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On Officers and Control

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Dear Eric,

I've been on the road again, more TDY. But that is why I haven't written since this whole prison thing broke. Now that I'm back at home station and have had a little time to digest everything I think that I can answer a few of your questions. This might be longish, so you better grab some coffee – I've got a lot of ground to cover.

First things first though, I have to make sure that you and everyone out there know that what I am about to say is my opinion only. I'm not speaking officially for the Army, or the DoD, or anyone but my own lonesome self. That being said, lemme talk a little about the events at Abu Ghraib, and what has been coming out since then. Maybe this will help some people understand, at least in a narrow sense, how the professional military feels about some of what has been going on and what has been said.

Frankly, and surprising nobody, we're pissed. The most common terms for the prison guards I hear around here are, "the six idiots who lost the war" and "Rush Limbaugh's frat brothers." That last part needs explanation.

Since I was on the road last week and I believe in listening to everyone, I was listening to Limbaugh the other day and heard him talking about Abu Ghraib. What stunned me was that he was actually defending the morons at the prison. Transcripts of what he said have been floating around on e-mail since then. Bottom Line: He was trying to justify the behavior of those prison guards through a combination of saying "that's not so bad" and suggesting that they were just "blowing off steam." Eric, that dog don't hunt.

The guy does not get it, he does not realize that with his careless and thoughtless words that he's making things tougher on us soldiers, not easier. Although, potentially he believes he's making things easier for our political masters, that's above my pay grade. All I know is that he's making it worse for those of us in uniform.

Limbaugh is out there, making excuses for the prison guards, and in the process making it that much more likely that there will be a "next time." How? By making what they did excusable. By minimizing it. By saying that it's not so bad, and that he can see how it's just like a fraternity hazing. What Limbaugh apparently does not even realize is that in the process of saying that he is de facto slamming the officer corps of the U.S. Army and calling us incompetent.

How? Well for starters, it was one of our generals that did the investigation that said all of this was despicable and should be investigated under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice. Limbaugh apparently believes he knows more than Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, because he says what he saw was no worse than what happens at fraternities at elite East Coast colleges such as Princeton or Yale. I wouldn't know about that, but I do know that it was Army officers who proffered the charges for court martial against the prison guards, and Limbaugh is making a mockery of our processes and decisions. In effect it seems to me that he's trying to make a criminal behavior into a political one, and I detest that when it's applied to the military from the right or the left. It's akin to the dumb defense that some of the soldier's civilian lawyers are attempting, the "Nuremberg Defense."

Some of those lawyers may be high-powered big shots in the civilian world, but they sure as hell don't know their military history or much about our Uniformed Code of Military Justice. If they did they would realize how disgusting an attempt to try that line of defense is to those of us that wear the uniform.

When we codified and updated our military laws after World War II we made damned sure that we put in specific laws that protected prisoners, and we added an "anti-Nuremburg defense" clause in as well. It is every soldier's duty to refuse an unlawful order. Sometimes it's scary, but you have to do it. I've done it three times in my career, and an informal survey of my peers suggests most of them have had similar experiences. None of these were huge, in my experience, but were very small illegal orders. But I was scared at the time, telling my superior that I would not do something because I thought it was wrong. The point of this is that we're trained to do things like that, all of us. I am not anomalous. It's what keeps our Army straight.

But you know who really pissed me off in this whole thing? The officers appointed over that band of fools. I want to know where they were. Where was the lieutenant? Almost a third of his platoon is now getting court-martialled, and he didn't know a thing about what was happening? What about the captain or the company commander? What rubs me raw here is that this just reinforces false impressions about the military for the civilian population we serve.

My parents taught me right from wrong. But it was the officers appointed over me who taught me how right and wrong must be applied in our unique profession. Some of those things I learned as a boy, such as "Thou Shalt Not Kill," must be modified in my profession. Broadly speaking, most civilians only see that my job is about death and destruction and violence. But that is just ignorance, and it can be fixed through education. My job is about controlling violence.

I suspect that it's a simplistic understanding of the military which led Limbaugh to say what he did. Maybe he can learn. I don't know. But the fact is that as an officer my job is really about the control of state sanctioned violence. I give the potential violence a specific purpose and guide its direction in order to achieve ends. I also ensure that the violence is used only within the confines of the Geneva Conventions and our own code of laws. That's what being an infantry officer is really about. Hell, that's what being any combat arms or combat support officer is about. Because it is easy, it is so terribly easy, to destroy. You could say that the whole sum of my professional education has been about how to apply the correct amount of violence at the right time, at the right place, against the right target, to achieve the right effect…and no more. The same applies to my peers. Which is why we're so upset.

In the end that is why it is the actions, or lack of actions, of the officers at Abu Ghraib really upset me. Those officers demonstrated that they were, well, rank amateurs. Not by virtue of the fact that they are all part-timers who only practiced the profession intermittently before the arrived in Iraq, but by virtue of their loss of control.

As a result of that loss of control the soldiers under their command ran rampant. Violence, in a military context, is like a genie in a bottle. So easy to uncork, but you need good officers, moral officers, hard and smart officers who know their profession to stuff that genie back in to the bottle. At least down at the tactical level. The political level of war is something else and beyond my ability to comment on. Read Clausewitz for that one. And now somebody like Limbaugh is broadcasting to 20 million people and saying that the photos he saw "weren't so bad" and that effectively this was "no big deal."

His comments just make it that much harder for officers today, and officers elsewhere in the future, to retain control of the genie. By denigrating our decision to court-martial these soldiers, Limbaugh is undercutting our moral authority to control and contain violence so that it is used only in the right way…on the battlefield. He's giving all his listeners (and all the people who they, in turn, influence) the impression that this sort of thing is okay, despite what we officers in the Army are saying.

I don't listen to the man normally. But the next time you hear Limbaugh say something like this, will you please write and tell me? I'd like to invite him to lunch, I'd like time to teach him some of the military history of our Army, and our nation. Why? Because I have my doubts about the man but I hope that he can learn. Maybe if he gets to know one soldier… I don't know. I mean seriously, does he know a single soldier personally? Not just somebody that listens to his show, but a brother or a cousin currently serving in the infantry in the Army or the Marines. Based upon his comments, I strongly doubt it. If he knew any professional officers, certainly, he would never have said what he did. I mean, even Limbaugh wouldn't deliberately endanger soldiers for mere political points…would he?

Robert L. Bateman is the author of No Gun Ri: A Military History of the Korean War Incident. He is a professional infantry officer, but the above represent his opinions, and only his opinions, and are not those of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or anyone but himself.

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