The Siren Song of ‘Accountability’

On September 10, in the wake of the bombing at the Kabul airport that killed 13 U.S. servicemembers, Marine Lt. Col. Stuart Sheller, then commander of the Corps’ Advanced Infantry Training Battalion at Camp Lejeune, N.C., posted an emotional video on Facebook demanding “accountability of my senior leaders”—meaning not just his immediate superiors but Defense Secretary Lloyd Austen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley and, indeed, the dozens of top military commanders in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last 20 years. The video immediately went viral, racking up hundreds of thousands of views in its first day online. “People are upset because their senior leaders let them down,” declared the square-jawed Sheller, “and none of them are raising their hands and accepting accountability or saying, ‘we messed this up.’” Sheller soon resigned and has been convicted at a court martial of conduct unbecoming an officer.

Sheller’s cri de coeur quickly became a conservative cause celebre. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL who lost an eye on his third tour in Afghanistan, celebrated Sheller as “all class. … Many people [are] feeling the same lack of accountability. When the dust settles that accountability must happen.” Even before the attack at the Kabul airport, National Review had been calling for Milley and Austin to resign, arguing that “there is something to be done about the corrosive sense that when our government makes massive, avoidable errors, no one is ever held to account.” 

Yet the biggest failure of leadership was not on a distant battlefield but in the domestic culture war that is the central front to national conservatives. As Victor Davis Hanson, himself a distinguished military historian, put it, “Somehow our new woke Pentagon is hell-bent on losing the trust of the American people along with the wars its fights abroad.” 

Conservatives’ growing mistrust has been perhaps the leading factor in a precipitate decline in public confidence in the U.S. military in recent years. While this roughly mirrors loss of faith in government as a whole, attitudes toward the armed forces had largely been exempt from this overall skepticism; as recently as November 2018, the annual survey by the Ronald Reagan Foundation and Institute found that 70 percent of Americans had a “great deal of confidence” in the military. This year’s survey reveals that this confidence level is down to just 45 percent, with Republican levels of trust plummeting by 17 percent during the last six months alone. 

Correlation may not be causation, but the timing—this has been the period of controversy over Afghanistan and “wokeism” in the leadership—is remarkably coincidental.

Given the many frustrations and failures of the post-9/11 wars, it is perhaps no surprise that a stunt like Sheller’s might spark a ritual bonfire. But it comes off as more heat than light, a brief moment of satisfying warmth for the mob gathered around the flames in the dark. And what gets burned away is less the shame of defeat than the delicate frame of civil-military relations in a republic.

In their search for uniformed scalps, many conservatives have reduced this extremely delicate relationship to a binary test: Civilians exert their control by firing generals. Asking “What does Milley have to do to get fired?” Dean Karayanis in the Washington Times pointed to Harry Truman’s firing of Douglas MacArthur and invoked the hallowed memory of Abraham Lincoln. The key to Lincoln’s leadership in the Civil War, Karayanis huffs, was that the president “canned one general after another for failing to carry out his orders. … If we had a Gen. [Ulysses S.] Grant in charge, we could have left Afghanistan with our heads held high.” 

This is a parody of Lincoln’s approach to supreme command. Lincoln was more apt to laterally promote truculent generals (particularly those who had ties to congressional “Radical Republicans” and “War Democrats”; after the embarrassment of Second Manassas, John Pope was sent to Minnesota to take on the Dakota Indians), and it took him two years and two tries to even get rid of George McLellan. Indeed, it was Lincoln’s willingness to back those he trusted even in difficult times that mattered most. William Tecumseh Sherman, who could turn a phrase as well as an enemy’s flank, once said, “Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other.” Lincoln stood behind both Grant and Sherman. Even though he was “distressed immeasurably,” Lincoln managed to stand behind George Meade after Gettysburg, to the point of refusing Meade’s resignation. 

The Buck Stops Where?

As Lincoln understood, in a republic where the soldiers serve at the pleasure of civilians, generals do not resign. They may be relieved, they may be retired—put on the shelf or fired—but that is at the pleasure of a chain of command that begins with the president. Throwing one’s stars on the table is dramatic, but highly unprofessional and highly political. It is not for generals to engage in public showboating or breast-beating. 

And it is the professional obligation of every officer to execute even the most hopeless mission to the best of his or her ability, though they have previously advised against the approved course of action. Indeed, this was ever the case in Afghanistan and Iraq; even the remarkably rapid ouster of the Taliban in late 2001 and early 2002 was accomplished with political constraints, as then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld kept his accountant’s eye trained on every troop, vehicle, and weapon deployed and clocked every hour and dollar spent in the theater. Time after time, presidents chose to set aside the “best professional advice” for a variety of reasons. Often these were reasons of domestic politics or coalition management or financial caution, where larger policy concerns constrained military options and operations. These are civilian prerogatives, even when they are foolhardy or egregious or just unlucky.

Thus the real burdens of accountability in American wars are borne by civilians: the president as commander in chief, Congress with its power of the purse and responsibility to regulate the armed forces and, ultimately, the voters who elect their rulers. Perhaps the biggest failure of all since 9/11 is that this traditional system of accountability has all but collapsed. The men who have sat in the Oval Office have both tended to pass the buck, constrain military operations by micromanagement or, in the case of Barack Obama, done both. The sole exception was George W. Bush’s embrace of the Iraq “surge” announced in January 2007. “The situation in Iraq is unacceptable to the American people and it is unacceptable to me,” Bush admitted. “Our troops in Iraq have fought bravely. They have done everything we have asked them to do. Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me.”

Bush went on to direct a change of strategy in Iraq and to relieve the senior commander, Gen. George Casey, whom he then made chief of staff of the Army. Congress has been, if anything, even more spineless, protesting about the need for new authorizations of military force, then failing either to provide them or revoke existing ones. Voters did rebuke Republicans for George W. Bush’s Iraq failures, then rewarded Barack Obama’s Iraq retreat and the rise of ISIS.

The need for an ethos of civilian, and especially presidential, accountability is especially vital in an era of military professionalism and American international leadership. Our armed forces, in contrast to those that came before them, are as much a global constabulary as a battle-fighting warriors. This is what the current geopolitical situation demands—as the last 25 years have demonstrated repeatedly. It is also a good thing: much better to keep peace than have to engage in combat. This also makes for conditions in which the distance and distinction between what is political and what is strictly military tends toward collapse, and along with it the autonomy that military professionals crave. If soldiers must now more often defer to statesmen, it is equally the task of statesmen to accept the consequences of that, to create a kind of “safe space” for the judgments of professionals.

It is particularly unfortunate that President Biden lacks the courage of a Lincoln, or even of a Bush, to shoulder the responsibility for the policies, choices, and decisions he has made. Sheller’s provocative question is one the White House should answer; the mess is of Biden’ making. In exposing Gen. Milley or Defense Secretary Austin (himself a retired four-star general) to a savage social-media mob, the president is risking not just the reputation of loyal lieutenants but of the institution of the all-volunteer armed forces. Even worse—and as the Reagan Foundation poll indicates—he risks the national compact that has sustained America’s experiment with the standing army the world needs.

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