Dissent in the Army

Phil Carter has an interesting debate with his Slate colleague Fred Kaplan about how the assignment of LTC Paul Yingling (of “A Failure in Generalship” fame) to a non-standard artillery assignment squares with SECDEF Robert Gates’ admonition to West Point cadets that “as an officer you don’t tell blunt truths or create an environment where candor is encouraged, then you’ve done yourself and the institution a disservice.”

I’m with Phil on the specifics here, thinking that Yingling’s assignment is exactly the sort of battalion command that an artillery officer would want in today’s COIN-centric environment and that the next brigadier general selection list will tell us more than looking at one lieutenant colonel, anyway. Feel free to read both pieces and decide for yourself.

The macro issue is what really interests me. Gates is absolutely right on what an officer’s duty is. The message that integrity, putting service ahead of career, and moral courage are the hallmarks of officership was hammered into my throughout my cadetship. CPT Sid Kooyman, my senior year ROTC instructor, even went so far as to tell me that, “Selectively disobeying orders” is a large part of an officer’s job.

The Real Army, though, sent me a very different message: Don’t make waves. As I wrote last summer when learning that H.R. McMaster was passed over for brigadier general,

The military is a bureaucracy and, as in all bureaucracies, it’s far easier to succeed by going along with the flow than by trying to change things. Being a gung ho maverick may well make a young officer stand out and get great evaluations; it’s more likely to piss off at least one senior rating during a career, though, and end one’s chances at promotions.

There’s a, possibly apocraphal, story about a briefing presided over by General Creighton Abrams. When the time came for questions, a young major stood up and ripped the plan to shreds. When he realized that the room was silent, the major said, “Sir, I’m sorry if I’ve offended you. But I’m sure you didn’t get to be a general by telling your superiors what they wanted to hear.” Abrams is said to have replied, “That’s true. But it’s damned sure how I got to be a lieutenant colonel!”

It’s going to take more than a couple of speeches to change that reality.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. SFC SKI says:

    I was able to hear LTC Yingling speak a few times during our rip with 3ACR, I had no idea he was so opinionated.

    Didn’t Gen Petraeus preside over the last BG board? did Col. Mc Master make the list for promotion? I hope so, what he did in Tal Afar became my Bde’s, 1/1 AD blueprint for further success there and upon our move south to Ramadi in 2006.