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Why I created these Web pages on military issues

Posted by John Reed on

Why I created these Web pages on military issues by John T. Reed

Boyhood dream

Going to West Point was my boyhood dream. I achieved it and graduated, but I was profoundly disappointed with the U.S. Army officer corps which I found to be a hidebound, inept, Kafkaesque bureaucracy populated almost entirely by either take-care-of-number-one careerists, drones who were just hanging around for their generous retirement benefits, and guys, like me, who counted the days until we could get out.

The ideals of West Point

When I entered the United States Military Academy, I was an extremely idealistic 17-year old who believed in the ideals of West Point and the Army. Now, I am an extremely idealistic 64-year old who still believes in those ideals. One of the best expressions of those ideals is the West Point Cadet Prayer. We had to memorize it the first week we were at West Point. It says,

O God, our Father, Thou Searcher of human hearts, help us to draw near to Thee in sincerity and truth. May our religion be filled with gladness and may our worship of Thee be natural.

Strengthen and increase our admiration for honest dealing and clean thinking, and suffer not our hatred of hypocrisy and pretence ever to diminish. Encourage us in our endeavor to live above the common level of life. Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half truth when the whole truth can be won. Endow us with courage that is born of loyalty to all that is noble and worthy, that scorns to compromise with vice and injustice and knows no fear when truth and right are in jeopardy. Guard us against flippancy and irreverence in the sacred things of life. Grant us new ties of friendship and new opportunities of service. Kindle our hearts in fellowship with those of a cheerful countenance, and soften our hearts with sympathy for those who sorrow and suffer. Help us to maintain the honor of the Corps untarnished and unsullied and to show forth in our lives the ideals of West Point in doing our duty to Thee and to our Country. All of which we ask in the name of the Great Friend and Master of all. - Amen

As Michael Kelly said before he was the first American journalist to be killed in Iraq,

The driving dream of the idealist is that if he could only explain things to enough people, carefully enough, thoroughly enough, thoughtfully enough—why, eventually everyone would see, and then everything would be fixed.

Easier to influence from outside than inside

Paradoxically, creating this Web site is probably the only way I can contribute positively to the Army I thought I was joining when I entered West Point. Don’t misunderstand me. West Point was pretty much what people think it is—better in many ways. It is the Army after West Point that is the main problem. And although what happens at West Point is essentially what non-West Pointers think, it does not appear to be as effective as it is supposed to be at what it is supposed to do or claims to do.

At West Point, they taught us that we had two priorities:

1. Accomplishment of the mission
2. Welfare of the men

in that order.

82nd Airborne Division focused on impressing V.I.P.s

As an active duty officer, I, like virtually every other active duty officer, was prevented from doing much either to accomplish the mission or to take care of the men. For example, at Fort Bragg, NC when I was a communications platoon leader in the 82nd Airborne Division, the commanding general ordered all of us to stand around or do odd jobs at the site out in the woods of a V.I.P. demonstration that was going to take place at the end of the summer. You can read about that in detail in my article about V.I.P. demonstration deaths.

To accomplish the mission of my platoon, I should have been training my platoon members, maintaining our vehicles and equipment, and practicing the sorts of missions we would have to perform if we went into combat. In the event, I was essentially not allowed to see the members of my platoon during most of the summer. Rather, I was assigned to oversee a heavy mortar squad—normally the job of an infantry sergeant, not a communications officer—because the commanding general wanted everything to go well for the VIP demonstration. I did not even know where my men were.

Wasted training

Note also that we got to pick our military specialty before we graduated from West Point. I picked radio officer and was sent to the Army Signal School at Fort Monmouth, NJ to be trained in that. I rejected Communications Officer School which was at Fort Sill, OK. In other words, I said no thanks to communications officer and was trained in another specialty, then they assigned me to be a communications officer anyway. I also was assigned as a communications officer later in Vietnam. It is typical of the Army to train you in one specialty then assign you to work in another in which you were not trained and which you rejected. A recent West Point graduate who was the top student of Arabic in his class told me he was assigned to Afghanistan in spite of his strenuous efforts to get sent to Iraq. They speak Pashto in Afghanistan, not Arabic. He thought he was being very smart at West Point to pick Arabic as his academic major. Thought it would help his career greatly. The Army totally ignoring his Arabic skills was typical of the way what I said is a Kafkaesque bureaucracy works.

To the Army, he, the Arabic expert and I, the radio officer, were merely warm bodies. The fact that I was signal corps was respected in all but my stint as a mortar squad leader, but my all A+ grades in Russian were never taken the slightest note of by the Army that taught me Russian for three and a half years. The Army taught the Arabic student Arabic, then not only ignored that but refused to behave appropriately when he pointed out their mistake. It would not surprise me in the least if he is NEVER assigned to an Arabic-speaking country.

The U.S. military is a colossal freaking joke.

