US Marine Corps Band
The US Marine Corps Band plays during the Department of Defense dress rehearsal for the 58th presidential inauguration ceremony in Washington, DC, on January 15, 2017. Photo credit: Airman Magazine / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

A look at the corrosive culture caused by rigid hierarchies and unquestioning loyalty in the US military.

The US military is one of the few institutions that the vast majority of the public praises, but its strategic failures on the battlefield and lack of accountability in its ranks expose an organization that is deeply flawed and out of step with 21st-century needs. 

This according to Tim Bakken, the first civilian promoted to professor of law in West Point’s history. He eventually blew the whistle on corruption at the military academy and, after the Army retaliated against him, became one of the few federal employees to win a retaliation case against the US military. He joins Jeff Schechtman on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast.

Bakken details how the military has separated itself from civil society, and how this insulation has left the institution stuck in the 19th century — in an antiquated world of rigid hierarchy, unquestioning loyalty, and patriotism at all costs. The military’s unwillingness to evolve with the changing times has bred a toxic culture of bullying, cutting corners, and sacrificing truth that holds the key to its failures in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. 

In this world, military “justice” is anything but just, and violence is sanctioned — indeed, it’s no coincidence that veterans commit 33 percent of all mass killings, despite making up only 16 percent of the population. 

Bakken explains how and why the military must reestablish a connection with the norms of civilian society. 

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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman.

Especially today, it seems that Yeats got it exactly right. Things fall apart. The center cannot hold. That’s clearly how so many view civil society today, and yet the one institution that continues to get high marks in the eyes of the American people is the military. One wonders why. Is it good order and discipline? The uniform? Or some vague notion of competence? Even as we can’t seem to break or resolve two endless wars, the military leaders that Trump once referred to as “my generals” were unable to right the ship. A West Point graduate that is our Secretary of State seems unbound from the honor codes of that institution, and yet the military inspires and values loyalty unequaled by any other American institution.

Jeff Schechtman: Why is this? Is it a good thing for democracy? Does it reinforce the misguided but in vogue idea of loyalty above truth? And does it undermine the desire for equality in the larger society? We’re going to talk about all of this today with my guest, Tim Bakken.

Jeff Schechtman: Tim Bakken is the first civilian promoted to professor of law in West Point’s history. He created the department of law at the National Military Academy of Afghanistan, and he became a whistleblower after reporting what he believed was corruption at West Point. The military retaliated against him, but he prevailed, and he still teaches at West Point. It is my pleasure to welcome Tim Bakken here to talk about the cost of loyalty, dishonesty, hubris, and failure in the US military. Tim, thanks so much for joining us on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.

Tim Bakken: Thank you, Jeff. I really appreciate it.

Jeff Schechtman: Why is it, do you think, that with all the kind of attacks on institutions of government today, that the opinion of the military still remains so high?

Tim Bakken: People, of course, respect anyone in the military, as we should. But as I’ve described, the military has fastidiously separated itself from civil society. This happened more than ever after World War II, and continued certainly through the Vietnam War and today. As a result of that, many Americans do not have a sense of what’s happening in the military, and they understand what they see on TV and what the politicians will tell them and what the military general, frankly, will tell them also. And that, as we’ve seen from the recent release of the Afghanistan papers, 600 interviews with military and civilian leaders, is not the way we should be operating in a democracy.

Tim Bakken: What we found, for example, from the Afghanistan papers, was that those people, the military generals and the civilian leaders, believe that the War in Afghanistan could not be won, and they did not have a way to do it.

Tim Bakken: One lieutenant general said, after he was retired, according to the Afghanistan papers, is that we didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking, yet we’ve been there now for 19 years, going on. And still this country has not risen up, our civilian population has not risen up to speak and say that we should not be in Afghanistan any longer. And yet we remain.

Tim Bakken: So the answer to your question, I think, is not so much that we don’t have enough hardware for the military. It receives over 700 billion a year. Consider that over 75 years, and we’re in the range of about 50 trillion dollars, but rather we have lost our bearings and somewhat our perspective on what the military should be doing for us.

