Enough with Political Endorsements from Retired Military Officers

*Note: This essay was published at War on the Rocks on November 27, 2017. It can be found online here (or PDF). 

Recently, Dan Helmer, a West Point graduate running for a U.S. House of Representatives seat in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, released a list of eight retired generals and admirals he calls his “National Security Advisory Committee.” At the top is retired Lt. Gen. Dan Christman, who formerly served as superintendent at West Point (akin to a college president) while I was a cadet. I looked up to him then.

But I’m not so sure about that now.

Christman’s and other public endorsements from retired military officers are legal, but are nonetheless inappropriate and harm both the military and country. Most Americans are naturally prone to see these retired officers — especially retired admirals and generals — as representing the entire military. As such, one person’s individual endorsement necessarily trades on the military’s reputation in service of a party, ideology, or candidate. This pulls the military into partisan politics.

Read the rest at War on the Rocks.

The Mike Flynn Problem is Actually a Profession of Arms Problem

*Note: This essay was originally published at War on the Rocks on March 16, 2017 and is available online here (or PDF). 

When twelve stars tell you to knock it off, there’s a problem.

At several points throughout this past presidential campaign, Lt. Gen. (ret.) Michael Flynn’s partisan political behavior, while legal, was so out-of-line for a member of the profession of arms that a trio of the nation’s elite retired officers reached out informally and publicly to tell Flynn to cease and desist. Flynn’s old commander and comrade, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, quietly urged restraint, and two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote open letters to mark their disapproval: Gen. Martin Dempsey explained to the American people that Flynn’s inappropriate actions violated the profession’s “apolitical tradition,” and Adm. Michael Mullen amplified the same sentiment, that “for retired senior officers to take leading and vocal roles as clearly partisan figures is a violation of the ethos and professionalism of apolitical military service.”

Yet, despite three enormous red-and-white flags waving “stop,” Flynn, as a commission-holding retired military officer, continued to violate these apolitical values — etched in code, written in policy, deep in history, and reinforced every two years by service-supported voting education and assistance programs — yet, when pressed in an interview about this very criticism, Flynn responded combatively: “What’s Marty Dempsey going to do?” While troubling on its own, Flynn’s defiance raises a larger, more important question: What’s the profession of arms going to do?

Read the rest at War on the Rocks.

To Study Modern War, There is No Substitute for Going

*Note: This essay was published at War on the Rocks on July 27, 2016. It can also be found online here (or PDF). 

West Point is going to war.

There was a time when West Pointers regularly marched the globe, outside American combat, to learn from world military affairs as reconnaissance for our own future fights. In 1919, cadets surveyed World War I’s battlefields and soaked up important lessons from still-warm fighting fronts. In 1875, General William T. Sherman reassigned Civil War hero Emory Upton from his post as commandant at West Point to tour the armies of Japan, China, India, Persia, Italy, Russia, Austria, Germany, France, and England. Upton later penned an influential paper on his observations. And Richard Delafield, in 1855, led a team to observe the Crimean War’s Siege of Sevastopol and returned to write his report of the battle while serving as superintendent at West Point. One historian found that the American military went abroad on such trips over 150 times in the antebellum period alone.

Following this tradition, this week, a detachment of cadets and faculty with the Modern War Institute(MWI) at West Point are in Sri Lanka, amidst spent shell casings and raw emotions, getting as close to combat experience as an educational institution can allow, to understand the island’s three-decade civil war that ended in 2009.

Read the rest at War on the Rocks.

The Soldier’s Question: Why Go Over There?

*Note: This essay was published at War on the Rocks on July 15, 2016. It can also be found online here (or PDF). 

From preparation, to its conduct, and in its aftermath – war is certain pain for uncertain gain. As I recently returned home from a one-year tour in Korea, I’ve kept asking myself: Why did I go? Especially when I knew the cost my family would bear.

My journey to Korea had a shocking preamble. I still remember her tiny body on the floor, shaking, vomit pooling under her pale lips.

