Cover Image: The Cost of Loyalty

The Cost of Loyalty

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date:

Member Reviews

Tim Bakken, a former civilian professor at West Point and confirmed whistle blower, offers an eye-opening account of corruption, arrogance, and incompetence at the US premier military academies, in particular at West Point, that has had a devastating impact on the US military's ability to respond to contemporary challenges. Given so many Americans today hold the US military in high esteem, the author's conclusions about the quality of US military leadership will come as a shock to many readers and they may be tempted to write off his conclusions as sour grapes. This would be a huge mistake and grave disservice to the men and women who serve in the military. and whose lives are often senselessly lost due to the poor decisions and lies of high-ranking military officers. After all, as Bakken pointedly observes, the US military has not won a single war in 75 years. Its last victory was under Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1945. This dismal record certainly is not because the US military lacks in funding, given the US military receives over 20 percent of every dollar the US government spends. So why since World War II has the United States lost every subsequent military engagement, e.g. the Korean War, the Vietnam War, as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Bakken makes a strong case that the reason for these repeated failures is a decline in the performance of US military officers since WWII. Increasingly because of a military educational system that increasingly rewards mediocrity and loyalty, over intelligence and analytical thinking skills, the US military is ill-prepared to fight the civil and ideological wars that now plague the world. These wars require generals to "rely more on their intellect and less on weaponry" and sadly the rigor of intellectual selection process at West Point and the other military academies has deteriorated dramatically since World War II.  This deterioration is the product of the growing insularity of the US military from the civilian society that is supposed to exercise control over its deployment. This insularity has been reinforced by US supreme court decisions such as Parker v. Levy (1974) and Roestker v. Goldberg (1981) which effectively placed the US military outside the constitution.

To illustrate this argument, the author focuses primarily on the anti-intellectual and insular culture of West Point. For example, he notes that at West Point, the positions of superintendent, dean, and department head are closed to civilian applicants. At first glance, the limiting of the pool of applicants might not seem that bad, After all, surely the military applicants who hold these positions have comparable educational qualifications as the excluded  civilian applicants. Sadly, they do not. The vast majority of officers who teach at the military's premier academies, unlike their civilian counterparts, do not possess terminal decrees (a doctorate) "nor do they have any experience "teaching, researching, or practicing in their disciplines prior to being assigned to teach at the academies." In short, the future leaders of our military are not learning from the best in the field nor do they benefit from the latest pedagogy. And the applicants? They are not of the same quality as earlier applicants because of the adoption of lower academic standards and false reporting about acceptance rates that discourages many young people from applying. Quoting Bruce Fleming, a civilian professor of English at the Naval Academy for 24 years, Bakken shows just how bad the situation has become: "My best student at West Point would be the worst student in my classes" at the university where he also taught.  Fleming also states that one quarter of those accepted to the US Naval Academy have SAT scores (math and verbal) in the 400s and 500s. This means that those who lead the US military today may not be the best and brightest. Even more disturbing, the moral compass of these officers may not be very finely tuned, This assertion is borne out by statistics. For example, the likelihood that a female student will be raped is five times higher than at a civilian university. The examples given here are only a small fraction of those provided by the author to demonstrate the insularity, arrogance, and incompetence of the academies tasked with training the next generation of top military officers. And what happens at West Point has tragic practical consequences that impact not only the rank and file, but the safety of all Americans. US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has not reduced the risk of terrorism, but rather led to the emergence of such groups as ISIS and contributed to the destabilization of the Middle East region. The military academies' inculcation of loyalty as the ultimate value has also discourages junior officers from questioning the decisions of their superiors, since promotion depends on silence and speaking out constitutes a death knoll for advancement. 

Bakken ends his monograph with a call for reform. Real civilian control over the military must be reestablished; a federal law should be established requiring generals and admirals formally and publicly to register dissent when they believe a military action is ill-advised or when a war should not be fought or should be abandoned. For those who do speak up, they should be safeguarded from retaliation Administrators and instructors at military academies should be solely selected based on academic ability and professorial competence and the mission of military academies should be "repurposed and renamed" to reflect broader missions. The new focus should not be on military training, but rather service to the nation -- both in civilian government positions and in military service. The military training would be given separately, once academic training was completed to those students who want to pursue military careers. In short, he recommends a model similar to that used in the United Kingdom, in which completion of academic training is required before officer training can begin.

