Adm. Bill McRaven is one of the finest combat leaders this nation has ever produced. No one really doubts that. But just like anyone else, he’s capable of getting things wrong once in awhile, and proved it recently by taking a public position worthy of little more than forceful repudiation.
In his April 24th commentary “A Warrior’s Career Sacrificed for Politics,” McRaven decried the Senate’s refusal to confirm Rear Adm. Brian Losey for a second star, claiming the decision was a manifestation of civilian disrespect for military leaders. The dispute centers on retaliatory actions Losey took after learning someone in his command had lodged whistleblower complaints against him.
McRaven downplays Losey’s actions and characterizes the whistleblowers as foot-dragging malcontents resisting the insistent industry of a new boss bent on revitalizing a slacking staff. According to McRaven, this is all about sour grapes, and the Navy was right to set it all aside and push Losey’s career forward — mostly because he is an exemplary sailor and leader the nation needs at the helm.
Tom Ricks objected to McRaven’s piece on the basis that no matter what the facts might show, civilian leaders have a “right to be wrong” in their relationship with military. This is the traditionalist view that basically estops any complaining by military honchos about their civilian bosses as antithetical to our system of government and therefore categorically inappropriate.
I don’t necessarily disagree with Ricks, even if I think it’s good to be worried about his cherished principle after the civ-mil buffoonery of the last 15 years. The traditionalist view Ricks espouses depends on at least two corollaries: that civilian leaders, though they may be wrong, will not be reckless in their use of the military instrument … and that military leaders, though they cede to civilian leadership, will not muzzle themselves to the point they starve civilians of the needed expertise for wise decisions.
But ultimately, I think Mr. Ricks actually gives McRaven’s argument more credit than it deserves. In this case, McRaven didn’t even get the basic facts right, and in his abuse of the evidence lies an ever better reason to reject his argument: it’s unprincipled. That he caps it all off with an ominous warning about the consequences of civilian leaders losing the respect of the military establishment — impliedly by failing to accept his view and others like it — makes his argument irresponsible rather than merely mistaken.
McRaven argues that Rear Adm. Brian Losey should have been promoted because he didn’t do anything wrong. His actions were within the ambit of authority, well justified, and even admirable, we’re told, because they were well-intentioned and connected to supporting operators in the field.
But these are his personal conclusions, and not what the evidence actually shows.
According to the DoD Inspector General (IG), Losey basically went berserk after learning someone had made an anonymous complaint against him. He went on a witch hunt and conducted reprisal actions against someone he suspected had made the original complaint. Whether this was somehow connected to the bureaucratic heroism McRaven assigns to Losey in claiming he was targeted by miscreants who didn’t like him moving their cheese is interesting, but ultimately irrelevant. Losey used his authority as a senior officer to retaliate. This is abusive and wrong, whatever his motivation.
The IG report doesn’t paint a picture of an officer struggling to re-motivate a foot-dragging staff. It paints a picture of an autocrat who failed to adapt his leadership style to a new team of people, and attempted to substitute raw positional authority for the actual approach called for under the circumstances.
Read the DoD/IG report for yourself, focusing on the Findings and Analysis.
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McRaven wants us to ignore this report because the Navy chose to set it aside. But this isn’t about what the Navy chose to do or not do, it’s about what Losey did. His actions reflect an outsized view of his own power and a penchant for retaliation. These are not the qualities we want in any flag officer, let alone a senior one with tens or hundreds of thousands of lives in his hands.
Rather than attempting to chuck this report aside, McRaven might lead us through a more relevant inquiry as to whether Losey’s conduct could have been remediated. Given his service to the country and his undeniable status as one of the most impressive badasses of his generation, he deserves more benefit of the doubt than most in this regard. Had the Navy taken its lumps and reprimanded Losey … sending him back to work so he could show he’d learned from the episode and could improve his command approach, it’s plausible that he might have survived confirmation.
At least the Navy would have had better arguments than “we ignored the DoD/IG report and so should you.” What happened instead was an attempt to tacitly repudiate the DoD’s senior watchdog agency — and the only one capable of objectively assessing the conduct of flag officers — in an effort to force one favored officer through the system.
And this is where McRaven runs aground. He’s not saying Losey made mistakes and has learned from them. He’s arguing Losey’s use of power was acceptable, and assigning him no culpability. This argument, if accepted, legitimizes a model of limitless autocratic power for commanders. It cannot be accepted, and the Senate was correct in rejecting it.
And this brings us back to McRaven’s thesis, that for civilian control of the military to work effectively, each must respect the other. It’s something of an undeniable principle, but McRaven has chosen a bad example upon which to rest his argument, which recommends to suspicion that the argument is an expedient one.
While the Obama Administration has micromanaged defense policy as much as any White House since Vietnam, there has at the same time developed an unhealthy deference to flag officer discretion on issues of leadership and personnel management. This deference has extended into the judicial and quasi-judicial realms, giving senior officers virtually unlimited — and thus unhealthy — control over the lives, livelihoods, futures, freedoms, and basic liberties of their employees. Against this massive ballast of unregulated power rests the modest weight of IG process. While it seldom generates favorable outcomes for those who complain of command abuse, it remains an important check on those abuses. This is why McRaven’s unwarranted critique of it cannot be allowed to stand unopposed.
There are other reasons to repudiate McRaven’s input here. It is brazenly political. As Tom Ricks alludes, it closes on a petulant note. McRaven has traditionally afforded less cynicism than other four-stars, but he undermines himself here by attempting to redefine “respect” as a matter of total and unquestioning deference that, if adopted, would render meaningless the entire civil-military arrangement he admits is rightly embedded in both our law and tradition.
But we don’t even need to reach those criticisms … because the facts are enough in this case. Even if there’s something admirable about his loyalty to a cherished comrade, McRaven can’t bend and shape that loyalty into a new set of facts. Losey did what he did. A mutually respectful civil-military relationship over the long haul depends on responsible civilians being willing to police just this sort of conduct.