Midlevel officers weigh risk, reward of criticizing Army leadership
By BILL MURPHY JR. | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 8, 2012
WASHINGTON — A lieutenant colonel who first saw war in the Persian Gulf in 1991 comes home from his latest combat deployment disillusioned, convinced that American troops are dying for naught. He buries himself in his notes over Christmas, reflecting on what he’s seen and where his duty lies. He has a family and a career to think about, but he is seized with a conviction that he must speak out.
He writes a lengthy article in a professional journal for military officers, calling out top leaders on what he perceives as their failures.
It’s the experience of Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, whose “Truth, lies and Afghanistan” appeared on the Armed Forces Journal’s website Sunday, and who was featured in The New York Times and on CNN and ABC News. It’s also the experience of Col. Paul Yingling, who five years ago as a lieutenant colonel just home from Iraq wrote a widely circulated article, “A Failure in Generalship,” that offered a similarly scathing critique of the military’s top leaders.
The net effect of each man’s article on the Army and its wars — in Iraq then, and Afghanistan now — is hard to assess. But it raises other important issues: How it affected each man’s career, and what it portends for other line officers who depend on the military for their livelihood but who believe they see their leaders failing and want to speak up.
‘Canaries in the coal mine’
Yingling had served in the Gulf War and Bosnia, as well as two tours in Iraq, when he wrote his article. At Fort Hood, Texas, after his second Iraq deployment, Yingling said, one of his duties was to preside over Purple Heart ceremonies for soldiers who had been wounded, mostly in Iraq.
“The awardees all came in at the Fort Hood community centers, some being pushed by wives and girlfriends in wheelchairs,” Yingling said recently. “These guys have done their duty. They got wounded in battle. We senior officers haven’t. We bear responsibility. I couldn’t look them in the eye. I’d been selected to command a battalion at Fort Hood, but I couldn’t command a battalion if I couldn’t look soldiers in the eye.”
He wrote the article over Christmas 2006 and resisted suggestions to publish it anonymously. He said he submitted the article first to Military Review, a government-owned publication, which declined to run it. Finally he offered it to the privately owned Armed Forces Journal.
Yingling said he knew his article would be controversial. It blamed a potential defeat in Iraq on U.S. generals’ collective failure for a generation “to prepare our armed forces for war.” But he was completely unprepared for the onslaught.
“I thought people who care about defense issues might talk about it. What I was didn’t understand was the blogosphere,” Yingling said, recalling that he heard from many soldiers directly, “telling him heart-wrenching stories of bad leadership and its impact on people’s lives.”
Yet, Yingling said there was “absolute silence from the top.”
The commanding general at Fort Hood, Maj. Gen. Jeff Hammond, brought together about 200 of the post’s captains for a mandatory meeting. Without mentioning Yingling by name, Hammond was sharply critical that someone who had never been a general would critique the way generals do their jobs, according to press reports and a captain who was in the meeting.
In the years since, Yingling’s article, while still controversial, has become popular reading among junior officers.
“Guys like Yingling ... are the canaries in the coal mine of Army reform,” an anonymous retired major general told journalist Fred Kaplan, writing in the New York Times magazine, in 2007. “Will they get promoted to general? If they do, that’s a sign that real change is happening. If they don’t, that’s a sign that the traditional culture still rules.”
Yingling had been selected to command a battalion before his article was published. He did a third tour in Iraq and later was promoted to colonel, but it appeared unlikely he’d be promoted again. He landed an unusual assignment — teaching at the Marshall Center in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany — and recently decided to retire from the Army.
In an essay in The Washington Post in December, Yingling explained that he’s leaving a few years early than he’d planned, which means he’ll retire with the lower pay of a lieutenant colonel, to teach high school and coach baseball, hopefully in Colorado Springs, Colo. Besides the motivation to teach, which Yingling described in the essay, he said he just didn’t want to spend the next couple of years “sitting in a room with a bunch of other colonels arguing” about which units and branches should see the biggest budget cuts.
It will mean a pay cut, but between a lieutenant colonel’s pension and a teacher’s salary, Yingling said he’ll be fine.
“I wouldn’t say it hasn’t worked out,” Yingling said in an interview at a European ski resort in January. “We’re sitting here having a cup of coffee in Austria.”
So what lesson does that leave for today’s company-grade and field-grade officers?
“The advice to them is that bureaucracies do not like dissidents and whistleblowers,” said retired Lt. Col. Douglas Ollivant, now a senior national security studies fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington. “There is very little you can do to change that. ... I don’t think this is specific to the military.”
There is nothing ambiguous about what Davis had to say in his Armed Forces Journal article.
“I spent last year in Afghanistan, visiting … every significant area where our soldiers engage the enemy,” he wrote. “Over the course of 12 months, I covered more than 9,000 miles and talked, traveled and patrolled with troops in Kandahar, Kunar, Ghazni, Khost, Paktika, Kunduz, Balkh, Nangarhar and other provinces. What I saw bore no resemblance to rosy official statements by U.S. military leaders about conditions on the ground.”
He went on to describe an Afghanistan where “insurgents controlled virtually every piece of land beyond eyeshot of a U.S. or International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) base,” and where he watched as “Afghan Security forces collude[d] with the insurgency.”
“How many more men must die in support of a mission that is not succeeding and behind an array of more than seven years of optimistic statements by U.S. senior leaders in Afghanistan?” he wrote. “No one expects our leaders to always have a successful plan. But we do expect — and the men who do the living, fighting and dying deserve — to have our leaders tell us the truth about what’s going on.”
The article received more than half a million page views in the 48 hours after it was linked by the Drudge Report. So far, the official military response has been muted.
“Lieutenant Colonel Davis is obviously entitled to his opinion,” a Pentagon spokesman said, adding that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta “has very strong confidence in his commanders in Afghanistan, as they provide assessments of what is happening on the ground in the war.”
Davis, 48, was a reservist for eight years in the middle of his military career but returned to active duty after Sept. 11, 2001. Reached Tuesday, he said that gives him just more than 17 years of service, meaning he needs three more to get a pension.
Davis said he had been well aware of Yingling’s experiences.
“I ultimately felt a moral obligation to take action and do all in my power and ability — within the confines of Army regulations — to try and help those who had no voice,” he said, adding that he struggled with whether he should be a “team player” for the greater good or whether honor, integrity and personal courage required him to act. “I know it sounds corny to some but that is genuinely what I believe.”
He told The New York Times that he expected “to get nuked” after writing the article and speaking to members of Congress without informing his bosses, but on Tuesday, he said that he hasn’t felt any negative impact.
“It’s been all right,” Davis said. “To the Army’s credit, they put out that no adverse actions are to be taken. I’m not to lose my position or any security clearance or the so-called typical punishments for people that do this kind of thing. So far, they’ve been honest about that.”