In October, 2009, I was surprised to learn that former VA head and U.S. Senator Max Cleland had more or less the same job that I did in Vietnam. He was a communications officer in an infantry battalion in the 1st Air Cav in Vietnam—same job I had in the 82nd Airborne and almost the same job I had in a mixed-heavy artillery battalion in Vietnam. He got a silver star in the Battle of Khe Sanh but received his famous injury—losing his right arm and both legs—at the hands of a stupid U.S. enlisted man who got the bright idea to loosen the pins on his grenades. (So he could throw them quicker?) One fell on the ground when they were getting out of a helicopter at a cold LZ (no enemy fighting going on) where he was to set up a radio relay station. (I had a radio relay station on top of Nui Ba Dinh Mountain) The pin came out and the handle popped off starting the 4-second fuse burning. Cleland assumed it still had its pin in and bent over to pick it up. When his right hand was five inches from the grenade, it blew up.

No one cared about winning the war

In Vietnam, our mission was to win the war. But I never heard any officers discussing how to do that. There was zero interest in winning the war. The career guys just wanted to “get their ticket punched,” that is, get credit for having served in a combat zone so they could look good for getting promotions. And the rest of us just wanted to do our jobs and go home. If any of us had made any suggestions about winning the war, the others would have looked at us as if we had lost our minds.

World War II GIs also just wanted to do their jobs and go home, but they had been told that the only way to do that was to win, so they won. In Vietnam, we were told we just had to stay there one year to go home. So that’s what everyone did.

Predictably, we lost that war and none of the top brass responsible for the loss were ever punished. Indeed, they were promoted.

These military Web pages will not try to cover everything about the military. There are relatively few areas where I feel I have something worthwhile to say—something that is different from the usual stuff said about the military.

I do not write this because I know more than everyone else about the military. On the contrary, that’s not even close to true. But knowledge is only part of what a person commenting on the military needs. They also need the inclination to speak out. That is the very rare commodity that I have, not extraordinary expertise.

Those who know more than I are almost congenitally incapable of speaking out critically. If they were in the military for a long time, they learned over decades to be quiet about anything the brass did not want to hear, which includes any and all criticism. It’s hard for old dogs to learn new tricks after they retire. They also have friends and maybe relatives who are still in the military.

‘Elite’ military personnel and units

One of my pet peeves is the training, glorification, and utilization of so-called “elite” military personnel. I think the training, in some cases, is B.S. and in some cases is far too dangerous. I think the glorification of so-called “elite” troops, primarily in the media and to a lesser extent by the military itself, is B.S. and getting men killed unnecessarily as a result.

I think the military leaders believe their own B.S. and assign “elite” troops to missions that they are neither trained nor equipped nor capable of accomplishing, resulting in unnecessary loss of life and mission failures. See the articles at my military home page on elite units.

Unnecessary deaths

I am extremely upset about unnecessary deaths in:

You can see the stats on the thousands of men who have died in military accidents here.

I want these deaths stopped or at least greatly reduced. I am no longer on active duty, but I still feel an obligation for the welfare of the men. Unfortunately, the commanders who are on active duty and presiding over these unnecessary deaths merely pay lip service to stopping them, but actions speak louder than words and those active-duty commanders simply are not getting the job done when it comes to eliminating unnecessary deaths. Maybe by writing about them here, I can lower the number.

Lousy weapons and equipment

The military chronically does a lousy job of arming and equipping our military personnel. Watch the History or Military Channel and you’ll hear a parade of stories about worthless French Chauchat machine guns that were issued to U.S. soldiers in World War I, faulty World War II U.S. torpedoes and tanks, badly designed M-16 guns that jammed in Vietnam, the Osprey helicopter program that needs false maintenance records to avoid being canceled, and so on.

Strategy mistakes

Clearly we have not had effective strategy in Vietnam, Somalia, Lebanon, or Iraq, all of which are engagements where we lost or appear to be losing.

The 2008 book The Gamble, which I reviewed at, says we figured out effective tactics in Iraq in the period 2006 to 2008. That period is called The Surge but more was responsible for the turnaround than just the increase in the number of U.S. troops there. In that review, I also quote Frederick Kagan who wrote in 2009 in the Wall Street Journal that the political situation in Iraq has also turned around to a satisfactory situation. That would be required to declare the occupation of Iraq a success. I don’t think we have reached the point yet where we can claim all of that. It will probably take another three years or so (that is, until around 2012.) to judge what we have wrought in Iraq.

Yet hardly anyone seems to be trying to do anything about the lousy strategies. Indeed, criticizing the military is almost taboo in spite of their lousy win-loss record since World War II.

I will try to point out that all these pompous, bemedaled, brass hats who go around pontificating on TV, in Congressional hearings and elsewhere have no idea what they are talking about. I am no expert on the military, but the strategic errors are so egregious that one does not have to be an expert to recognize them. A little common sense and a willingness to say “the emperor has no clothes” is all that is needed in many cases.

