Several years ago, I attended a ceremony in which a Service Chief of Staff officiated at the promotion to a full four star General rank of a three star Lieutenant General whom I deeply respected and with whom I had worked closely for several years. That Service Chief said something I will never forget. He was explaining to all the many one, two, and three star flag officers in the audience what the Service looked for in deciding who should be promoted to the highest service rank. “We look for someone who will protect the institution.” he said. He wasn’t talking about protecting the country, or defending the Constitution, or winning future wars. He was talking about protecting the specific Military Service from the threats it faced – as an institution. I assumed at the time that he was referring to threats like the US Congress that controlled the Service’s budget, and the Secretary of Defense’s Office (of which I was a part) that might cut its programs or force structure, and yes, political appointees generally, the press, and anyone who didn’t understand the Service, its importance, or its culture and values.
I was not terribly surprised by what that senior military leader said that day, but I was surprised by the fact that he said it in public. To me, his words reflected a too narrow view of what the country, and the Military Service, should be looking for in its senior military leaders. Today, however, those words ring true in an entirely different way than when I first heard them. Our military institutions are at risk, not from external threats or those I assumed the Service Chief intended, but from a Commander-in-Chief who in fact does not understand their values or what makes our uniquely American military services, and the people who serve in them, the most respected institutions in our country.
Our current Commander-in-Chief has described our men and women in uniform as “trained killers.” I was a career Army officer, my son was an Army infantryman, my father was Navy Petty Officer in WW II and my stepfather was an Army infantryman in WW II. None of us considered ourselves to be “trained killers.” I’ve worked with soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines all my life. I think I can speak for the vast majority of people who serve our country in military uniforms. We are not trained killers; we are American fighting men and women, and that means something. It means we respect the rule of law. It means that we will follow the Geneva Conventions and the laws of war. It means that, if we fail in this sacred trust, we can expect to be punished for doing so, and we would deserve that punishment. It means that we are part of a special team of people who have the same values and that we should be respected for living those values in all that we do as American fighting men and women. It means that we expect our leaders, who have taught us those values, to adhere to them as well, and when called upon, including under great danger and stress, to act in accordance with them, even at great personal sacrifice.
A weekend ago, a confusing series of events played out, culminating in the forced resignation of the Secretary of the Navy, Richard Spencer. We know that his resignation was at least in part related to opposition to the President’s actions to intervene in the military justice system and the Navy’s administrative disciplinary processes on behalf of a Navy SEAL who had been accused of war crimes. Sorting through exactly what happened, when it happened, and mostly why it happened to Richard Spencer is not a trivial exercise, given all the conflicting statements that have been made by various parties, including the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the now former Secretary of the Navy. One thing is clear however; by inserting himself as he has, the President has overruled the institutional systems designed to enforce the Navy’s values. The trust of the men and women who serve honorably in the Navy and Marines, in the civilians whose lawful orders they must execute and in the legal system that holds them accountable for their behavior has been severely damaged. According to his resignation letter, Richard Spencer took a stand against those actions by the President, and he is no longer Secretary of the Navy. What still remains to be seen, is whether or not our senior military leadership will passively accept the damage that has been done.
Early in my career, there were actions taken and orders given by officers above me in the chain of command with which I disagreed, sometimes passionately. A piece of advice given to me in one of those incidents, probably by a non-commissioned officer who had been around a lot longer than I had, was to “chose the trench you expect to die in carefully.” His point was that every disagreement with a senior officer isn’t a trench worth dying in. On the other hand, some things are worth taking a stand on, even if it means the end of your career. We ask our young men and women in uniform to make a lot of sacrifices, even the ultimate sacrifice. If the very distinction that defines those honorable people as American fighting men and women is at risk, is it not only worth fighting for, but a requirement, even a sacred obligation to the people we lead to take a stand for them?
There are a lot of ways our senior military leaders can rationalize acquiescence – and compliance. It’s been done before. The most famous rationalization by a senior American military leader in my memory is that of General Harold Johnson, the Army Chief of Staff who famously opposed the war in Viet Nam and considered resigning in opposition to large scale involvement, but chose not to do so because he thought he could best manage that involvement. We will never know what effect that decision had, if any, but we do know what happened to the Army in Viet Nam.
The rationalizations here are pretty obvious: the Presidents’ interventions in the military justice system are his right as the Commander-in-Chief; he is an aberration and not representative of “normal” political leadership or perspectives; this too shall pass; it is a higher obligation to follow lawful orders, even when one profoundly disagrees; a handful of cases won’t have much impact. None of these arguments provides any answers to the questions that you will be asked. “What will you do about past and future similar cases-which are sure to arise?” “What will you tell our men and women in uniform that you believe in now?” How will you explain the necessity of following the rule of law and the consequences of violating it? How will you prepare the young people you command to represent the United States in combat?
In fact, rationalizations aside, it is not an easy thing to give up a position one has worked to attain for all of one’s professional life. It’s a lot to ask, but public service and sacrifice for the good of our country, and what it stands for, is why senior leaders wear their uniforms. There are press reports that the leader of the Navy SEALS, Rear Admiral Colin Green, is prepared to resign if overruled by the President. I hope that is the case, and I hope he isn’t alone. Our President seems to have an emotional and intellectual blind spot when it comes to the values our military professionals live by. It’s high time the meaning and the importance of those values is made clearer to him. It’s time for our senior military leaders to step up and protect the institutions that they lead, in the only way that they still can.