An important new book shows Americans’ faith in their military could be misplaced. Author Tim Bakken alleges that America’s military commanders are corrupt, incompetent, arrogant, self-serving, and incapable of providing leadership.
I think we need to pay attention to Bakken because he is no leftwing peacenik. Instead, Bakken is a professor in the Department of Law at the US Military Academy at West Point. Hence, Bakken has a unique insiders’ view of the US Army officer corps and its failings.
In The Cost of Loyalty: Dishonesty, Hubris, and Failure in the U.S. Military, Bakken alleges that the US military leadership is too corrupt and dysfunctional to win wars.In the book, Bakken makes several charges against the Pentagon and proves them.
Bakken’s Charges Include:
1. The US military has forgotten its history.
2. Instead of learning from failure the military glorifies failures as heroes.
3. The US military values loyalty and obedience over competence.
4. There is a culture of corruption and dishonesty in the armed forces that undermines military readiness.
5. The military no longer embraces American values and could threaten those values.
7. Congress, the Courts, and the President do not hold the military accountable for its excesses and failures.
The US military has forgotten its history
Bakken’s strangest charge is the US military forgets its history. This charge is bizarre because the military is an institution that revels in its history.
For instance, Bakken charges the US Army refused to study its epic failures in the Korean and Vietnam wars. In particular, West Point refused to study counterinsurgency tactics. Yet counterinsurgency is the Army’s primary mission in today’s world.
Bakken thinks US failures in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq made less safe. Moreover, he believes the Army refuses to study or learn from those debacles.
Bakken notes that West Point only requires cadets to complete one history class. Hence, many of America’s future generals do not understand military history.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana. Sadly America’s experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan; where US military operations created better and nastier terrorists, prove Santayana’s truism.
The US Army glorifies failures as heroes
Bakken charges that West Point has built a personality cult around two generals famous for spectacular defeats. Those generals include Douglas MacArthur.
MacArthur was responsible for two of the greatest catastrophes in American military history. In 1942, MacArthur’s strategy for defense of the Philippines failed spectacularly.
When the Japanese landed in the Philippines in World War II, MacArthur did not follow a well-established battle plan of retreating to the Bataan Peninsula and fighting a war of attrition. Instead, MacArthur tried to fight the Japanese on the beaches and lost.
American and Filipino forces retreated to Bataan but they lacked the supplies to hold out. MacArthur left the supplies where the Japanese captured them. The result was that the Japanese captured or killed 100,000 Filipinos and 23,000 Americans. Many of those soldiers perished in brutal Japanese concentration camps.
MacArthur was responsible for what some historians call the worst military defeat in American history. Yet, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-New York) refused to fire MacArthur.
Incredibly, FDR put MacArthur in charge of the US campaign in Australia and the Western Pacific. That enabled MacArthur to revive his reputation by engineering victory with superior American military resources. Ironically, MacArthur’s triumphs included the “liberation of the Philippines.”
That liberation could have unnecessary had MacArthur staged a competent defense of the islands in 1942. To explain, American and Filipino forces held out on Bataan for four months. Had MacArthur concentrated his forces on Bataan, he could have won. After the war’s end, MacArthur commanded US occupation forces in Japan.
Eight years after the Fall of the Philippines, MacArthur was responsible for another spectacular American defeat. MacArthur snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the Korean War.
Under MacArthur’s command, United Nations forces (mostly Americans) won an impressive victory over North Korea in 1950. By November 1950, the North Koreans were totally defeated, but MacArthur lost.
MacArthur allowed UN troops to advance to the Chinese border. That action scared Chinese dictator Mao Zedong.
In response, Mao ordered a massive Chinese attack; the Second Phase Offensive, on 25 November 1950. U.S. intelligence failed to detect the Offensive which took the UN forces by surprise. By Christmas Eve 1950, the Chinese had captured all of North Korea.
MacArthur’s response was to ask President Harry S. Truman (D-Missouri) to attack China with nuclear weapons. Truman’s response was to fire MacArthur in April 1951. Truman fired MacArthur because the general’s actions could trigger World War III by antagonizing Mao and his friend Joesph Stalin.
Sadly, Truman’s firing of MacArthur was almost 18 years too late. In 1932, MacArthur demonstrated his arrogance, incompetence, and insubordination in one of the most disturbing institutes in American history the Bonus March.
In Summer 1932, 43,000 demonstrators impoverished by the Great Depression marched on Washington D.C. Around 17,000 of the marchers were World War I veterans demanding payment of a bonus Congress had promised them for their service.
