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US Military: Incompetence, Hubris, and Denial
By Ed White (reviewer)
The Cost of Loyalty
by Tim Bakken
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020)
Tim Bakken describes in seven chapters, and a chapter concluding his thoughts, a devastating indictment on why we should reassert control of the military and reintegrate it into civil society. The case he makes and the evidence he presents (after all he is an attorney), puts in one place all the stories you have heard and seen but never were able to connect. Have I mentioned it is devastating?
The author's focus comes from teaching at West Point for the last twenty years. In many ways, he starts with how did we get to this situation: we have not won a war in 75 years; we have 800 bases in 70 countries; the military's untouchable expenditures; they are beyond civil or international law; and the teaching of the incompetent by a closed society built on loyalty. Loyalty, then, is everything. It is a formula that will produce a risk to American society, if not the world we live in.
The basis for the reality we find ourselves in starts with the military academies. The academies develop officers, mostly general officers, who lack imaginative solutions to unique situations, namely limited wars with no end in sight: Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, to name a few.
The military academies foster loyalty above all values, violence as a way of resolving conflicts, sexual violence to get rid of women who think they can exist in a man's world, and simply unethical or criminal behavior. All the author's examples are supported by cases, studies, and a number of reports that have never seen the light of day beyond the incident.
As a Vietnam vet, it was particularly painful to review in detail the incompetent General Westmoreland's theory of a war of attrition in a civil war, the lying of the hawks who knew better about the progress of the war (read no real progress), the My Lai massacre, the corruption of the South Vietnamese, the Tet offensive ("everything's fine, we won"), and body counts, to name a few.
The author goes into devastating (yes, I am going to use that word again) detail about the Iraq war bungled into by the worst president in US history (my judgment), and the generals that gave lying reports on what was needed to win, another surge of troops, or torture works, or the civilians that really don't know what they are doing, i.e., Obama, or incredible corruption in rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan.
A minor issue I have is with the author's assessment of anyone in the military, or who has been in the military, is corrupting society. This is brought out when Bakken describes the Watergate scandal, citing that all of Nixon's advisors, or burglars, having prior military experience. These were simply your run-of-the-mill Republican party corrupting hacks that seem to gravitate toward the Republican party each year. Nothing new there, more of the same in our dysfunctional political system. Just sayin…
Additionally, Bakken could have mentioned Rosa Brooks' book: How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. This book came out before Ronan Farrow's book War on Peace which the author does mention. We poor reviewers don't get the final book which would have an index and bibliography, so he might have mentioned her. And so it goes…
But the point he does emphasize is that the military is making all the decisions in war and peace. The State Department is second fiddle, or not even in the band.
After extensive research brilliantly compiled, Bakken does have a concluding chapter on how to reform the military so that to criticize it does not mean you are unpatriotic. His reforms: fight wars only in self-defense, the hierarchal structure of the military should be dismantled, remove commanders from the military legal system, eliminate the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the Judge Advocate General Corps should be abolished across all branches and replaced with civilian attorneys from the Department of Justice, the military academies should be transformed into national civilian universities, create a federal law whereby generals can register dissent when they believe a war should not be fought, and freedom of speech should be implemented within the military making retaliation a criminal offense.
This is a book that needs to be read by all Americans. I do not say that often; in fact, I believe this is the first time. Tim Bakken makes the case for a re-adjustment in the way we as American citizens consider our military and how we determine the issues of war and peace. It is a devastating (yes, the last time) indictment that has long been overdue. Our society suffers from the stranglehold of the military and needs to change.
Ed White is a Marine Vietnam vet with memberships in VVAW, VFP, and VVA. He teaches a course on the Vietnam war at Triton College in Illinois.