I have eagerly followed Lt. Col. (ret) Paul Yingling’s writing since my years as a cadet. I read his latest article with attention, followed by disappointment.
His recommendations encourage the protective self-interest anathema to effective leadership of military formations. A frequent characteristic of soldiering is getting sent on missions whose purpose you don’t understand or whose utility you question — I’m reminded in particular of being a young infantry platoon leader chasing cigarette smugglers on the Iraqi-Syrian border. But, the men and women I’ve served with understood this fact. Despite grumbling about how the higher-ups ‘just don’t get it,’ I could always rely on them to execute their mission professionally.
I don’t recognize the Army Yingling describes, although I admit I’ve only seen a small part of it. His advice, however, is useful only to the most cynical service member. I suggest leaders deployed to the border consider the following advice instead.
1. You are not on your own
Hopefully, you can trust your chain of command, but there are other avenues for servicemembers to call attention to wrongdoing. These include the unit Judge Advocate General; the Inspector General; members of Congress; and utilizing a higher commander’s open door policy to bring matters directly to the attention of someone whose judgment and morals you trust.
2. Don’t just know the law, make sure your troops do
It’s not necessary for the youngest private to sit through an hour of PowerPoint delivered by the Brigade Judge Advocate General on Posse Comitatus and habeas corpus. Leaders at the platoon level should be thoroughly familiar with the relevant legal framework governing (and limiting) the employment of the military inside the continental United States. Platoon leaders and junior non-commissioned officers will need to command these subjects well enough to make sure the privates actually making the crucial decisions at the individual level know right from wrong. Here I agree with a point Yingling makes, namely to strictly avoid any violations of U.S. law or the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Your professional ethics should be a hill you are willing to die on.
3. Instill responsible use of social media in your formation
As evidenced by Russian troops in the Donbass; West Point cadets with communist sympathies; and short-lived jihadists in Syria, social media is not just between you and your friends. Troops who share their personal opinions in their social media network can’t ever know who will scrutinize it, and should act accordingly. While entitled to private opinions, our right to political speech as servicemembers is circumscribed.
4. Don’t be afraid to answer your troops’ questions about the mission
This shouldn’t be taken as opining on the value of the mission or parroting cable news, but rather how the deployment to the border fits inside the legal framework guiding all military deployments. The President’s Article II powers are substantial, and the armed forces execute legal orders faithfully.
5. Encourage your men and women to vote
Oftentimes, the unit Voting Assistance Officer limits his activities to putting a few flyers up near the CQ desk and occasionally announcing voting deadlines during morning formation. Without divulging your own beliefs, encourage your soldiers to participate in the political process that selects the people who give them their marching orders.
Until our nation’s politics take a less vitriolic turn, the men and women in the Armed Forces will continue to be sent on contentious assignments, under high visibility, in difficult situations. There is no surer way for the military to squander the nation’s trust than to apply anything less than the highest professional and ethical standards to these efforts.
Maj. Walter Haynes is a student at the German Bundeswehr General Staff Academy. He most recently served as the Civil Affairs Officer for 2/75 Infantry (Ranger). The views expressed here are the author’s and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or any of its components, or the U.S. government.