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Hyperbole and stereotyping detract from Balko’s point (update)
Posted by: McQ on Friday, April 06, 2007

I normally find Radley Balko to be a worthwhile read, but every now and then he goes off the rails:
The Army is complete and utter totalitarianism. When you enter, you're stripped of all individuality, then built back up into a proper, orders-taking, unquestioning drone. Dissent is punished. At the onset of your career, all facets of your life are dictated to you. Whatever the state orders of you—even if it orders you to your death—you're trained to comply willingly and with vigor, and to never question the validity or morality of the order.
Having spent 49 years in and around the Army (I was an Army brat, my father serving for 36 years), I don't at all recognize the institution he's describing. His characterization is in reaction to a passage by Robert Wright in the New York Times, namely:
In fact, the whole, larger stereotype — that the military is a right-wing institution, best viewed with skepticism if not cynicism by the left — is way off. Growing up in, or at least amid, the Army helped make me a liberal — not because I reacted against my environment, but because I absorbed its values. If all of America were more like the Army, it would be a better country.
Given the fact that he finds the passage "chilling" at least partially excuses his hyperbole. But it is hyperbole, for the most part. And while I agree with him that I wouldn't want to live in a country which is run like the Army, the Army he describes has never existed as he describes it in my life of experience with it.

Certainly, certain rights are proscribed or curtailed, but certainly not all rights. Your right to property, for instance, isn't rescinded. You certainly have the right to speak out, within reason, if done respectfully and effectively.

But what everyone is quickly taught is that the military isn't a democracy, even though it may be the instrument of defending it. Instead it an hierarchical institution which, of necessity, must have clear lines of command. That's because history and experience have taught us that is the most effective way to wield the power necessary to effectively use an Army to accomplish its mission.

Anyone, however, who thinks that "all facets of your life are dictated to you" has never been in the military and if they have, not within in the past 40 years. At one point in the early part of the 20th century, what Balko says is true. You couldn't marry without permission, you couldn't leave post without permission, you couldn't do much of anything without permission. That all went away in the post-VN Army. In fact, what the Army requires you do now is to show up on time, do your job to the best of your ability, and behave as the military requires you to behave. But control "all facets of your life"? Uh, no.
Dissent is punished.
No, dissent isn't punished. In fact it is encouraged, within limits. Disobedience is punished.

Some of the most intense debates/arguments I've ever seen have been between operations staffs and unit commanders at all levels. Or between commanders and their subordinate commanders (including NCOs). And every dissenter was given full voice. The difference, however, is in the military, commanders are expected to make decisions. When, after listening to the dissenting voices and weighing what they have had to say the commander chooses a course of action, everyone, to include the dissenters salute and carry out the decision. While it may surprise some, I've seen the dissenting voices carry the day at times and then watched the mission modified based on their recommendations and go off without a hitch.

To believe that it is all a one-way, top-down system which stifles dissent is phenomenally uninformed and incorrect.

Commanders are given mission type orders, which, obviously, are fairly general in nature. They are left with deciding how to carry out their mission.

Take, "1st Bn attacks at 0500 to take Objective Alpha by 1900. Be prepared to continue the attack, on order, to Objective Delta. 1st Bn is the main attack on Obj Alpha and the supporting attack on Obj Delta," as a very crude example.

Now it is up to the commander to go back and put a plan together to accomplish that mission. The commander knows he has priority of support for the first attack and another unit has priority for the on order attack. He has time constraints. He also has a number of missions within that broad mission which have to be accomplished. He has to put together combat and logistical priorities. He's got a lot of work and coordination ahead of him.

His staff is going to plan the attacks and give him various courses of action to consider. It is during that decision making process that some of the most thunderous arguments I've ever heard have taken place, all respectfully but passionately given, of course. Dissent is punished? Not where I came from.
... built back up into a proper, orders-taking, unquestioning drone.
The obvious rebuttal to this is "drones don't dissent". But again, Balko's statement is simply a myth which I would assume is based on an unfounded assumption of how he thinks the Army works. If you think, as a leader in the military, that you can give orders which will be unquestioningly and unhesitatingly followed by anyone, you're simply not at all familiar with the military. Heck, you haven't even watched many war movies ("I'm giving you a direct order!").

First, one of the strengths of our military is we encourage our soldiers to think and take the initiative. Drones don't do that ... they wait for orders. Secondly, we pound into our soldiers heads the difference between moral and immoral orders (murder is still murder in the military) and lawful and unlawful orders. Not only are they expected to refuse immoral and unlawful orders, they're liable if they obey them. Drones don't differentiate those subtleties nor are they held accountable for them.

And, of course, that leads right into this:
Whatever the state orders of you—even if it orders you to your death—you're trained to comply willingly and with vigor, and to never question the validity or morality of the order.
On its face, and given what I've just outlined, this is simply rhetorical nonsense and is pointedly refuted by the trail now ongoing concerning Haditha and those conducted concerning Abu Ghraib.

