10 High-School Questions for the Authors of the ‘Principles’ Open Letter
Actual civics students would demand more from the former SecDefs and retired four-stars who opined so vaguely on civil-military “best practices.”
Recently, eight former Secretaries of Defense and five retired four-star officers took to War on the Rocks to state the obvious: military officers have a duty to support and defend the Constitution. The New York Times declared that the piece “read like a high school civics class.” Having taught high-school civics, I must object. No teacher worthy of the name would ever step in front of a class of high-school students and mumble platitudes devoid of both historical context and contemporary application. Regrettably, the great men who authored this piece did exactly that.
Unlike high-school teachers, cabinet secretaries and generals value personal dignity more than public clarity. These great men arrange their lives so as to avoid being asked hard questions in public. High-school students do not share this perspective; they relish nothing so much as publicly skewering self-important blowhards. Should these great men dare to bring their list of platitudes to a classroom, these are some questions they would face:
1. You wrote, “While the civil-military system…can respond quickly to defend the nation in times of crisis, it is designed to be deliberative.” So here’s my question, for the secretaries: Did this system respond quickly enough to defend the United States on January 6? Or were Pentagon leaders deliberating too long while a mob was beating cops with flag poles and fire extinguishers inside the Capitol?
2. A follow-up: If the system moved too slowly on January 6, what are you doing to change it? If the answer is “nothing,” why are you doing nothing?
3. Another follow-up, this time for the generals and the admiral. According to the New York Times, “It took more than four hours from the time the Capitol Police chief made the call for backup to when the D.C. National Guard troops arrived.” Who has been held accountable for this delay? If nobody, why not? If you don’t know who’s accountable, what are you doing to find out?
4. Back to the secretaries. You wrote, “There are significant limits on the public role of military personnel in partisan politics.” Should Gen. Milley have resigned, not simply apologized, after serving as a political prop in President Trump’s tear-gas-laced march past Black Lives Matter Plaza? Please begin your answer with “yes” or “no.”
5. And for the generals: instead of resigning, Milley reportedly told his staff that he intended to “fight from the inside.” Where in the officer’s oath do we find an obligation to “fight from the inside?” If Milley was “fighting from the inside,” was he violating his oath?
A follow-up: How does the press, including Peter Baker and Bob Woodward, know so much about what Milley was thinking? Where in the officer’s oath is there an obligation to clean up your reputation through selective press leaks?
6. Another question for the generals. You wrote that “because the Constitution provides for only one commander-in-chief at a time, the military must assist the current commander-in-chief in the exercise of his or her constitutional duty to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” What is an officer’s obligation when the sitting commander-in-chief leads an assault against the Constitution, as Trump did on January 6?
7. For the secretaries: Why did it take you so long to say so little? Your letter does not mention Trump’s name, or Milley’s, or anybody else’s. Who was wrong on January 6? What did they do wrong, and why was it wrong?
8. And a follow-up: You wrote, “Civilian leaders must take responsibility for the consequences of the actions they direct.” What civilian leader has taken responsibility for the consequences of the decisions they made on January 6? Begin your answer with a name.
9. For everyone: your letter does not explicitly mention January 6. Why not? And if you’re not writing specifically about that, what events prompted eight former Secretaries of Defense and five retired four-star generals to write an op-ed about the stuff every freshman learns in high-school civics? Be specific.
10. And finally: you wrote that “the U.S. military must…come to terms with wars that ended without all the goals satisfactorily accomplished.” What in the world does that mean? Did the U.S. lose the war in Iraq? How about Afghanistan? Begin your answer with “yes” or “no.”
Paul Yingling is a retired Army officer who lives and writes in Green Mountain Falls, Colorado.