Jeff Schechtman: To what extent is this attitude that we have today go back to Eisenhower and that period and the immediate postwar period?

Tim Bakken: I think it goes back even prior to Eisenhower. I traced it to the Korean War. And after World War II, the American military was imbued with hubris, from a great victory in that war. And then in Korea, thought that the military could do almost anything. And Eisenhower recognized early on that the near worship of the military, and the military contractors who support the military, would soon bring a new perspective to the American military and the American culture in society. And that new perspective, indeed, did give rise to the Vietnam War, the War in Afghanistan, the War in Iraq. Not one of those wars was something that should have been fought for more than several months, or perhaps in the case of Afghanistan a year and possibly up to two years. But obviously, we now know, and many people believed then, that the Iraq War should not be fought, and the same holds true with the Vietnam War.

Tim Bakken: But this perspective of our culture and our society, and indeed our civilian government, Congress and Presidents, turning over the conditions of foreign policy to the military, and military intervention being a primary result of that foreign policy, has led us astray.

Tim Bakken: And we can see this and just the costs of the wars since World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The number of US soldiers killed has been 100,000 in those wars. And Iraq and Afghanistan still continue. And the number of people killed in the countries in which the US either invaded or intervened – and there’s really not much dispute, although nobody is 100% sure what the actual number is, nobody will ever be sure – ranges from three million to six million people killed in those countries. And what has the world received from those interventions? Probably most people would say that those places, North Korea with nuclear weapons, Vietnam communist, China backed those two countries in the two wars, Korea and Vietnam. And Afghanistan and Iraq are in worse condition and more threatening to the United States and its allies than when the US intervened in all those wars. That’s not a very good result under any measure.

Jeff Schechtman: As all of this has unfolded, talk about how the military internally has talked about this, how do they see it? How do they view the mistakes they’ve made and the things they’ve done?

Tim Bakken: They see themselves as a separate society, and that’s a critical issue and a critical problem because that has allowed them to distance themselves from civilian society. And as a result… and Samuel Huntington, a former professor at Harvard, was one of the first to recognize this. They have developed loyalty and patriotism as the top values. And those top values –

the number one value in the army is loyalty – have superseded all the other values. And as I described in the book, that includes truth. Researchers at the Army War College, two former colonels have said that the military is almost devoid, especially the army, of truthfulness and that this unwillingness to speak up, this willingness to cut corners, not only affects the military at home in the United States, but also when it goes to the various wars around the world. And we have seen that in every single conflict, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, we have not been told the truth.

Tim Bakken: And what I’ve focused on is something that’s very basic, very fundamental, and that is the generals in all of those wars knew, during the wars or prior to the wars, but let’s just say that they weren’t certain prior to the wars, but they certainly knew during the wars that either the wars could not be won, or we should withdraw from the wars because the generals did not have the wherewithal to understand how to win the wars. In either event, if we couldn’t win the wars, if the generals didn’t have the competency necessary to win the wars, we should expect them to speak up. But not in one instance did any general serving in any of the wars ever speak up and say that we should leave or say that we should withdraw.

Tim Bakken: I’ll give one example from the Vietnam War. The Army Chief of Staff was Harold Johnson, and he believed that the war could not be won. He believed also that the commanding general in Vietnam, Westmoreland, was fabricating numbers. And in fact, evidence now shows almost everybody believes that Westmoreland was saying that the US troops were killing more Vietnamese than they really were, and that North Vietnamese were not replacing the troops that were killed, but in fact, they really were.

Tim Bakken: General Johnson said, and this was near the end of his life…, he was the Army Chief of Staff in 1964 through 1968, that “I wish I had gone into the White House where Lyndon Johnson was President, and dropped off my four stars, and walked out and told the American public that we can’t win the war.” But he didn’t. And he said, “I’ll go to my grave with that moral failing on my back.”

