Is the Military Failing America?

In The Cost of Loyalty, Tim Bakken claims that the U.S. military is a failed institution because it is “separated” from American society. He also claims that, although separated from American society, the U.S. military has “obtained unprecedented control over American life.” The military, therefore, threatens to make America a failure. To explain how this happened, Bakken points a finger close to home. The ultimate source of military failure is the U.S. military academy at West Point, where Bakken teaches, and the two other military academies, the Naval Academy at Annapolis and the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. By making their students loyal to their comrades and the military as a whole, the academies make their students conformist, unwilling to criticize, and incapable of innovation or improvement. Through their students, the academies cause the military services to fail and threaten the well-being of the United States.

These are extraordinary claims. Their scope, however, is the inverse of the depth of evidence and strength of argument Bakken presents to defend them. He claims without proof, almost without discussion, that the military controls American life, and that the academies control the military. He does offer some argument and evidence for his fundamental premise—separation from American society causes the military to fail—but it does not support his claim.

The Military, American Society, and Our 20th-Century Wars

When Bakken says that the military is separated from American society, he means that it does not value what most Americans value. The military is hierarchical, for example, and values conformity, while America is egalitarian and tolerates dissent. Bakken claims that this separation began after 1945 and that the United States has lost every war it has fought since then. Therefore, he concludes, separation from American society explains American military failure.

Unfortunately for Bakken’s argument, the separation he refers to was apparent and troubling to Americans as early as the Revolution. Was not the hierarchy and discipline of the Army, patriots asked, incompatible with the equality and liberty central to the Revolution? If the military has always been separate and different from American society, then Bakken’s claim that the separation explains failure since 1945 crumbles.

Furthermore, has America actually lost all its wars since 1945? Bakken mentions Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. What about the First Gulf War, Desert Storm? Following a sometimes-used social science convention that a conflict must kill more than 1,000 people a year before it can qualify as a war, Bakken claims Desert Storm was not a war. This trick is particularly dishonest since, throughout the book, Bakken excoriates the U.S. military for killing too many people. Yet, when it doesn’t, he ignores the success. Worse, he tries to solve a problem for his argument by defining the problem away. We might also ask about Korea. Why was that a loss? The military serves political ends and if the civilians who establish those ends accept a settlement, it’s not clear why that should be judged a military defeat. Certainly, civil-military relations in the war, as well as MacArthur’s personal traits and conduct of the war compose a complicated story. An author interested in helping his readers understand civil-military relations, generalship, and warfare would have considered it more carefully.

Afghanistan and Iraq are also worth considering carefully. In both cases, success came initially but was later lost. In both cases—especially, one might argue, in Afghanistan—the early success came through innovative approaches to war, exactly what Bakken says the U.S. military is incapable of. He might dispute the claim of innovation, as others have, but a serious account would not ignore it. The later failures in both wars arose from political circumstances both in the United States and in Afghanistan and Iraq, not solely from military incompetence. To acknowledge these political-military circumstances does not excuse the U.S. military for how it dealt with them. To ignore them, however, is dishonest.

Blame the Generals

A general trait of Bakken’s account is to attribute anything that has gone wrong over the past 75 years to the U. S. military, even when the facts and the sources he cites point to civilian decision makers or the activities and analysis of the CIA. For example, he recounts the internment of Japanese Americans without mentioning Franklin Roosevelt’s authorization of it, implying that it was all the work of an Army general. He tries to blame Lyndon Johnson’s deceitful handling of the Gulf of Tonkin incident on the military. (Bakken’s account is tendentious for, among other things, mentioning only the Vietnamese attack on August 4, which turned out to be a false report, and ignoring the attack on August 2, which did occur.)

Ignoring combat—or wishing it away—cannot be the basis for an intelligent discussion of the military or the way it prepares its personnel for their central task.

