West Point Professor Tim Bakken’s new book The Cost of Loyalty: Dishonesty, Hubris, and Failure in the U.S. Military traces a path of corruption, barbarism, violence, and unaccountability that makes its way from the United States’ military academies (West Point, Annapolis, Colorado Springs) to the top ranks of the U.S. military and U.S. governmental policy, and from there into a broader U.S. culture that, in turn, supports the subculture of the military and its leaders.
The U.S. Congress and presidents have ceded tremendous power to generals. The State Department and even the U.S. Institute of Peace are subservient to the military. The corporate media and the public help maintain this arrangement with their eagerness to denounce anyone who opposes the generals. Even opposing giving free weapons to Ukraine is now quasi-treasonous.
Within the military, virtually everyone has ceded power to those of higher rank. Disagreeing with them is likely to end your career, a fact that helps explain why so many military officials say what they really think about the current wars just after retiring.
But why does the public go along with out of control militarism? Why are so few speaking out and raising hell against wars that only 16% of the public tell pollsters they support? Well, the Pentagon spent $4.7 billion in 2009, and likely more in each year since, on propaganda and public relations. Sports leagues are paid with public dollars to stage “rituals that are akin to worship,” as Bakken appropriately describes the fly-overs, weapons shows, troop honorings, and war hymn screechings that precede professional athletics events. The peace movement has far superior materials but comes up a little short of $4.7 billion each year for advertising.
Speaking out against war can get you attacked as unpatriotic or “a Russian asset,” which helps explain why environmentalists don’t mention one of the worst polluters, refugee aid groups don’t mention the primary cause of the problem, activists trying to end mass-shootings never mention that the shooters are disproportionately veterans, anti-racist groups avoid noticing the way militarism spreads racism, plans for green new deals or free college or healthcare usually manage not to mention the place where most of the money is now, etc. Overcoming this hurdle is the work being taken on by World BEYOND War.
Bakken describes a culture and a system of rules at West Point that encourage lying, that turn lying into a requirement of loyalty, and make loyalty the highest value. Major General Samuel Koster, to take just one of many examples in this book, lied about his troops slaughtering 500 innocent civilians, and was then rewarded with being made superintendent at West Point. Lying moves a career upward, something Colin Powell, for example, knew and practiced for many years prior to his Destroy-Iraq Farce at the United Nations.
Bakken profiles numerous high-profile military liars — enough to establish them as the norm. Chelsea Manning did not have unique access to information. Thousands of other people simply kept obediently quiet. Keeping quiet, lying when necessary, cronyism, and lawlessness seem to be the principles of U.S. militarism. By lawlessness I mean both that you lose your rights when you join the military (the 1974 Supreme Court case Parker v. Levy effectively placed the military outside the Constitution) and that no institution outside the military can hold the military accountable to any law.
The military is separate from and understands itself to be superior to the civilian world and its laws. High-ranking officials are not just immune from prosecution, they’re immune from criticism. Generals who are never questioned by anyone make speeches at West Point telling young men and women that just by being there as students they are superior and infallible.
Yet, they are quite fallible in reality. West Point pretends to be an exclusive school with high academic standards, but in fact works hard to find students, guarantees spots for and pays for another year of high school for potential athletes, accepts students nominated by Congress Members because their parents “donated” to the Congress Members’ campaigns, and offers a community college-level education only with more hazing, violence, and tamping down of curiosity. West Point takes soldiers and declares them to be professors, which works roughly as well as declaring them to be relief workers or nation builders or peace keepers. The school parks ambulances nearby in preparation for violent rituals. Boxing is a required subject. Women are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted at the three military academies than at other U.S. universities.
“Imagine,” writes Bakken, “any small college in any small town in America where sexual assault is pervasive and the students are running virtual drug cartels while law enforcement agencies are employing methods used to curb the Mafia to try to catch them. There isn’t any such college or large university, but there are three military academies that fit the bill.”
West Point students, who have no Constitutional rights, can have their rooms searched by armed troops and guards at any time, no warrant required. Faculty, staff, and cadets are told to spot missteps by others and “correct” them. The Uniform Code of Military Justice bans speaking “disrespectfully” to superior officers, which creates an appearance of respect that one would anticipate fueling just what Bakken shows it fueling: narcissism, thin skin, and general prima donna or police-like behavior in those relying on it.
