milburn and others points to a peril that some military officers “see ourselves as almost an aristocracy,” says Hughes. “You hear any politician do a stump speech, and it’s always going to include a line about thanking the men and women on the front lines for serving.

“In the case of some military professionals it’s becoming the reality in their minds that they are better than those who are sending them off into harm’s way,” he adds. “I think that’s an attitude that many in the military, if they don’t overtly feel, covertly feel.”

The editor of the Joint Forces Quarterly, David Gurney, says that despite the criticism he knew he would receive for publishing Milburn’s essay – including complaints that the journal shouldn’t “air the military’s dirty laundry” – it echoes a more widely held view than many would like to believe.

“There are increasing numbers of military personnel that are having thoughts along these lines,” says Gurney. “And it should be corrected.”

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, who came under criticism in Mr. Woodward’s book for forcefully advocating more US troops in Afghanistan – and, according to Woodward’s portrayal, pushing back against Obama’s request for more military options involving fewer forces – says he supports the publication of the essay.

“I’m a big proponent of free speech … and have enjoyed that kind of commentary and that kind of diverse view my whole career,” he says. “Commenting on our military I think is one thing, and that’s fine. Commenting on the politics of the world is something that we need to stay clear of. So I don’t have any problems with the fact that he wrote something.”

At the Center for the Profession and Ethic at West Point, which is an arm of the US Army’s command in charge of educating America’s soldiers, an effort is under way to do some of the corrective thinking that Hannah and others say is in order. Part of the instruction will include discussion about the conditions under which candor is appropriate – particularly in the military’s interactions with the politicians under whose authority they operate.

“After a decade of war, we are continuously self-assessing and learning,” Hannah says. “Offering candid advice isn’t just something we’re allowed to do – we have a responsibility to do it.”

But once the decisions are made, the military must execute the orders, Hannah stresses.

Dunlap, the retired Air Force major general who is now associate director of the Center on Law, Ethics, and National Security at Duke University in Durham, N.C., suggests that any new education push will require considerable candor, too. “We need to tell them, yes, when you guys were in Iraq and Afghanistan we sent you to these remote places, and we wanted you to create these civil institutions and virtually run these places to get them up and going,” he says. “But you need to understand that you were living in the moment. And you don’t bring that attitude back to this country.”

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