After 9/11, the CIA, not the military, ran secret detention centers. The war in Iraq was fought on the basis of various mistaken assumptions and beliefs about Iraq and the Middle East, most famously, but not only, the belief that Iraq had developed weapons of mass destruction (WMD). These were mistakes of the civilian leadership and the intelligence community. Bakken attempts to prove the dishonesty of the military by claiming that Colin Powell, a former general (but not a West Point graduate, as Bakken fails to note) lied when he presented to the UN the case that Iraq had WMD. This is false. The U.S. intelligence community made a mistake in concluding that Iraq had WMD (so did intelligence analysts in countries that did not want to go to war in Iraq). Powell reported their conclusions reluctantly, it seems, but honestly.

A second general trait of the book is to ignore or misrepresent anything the military or generals do that does not fit Bakken’s argument. Bakken, for instance, says that generals—whether active duty or retired and serving in other roles—will not stand up for what they believe is right and that they and the military do not engage in self-criticism preferring to simply hide problems. So when Bakken reports that former Secretary of Defense Mattis said that the jury is out on women in combat, he claims this shows only that Mattis has retrograde attitudes, not that he was genuinely concerned for making the right choice. He ignores then Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki’s critical objections to Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s plans for invading Iraq.

Rumsfeld comes in for a lot of criticism from Bakken, who fails to mention that Rumsfeld pushed the military to innovate in ways that Bakken thinks are good. Bakken also fails to consider the debate within the military over the “revolution in military affairs” that Rumsfeld supported.

He cites, from an unnamed source, a hypothetical and speculative accusation about revealing classified sources and methods to “prove” his claim that Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster acted dishonorably as National Security Advisor. He reports in a footnote that Admiral John Poindexter resigned a civilian role in the government “after being found to be running ‘a terrorist futures-trading market’ out of the Pentagon in 2003.” Bakken clearly wants to imply some impropriety on Poindexter’s part, but the “futures-trading market” was one of a number of innovative ideas that Poindexter was pursuing to deal with the threat of terrorism in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Finally, and tellingly, most of the evidence that Bakken cites against generals, the academies, and the military comes from investigations or research conducted by military personnel (including H. R. McMaster) or contractors working for the military and published and made publicly available by various military organizations.  

Combat and Military Education

Beyond the myriad misrepresentations and invalid arguments in the book, perhaps Bakken errs most in never considering combat, the focus of military life. Bakken avoids discussing combat by arguing that the purpose of the military should be to promote peace. This is a misunderstanding. Peace is not and should not be the primary objective of the U.S. government or of any of its components. The primary objective is the well-being of the United States and its citizens. The State Department contributes to achieving this objective through diplomacy. Foreign Service officers, in their attitudes and prejudices, are shaped by that task. The Department of Defense contributes to achieving that objective through combat in all its forms. Military personnel, in their attitudes and prejudices, are shaped by that task. Ignoring combat—or wishing it away—cannot be the basis for an intelligent discussion of the military or the way it prepares its personnel for their central task.

Given the character of his book, one might wonder about Bakken’s motives in writing it. He tells us that he came to West Point because he saw its willingness to hire civilian professors as a sign that it was democratizing, taking “a step toward progress in which [he] wanted to participate.” To his horror, he learned that the military was not a democracy and did not honor civilian standards of free speech. For example, unlike civilian schools, West Point required pre-publication clearance of any writing by professors. (He fails to note that this is a standard practice across the government.) At one point, he suggests that an officer should obtain a warrant before entering a cadet’s room. After a scheduling dispute with a superior, he believed that he experienced retaliation. He filed a complaint. A judge found in his favor. This and other personal experiences, Bakken says, prompted him to expose what he now saw as the corruption of the military and the danger it posed to the United States. It appears he picked up a hatchet to do the job. And despite the fact that the military controls America, West Point cannot file a retaliation complaint against Bakken, fire him, or, apparently, stop him from publishing.

The great harm of the book is that it addresses real problems, as the Defense Department’s own research indicates—the quality of the volunteer force, the integrity of the officer corps, and the capacity of the military to deal with complex political-military conflict—but it does so in such a way that it might undermine serious efforts to discuss and remedy them. Defenders of the status quo could too easily discredit criticism by pointing to Bakken’s book and its unsubstantiated claims. Thus, this errant book, which exemplifies the dishonesty Bakken charges to the U.S. military, deserves to be ignored, unlike the U.S. military.