The preamble to America’s most treasured document, the Declaration of Independence, declares that US citizens have the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To secure these rights, our Founders designed a government that derives its “just powers from the consent of the governed.” Much of Capitol Hill has long disregarded the views and opinions of the governed when formulating policy and legislation. In recent years, however, that same contempt has begun to affect even uniformed leaders in the Department of Defense.
Senior U.S. military leaders, held by many Americans to be above moral reproach, are rapidly becoming indistinguishable from their political counterparts. This deteriorating trend concentrates increasing power in the hands of progressively fewer leaders and weakens the fabric of our country.
Four years ago, after returning from my fourth combat deployment as an Army officer, I published a report in a professional defense journal detailing how America’s most senior civilian and uniformed leaders had been deceiving the American public about the progress of the war in Afghanistan. In response, then-Lt.Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti held a press conference at the Pentagon and said of the article “It’s one person’s view of this. From my personal point of view . . . I’m confident that . . . our outlook is accurate.”
In the four years since, conditions have proven conclusively the general’s claims of success and progress were indeed false. Nevertheless, he suffered no censure for having provided the American public an incorrect assessment of the war. To the contrary, he was promoted to four-star rank and given a prestigious major command. Perhaps more troubling, however, has been the ease with which even the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) has adopted classic “political speak” in his public statements.
During an interview last week JCS Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford discussed the recent deployment of Marine artillerymen to Iraq. Days before, Marine Staff Sgt. Louis F. Cardin had been killed by an Islamic State (ISIS) rocket attack at “Firebase Bell” in Iraq, which is an American-only base on the front line facing ISIS. Yet when a reporter asked the General if that deployment violated the President’s restriction against ground combat troops fighting in Iraq, he replied “no, it’s not . . . To me there's no inconsistency to what this (Marine) artillery unit did and what our aviation forces do every day.” That is knowingly deceptive.
The field artillery, along with infantry and armor, is an integral component of ground maneuver units. Aviation forces fly from bases hundreds of miles from the target area and typically engage from 20,000 feet or higher, where they face no threat from the insurgents below. Suggesting there is “no inconsistency” in comparing the mission of attack jets with a ground combat unit placed directly on the front lines in support of Iraqi ground troops in direct contact with the enemy is spurious. Why the Chairman chooses to equivocate on such a clear cut situation is not clear. Unfortunately, this propensity to deceive or disregard the American public on matters of national security is growing.
In January of this year, the public-consultation organization Voice of the People conducted an in-depth analysis of how the American public views the Defense Budget. The poll found that even after being directly informed about the numerous security threats facing the nation, 61 percent of registered voters said they wanted to cut defense spending by more than $12 billion from last year, saying they thought a base budget of $500 billion was about right. But for Fiscal Year 2017, the DoD and the White House instead requested $523.9 billion. Congress is likely to approve and fund an even higher base budget.
It seems whether we’re talking about leaders from the executive branch, the legislative branch, or the Department of Defense, the desires or views of the American people are being ignored on the one hand and fed deceptive or misleading information on the other. Americans are not as stupid as some apparently think and the way senior government leaders are treating them is having a measureable impact.
The trust the American people have in their government is alarmingly low and deteriorating. In its most recent poll, Pew Research Center found that only a miniscule 19 percent of Americans trusted the government to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time.” Putting that figure in perspective, the report noted that since 2007, less than three in ten Americans have expressed trust in the government, “the longest period of low trust in government in more than 50 years. In 1958, when the American National Election Study first asked this question, 73% said they could trust the government . . . ”
American citizens deserve better treatment than this. The government is supposed to exist to serve and defend the nation. If our leaders continue to deceive or disregard the people, the low level of trust will fray even further. It’s impossible to say how much lower trust in government can get, but one thing is certain. If the people do not begin to hold leaders accountable via elections or other legal avenues, the quality and character of America will continue to diminish and along with it, our quality of life.
Daniel L. Davis is a widely published analyst on national security and foreign policy. He retired as a Lt. Col. after twenty-one years in the U.S. Army, including four combat deployments, and is a member of the Center for Defense Information's Military Advisory Board. The views in these articles are those of the author alone and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Government. Follow him on Twitter @DanielLDavis1.