Balko's characterization of the Army is a bleak stereotype of an amoral institution which has no basis in fact. Like I said, I mostly enjoy his writing ... but this particular attempt to refute a point is based mostly in fiction and myth.

UPDATE: Radley Balko responds. All-in-all a pretty fair and honest clarification. I, for one, appreciate the effort as well as the points he makes.
 
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Balko’s characterization of the Army is a bleak stereotype of an amoral institution which has no basis in fact.
This sounds more like the Military from World War 1. The strengths of a modern military are in it’s flexibility. Decisions made by the Commanders on the scene, to Privates on the line.
 
Written By: James E. Fish
URL: http://faroutfishfiles.blogspot.com/
You’re right. Balko’s wrong.

You have to ask, though, as a military, doesn’t the idea of lawful vs. unlawful orders create a tension, a dilution/diminution of the presumed need for spinal-cord level instant obedience in life-or-death situations? Stopping to consider whether a given order is lawful, so the argument used to go, could just get you killed.

It seems like the very concept of an unlawful order - along with other things, such as the "just war" rules of engagement and so on, are a tactical concessions to the apparent reality that operational victory, or unit discipline, at all costs is no longer always the be-all/end-all. And that the maximum feasible application of force, internally or externally, is not necessarily key to the desired outcome. Otherwise, why not control everything, if it was the best way to get the job done?

Those same recognitions are why people, for example, don’t consider it wise to fight large-scale counterinsurgencies against entire swathes of MidEast populations as a successful way of making terrorism less likely.

Same roots. Different spheres of application.


 
Written By: glasnost
URL: http://
First, there’s the political argument.
If a military ceases to respect the supreme law of the country for which it is supposed to be fighting, why would the country seek operational success for that military? Think of the classic line of Clausewitz regarding war being the extension of politics by other means; if the warriors aren’t extending the politics of their ultimate bosses (the American people), then "tension" is the least of our worries. The real problem is, they’re disobeying their oath to the Constitution of the United States.

Then, there’s the efficacy argument.
Decentralized decision-making has operational benefits as well as Constitutional ones. For example, Arquila and Ronfeldt have been doing good work on "netwar" over at RAND; check it out sometime.
Decentralized decision-making works in some types of combat for many of the same reasons that it does in economics: it’s time-consuming and costly to filter and send information up a hierarchical pyramid and send orders based on that information back down, and the sharper the tip of the pyramid, the more information has to be processed by fewer actors. In other words, even if the best and the brightest are sitting atop the pyramid, they’re not omnicompetent, and even if they were, it’s still a pain to get all the right information up to them. The actors in the middle of the pyramid may not know what information from the ground is most relevant to the battle (or may be selective with what they relay for other reasons), or the middle of the pyramid may be damaged (say, radio comms with headquarters are disrupted for some reason).

Many times, what’s really needed in a combat situation is for units on the ground to simply have the similar doctrine and priorities, and be in high-bandwidth communication with one another, to complete OODA loops with the information they share.
(Mind you, I’ve never been in combat, so take it all with that grain of salt. Just an intellectual interest.)
 
Written By: Bryan Pick
URL: http://www.qando.net
You have to ask, though, as a military, doesn’t the idea of lawful vs. unlawful orders create a tension, a dilution/diminution of the presumed need for spinal-cord level instant obedience in life-or-death situations?
Oh come on ’nost, it’s not a matter of debilitating or paralyzing inaction. For heaven sake you know instantly the difference between killing someone in the heat of combat and murdering someone in cold blood.

Accidents certainly happen in combat, but intent is the key. There’s quite a difference between mistakenly killing a non-combatant because you wrongly perceived them as a threat to your life and deliberately killing an unarmed person who is no threat to you.

That same sort of difference is pretty apparent to anyone given an illegal or unlawful order. And at that point, if you believe it to be illegal or immoral, you simply refuse the order (with the understanding that if you’re wrong, you pay consequences).
It seems like the very concept of an unlawful order - along with other things, such as the "just war" rules of engagement and so on, are a tactical concessions to the apparent reality that operational victory, or unit discipline, at all costs is no longer always the be-all/end-all.
I’m not sure that its an either/or. It is an evolution in warfighting that has, in most cases, been led by the US military. If ever there was an "honor/shame" society, it is the military (not, however, anywhere near as degenerate as that of fundamentalist Islam). As our culture has evolved, so has the military. There is no longer any honor in victory at all costs and by all means. In some cases that handicaps us (when it would be easier to level a place instead of doing the hard and deadly work of rooting out the enemy instead), but in the long run it provides a level of pride and honor which are necessary to establish the esprit de corps that only elite warfighting units have.
And that the maximum feasible application of force, internally or externally, is not necessarily key to the desired outcome. Otherwise, why not control everything, if it was the best way to get the job done?
Well that point is made in spades with precision munitions and surgical strikes. Just the force necessary to do the job. However, on the other side of that, one of the fastest ways to victory on the battlefield is to overwhelm your enemy. The interesting point is that many times leads to saving lives on both sides.
Those same recognitions are why people, for example, don’t consider it wise to fight large-scale counterinsurgencies against entire swathes of MidEast populations as a successful way of making terrorism less likely.
Actually, a counter-insurgency fight is an application of the proper force to the problem and fits the point exactly. It works at the level most effective against the threat.