Tim Bakken: And that has been the case in every single war. We haven’t heard all the generals after they retired say that they’ll go to their graves with that moral failing on their back, but we have certainly not heard any general tell us not to get into a war and to get out of a war once we’re in it, because that particular general believes we cannot win it.

Jeff Schechtman: Has there been a difference in how the military has acted in peace time versus when we’re at war?

Tim Bakken: Certainly the military is not intervening in other places during peace time, but the reality is… And I’ll just answer it indirectly first and then try to answer it more directly second. Since 1945, the US, if we count the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as separate, has been in wars for 49 years out of those 75 years since 1945. 3 in Korea, at least 10 in Vietnam, depending on how one counts, going on 19 in Afghanistan, and now over 17 in Iraq. That’s a total of 49 years of war.

Tim Bakken: Does the military act different in peace time than in war? Regrettably, the evidence indicates that the possibility of that is no. And one way that we can see that, very unfortunately, is that the military has a huge problem with sexual assault, soldiers on soldiers, and has had this problem for a number of years and probably for many, many years beyond that. No matter what the Pentagon does, and it has tried. It has spent hundreds of billions of dollars in recent years to try to stop the sexual assault problem. It cannot reduce the number of sexual assaults, below 20,000 per year. In fact, in most years, the sexual assault rate continues to increase.

Tim Bakken: Unfortunately, if we look at the three military academies, West Point, the Naval Academy and the Air Force Academy, the evidence indicates, based on a Pentagon study and also a study by the Department of Justice, if one takes the time to work through those two studies and compare women at the military academies with women students at other colleges, it appears that women students at the military academies experience a five times more likely rate of sexual assault than women students at other colleges in the United States.

Tim Bakken: And the reason for that is complicated, I think, but some have said it’s the nature of the people who want to enter the military. But my focus has been more on looking at the structure of the military. It seems to be that in authoritarian society like the military, which is the most authoritarian, and it’s been more authoritarian in recent years than ever, is susceptible to having abuse within its ranks. And in an authoritarian society where hierarchy is everything, where the main goal is to have as much control over as many people as possible, people will be drawn to a situation where they can take advantage of other people. And in that environment… and I believe it should be changed… I think the rank system and the hierarchy and the authoritarianism of the military are relics of the past… There will be sexual assault that cannot go below a certain number or a certain percentage every year. And that number and that percentage are far too high.

Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the institutions of these academies, West Point, the Naval Academy, the Air Force Academy, the degree to which they are… In addition to symptomatic of this hierarchy that you talk about, they’re also corrupt in so many ways, which really leads to what you blew the whistle about.

Tim Bakken: One way to see the academies is to provide a couple examples of how they operate. At West Point, for example, over the past 200 years, 145 of 150 of the three generals, commandant, superintendent, and dean, have themselves been graduates of West Point. No outside air is let in. And therefore, as again I described in the book, the cost of loyalty, because they’ve been loyal to each other, loyal to each other over truth, instead of hiring people based on merit, people are hired based on who they know. And who they know turn out to be people who are fellow West Point graduates.

Tim Bakken: One time, I asked a colonel at West Point who was a leader in the academic department, why the instructors in his department, those who are rotating military instructors…  And those rotating military instructors provide a majority of the instruction at West Point and the Academy at Air Force as well, but they have no experience in their disciplines. That might be very smart and very good people, but they have no practice experience. And they have just not been in tune with education. They’re in tune with the Army, like infantry and artillery, but they’re not in tune with education, but yet they come back and provide most of the education at the Academy.

Tim Bakken: I said, “Why are these young officers not being developed the way other instructors in colleges all over the United States and the world would be developed?” And he said, “That’s not their job.” What their job is, and you will see this if you walk down the halls of West Point when classes are going on, is that they have to literally take the same color chalk at the same time in different classrooms, and when you’re writing about a particular problem, they have to use that same color chalk.

