Courage Under Fire; Speaking Up in the Military

You have to admire people who speak up. Anywhere, anytime. Stand on your hind legs and speak your mind.

Part of our role as communications and crisis counsel to our clients is to tell them things they don’t want to hear, and to get them to listen to people inside and outside their organization who are saying things they don’t want to hear. That’s hard to do.

So here’s a profile in courage: Lt. Col. Paul Yingling. He was interviewed on National Public Radio Friday and has written a piece in Armed Forces Journal, called “A Failure in Generalship,” about how the military has failed in Iraq. His most powerful point — the military didn’t give the American public and civilian policymakers accurate information about how hard invading Iraq would be and how difficult it would be to stay there after the invasion and do what the administration said it wanted to do.

Yingling’s beef with the institution he’s given his career to is not that it didn’t fight well, but it didn’t inform honestly. Communication. Counsel. Speaking truth to power. They didn’t do enough of it.

Yingling is speaking up within the military, an institution that punishes those who don’t fall in line. Criticizing your service publicly is a violation of the code of military justice — and an act of courage and public service. If we had more people inside the military with the courage to speak up — and Yingling should have spoken up long ago — we might not be neck deep in the big muddy, as Pete Seeger sang about Vietnam.

Yingling says the military — and he blames the generals, but includes himself among those who let the institution fail — didn’t prepare for the war, didn’t take their own warnings about how hard the war would be and how many troops would be needed, didn’t learn the lessons from Vietnam about fighting an insurgency, and didn’t report honestly how badly things were going in Iraq.

The biggest problem, from a communications standpoint, was not speaking truth to power. “To prevail,” Yingling writes, “generals must provide policymakers and the public with a correct estimation of strategic probabilities. The general is responsible for estimating the likelihood of success in applying force to achieve the aims of policy.”

Instead of saying you’re not giving us the tools and troops we need, most generals said yes boss we can do ya.

And once we were knee deep in the big muddy? “After going into Iraq with too few troops and no coherent plan for postwar stabilization, America’s general officer corps did not accurately portray the intensity of the insurgency to the American public,” Yingling writes. The military underreported the violence and underestimated the continuing difficulties. But rose-colored glasses don’t stop IED shrapnel.

Now — telling the Bush administration something it doesn’t want to hear is like trying to make a river flow upstream. Ask General Eric Shinseki, who said we needed more troops going in, or General John Abizaid, who said more troops in a “surge” wouldn’t do the trick — both were hustled into retirement for not joining in the groupthink. George Bush plays the tune that his courtiers dance to — criticism is unpatriotic. Get with the program, don’t focus on the negative.

David Halberstam warned us decades ago about the fatal danger of fooling ourselves. Although George Bush is unusually stubborn and averse to challenge, most people in positions of power are tough to stand up to. Which makes standing all the more valuable.

One more quote from Yingling: “While the physical courage of America’s generals is not in doubt, there is less certainty regarding their moral courage. In almost surreal language, professional military men blame the recent lack of candor on the intimidating management style of their civilian masters. Now that the public is immediately concerned with the crisis in Iraq, some of the generals are finding their voices. They may have waited too long.”

Ankle deep. Knee deep. Hip deep. Neck deep in the big muddy and the big fool says to push on — Seeger. Those doing the slogging — and directing the slogging — need to speak up.  Yingling has. With courage. He probably doesn’t have much future in this president’s army, but look for him in the Obama or Clinton or Dodd administration.

Here’s the full article:

— Bruce Benidt

3 thoughts on “Courage Under Fire; Speaking Up in the Military

  1. Conservative Man says:

    Will one of you liberal bloggers please do a post celebrating May Day’s promotion of illegal immigration? I need some red meat!

  2. Dave Jackson says:

    Agreed, Bruce. Strong words. Better late than never to speak out.

    And better to do so for free than for money, like a certain former CIA director who is charging people $30 apiece for the privilege of learning how he really wasn’t to blame for everything that went wrong in Iraq (not to mention pre-9/11). Used to be accountability came with a price. Now it appears to come with a profit.

    As we’ve said before, where were the media gatekeepers when all of these things were happening? Why do we have to find out three or four years later, largely through tell-all books from biased sources who care less about the truth than they do about saving their own skin? Who was it that broke the steroids scandal in baseball? Not the traditional media. It was Jose Canseco in his book.


  3. It’s the American way — redo your image and charge people to watch you do it. It’s a reality show — and every bit as real and useful as reality shows.

    And yes, Conservative Man, on May Day we celebrate Mission Accomplished — not only a war won but a budget balanced and immigration issues solved and… oh.

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