Of West Point graduates, 74 percent report being politically “conservative” as compared to 45 percent of all college graduates; and 95 percent say “America is the best country in the world” compared to 77 percent over all. Bakken highlights West Point Professor Pete Kilner as an example of someone who shares and promotes such views. I’ve done public debates with Kilner and found him far from sincere, much less persuasive. He gives the impression of not having spent much time outside of the military bubble, and of expecting praise for that fact.
“One of the reasons for the common dishonesty in the military,” Bakken writes, “is an institutionalized disdain for the public, including civilian command.” Sexual assault is rising, not receding, in the U.S. military. “When Air Force cadets chant,” writes Bakken, “while marching, that they will use a ‘chain saw’ to cut a woman ‘in two’ and keep ‘the bottom half and give the top to you,’ they are expressing their world view.”
“A survey of the top echelon of military leadership indicates widespread criminality,” Bakken writes, before running through such a survey. The military’s approach to sexual crimes by top officers is, as recounted by Bakken, quite fittingly compared by him to the behavior of the Catholic Church.
The sense of immunity and entitlement is not limited to a few individuals, but is institutionalized. A gentleman now in San Diego and known as Fat Leonard hosted dozens of sex parties in Asia for U.S. Navy officers in exchange for supposedly valuable secret information on the Navy’s plans.
If what happens in the military stayed in the military, the problem would be far smaller than it is. In truth, West Point alumni have wreaked havoc on the world. They dominate the top ranks of the U.S. military and have for many, many years. Douglas MacArthur, according to a historian Bakken quotes, “surrounded himself ” with men who “would not disturb the dreamworld of self-worship in which he chose to live.” MacArthur, of course, brought China into the Korean war, tried to turn the war nuclear, was in great part responsible for millions of deaths, and was — in a very rare event — fired.
William Westmoreland, according to a biographer quoted by Bakken, had a “perspective so widely off the mark that it raises fundamental questions of [his] awareness of the context in which the war was being fought.” Westmoreland, of course, committed genocidal slaughter in Vietnam and, like MacArthur, attempted to make the war nuclear.
“Recognizing the staggering depth of MacArthur’s and Westmoreland’s obtuseness,” writes Bakken, “leads to a clearer understanding of the deficiencies in the military and how America can lose wars.”
Bakken describes retired admiral Dennis Blair as bringing a military ethos of speech restriction and retaliation into civilian government in 2009 and generating the new approach of prosecuting whistleblowers under the Espionage Act, prosecuting publishers like Julian Assange, and asking judges to imprison reporters until they reveal their sources. Blair himself has described this as applying the military’s ways to government.
Recruiters lie. Military spokespeople lie. The case made to the public for each war (often made as much by civilian politicians as by the military) is so routinely dishonest that someone wrote a book called War Is A Lie. As Bakken tells it, Watergate and Iran-Contra are examples of corruption driven by military culture. And, of course, in the lists of serious and trivial lies and outrages to be found in military corruption there’s this: those assigned to guard nuclear weapons lie, cheat, get drunk, and fall down — and do so for decades unchecked, thereby risking all life on earth.
Earlier this year, the Secretary of the Navy lied to Congress that over 1,100 U.S. schools were barring military recruiters. A friend and I offered a reward if anyone could identify just one of those schools. Of course, nobody could. So, a Pentagon spokesperson told some new lies to cover up the old one. Not that anybody cared — least of all Congress. None of the Congress Members directly lied to could be brought to the point of saying one word about it; rather, they made sure to keep people who cared about the issue out of hearings at which the Secretary of the Navy was testifying. The Secretary was fired months later, just a couple of weeks ago, for allegedly making a deal with President Trump behind the back of the Secretary of Defense, as the three of them had varying ideas on how to acknowledge or excuse or glorify some particular war crimes.
