I recently read the new book entitled “The Cost of Loyalty” by West Point Professor Tim Bakken. The work speaks to me at multiple levels simultaneously. His narrative makes for difficult reading. I found myself unconsciously squirming in my chair while examining his text in detail. I know and understand this discomfort from personal hard-won experience. It happens when reading an essential truth that I wish was false. Unfortunately, that truth is stalking me like a wolf on the fold. A truth based in facts is a stubborn thing.
What follows is a cautionary tale: I was the chief of security for the United Nations in Baghdad in the summer of 2003 in the wake of the U.S. invasion. It was an incredibly difficult time for myself and my staff. Security incidents were increasing almost daily. Attacks using improvised explosive devices (IED) were beginning to take a toll on U.S. forces. Our threat analysis concluded that the U.N. mission would come under attack, too: we simply had no way of knowing how, when or where. I repeatedly reported our concerns to U.N. bosses in both Baghdad and New York, while recommending a myriad of risk mitigation policies and procedures to reduce the threat. Most of my formal and informal recommendations were ignored. Although enormously frustrated, I remained loyal to our superiors. I stayed in my lane, even though our bosses seemed intent to drive us over a cliff. Essentially, I acted the role of good and loyal soldier, which was how I was trained by our nation’s military. The cost was too high.
My level of frustration grew so great in early August that I contemplated resigning in protest. Regrettably, I allowed two colleagues to talk me out of it. They first made the point that the U.N. has no history of senior officers resigning in protest. Then, they made the case that my quitting would likely have zero impact on the U.N.’s chosen course in Iraq, and that we were marginally better off with me in charge of security rather than someone new and untested. Was my decision to remain based in ego or self-interest? Did I rationalize the situation so that I could remain employed in a position of both status and some small prestige?
On Aug. 19, 2003, a suicide bomber driving a large flat-bed truck carrying upwards of 2,000 pounds of explosives struck the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad: killing 22 and wounding more than 150. Included among the wounded was my wife, who was then working for the World Food Program. For all the years following, I have regretted not giving in to the impulse to resign in protest. As always, hindsight is 20/20.
The former national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster wrote a superb book many years prior to achieving national notoriety. His work is entitled “Dereliction of Duty.” McMaster made a powerful case that multiple flag officers within the Pentagon knew that the Vietnam War could not be won, and yet continued to send our country’s citizens into the Southeast Asian quagmire to die. Were they, like me, being good loyal soldiers? And if so, at what cost? Or, was self-interest at work? Once handed a flag containing one star, would it not be a natural ambition to expand it to two or more?
More recently, it became abundantly clear that our nation’s most senior military officers have loyally saluted the flagpole on critically important issues involving Afghanistan. Despite public pronouncements to the contrary, we were not winning the war over a decade ago; and we are not winning the war today. At a minimum, many a well-known and storied general officer was complicit in lies of omission: the negative reports coming out of Kabul were “spun” upon arrival at the Pentagon to suit our nation’s political leadership in multiple administrations. I can remember not even one knowledgeable flag officer resigning in protest in order to tell this truth publicly in the attempt to save the lives of those American military members who would be subsequently killed or maimed by the Taliban. We should be better than this.
The American military enjoys a trust and confidence like no other institution in our nation. The armed forces’ most senior officers bear the lion’s share of shouldering that burden and should. The confidence those in uniform currently enjoy will erode over time if we fail to remember where our true loyalties should reside: to the American people and the U.S. Constitution to which we swear our allegiance. Especially in this age of runaway mendacity, loyalty should absolutely have limits. A hopefully salient quote from my own recently published book follows: “Doing the right thing invariably means doing the hard thing. This is the true meaning of the word honor…”
Robert Bruce Adolph is a former United Nations chief security adviser and U.S. Army Special Forces lieutenant colonel. He recently published a startling book entitled “Surviving the United Nations: The Unexpected Challenge,” that is available on both Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites.
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.