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Paul Yingling's Verdict
A Lieutenant Colonel Dissents

Consequence of a failure in moral courage—among generals

Vetoing a war-funding bill on Monday evening, President Bush said “members of the House and the Senate passed a bill that substitutes the opinions of politicians for the judgment of our military commanders.” If it’s the judgment of his military commanders he’s interested in, he’s not been listening to Lt. Col. Paul Yingling—not a retired brassy type, but an active duty commander just back from two tours in Iraq.

Yingling Sample #1: “Given the lack of troop strength, not even the most brilliant general could have devised the ways necessary to stabilize post-Saddam Iraq. However, inept planning for postwar Iraq took the crisis caused by a lack of troops and quickly transformed it into a debacle.”

Yingling Sample #2: “For more than three years, America's generals continued to insist that the U.S. was making progress in Iraq. However, for Iraqi civilians, each year from 2003 onward was more deadly than the one preceding it. For reasons that are not yet clear, America's general officer corps underestimated the strength of the enemy, overestimated the capabilities of Iraq's government and security forces and failed to provide Congress with an accurate assessment of security conditions in Iraq.”

Who is this guy?

Last November 21, the Washington Post’s Thomas Ricks wrote a piece about the dismal effort to train Iraqi forces. Ricks based his reporting on internal military documents. “In dozens of official interviews compiled by the Army for its oral history archives,” he wrote, “officers who had been involved in training and advising Iraqis bluntly criticized almost every aspect of the effort. Some officers thought that team members were often selected poorly. Others fretted that the soldiers who prepared them had never served in Iraq and lacked understanding of the tasks of training and advising. Many said they felt insufficiently supported by the Army while in Iraq, with intermittent shipments of supplies and interpreters who often did not seem to understand English.” One of the officers interviewed for the archives was Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, a staff officer with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Iraq in 2005 and 2006, and one of the officers involved in the assault on Tal Afar by 3,000 American and 8,000 Iraqi troops. “The thing the Army institutionally is still struggling to learn is that the most important thing we do in counterinsurgency is building host-nation institutions,” he told the interviewers, “yet all our organizations are designed around the least important line of operations: combat operations.” Yingling recommended a complete change in approach in Iraq: “Don’t train on finding the enemy. Train on finding your friends, and they will help you find your enemy. . . . Once you find your friends, finding the enemy is easy.”

Yingling must have liked appearing in print. The current issue of Armed Forces Journal carries a scathing essay under his by-line called “A Failure In Generalship.” It traces the failure in Iraq to a repeat of the failures in Vietnam, and pins them primarily on the military (although his logical leaps are, to some extent, untenable: it military leadership begins with its civilian executive and secretary of defense, the responsibility in no way can be limited to the generals, only shared with them). Yingling blames top Pentagon brass for lacking intelligence, imagination, education and moral courage, and calls on Congress to exercise its constitutional power to retire generals who don’t meet minimum criteria:

A general who presides over a massive human rights scandal or a substantial deterioration in security ought to be retired at a lower rank than one who serves with distinction. A general who fails to provide Congress with an accurate and candid assessment of strategic probabilities ought to suffer the same penalty. As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war. By exercising its powers to confirm the retired ranks of general officers, Congress can restore accountability among senior military leaders.

It’s a fascinating essay, courageous for its willingness to state matters as they are despite its seemingly naïve blind spot for executive responsibility: When the story of the Iraq war is written, it will become apparent, as it has been through nearly daily hints and leaks to the press, that the Pentagon was largely opposed to the war and has become more opposed to it as it has worn on. The surprising thing that Yingling touches on is that more voices like his from inside the Pentagon haven’t been heard. He’ll be called a few names, to be sure, by code-blue types who think you don’t air your dirty laundry in public (the very types who think it perfectly fine to let the bloodletting flow on as long as “honor” is protected). But his point stands: “Moral courage is often inversely proportional to popularity and this observation in nowhere more true than in the profession of arms. […]While the physical courage of America's generals is not in doubt, there is less certainty regarding their moral courage. In almost surreal language, professional military men blame their recent lack of candor on the intimidating management style of their civilian masters. Now that the public is immediately concerned with the crisis in Iraq, some of our generals are finding their voices. They may have waited too long.”

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