One way in which violence spreads from the military to U.S. society is through the violence of veterans, who disproportionately make up the list of mass shooters. Just this week, there have been two shootings on U.S. Navy bases in the U.S., both of them by men trained by the U.S. military, one of them a Saudi man training in Florida to fly airplanes (as well as training to prop up the most brutal dictatorship on earth) — all of which seems to highlight the zombie-like repetitive and counterproductive nature of militarism. Bakken cites a study that in 2018 found that Dallas police officers who were veterans were much more likely to fire their guns while on duty, and that nearly a third of all officers involved in a shooting were veterans. In 2017 a West Point student apparently prepared for a mass shooting at West Point that was prevented.
Many have urged us to recognize the evidence and not accept the media presentations of atrocities like My Lai or Abu Ghraib as isolated incidents. Bakken asks us to recognize not just the pervasive pattern but its origins in a culture that models and encourages senseless violence.
Despite working for the U.S. military as a professor at West Point, Bakken outlines the general failure of that military, including the past 75 years of lost wars. Bakken is unusually honest and accurate about casualty counts and about the destructive and counterproductive nature of the senseless one-sided slaughters the U.S. military perpetrates on the world.
Pre-U.S. colonists viewed militaries much as people living near U.S. military bases in foreign countries often view them today: as “nurseries of vice.” By any sensible measure, the same view ought to be common in the United States right now. The U.S. military is probably the least successful institution on its own terms (as well as others’ terms) in U.S. society, certainly the least democratic, one of the most criminal and corrupt, yet consistently and dramatically the most respected in opinion polls. Bakken recounts how this unquestioning adulation creates hubris in the military. It also maintains cowardice in the public when it comes to opposing militarism.
Military “leaders” today are treated as princes. “Four-star generals and admirals today,” Bakken writes, “are flown on jets not just for work but also to ski, vacation, and golf resorts (234 military golf courses) operated by the U.S. military around the world, accompanied by a dozen aides, drivers, security guards, gourmet chefs, and valets to carry their bags.” Bakken wants this ended and believes it works against the ability of the U.S. military to properly do whatever it is he thinks it should do. And Bakken courageously writes these things as a civilian professor at West Point who has won a court case against the military over its retaliation for his whistleblowing.
But Bakken, like most whistleblowers, maintains one foot inside that which he is exposing. Like virtually every U.S. citizen, he suffers from World War II mythologizing, which creates the vague and unargued assumption that war can be done right and properly and victoriously.
Like a huge number of MSNBC and CNN viewers, Bakken suffers from Russiagatism. Check out this remarkable statement from his book: “A few Russian cyber agents did more to destabilize the 2016 presidential election and American democracy than all the weapons of the Cold War put together, and the U.S. military was helpless to stop them. It was stuck in a different mode of thinking, one that worked seventy-five years ago.”
Of course, the wild claims of Russiagate about Trump supposedly collaborating with Russia to try to influence the 2016 election do not even include the claim that such activity actually influenced or “destabilized” the election. But, of course, every Russiagate utterance does push that ridiculous idea implicitly or — as here — explicitly. Meanwhile Cold War militarism determined the outcome of numerous U.S. elections. Then there’s the problem of proposing that the U.S. military come up with schemes to counter Facebook ads. Really? Whom should they bomb? How much? In what way? Bakken is constantly lamenting the lack of intelligence in the officer corps, but what sort of intelligence would concoct the proper forms of mass murder to stop Facebook ads?
Bakken regrets the U.S. military’s failures to take over the world, and the successes of its supposed rivals. But he never gives us an argument for the desirability of global domination. He claims to believe that the intention of U.S. wars is to spread democracy, and then denounces those wars as failures on those terms. He pushes the war propaganda that holds North Korea and Iran to be threats to the United States, and points to their having become such threats as evidence of the U.S. military’s failure. I would have said that getting even its critics to think that way is evidence of the U.S. military’s success — at least in the realm of propaganda.
According to Bakken, wars are badly managed, wars are lost, and incompetent generals devise “no-win” strategies. But never in the course of his book (apart from his World War II problem) does Bakken offer a single example of a war well-managed or won by the United States or anyone else. That the problem is ignorant and unintelligent generals is an easy argument to make, and Bakken offers ample evidence. But he never hints at what it is that intelligent generals would do — unless it is this: quit the war business.
