Maj. Gen. Patrick Donahoe in 2020.

Maj. Gen. Patrick Donahoe in 2020. U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benninig Public Affairs Office

'A' for Effort, 'F' for Execution as a General Defends Women in Service

Our leaders have a duty to stand up for those in their charge. But how they say it is just as important as what they say.

Maj. Gen. Patrick Donahoe, until recently the commanding general of the U.S. Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, is among the most popular figures on military Twitter, with over 23,400 followers. It was hardly surprising that many rallied to his defense when it was reported late last month that his retirement had been put on hold pending “administrative reviews” over, among other things, clashes with right-wing figures over the role of women in the service. The outcry has only increased since it was reported that the Army’s inspector general found his tweets “inappropriate.”

Among Donahoe’s defenders are many military officers and national security scholars whom I like and respect. Further, many women in uniform, including a number who are prominent pseudonymously on Twitter, are understandably hurt. Alas, the Army is right and Donahoe, while well-intentioned, was wrong.

As is so often the case, the service has not helped itself with its ham-handed procedures and incompetent public messaging. To be sure, due-process concerns required protecting Donahoe’s privacy while the investigation unfolded and while Army leaders decide what punishment, if any, is appropriate. Regardless, by selectively leaking details to the press without releasing the full report, they have allowed a false narrative to unfold: that officers who defend their female comrades from the online mob will be punished.

In fact, the initial allegations against Donahoe reportedly involved not only “improper use of social media” but also “toxic and counterproductive leadership” and “failing to treat a subordinate with dignity and respect.” My strong guess is that it was the latter two, not the first, that were behind the decision to suspend the general’s retirement pending investigation. Indeed, I can’t imagine that the service would have taken such unusual action over some ill-advised tweets alone.

Thankfully for Donahoe, the investigation cleared him of the more serious charges. Unfortunately for him, having launched an investigation into the social media exchanges, they were required to, well, investigate. And I fully concur with the finding: “While potentially admirable, his post brought a measurable amount of negative publicity to the Army, enough that [the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs] warned [the Secretary of the Army] of the fallout.”

The post in question was a response to inflammatory remarks by Fox host Tucker Carlson, who castigated changes to uniform-and-appearance regulations to accommodate the needs of female service members as “a mockery of the U.S. military.” Donahoe quote-tweeted the Fort Benning account’s video of the re-enlistment of a Staff Sergeant Paramo with the commentary, “This is me, yesterday, conducting a re-enlistment for one of the tens of thousands of women who serve in our Army. Just a reminder that @TuckerCarlson couldnt [sic] be more wrong.”

Not shockingly, this elicited cheers from many military members and others and jeers from Carlson fans and others who decry expanded roles for women. 

What was wrong with the tweet? After all, Donahoe was simply defending women and existing Army and Defense Department policy. 

While it seems rather innocuous at first blush—indeed, I didn’t think much of it at the time—“@TuckerCarlson couldnt be more wrong” is simply not something a serving officer, much less a two-star general with “Army” in his username and his affiliation and job title in his bio, should be proclaiming in a public forum.

Like it or not, making it a personal attack on Carlson transforms an anodyne statement of Army values into a partisan statement. He is the leading voice on the most influential Republican infotainment platform and was making, albeit indirectly, a partisan argument against the sitting President, a Democrat. By mentioning him by name, Donahoe entered a partisan fight. 

Had Donahoe instead tweeted something like, “This is me, yesterday, conducting a re-enlistment for one of the tens of thousands of women who serve in our Army. Just a reminder that women play a vital role in defending America,” he would have probably gotten fewer likes and retweets. But the IG would never have batted an eye.

How can I know that? Because many other senior leaders chimed in with slightly less meme-able tweets and they were, so far as I can tell, not investigated, much less reprimanded.

Now-retired Paul E. Funk II, then the four-star head of the Army’s Training and Doctrine command and Donahoe’s boss, responded, “I agree Pat. Thousands of women serve honorably every day around the globe. They are beacons of freedom and they prove Carlson wrong through determination and dedication. We are fortunate they serve with us.” 

Lt. Gen. Ted Martin, then Funk’s deputy, chimed in with “Contrary to what you may be hearing this WOMAN & 1000's of WOMEN like her are NOT ‘making a mockery of our military’. You WISH your daughter was as AWESOME as MINE! so BACK OFF” along with a photo of said daughter, a military helicopter pilot. That’s rather feisty, arguably even more so than Donahoe’s tweet. But, by not directly engaging Carlson, it’s seen purely as a defense of women warriors, not a partisan attack.

