The Most Fundamental Problem with the US Military

Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.

“Integrity First” is the fundamental core value of the U.S. Air Force. Two other core values speak to “service before self” and “excellence in all we do.” But integrity remains the wellspring, and it’s the U.S. military’s stunning lack of integrity that has cost the American people and indeed the world so dearly over the last half-century.

Tonkin Gulf. My Lai. The Pentagon Papers. WMD in Iraq. Abu Ghraib. The Afghan War Papers. So many instances of “official” lies and distortions. So many lost wars where no senior officers were ever held accountable. Put up, shut up, fuck up, cover up, move up, seems to be the operating manual for success.

Last September, I wrote an article for TomDispatch: “Something is rotten in the U.S. military.” I suggested that integrity was now optional in that military, that lies and dishonor plagued America’s war machine. Evidently, those lies, that dishonor, is working just fine for the Pentagon as its budget continues to soar.

These thoughts occurred to me yet again as I read Seymour Hersh’s retrospective account of Major General Antonio (Tony) Taguba’s withering investigation of torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. Taguba, a man of integrity, conducted an official – and honest – investigation of torture and mistreatment at Abu Ghraib; his reward for his honesty, his service, his excellence was not a commendation and promotion but threats, ostracism, and the death of his career as an Army officer.

Sy Hersh’s article captures the rot at the core of the Pentagon and the U.S. government. Here Hersh speaks recently to Taguba:

[Taguba] “I was not a whistleblower. I knew I was in trouble when I was given the assignment [to investigate abuse at Abu Ghraib], but when you see those photos what can you do? I was a dead man walking.

“The kids were trained as traffic cops and then were told to transport [Iraqi] detainees. That’s how they got to Abu Ghraib. They weren’t trained for that but they had vehicles and rifles, just undisciplined kids with incompetent leadership and they were on the list to go home. They had all their equipment packed in Kuwait and ready to be shipped. And then they were told to stay behind.”

I [Hersh] asked: Would he do it again? “Sure,” Tony [Taguba] said, “I was hamstrung by the thirty days I had to investigate. I do not think I fulfilled my mission. [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld was blaming the soldiers, but underneath they had no operational plan” for dealing with the prisoners.

“In hindsight, there was nothing I did to compromise my integrity. But integrity in the military and elsewhere is a bumper sticker. There is no reward for telling the truth.” [Emphasis added]

“There is no reward for telling the truth” in the U.S. military. That statement by retired General Taguba should move all Americans to take action against a military that has so clearly and tragically lost its way.

One suggestion: Cut the Pentagon budget in half and insist that it must pass a financial audit else forfeit all taxpayer funding. That might wake up a few generals and admirals.

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools. He writes at Bracing Views.