Hoover (R-California) ordered the Army to clear the Bonus Expeditionary Force’s campsite. MacArthur, then US Army Chief of Staff, attacked the campsite with cavalry, infantry, and tanks.
Hoover, disgusted with the overreaction, ordered the attack stopped. MacArthur ignored the President’s orders and attacked 55 veterans were injured and a 12-week-old baby died from tear gas soldiers fried. Hoover, who failed to control MacArthur went on to a spectacular loss in the 1932 Presidential election. After the Bonus March debacle, MacArthur went on to command in the Philippines.
West Point, hails MacArthur has a hero, Bakken notes. The Army erected a statue of MacArthur at the Military Academy in 1969, despite the General’s well known history.*
Frighteningly, MacArthur is not the only failure that West Point glorifies. Bakken charges that the Academy hails two other questionable generals, William Westmoreland and David Petraeus as “heroes.”
Critics, including Bakken, blame Westmoreland’s strategy for many of the 47,434 American battle deaths in Vietnam. In addition, Bakken alleges that Westmoreland deceived U.S. President Lyndon Johnson (D-Texas) about the true nature of the Vietnam War leading to needless deaths and national humiliation.
A federal court sentenced Petraeus to two years’ probation for illegally leaking classified data to his mistress. Thus, authorities allege Petraeus threatened US national security while serving as CIA director.
Bakken alleges that West Point fetes Petraeus and holds the former general up to cadets as a “role model.”*
The US military values loyalty and obedience over competence
Bakken’s thesis is that a military culture that values loyalty and obedience over competence drives the hero worship of failures.
The army hails Westmoreland as a hero for fighting a pointless war because of a President’s orders, for example. West Point ignores Westmoreland’s colossal failure in Vietnam while praising that General’s loyalty to LBJ.
Moreover, Bakken notes how the military rewards failures such as Westmoreland. In 1970, the Army rewarded Westmoreland its highest position, Chief of Staff of the United States Army after his failure in Vietnam.
The clear lesson is loyalty is more important than competence for American generals. This world view is new and frightening in the American military. Until World War II, the US military rewarded competence and Presidents often fired incompetent generals.
In 1791, Major General Arthur St. Clair led a US Army into what historians call “most decisive defeat in the history of the American military” at the Battle of the Wabash. Consequently, President George Washington fired St. Clair and replaced him with Mad Anthony Wayne. Wayne reorganized the U.S. Army and won the Northwest Indian War.
Similarly during the Philippine American War, Major General Elwell Stephen Otis behaved much like later commanders in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Otis lied to the press, falsely claimed there was no Filipino guerrilla war against American colonialism, and even punished soldiers for telling the truth about the war in letters home.
On 20 December 1900, President William McKinley (R-Ohio) replaced Otis with General Arthur MacArthur Jr; ironically Douglas’s father. Arthur MacArthur implemented a new strategy and won the war.
Similarly, during World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-New York) promoted younger, and more competent generals; such as George C. Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower, over more senior officers. Notably, America won World War II.
In contrast, today’s Presidents reward and promote generals despite failed strategies and disastrous campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Moreover, the military and media adulate and glorify some failed generals, such as Patreaus. Remember, Patreaus was one of several commanders who failed to defeat terrorist forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There is a culture of corruption and dishonesty in the armed forces that undermines military preparedness
Bakken’s primary charge is the military creates a culture of dishonesty and corruption by promoting loyalty over all.
Bakken lists numerous examples of U.S. military army officers lying to hide all manner of crimes and mistakes. Crimes the military tries to hide including sexual assault, the indiscriminate killing of civilians by American forces, bribery, torture, drug use, and the friendly fire deaths of American soldiers.
Indeed Bakken’s list of wrongdoing is too long to condense here. However, his thesis is clear, the military’s refusal to acknowledge the truth drives the corruption. In particular, the military’s willingness to defend and lie for its own makes it difficult to hold soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and officers accountable for their behavior.
Consequently, Bakken thinks the US military is often incapable of battlefield success because of corruption. For instance, he alleges American brutality turned the Afghan and Iraqi people against the United States and made terrorist thugs look like heroes.
The dishonesty Bakken fears includes efforts to hide the failure of US strategy, technology, and tactics on the battlefield. For instance, failure to protect American troops from drone attack. Thus, corruption and dishonesty undermine military effectiveness.
The military no longer embraces American values and could threaten those values
Bakken’s most bothersome complaint, which I think he tries to hide, is that the U.S. military embraces an authoritarian culture and values that run counter to American ideals.
