Military Chain of Command

Disparate inquiries into abuses of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan have, so far, left crucial questions of policy and operations unexamined, according to lawmakers from both parties and outside military experts, who say that the accountability of senior officers and Pentagon officials may remain unanswered as a result. No investigation completely independent of the Pentagon exists to determine what led to the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, and, so far, there has been no groundswell in Congress or elsewhere to create one.
-- The New York Times, June 6.

The Oct. 18, 1969, issue of The New Yorker carried an article by Daniel Lang called "Casualties of War." It told the story of the kidnapping, gang-raping and murder of a teenage Vietnamese girl named Phan Ti Mao by four American soldiers on patrol in the Central Highlands of Vietnam in November 1966. Atrocities were not uncommon in Vietnam. Lang's article cites a soldier describing Mao's fate as unremarkable, almost routine. Reporter Seymour Hersh's revelations of the My Lai massacre, where 347 civilians were murdered by the men of Charlie Company, began appearing 25 days after Lang's article. This year's Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting went to the Toledo Blade for uncovering the routine murders of the soldiers-turned-terrorists of the U.S. Army's Tiger Force, an elite band of 45 paratroopers that "violently lost control between May and November 1967," also in the Central Highlands.

Each of these episodes has two things in common. The first is a decision by someone to blow the whistle and risk violent consequences in return, including death. (The whistle-blower in the "Casualties of War" case was the fifth man in the platoon. He assumed a fictional name for the article, Sven Eriksson, and guards his identity to this day). The second is the government's response once denying the facts becomes impossible. Outrage is followed by promises to seek out the truth and "leave no stone unturned." Stonewalling comes next, followed by the show trials of a few minions, reduced sentences or, eventually, acquittals of those involved, therefore, of the Pentagon's way of war and of whatever guilt may have lingered on the collective conscience.

The mutually reinforcing strategic stupidities and tactical atrocities of the Vietnam war have been cleansed out of America's general understanding of that war by two decades of chest-thumping revisionism in the press and the military cakewalks of Grenada and the first Persian Gulf War. The Toledo Blade investigation should have been front-page news across the country while the Blade was publishing it last October. No one wanted to hear of it. The prize it won is its embalmer. The healthy wariness that the United States might repeat the mistakes of Vietnam has been replaced by the rubbing out of Vietnam as a useful, necessary memory. The mere mention of Vietnam in the context of Iraq is greeted with accusations of simplification, misunderstanding, jeers, even when comparisons of the two wars' political context isn't the point.

No two wars are ever alike. But atrocities of war are monotonously similar, because the military discipline that supposedly guards against atrocities is also the very instrument that enables them, covers them up and disavows them, usually with success as obliterating as a carpet bombing. (Had there been no pictures of the torture at Iraq's Abu Ghraib's prison and at My Lai, there would have been no scandal.)

There's a telling indictment of the military's darker institutional flaws in Daniel Lang's article: " 'They scare that discipline into you in basic training,' Eriksson told me. 'It's obey the man over you, follow the chain of command, or into the stockade you go.' Something that added to his feeling of frustration in those trying weeks was that he could not find it within himself to single out (the platoon leader) as the arch-villain, from whom all evil flowed. Eriksson said to me, 'It only looked as if he was the one out to do everything in, but the C.O., I knew, had someone over him, and his superior had a superior. That was the thing about the chain of command -- you couldn't tell who was to blame for what. It had nothing to do with a man's being responsible for his own behavior. Just as long as he stayed in line, just as long as he kept the setup going, he could do whatever he wanted.' "

That much hasn't changed. The military's chain of command that should have prevented abuses by ensuring that someone in charge is always accountable transforms itself, when need be, into a hall of mirrors. Only minions are responsible for torturing prisoners in Iraq, which couldn't possibly be true. But neither the Pentagon nor Congress wants it any other way. It's working, as the Times blurb above suggests. Mission, once again, accomplished.

© 2023 Pierre Tristam