My one critique of this book is that in detailing the academic woes of the military academies, he fails to mention that many of the same woes plague our higher education system as a whole. For example, many universities have lowered their admission standards and because of financial struggles rely on adjunct faculty, rather than tenured faculty, to instruct students. While adjunct faculty do usually have terminal decrees in the field in which they teach, the substandard pay (20,000-25,000 per year, versus the six-digit income of tenured faculty) means that these individuals must hold down another job to make ends meet. To give an example, in 2017, the SEIU found that an adjunct professor in Boston would have to teach 17 to 24 classes per year to afford a home and utilities in Boston! That means the time that they can devote to students is significantly less than that of tenured faculty. And like military faculty at West Point, adjuncts are less likely to speak their minds, because they lack basic job protection. Given that almost 70 percent of all teaching positions at American colleges and universities are now filled by adjuncts, this is a real economic and educational problem that is affecting the quality of education that all American students receive. In addition, the selection of tenured faculty at civilian universities is not always based on merit; any professor will tell you that academic politics and personal connections often plays a larger role in determining who gets the job than the qualifications of the candidate. The value of a broad liberal arts education has also come under attack in recent years and cash-strapped universities have responded by placing more emphasis on job-specific training and less on providing students with a broad liberal arts education. In short, the demise of a broad liberal arts education is no longer peculiar to military institutions. The same holds true for corruption, as evidenced by the recent admission scandal that involved many top universities. Parents with financial means were able to buy admission for their less qualified children -- a phenomenon that is far from new, as one need look no further than the names of university buildings on any campus in the United States to see which alumni guaranteed their children admission through hefty donations. Finally, as most administrators will tell you, a high SAT score is not necessarily an indicator of who will do well at a university. So, while I applaud the author for exposing the dismal conditions at military universities, I find his failure to situate this crisis within the broader crisis in higher education somewhat disingenuous, as it gives the impression that simply adopting a civilian model will fix the problem. 

Still, this book is a must-read for anyone interested in contemporary politics, military culture, and the rise of the military-industrial complex.
Was this review helpful?
An incredible account of the failings of various US military institutions such as not adapting to change over the years, cover-ups, and retaliation all written by a professor at West Point. The overarching theme is if you see something wrong in any military institution & speak up, you'll be pushed out of the system and that is why nothing changes. This has resulted in a downward spiral of military institutions such as losing wars, losing soldiers, and increased atrocities committed by the US military. If the author wasn't protected by court as a whistle blower, he would not remain at West Point & gives his account of harassment from his own institution for speaking up.
Was this review helpful?
“The system is specifically designed so that the victim, whether cadet, soldier, or officer, has no recourse,” Bakken says. 
The conditions for individual and organizational failure are pervasive inside the military: loyalty over truth; isolation; censorship; control over everyone; manipulation of the media; narcissism; retaliation; and callousness.” 
However, this is only the beginning as West Point has its own personal issues and cover ups.
Take the fact that they claim only 9% accepted applicants yet anyone who asks for a pamphlet is accepted .“
It reminds me of the Girls Gone Wild except this has man at the helm doing whatever they choose to do and not dealing with the consequences of their sexual assault crimes. 
A silence exists among the higher ranks and anyone who speaks out against such corruption especially whistle blowers are smeared and fired.
This book had every imaginable scenario but it's not surprising considering they are so brazen as to do the white power symbols on live football airings and this was just two weeks ago.
Money, power, control and lack of oversight and transparency leads to this nonsense in which a 'certain class' feel above the law.
The checks and balances need to be in place to prevent such abuse of power and sadly they are not!
A great eye opener into the COST OF LOYALTY especially within the days and nights of narcissism.
Was this review helpful?
The US military has an unassailable reputation it does not deserve. From the inability to win a war to the worst schools and rampant criminal activity (drugs, rapes, bribes, massacres), the military sets the worst example in every sphere. In The Cost of Loyalty, Tim Bakken, a civilian law professor at West Point, has dug up and assembled a litany of failure, and failing with arrogance and pride. It reads like an Auditor General’s Report – endless examples of incompetence, bias, total disregard for the constitution, wasted money and unindicted criminal activity. Its actions lead to deaths in the millions. Its extravagance costs taxpayers trillions.

Lest you think I exaggerate, here’s what Bakken says right in the preface: “The conditions for individual and organizational failure are pervasive inside the military: loyalty over truth; isolation; censorship; control over everyone; manipulation of the media; narcissism; retaliation; and callousness.” And he hasn’t even started.

West Point, the army crown jewel since 1802, is far less than it appears. Bakken shows it fraudulently pumps up its stats to show how exclusive it is. It says only 9% get accepted. However, they include as applicants any kid who just asks for an information packet. The truth is West Point accepts well over 50% of actual applicants, because it has to. 

Their quality continues to plunge. For one thig, the forbiddingly high rejection rate scares off many potential (decent) students. For another, they take on athletes with zero academic qualifications to help boost constantly failing sports teams. Third, they take large numbers of sub-marginal high schoolers and put them in prep, where they get paid $1000 a month, and still do not become academic bloomers, just more poor students when they become cadets. Fourth, more than a quarter of cadets have SAT scores in the 400s and 500s, putting them in the bottom 40% nationally. (SAT scores alone put the military academies outside the top 100, despite their self-promotion as top schools.) Fifth, when they graduate (debt-free) to guaranteed lifetime careers in the army, 50% have lower health/fitness scores in than when they were accepted. (In civilian society, this is called destroying value.) Bakken says many can’t even read. But they will spend billions, plan wars, lead others and make decisions affecting civilians’ lives and deaths as generals.