Either that or carpet bomb the place, kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out.

See what I mean?
Same roots. Different spheres of application.
Er, no. I think you got lost somewhere in your musings.
 
Written By: McQ
URL: http://www.qando.net/blog
I can’t help thinking that if Balko’s complaints were put into practice the effect would be to transform the military into nothing more than a disorganized armed rabble. Such is the very antithesis to the military’s mission: to defend the liberty and freedom of the United States. For what would such an armed rabble bring but the mindset of the mob?
 
Written By: John
URL: http://averagegayjoe.blogspot.com
When you enter, you’re stripped of all individuality, then built back up into a proper, orders-taking, unquestioning drone. Dissent is punished
You know, this could just as easily be talking about entering our public school system in many, many cases.

The only difference being that people VOLUNTEER for the military...
 
Written By: shark
URL: http://
Your point on soldiers making ethical decisions actually connects well with the posts on the actions of the British hostages and the one from a few weeks back about British school’s unwillingness to transmit British culture. For a young soldier or sailor, the moral code used to make decisions comes primarily from how they were raised before they entered the military (as opposed to a veteran that has more thoroughly absorbed military culture). If the hostage sailors had grown up being taught that Iran’s culture was equal to their own, it would be understandable that their instinct was to view the Iranian press as a separate entity (part of the general population of Iran) not affiliated with the military that was holding them captive, and relaxed in front of them. Another aspect of insufficient training.
 
Written By: Ted
URL: http://
Sure, murder is still murder in the military. And anyone who is prepared to be honest, and has been on the end of a questionable order, and will drop the rah-rah bullsh*t, will admit that when it comes down to your conscience or your ass - your ass wins every time.

So, yeah, Balko is partly right. And you’re partly right. So what?
 
Written By: JohnThomas
URL: http://icasualties.org/oif/
Many times, what’s really needed in a combat situation is for units on the ground to simply have the similar doctrine and priorities
Which was the idea behind the German General Staff.
 
Written By: Mark A. Flacy
URL: http://
Sure, murder is still murder in the military. And anyone who is prepared to be honest, and has been on the end of a questionable order, and will drop the rah-rah bullsh*t, will admit that when it comes down to your conscience or your ass - your ass wins every time.
Not really. I refused an unlawful order (as a CPT) from a LTC and survived it. Honest enough for you?

So much for the rah-rah BS, huh?
So, yeah, Balko is partly right. And you’re partly right. So what?
So go away if this is the extent of your ability to participate in a conversation on the subject. Obviously you’re as misinformed as Balko on this.
 
Written By: McQ
URL: http://www.qando.net/blog
When it come to operating ethically the United States stands head and shoulders above the rest. Like any organization there are exceptions, but when compared with other military we top the list. That is the strength that gives us the edge.
 
Written By: James E. Fish
URL: http://faroutfishfiles.blogspot.com/
Put your dick back in your pants, McQ. Or just keep making mountains out of molehills if it feeds your mouth-frothing sense of outrage. Again, so the f*ck what?
 
Written By: JohnThomas
URL: http://icasualties.org/oif/
"Put your dick back in your pants, McQ."

What a fortuitous coincidence. John Thomas is British slang for dick. Are you comfy cozy in there, John?
 
Written By: timactual
URL: http://
John Thomas, is this how you handle being proven wrong? You don’t take it as an opportunity to reflect on your viewpoint and correct your mistaken impression? You just lash out at whoever proved you’re not infallible?
 
Written By: Bryan Pick
URL: http://www.qando.net
Actually, a counter-insurgency fight is an application of the proper force to the problem and fits the point exactly.

Well, I understand what you meant here, except that this is not true, if counter-insurgencies are still an order of force too high, compared to, say, local actors, thorough infiltration and spot strikes against people with operational plans or clear intentions to commit international terrorism.

In other words, it’s supposed to be an application of the proper force to the problem, and work, except it ain’t, and it don’t work.

 
Written By: glasnost
URL: http://
Radley Balko WRONG, UNPOSSIBLE, hyperbolic, Noooooooooo say it’s not so! Who’da thunk it?
 
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
Bryan Pick:

I thought I was the only remaining fan of John Boyd’s OODA loop. Great stuff.
 
Written By: Arch
URL: http://

 
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