For instance, the military rejects free speech, free expression of information, and punishes those who question authority. Instead, the military promotes a combination of hero worship, mindless loyalty to institutions, and submission to authority as an alternative to democracy. These behaviors are presented as patriotism.
At the center of this new culture is the glorification and deification of generals and admirals as heroes and wise leaders. Similarly, the military goes to great lengths to punish service people who reject the new culture.
America’s military is increasingly lawless, corrupt, and amoral
Bakken does not use those words but he makes a good case for the above statement. Some examples of growing lawlessness, corruption, and immorality in the military Bakken cities include:
The “Fat Leonard Scandal” a pay for play scheme masterminded by defense contractor Leonard Francis who bribed US Navy Officers for lucrative contracts to provision American warships. Bakken alleges that Francis’s “web of corruption” included 60 American admirals and hundreds of U.S. Naval officers.*
So far the Fat Leonard Scandal has led to 22 guilty pleas and 33 federal indictments, USNI News reports. Francis’s bribes to naval officers included prostitutes, wine, cash, lavish meals, and Beyonce concert tickets.
The friendly fire death of former NFL Player Pat Tillman. Tillman made headlines by turning down $6.5 contract with the Arizona Cardinals to join the Army after September 11. Tillman eventually became an Army Ranger and died in Afghanistan in 2004.
Circumstantial evidence shows Tillman’s fellow soldiers accidentally killed him with friendly fire. Instead of admitting the mistake, the Army tried to cover up the truth about Tillman’s death by destroying evidence, Bakken alleges. He claims officers ordered a sergeant to burn Tillman’s uniform to prevent forensic analysis.
Moreover, Army officers including; General Stanley McChrystal, spread the false narrative that enemy fire killed Tillman.* After the Tillman incident, the Army rewarded McChrystal with plum jobs including commander of US Special Operations Command, Commanding General in Iraq, head of U.S. Central Command, Commander in Afghanistan, and a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Widespread sexual assault, hazing, drug use, low academic standards, substandard education, and cheating at military academies including West Point.
Indiscriminate US air strikes on hospitals and other civilian targets in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Congress, the Courts, and the President fail to hold the military accountable for its excesses and failures
Ultimately, Bakken blames America’s political leaders and the courts for the military’s problems.
For example, presidents who are afraid to fire or even question incompetent generals. In fact, Presidents George W. Bush (R-Texas) Barack Obama (D-Illinois), and Donald J. Trump (R-Florida) have awarded questionable generals such as Patreaus and McChrystal with important jobs.
Similarly, Congress passes bigger and bigger military budgets while providing less oversight. To explain, The Balance estimates the 2020-2021 US military budget at $935.8 billion. That budget grew from $437.4 billion despite spectacular US military failures in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Worst of all, Bakken claims the US Supreme Court has absolved itself of any authority over the military. To explain, Bakken contends the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution does not apply to the military in a 1974 case called Parker v. Levy.*
In Parker v. Levy, the court ruled that U.S. military personnel do not have a First Amendment Right to Free Speech. Instead, the Supremes found that “military necessity” overrides the Constitution in the Armed Forces. The logical conclusion of Parker v. Levy is that the military has no obligation to adhere to the Constitution, Bakken alleges.
Thus you can argue the military is free to make its own law under Parker v. Levy. A dogma that contravenes the Constitution.
All thinking Americans need to take a look at The Cost of Loyalty: Dishonesty, Hubris, and Failure in the U.S. MilitarybecauseBakken’s allegations are frightening.
Is America France 1940?
“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority. ” – John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton.’
After reading The Cost of Loyalty I began thinking of the French Army before World War II.
Before World War II, the French Army was an a corrupt and all powerful authoritarian institution that few French people questioned. Worst of all the French Army promoted hero worship of all powerful generals such as the Old Marshal Philippe Pétain.
In a betrayal of their democratic traditions, the French glorified the Army as the guardian of the Republic despite evidence of corruption and incompetence. In 1940, the French Army; supposedly the finest in the world, collapsed after a few weeks of German onslaught allowing the Nazis to capture Paris.
Disgustingly, after defeat Pétain, the commander of the French Army, collaborated with the Nazis by organizing the puppet Vichy Government. One of Pétain’s first acts as France’s “leader” was to disband the nation’s elected parliament, or Estates General, and make himself dictator.
Under Pétain’s “leadership,” the Vichy helped the Nazis oppress and loot France and deport many French citizens to concentration camps. France’s faith in its army was rewarded with betrayal.
Hopefully, 21st Century America’s glorification of its military, will not lead to such a catastrophe. However, Bakken shows that all the ingredients for an American Pétain could be present in the United States military.