Generals Don’t Need a Watchdog

By Jack Jacobs, a retired Army colonel and a military analyst for MSNBC (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 09/08/07):

BY now, most Americans know the story of Cpl. Pat Tillman. He bravely chose military service rather than the National Football League, and he was killed in Afghanistan in 2004 by fire from his comrades.

My own units in Vietnam were occasionally the victims of errant rifle fire, mortar rounds and bombs — indeed, the very success of an infantry attack is dependent on leaning forward into friendly supporting fires.

But, after the fact, the Tillman death played out differently. His unit reported that he was killed in a ferocious engagement with the enemy, and the truth was hidden by the chain of command until, as is almost always the case, the truth escaped. As has been proved repeatedly, bad news doesn’t get any better with age. Lt. Gen. Philip R. Kensinger Jr., who was responsible for the cover-up, has been censured and faces demotion.

Sadly, Corporal Tillman’s death comes with another unhappy legacy: a ludicrous change in the Army regulation that deals with reporting casualties. With this change, the Army now requires a formal, independent investigation into the death of every American in a hostile area.

If this provision had been in place when we began our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, there would have been about 3,700 investigations by now. The American losses in Vietnam would have required more than 58,000 inquiries. And if the regulation had existed in World War II, we would have conducted 400,000 investigations, requiring perhaps as many investigating officers as we now have troops in Iraq.

In theory, the rule sounds commendable. Life is precious, and if one is cut short in combat then we owe the soldier and his family as full a report as possible. Having experienced more than enough combat, I understand this sentiment. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s the motivating force behind the revised regulation. In my view, the provision is there for one reason and one reason alone: to put in place a protocol to prevent commanders from lying about the cause of their soldiers’ deaths.

What’s the problem with that? Well, it’s beyond insidious because it is an admission that the Army has determined it can’t trust anyone in the combat chain of command — that the actions of General Kensinger are the rule, not the exception, and that this kind of malfeasance among soldiers is expected to be so common that it requires regular policing. This is a catastrophic message to be sending our military, in large measure because it is wrong.

In many walks of life, legislating against unacceptable behavior is used as a barrier against potential misdeeds, but in most cases such laws and rules are really just substitutes for good leadership. To conclude that the Army needs to legislate honesty is a knee-jerk response to the stupidity of a very few — a mindless judgment perpetrated by officials who have little idea of military life. That the Army’s uniformed leadership was complicit in creating the new regulation is all the more galling.

Warfare requires soldiers with an unflinching dedication to the nation’s defense, and we are fortunate that so many now under fire in Iraq and Afghanistan have placed comradeship and honor above life itself. Yes, there have been lies and mistakes and bad decisions in Iraq and Afghanistan — just as there have been in every war.

But these are aberrations, and we face a sad future if we assume that the commanders we select to lead our young people in combat must be prevented by regulation from reporting lies. We don’t need better regulations. We need better leaders.