What they can do is go wild. Women face five times the rate of sexual assault in military academies (one woman in four) as they do in civilian schools. Getting caught committing a crime results in a wrist slap, if anything. The real punishment is saved for whistleblowers, who are fired, not renewed, reassigned, transferred out or hounded out as needed. There is no room for truth in military academies. Retaliation is endemic at all levels.

Military personnel cannot sue the military. Military academies are exempted from constitutional constraints. Academies are not even covered by Title IX regulations. “The system is specifically designed so that the victim, whether cadet, soldier, or officer, has no recourse,” Bakken says.

To get in, future-cadets’ parents bribe congressmen to nominate them. This was the top news story for months in the civilian sector, but it has gone on for years with zero controversy in the military. Instead, it’s a requirement.

The result, says Bakken, is that the military is run by C+ students. But that is only the beginning. They are taught by military professors without doctorates. Many don’t even have experience in their subject; it’s just an assignment for them. They are rotated through with no commitment to their subject, research or publishing. The curriculum is heavily weighted towards engineering. Not managing situations or people, not other cultures or even the history of war. Foreign languages are taught by non-speakers. Graduates are essentially completely unprepared for the military career ahead. And yet, soldiers maintain military experience is interchangeable with any level of other expertise, according to findings by Joan Johnson-Freese, US Naval War College, Annapolis. 

Among the many needless ironies in the book, the basic one is that the military, charged with defending freedom of expression, prohibits it among its members and civilian instructors. This extends up to the highest ranks, where not disagreeing with the Defense Secretary on troop levels or the President on an invasion has led to endless unwinnable wars, thousands of American deaths, hundreds of thousands of locals’ deaths, and endless guilty consciences for not having spoken up at the time. It’s all about protecting your own career, at the expense of everyone else – millions worldwide. Say little to your peers and never disagree with a superior. That’s the military path to the top, Bakken says.

The result has long been insane strategies promulgated by incompetent generals who have no realistic vision of the game before them. Bakken says they have prepared the military for a war with Transformers, not with guerillas, religious radicals, local insurgents or millions affected by the ruthless, bloody and cruel US soldiers. The ultimate gaffe is to hand all decision-making to the military itself. The founders were so fearful of the military they made it subservient to the civilian administration on purpose. Ultimate decisions must come from civilians. But Donald Trump handed Defense Secretary General James Mattis carte blanche to do whatever he wanted in Afghanistan, with the predictable outcome of total failure at the cost of hundreds of thousands of civilian lives. Not only is Afghanistan still majority-held by the Taliban, but the military has turned the whole country against the USA for its hatred, brutality and ignorance. Meanwhile, back in Washington, the military lies all day long about its victories, achievements and successes in subduing the enemy and implanting democratic freedoms throughout Afghanistan. Where there were hundreds of terrorists before, today there are hundreds of thousands, anxious to take revenge. The US military makes the world far more unsafe with every campaign it mounts.

Bakken says American soldiers consider themselves warrior kings, able and free to destroy others at will. And the military will protect them and hide their deeds as best it can, by lying and avoiding. If word does get out, the military relies on the tiresome, inexcusable excuse that it was not intentional, and therefore not a war crime. Bakken show the US all but completely ignores international treaties and human rights agreements, including, if not especially, the US constitution. It sets up multiple future conflicts for each one it wages, worst of all on US soil. For which Americans continually express eternal gratitude.

All this might be okay if the military was competent at its main job – winning wars. But it isn’t. The most damning charge in The Cost of Loyalty is that the generals are incompetent grandees with giant private planes and unlimited privileges. They rely on their own gut instinct without consultation, and they fail, every time. The last general to win a war graduated West Point in 1915. That was Dwight Eisenhower. The rest seem to have learned nothing. 

Even in their own war games, the opposition crushes the USA, nailing its planes on the ground, overcoming control centers, and causing leaders to end the games early because there’s nothing left of the US team to overrun. The Taliban are more nimble, al-Qaeda more resourceful. Everywhere, natives hate the Americans supposedly defending them, because the Americans slaughter the natives at will and en masse. Meanwhile at West Point, they teach cadets marching songs about torturing and wiping out hadjis - the military slang for arabs.

Worse perhaps, the military continues to usurp power from the government. In both Korea and Vietnam, generals (McArthur, Westmoreland) secretly moved to use nuclear bombs to wipe out the enemy, but were caught and prevented from doing so. Today, the military simply disregards the civilian world and operates separately, under its own system, totally incompatible with American values and laws. This is precisely what the founders feared and why they refused to have a standing army at all.

As for Tim Bakken, the only reason he can write such a book and not be fired is because he continues to work at West Point under court order. The military already tried to harass him out as a whistleblower, and it resulted in an order to keep its hands off him. This book could not have been written otherwise.

David Wineberg
Was this review helpful?