Everything changed with our three-year-old’s first seizure in December 2014. My wife, Rachel, called, and I recklessly drove our mini-van up the steep curve home, arriving just ahead of the ambulance. That night and the subsequent weeks were difficult. After multiple tests and second opinions, we learned our daughter has a seizure condition. The pediatric neurologist prescribed medication and advised preparedness for the next strike.

Read the rest at War on the Rocks.


In Search of Seamless Interoperability in Korea: The First Year of the ROK-US Combined Division

*Note: This essay was published at War on the Rocks on June 24, 2016. It can also be found online here (or PDF). 

“You had better get back to Korea,” the messenger whispered in U.S. Army Colonel W.H.S. Wright’s ear.

Wright sat on a Tokyo church pew on Sunday, June 25, 1950, about to put his family on a U.S.-bound plane, when the North Koreans attacked the Republic of Korea. Wright immediately flew back to Seoul’s smoky confusion to command the Korean Military Advisory Group’s (KMAG) 472 American soldiers assigned to build the new ROK Army. Without warning, the next day the entire ROK Army headquarters moved south. Then Wright received a dispatch from Washington promising military reinforcement and the ROK Army headquarters returned to Seoul. The two organizations were reunited.

It did not last long. After dark that night, Wright learned all South Korean Army units (including the headquarters for a second time) were withdrawing south through Seoul. Before Wright could react, a “tremendous explosion” knocked him to the ground.  The R.O.K. Army destroyed the only bridge over Seoul’s Han River, which stranded KMAG on the wrong (north) side. Wright ordered KMAG to withdrawal south, yet, with no way to cross the river, the US soldiers struggled until, at the last moment, South Korean Army Colonel Lee Chi Up led them to a large raft and to relative safety from North Korean forces.

Read the rest at War on the Rocks.


On the Eternal Importance of Demographics and Allies

*Note: This essay was published at War on the Rocks on April 28, 2016. It can also be found online here (or PDF). 

Mea culpa.

In my last essay, “A Neflix Assessment of China’s Rise and America’s Advantage,” I used the word “never” to express a conviction — as in, China “will never dominate” the Indo-Asia Pacific “for one simple and unavoidable reason: everybody else.” In response, fellow War on the Rocks contributor Dean Cheng called this phrase into question, asserting I ought “never say never.” He argued strongly against such an absolute statement, which I must grudgingly admit is generally true. But Cheng went too far when he suggested “nevers should be reserved for changes in laws of physics – and even then, there are circumstances where it’s much more ‘extremely probable’ rather than ‘never.’” But there must some limits, right? Or is it possible the Black Flag of New Zealand might someday sit atop the fiery ashes of Beijing, following military (non-rugby) conquest?

Helpfully, Cheng’s rejoinder did chop down my essay’s errant tree. Yet he missed the argument’s forest: namely, that digital culture has led to a proliferation of think tank voyeurism, in which the visual is emphasized at the expense of the important. As such, I drew attention to America’s comparative advantage – demographics and allies – in a geostrategic net assessment.

Read the rest at War on the Rocks.

A Netflix Assessment of China’s Rise and America’s Advantage

*Note: This essay was published at War on the Rocks on April 20, 2016. It can also be found online here (or PDF).

In a smartphone world it’s easy to see China rise, but have we forgotten our other senses? This exercise in think tank voyeurism has become a distracting mirage, from CSIS’s aerial photos of the Great Wall of Sand to the Lowy Institute’s Technicolor chart of China’s worldwide diplomatic reach. It’s all as eye-popping as Superman’s red cape: Look! China’s so high! It’s a carrier! It’s a plane! It’s Suuu-per Missile! And then RAND’s watchful eye scoops it all up, with a ringside boxing judge’s “scorecard” for all to view.

But maybe it’s our unblinking, screen-obsessed eyes that deceive us. Instead of focusing on the mano a mano with China, perhaps we should consider another Big Red Rise: Netflix. Because when we do, we’ll find the third offset is more than gadgets, and really about the intersection of our allies and technology, underpinned by deep defense diplomacy. That said, on with the show.

Read the rest at War on the Rocks.