“The officers leading the military today appear not to have the ability to win modern wars,” Bakken writes. But he never describes or defines what a win would look like, what it would consist of. Everybody dead? A colony established? An independent peaceful state left behind to open criminal prosecutions against the United States? A deferential proxy state with democratic pretensions left behind except for the requisite handful of U.S. bases now under construction there?
At one point, Bakken criticizes the choice to wage large military operations in Vietnam “rather than counterinsurgency.” But he does not add even a single sentence explaining what benefits “counterinsurgency” could have brought to Vietnam.
The failures that Bakken recounts as driven by officers’ hubris, dishonesty, and corruption are all wars or escalations of wars. They are all failures in the same direction: too much senseless slaughtering of human beings. Nowhere does he cite even a single catastrophe as having been created by restraint or deference to diplomacy or by excessive use of the rule of law or cooperation or generosity. Nowhere does he point out that a war was too small. Nowhere does he even pull a Rwanda, claiming that a war that didn’t happen should have.
Bakken wants a radical alternative to the past several decades of military conduct but never explains why that alternative should have to include mass murder. What rules out nonviolent alternatives? What rules out scaling back the military until it’s gone? What other institution can fail utterly for generations and have its toughest critics propose reforming it, rather than abolishing it?
Bakken laments the separation and isolation of the military from everyone else, and the supposedly small size of the military. He’s right about the separation problem, and even partly right — I think — about the solution, in that he wants to make the military more like the civilian world, not just make the civilian world more like the military. But he certainly leaves the impression of wanting the latter too: women in the draft, a military that makes up more than just 1 percent of the population. These disastrous ideas are not argued for, and cannot be effectively argued for.
At one point, Bakken seems to understand just how archaic war is, writing, “In ancient times and in agrarian America, where communities were isolated, any outside threat posed a significant danger to an entire group. But today, given its nuclear weapons and vast armaments, as well as an extensive internal policing apparatus, America faces no threat of invasion. Under all indices, war should be far less likely than in the past; in fact, it has become less likely for countries throughout the world, with one exception: the United States.”
I recently spoke to a class of eighth-graders, and I told them that one country possessed the vast majority of foreign military bases on earth. I asked them to name that country. And of course they named the list of countries still lacking a U.S. military base: Iran, North Korea, etc. It took quite a while and some prodding before anyone guessed “the United States.” The United States tells itself it isn’t an empire, even while assuming its imperial stature to be beyond question. Bakken has proposals for what to do, but they do not include shrinking military spending or closing foreign bases or halting weapons sales.
He proposes, first, that wars be fought “only in self-defense.” This, he informs us, would have prevented a number of wars but allowed the war on Afghanistan for “a year or two.” He doesn’t explain that. He doesn’t mention the problem of that war’s illegality. He provides no guide to let us know which attacks on impoverished nations halfway around the globe should count as “self-defense” in the future, nor for how many years they should bear that label, nor of course what the “win” was in Afghanistan after “a year or two.”
Bakken proposes giving much less authority for generals outside of actual combat. Why that exception?
He proposes subjecting the military to the same civilian legal system as everyone else, and abolishing the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. Good idea. A crime committed in Pennsylvania would be prosecuted by Pennsylvania. But for crimes committed outside the United States, Bakken has a different attitude. Those places should not prosecute crimes committed in them. The United States should establish courts to handle that. The International Criminal Court is also missing from Bakken’s proposals, despite his account of U.S. sabotage of that court earlier in the book.
Bakken proposes to turn the U.S. military academies into civilian universities. I’d agree if they were focused on peace studies and not controlled by the militarized government of the United States.
Finally, Bakken proposes criminalizing retaliating against free speech in military. For as long as the military exists, I think that’s a good idea — and one that might shorten that length of time (that the military exists) were it not for the probability that it will reduce the risk of nuclear apocalypse (allowing everything in existence to last a bit longer).
But what about civilian control? What about requiring that the Congress or the public vote before wars? What about ending secret agencies and secret wars? What about halting the arming of future enemies for profit? What about imposing the rule of law on the U.S. government, not just on cadets? What about converting from military to peaceful industries?
Well, Bakken’s analysis of what’s wrong with the U.S. military is helpful in getting us toward various proposals whether or not he supports them.