A recent op-ed about the war in Iraq charged that upbeat official reports amount to “misleading rhetoric.” It said the “most important front in the counterinsurgency [had] failed most miserably.” And it warned against pursuing “incompatible policies to absurd ends.”
Five years into a controversial war, that harsh judgment in a New York Times opinion piece might not seem surprising, except for this: The authors were seven US soldiers, writing from Iraq at the end of a tough 15-month combat tour.
In books and professional journals, blogs, and newspapers, active-duty military personnel are speaking publicly and critically as never before about an ongoing war.
Respectfully, but with a directness and gritty authenticity that comes from combat experience — sometimes written from the battlefield — they offer a view of current strategy, military leadership, and the situation on the ground that is more stark than Pentagon and White House pronouncements.
Part of this reflects weariness with the war. But it also represents a shift in military culture where speaking up publicly is more usual and acceptable than in previous conflicts, experts say, thanks to changes in technology and society.
“This is the first post-Internet, post-digital-camera war” in which “the line between private lives and public lives has been blurred,” says Eugene Fidell, a former military lawyer who teaches military justice at Yale.
Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), as long as uniformed critics do not speak or write using “contemptuous words” regarding the president or other senior officials, they are free to voice their opinions, notes Mr. Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice. “We’re a nation built on free expression, and it can get pretty noisy.”
Part of this criticism reflects weariness with the war, especially among those serving multiple extended combat tours.
“You could almost construct an equation to predict the rate at which dissension in the ranks will reach the public as support for a war sours,” says military analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Va.
“I have to tell you as somebody who deals frequently with the military, there’s been a lot of disagreement for a long time about this war,” he adds. “It just tends to get expressed obliquely and in private.”
A May survey of Army soldiers in Iraq showed 45 percent with “low” morale compared with 19 percent who said their morale was “high.” The percentage of West Point graduates who quit the Army after their five-year obligation has more than doubled since the Iraq war began in 2003.
More and more, a vocal minority is also speaking out publicly — a far cry from the World War II era when, in order to keep his political conscience clear, Gen. George C. Marshall never even voted.
Earlier this year, Army Lt. Col. Paul Yingling challenged his superiors head-on in an article in Armed Forces Journal.
The Vietnam and Iraq “debacles are not attributable to individual failures, but rather to a crisis in an entire institution: America’s general officer corps,” wrote the former West Point instructor and Iraq veteran who recently took command of a battalion. “In both conflicts, the general officer corps designed to advise policymakers, prepare forces and conduct operations failed to perform its intended functions…. As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”
Acceptable target: the system
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.