Tim Bakken: And he said, as you noted in your introduction, Jeff, “This is for good discipline, uniformity, and accountability.” These are the buzz words that are used to ensure that things will be done today, the way they were done in the 1800s.

Tim Bakken: And I’ll provide one more recent example of just two weeks ago. My book came out, and obviously it was of great interest to people at West Point, especially cadets who wanted to know my perspective on why the education system at the Academies is faulty. And I tried to find the book, and I finally decided to go to the bookstore and see whether the book was there. The bookstore has an area where all the books of all the professors at West Point are listed, and all the books are there. I went to the library. The library has all the books of the professors that teach at West Point, and there’s two of my former [inaudible 00:17:06].

Tim Bakken: However, I talked to the manager of the bookstore, and he said, “Your book has been banned.” Now at West Point, you can walk there and you can find The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx. You can find Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler, but if you walk into the bookstore at West Point, you cannot find The Cost of Loyalty by Tim Bakken because, as one of the assistant managers told me when I was imploring them to put my book on an equal basis as all the other books, so cadets would have access to it, she said the military administration has banned your book. And indeed, I then talked to the manager and he said the same.

Tim Bakken: That’s where we’ve come to in America, where the military with 740 billion dollars a year is unwilling even to listen to the criticisms of somebody who’s been there 20 years and who’s devoted a career to try to make the military a more responsive institution. They simply will not listen. And a book, a 300-page book, is simply too threatening to them.

Jeff Schechtman: Has there been anyone in the modern history, in the past 50 years, that has tried from the inside to modernize the institution at all?

Tim Bakken: I think the answer is no to that. There is no modernization inside the military, except with one respect and that’s armaments and weaponry. The US military has the best weaponry in the history of the world. And it spends… the US government on the military every year, more than the next 10 or 12 nations combined. And it’s not the weaponry that is leading America to fail in wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, but rather it’s intellectual thought or the lack of judgment or the inability to bring civilian values inside the military. Those values are absolutely resistant.

Tim Bakken: I can give another example of this that exists today, also. The military has its own penal code and its own separate legal system. And civilians cannot penetrate that. The only person who decides whether someone, for example, should be prosecuted in the military, is the commander of the base on which the alleged offense occurred. That commander, not an independent military lawyer or prosecutor and certainly not a civilian, determines whether someone will not be prosecuted or will be prosecuted. And then, and almost nobody understands this unless he or she has been close to the institution, that commander actually selects the jurors by name, who will sit on the case of the soldier or officer who that commander has determined should be prosecuted. No matter how good a person that commander is, that’s an abject conflict of interest.

Tim Bakken: That commander has a specific, personal interest in how that case is handled and what the outcome is. If there’s an allegation of sexual assault, for example, at that institution, the commander might not want to institute charges because he or she might believe that shows poorly on the commander’s judgment and the commander’s leadership. But on the other hand, the commander might wish to punish severely somebody who has been alleged to have committed that same kind of offense. It’s an impossible situation, but yet the military will resist Congress.

Tim Bakken: And senators have tried. Senator Gillibrand from New York has tried to rectify this, but Congress has been unwilling. And that’s where we can see, very recently, how the military, because of its influence in American society, has been able to fend off even Congress in trying to change the structure of the military in the most serious thing other than actual combat, sexual assault and violence within the military.

Jeff Schechtman: As society continues to change, as equality becomes more prevalent in society, as technology becomes more prevalent, creative destruction in all the areas that we know… As those things continue to move forward, and the military continues to stay where it is, as you’ve been talking about, that gap becomes wider and wider. Does there come a point where that gap, that gulf, is so wide that something has to break?

Tim Bakken: I think something has broken. And the evidence of that is in what has happened in the wars that America fought in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. As we look back and probably while they were occurring, everybody would say that Vietnam should not have been a war in which America fought. Certainly, Iraq should not have been. And Afghanistan should have been a war in which America withdrew after a few months, when the Al Qaeda cells were eliminated from Afghanistan and the Taliban were eliminated from leadership in the country, but yet we continued on.

