Yes, Unfortunately, Sometimes Militaries Must ‘Destroy the town to save it’

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

Fifty years ago this week, during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, a US Army major famously remarked to a journalist, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” Pilloried for its callousness, one fellow officer who claimed to have been present even said it went “down in history as an example of some of the insanity that was Vietnam.”

Myself an Army major, I know how crazy it sounds to most people. And, yet, while I am on the record as strongly opposed to empty platitudes like “the purpose of the military is to kill people and break things” (the military’s purpose is to protect and defend), I also know this infamous quotation from fifty years ago reflects one of the harsh, paradoxical realities of war: sometimes, unfortunately, militaries must destroy in order to save. Continue reading “Yes, Unfortunately, Sometimes Militaries Must ‘Destroy the town to save it’”

No, soldiers aren’t the only ones who serve

*Note: This letter to the editor was published in the Baltimore Sun print edition on June 17, 2017. It can also be found online here (or PDF).

Last week, U.S. Naval Academy professor Bruce Fleming described the circumstantial pomp of this year’s graduation day. He “usually love[s] it.”

This year was different. It “wasn’t fun,” because Fleming felt the event’s speeches “portrayed a vision of the Navy as a self-serving, closed entity.” He excoriated the speakers and concluded, “It’s not good for the military to believe itself better than the civilians it defends.” (“Naval Academy graduates no better than the civilians they defend,” June 5.)

Admittedly, as an Army major and West Point graduate, my initial reaction brought out the worst, particularly having just written my own painful reflection on fallen friends this past Memorial Day. How could someone attack the military like that?

My instinctual reaction was wrong. And Mr. Fleming’s essay was (mostly) right. As Gen. Martin Dempsey, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs, wrote a few years ago, “We can’t allow a sense of separation to grow between [the military and the rest of society].” Both General Dempsey and Mr. Fleming point out that those in uniform aren’t the only ones in America who serve or sacrifice. Continue reading “No, soldiers aren’t the only ones who serve”

Containing the Pocket-Sized Threat to America’s Military

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

The scary/cool juxtaposition of the recent global ransomware attack with Google’s annual developer’s conference should, if nothing else, prompt us to reevaluate our relationship with the digital world. Google’s event (and the settled consensus) tells us the information age enables better, more productive lives. But this latest attack and mounting evidence suggest that the accompanying costs are serious, even rising to national security concern levels as an ongoing threat to American lives and liberty in the pursuit of false happiness.

As a military officer and strategist, I’m bound by an oath charging defense “against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” For several years I’ve noticed the growing impact of the persistent, dependent link between the majority of our soldiers and the internet, often enabled by and embodied in the smartphone. Officers responsible for teaching compass-driven land navigation, a critical ground combat skill, worry they’re fighting an unwinnable battle with recruits unable to see the forest from their screen. Cadets, as with their non-military, college-age contemporaries, can’t concentrate in class when they’re so wired to the web. Social media divides units over inappropriate online sexual behavior in garrison, and while on deployment, as one officer reports, the “band of brothers” is coming apart due to “too much connectivity.” Continue reading “Containing the Pocket-Sized Threat to America’s Military”

Members of Congress serve in the military. They shouldn’t.

*Note: This essay was published at the Washington Post on June 2, 2017, and is available here (and PDF).

Congress is in recess, and members have returned to their districts to hold town hall meetings, fundraisers and, in a few cases, don military uniforms to serve in the National Guard or Reserve.

They shouldn’t.

As an Army officer I appreciate and admire their desire to serve. We need more citizens who want to serve in politics or in uniform. But allowing representatives of the legislative branch of government to act as officers in the coequal executive branch impedes their ability to make independent strategic judgments about war, violates the spirit of Defense Department guidelines and flouts the nonpartisan traditions of the military profession.

Read the rest at the Washington Post.

Their Chairs Are Empty, but We Know What Their Sacrifice Was For

*Note: This essay was published in the Wall Street Journal print edition on May 26, 2017 and is available here (and PDF). 

I didn’t even know I was crying until half my face was wet. It was Memorial Day 2004, and I had just returned from a year of fighting as a cavalry officer in Iraq. I was sitting in a sea of parishioners at my parents’ church for a holiday-themed Sunday, complete with tiny flags and people thanking me for my service. It was all very nice until the minister’s voice trailed off and an enormous screen showed images of American soldiers recently lost.

Then I saw him. No, it wasn’t him, exactly, but the guy on the screen looked enough like one of the soldiers under my command who had been killed that I was overwhelmed by tears. I pushed my way down the pew, ran to a bathroom and stayed there until the storm passed.

Like so many others, my wars have been marked by the distinct cruelty of rapid, random and repeated death of young soldiers. There was the tank driver who drowned in the desert. The experienced leader who accidentally discharged his weapon, killing a nearby squad mate. The lieutenant who had written two years earlier as a cadet that his favorite time of day was when “Taps” played: “One day it will play at my funeral and when it does, I pray that I am deserving enough of that honor.” He was.

Read the rest at the Wall Street Journal.

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.

What the Profession of Arms Can Take from Michael Flynn’s Example

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

I would never actively cheer an administrational death, but, paraphrasing Clarence Darrow, I did smile a bit while reading Michael Flynn’s resignation in the newspaper. It wasn’t for any personal ill will or partisan reason (my stance on political neutrality is well documented), but my grin formed because Flynn’s actions in retirement have directly contradicted two pillars of the Profession of Arms—its apolitical tradition and truth-telling character. And the end of his short tenure as national security advisor provides the Profession a ponderous moment to reflect on what Flynn hath wrought. Continue reading “What the Profession of Arms Can Take from Michael Flynn’s Example”