That two general officers above Donahoe in his chain of command also defended women soldiers in response to Carlson’s idiocy would seem a rather stark indicator that it was the style of delivery, not the message, which was at issue.

It’s noteworthy, too, that the official U.S. Army twitter account sub-tweeted Carlson with a photo of a woman sergeant first class member of the Old Guard and the caption “I am an American Soldier. I am a Warrior and a member of a team. #SoldiersCreed.” The tweet remains live as of this writing.

Contrast that with the II Marine Expeditionary Force’s Information Group official account, which tweeted in response to one commenter, “Come back when you’ve served and been pregnant” in a snarky response to a commenter. It later deleted the tweet and issued an apology: “We are human and we messed up. We intended to speak up for female Marines and it was an effort to support them. They are a crucial part to our corps and we need them to know that. We will adjust fire and ensure the utmost professionalism in our tweets.”

As to the “negative publicity to the Army” from Donahoe’s tweet, in addition to providing plenty of fodder for Carlson and other right-wing critics who claim that the military has gone “woke,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, lodged a complaint with the Defense Secretary, writing: “This spectacle risks politicizing the military after several centuries of efforts to keep military officials out of domestic affairs, undermining civil-military relations by having the military take a side in a contentious cultural dispute and the perception that military leaders are happily weaponizing the institution against political critics of the sitting administration.” I am, to say the least, not Cruz’ biggest fan. But he’s right. 

Moreover, this was arguably not the most egregious of Donahoe’s violations of decorum on social media. He allowed Josiah Lippincott, a former Marine artillery officer turned graduate student and right-wing troll, to provoke him into an ill-advised exchange that has since been deleted. Along the way, Donahoe tweeted Hillsdale College, the private conservative college where Lippincott is pursuing a Ph.D, to “come get your boy” and “Public Service Announcement. Block and report the trolls and the disinformation tinfoil hat team.”

Not shockingly, this was seen as an attempt by a two-star general to get a private citizen thrown out of school and banned from Twitter for exercising his First Amendment rights. Lippincott was feted as a hero by Fox’s Laura Ingraham, who used it as further evidence that the military brass was “woke” and consisted of Democratic partisans. It also gave Carlson another bite at the apple, saying of Donahoe, “He doesn’t seem as interested in keeping the country safe as he does in promoting a very specific political point of view. He spends most of his time apparently online harassing political opponents of the Biden administration.” 

The IG, not unreasonably, found the exchange “was unwise and had the potential to bring discredit on the Army. His use of sarcasm and ‘snarky’ tweets to private citizens was in poor taste, clearly displayed poor judgment, and ran counter to Army values.” To his credit, Donahoe had already come to that realization, telling his subordinates not to follow the example he had set in that instance.

Donahoe’s plight is yet another reminder that “Social media has the potential to make anyone famous, but rarely in a good way.” Ironically, that was the lede to an essay I wrote extolling the value of Twitter to military officers, arguing that “The duty to conduct themselves as professionals, however, should not deter them from the many benefits to be gained by interactions on social media.” Indeed, Donahoe himself has contributed tremendously to the discourse and it’s a shame that a handful of unfortunate incidents is why he’s now famous. 

He has taught us an important lesson. Because “Twitter rewards sarcasm, cynicism, and putdowns with likes and retweets,” there are powerful incentives to perform for an online crowd. It’s easy to fall prey to that trap; indeed, I’ve certainly done it myself. Military officers, especially senior ones, can’t afford to do so. 

That’s especially true in today’s political environment, where diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts; the further integration of women and LGBTQ members; and so many other matters have become highly charged partisan fights. Our leaders have a duty to stand up for the civil rights of all in their charge and to defend service and Defense Department policies. But how they say it is just as important as what they say.

As to Donahoe, I hope and expect that Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth will both use his indiscretions as a teachable moment for the service and see them for what they were: the actions of a passionate leader doing the right thing the wrong way. Any meaningful punishment would be a miscarriage of justice and send the wrong message.

James Joyner is professor and head of security studies at the Marine Corps University Command and Staff College. A former Army officer, he has tweeted @DrJJoyner since June 2007.