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Monday, June 12, 2006

The Specter of Command Cowardice - by Greg Foster

As further details emerge about the alleged massacre by U.S. troops of some two dozen civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha, the largely unacknowledged crisis that afflicts U.S. civil-military relations today assumes growing proportions.
 
To anyone who rightly expects the military to be a model of propriety answerable to the public it serves, it would be a mistake to dismiss this episode as a mere aberration brought on by combat stress or to write it off as the fault of something so nebulous as the fog of war.
 
It would be no less a mistake to blame the press for unpatriotically reporting the story or "liberal" critics for blowing it out of proportion and overzealously rushing to judgment.
 
It would even be a mistake simply to blame the troops who perpetrated the massacre--if that is what it was--even though they clearly must be held accountable and brought to justice for their actions.
 
In the final analysis, blame ultimately belongs on the shoulders of those who wear stars: the generals who, consistent with the supreme canon of their profession, bear final responsibility for all that does or doesn't happen under their command.
 
Military officers crave command--especially combat command. It is the most deeply ingrained aspirational imperative of their culture. It is what gets them promoted, brings them rewards and decorations, affords them recognition and adulation, gives them tentative hope of someday entering the pantheon of Great Captains, empowers them to dispense unassailable orders to dutifully obedient subordinates, feeds their sense of self-importance and accomplishment, distinguishes successful from unsuccessful careers. But privilege, prestige and prerogative isn't what command is--or ought to be--about. Command is about what justifies conflating it with leadership in the first place: the willingness to assume responsibility.
 
Recall the movie depiction of Gen. George Patton's rousing World War II speech to his Third Army, when he says: "The Nazis are the enemy. Wade into them. Spill their blood. Shoot them in the belly. When you put your hand into a bunch of goo that a moment before was your best friend's face, you'll know what to do."
 
That was then--when knowing what to do, even under extreme duress, was relatively straightforward; when enemies were whom they appeared to be; when Marquis of Queensberry rules tended to govern war's conduct.
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