Tim Bakken: I think that it’s probably the reality that things have broken, and Americans have not realized that we’re not in a very good situation in regard to the military today because we have almost near-worship within American society for the military. And that’s not good for the military because it does not allow our civilian judgment to influence the military.

Tim Bakken: And it’s certainly not good for the outcomes of wars because we turn the wars over, now for almost two decades in Afghanistan and 17 years in Iraq, to the military, and the military… And I describe this in detail in the book… does not have the wherewithal, does not have the competency to understand how to win wars that are, in essence, non-conventional. With all the “great” weapons that the military has, and I put great in quotation marks, powerful weapons, it simply cannot fulfill the mission to which it was ascribed.

Tim Bakken: And as a result of that, it seems to me that the first thing that America has to do is recognize that the military is not fulfilling its mission and figure out a way to make the change. And the change, the fundamental change, is to stop worshiping an institution, no institution should be worshiped, and take control over the military and bring it back into civilian society, and have those civilian influences be essential to the military once again. And I think we’ll see a very different result and that result might very well be that we don’t fight as many wars.

Jeff Schechtman: Do you think that that’s possible? Do you think that that could happen, given what you see on the landscape today?

Tim Bakken: It seems unlikely. Because despite the losses that America has suffered, and a lot of people have said… Well, maybe I shouldn’t say that the wars were losses, but however you characterize them, 100,000 US soldiers and those places being more dangerous today than they were when American intervened, certainly they’re failures. And even if you don’t want to call those situations failures, unquestionably, the US military has not fulfilled the mission that the civilian government gave it.

Tim Bakken: And your question is an excellent one because it poses the possibility that we’re not able to change the military, certainly on a short-term basis. And I think that is largely true, until we elect leaders who will say that we can’t worship the military any longer. And in addition to that, we have to treat the military as something, an institution, that will defend us from outside forces. And really, there’s no outside force in the world that can present an existential threat to the United States, given that the United States and several other countries have nuclear weapons.

Tim Bakken: And until we do that, we’re not going to be able to change our direction. And our direction is always toward conflict, military conflict with other nations and other groups. As a first foreign policy change, you mentioned the Secretary of State. I’ve described how military leaders have gone on to become essential components of civilian government. And now the military ethos – look at corporations, they say they have chiefs of staff – is firmly entrenched within the United States.

Tim Bakken: One example illustrates this, and this is not mine. This is other professors and research. Research now seems to show that when military veterans go into police departments – there was a study on the Dallas police department – they are two to three times more likely to fire their weapons than non-military veterans.

Tim Bakken: One professor, Hugh Gusterson, talked about how, since 1984 to the present day, military veterans have committed 33% of the mass killings by adults in the United States, when they make up probably 16% – 19% of the adult population. He says that either the people who are entering the military in this all-voluntary force, or the training they receive in the military, is the root of why they are tending toward violence, when they leave the military. That’s a very dangerous situation, if that research turns out to be replicated elsewhere.

Tim Bakken: So Jeff, your intuition, I think, and your observation is that the military ethos is embedded in American society, and there is too much near-worship of the military. And until that changes, we’ll be in a difficult spot. We’ll continue to provide 740 billion dollars a year to the military, with results that are not very desirable.

Jeff Schechtman: Tim Bakken. The book is The Cost of Loyalty. Dishonesty, Hubris, and Failure in the U.S. Military. Tim, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.

Tim Bakken: Thank you, Jeff. My pleasure. Thanks for asking.

Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

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Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from US Air Force / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0) and The White House / Flickr.


  • Jeff Schechtman

    Jeff Schechtman’s career spans movies, radio stations and podcasts. After spending twenty-five years in the motion picture industry as a producer and executive, he immersed himself in journalism, radio, and more recently the world of podcasts. To date he has conducted over ten-thousand interviews with authors, journalists, and thought leaders. Since March of 2015, he has conducted over 315 podcasts for

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