Furthermore, as I say in one article, there appear to be few persons with true military expertise anywhere in the world. Wars are too infrequently and ineptly fought and too different from each other for anyone to acquire much expertise in how to fight the next one, or even the current one.

Saying things that others wish they could

I expect that the articles at these military pages will, in part, anger virtually every current or former member of the military, but that active-duty personnel will also welcome some parts of the articles because they say things that need to be said but that active-duty personnel cannot say. They may defend our right of free speech, but they do not have the right to engage in free speech when it comes to the subject about which they are most informed: the military.

Some former military will also welcome those comments because although they could make them legally, they really cannot as a practical matter because they work in a situation where one of their bosses may not like it or because they have no Web site or feel they have too weak of a military resume. Others have no excuse for not making them other than they are moral wimps who do not want to offend anyone even if the ideals of West Point and the Army require it for the sake of the nation.

Replay of Army bull sessions

During my eight years as a cadet and Army officer I was part of countless bull sessions with my fellow cadets and officers. Often the topic of discussion was about what was wrong with West Point and the Army. My articles at this Web site are essentially replays of those bull session discussions supplemented by the 40 years experience I have gained since then, plus my more recently-acquired skills as a writer, researcher, and investigative journalist—and the contributions from people around the world who read this Web site and send me stuff that is worthy of adding to my articles.

Generally speaking, the officers who will be unhappy about the content of these articles have said, in private, to their best friends and spouses over the years, many of the exact same things I say. Indeed, the military often appoints blue-ribbon commissions to investigate what the military needs in the near future or how to improve retention of junior officers and such. Those blue-ribbon committees also say what I am saying in these articles, albeit using more delicate phraseology.

Here are some quotes about the need to speak out against wrongdoing.

“...the tragedy begins, not when there is misunderstanding about words, but when silence is not understood.” Henry David Thoreau

“To sin by silence when [we] should protest makes cowards of [us all].” Abraham Lincoln

Some people have knowledge about the military such that they can recognize the errors, omissions, and dangers in the military information in the media. I am one of them. Sadly, and dangerously for the military and the nation it defends, the vast majority of those knowledgeable, good people choose not to get involved.

“If you are among brigands and you are silent, you are a brigand yourself.” Hungarian poem

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Edmund Burke

“Who can protest and does not, is an accomplice in the act.” The Talmud: Sabbath, 54b.

“The hottest place in hell must be reserved for those who, in the face of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” -Winston Churchill

“Qui male agit odit lucem.” (“He who behaves badly hates the light.” John 3:20)

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

“When the shameless meet the spineless, the shameless win.” When it comes to physical courage, military personnel do just fine. But when it comes to moral courage, they are almost all spineless.

“Like me, you could…be unfortunate enough to stumble upon a silent war. The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. Either way, you’re accountable.” Arundhati Roy

“When others do a foolish thing, you should tell them it is a foolish thing. They can still continue to do it, but at least the truth is where it needs to be.” Gray Council leader Dukhat, Babylon 5 episode 75 "Atonement"

The Center for Moral Courage says, moral courage is exhibited by,

“A person who is courageous in the face of ethical challenges...does the right thing even if it’s not popular...refuses to stand idly by while others engage in unethical or harmful behavior...

Here are the two final paragraphs from the book A Question of Loyalty by Douglas Waller. It is about the court martial of General Billy Mitchell, one of the extremely rare U.S. Army officers who exhibited great moral courage. He is a hero of mine and was when I was an Army officer.

Great leaders, particularly those in wartime, have outsized egos. Institutional mavericks, whistle-blowers, critics who press for reform in bureaucracies all tend to be abrasive, outspoken, hard to get along with. Prophets by nature are opinionated and overconfident. Agents of change break china, make people angry and uncomfortable, leave enemies in their wake. Did Mitchell retard progress in air power? It’s a weak case to make. More likely, progress would have been much slower if Mitchell had not been there. As an institution the military reforms at a glacial pace if left to its own. Men like Mason Patrick who work the system from the inside can rarely do it alone. Lightning rods must galvanize public opinion and prod politicians to force bureaucracy to change. Mitchell was a needed spark.

He deserves a place in history. Mitchell had his personal flaws, to be sure. But he was a brilliant and innovative officer. In combat he was a brave and daring commander. During their dismal interwar years he was an inspiration to his men. He was a visionary willing to challenge the status quo. He may have been an opportunist, but ultimately Mitchell did lay his military career and his reputation on the line for what he believed in. He had the courage of his convictions.

I appreciate informed, well-thought-out constructive criticism and suggestions.

Perhaps the most important reason why I created these military articles is in one of them which recites two combat poems and a combat song.

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