The Cost of Loyalty
- By Tim Bakken
- Bloomsbury Publishing
- 400 pp.
- Reviewed by Larry Matthews
- February 20, 2021
This problematic look at America's fighting forces feels like a list of personal grievances.
We are living in a time when America’s institutions are under attack. Whether Congress, higher education, major corporations, or entire religions, it’s all being judged — and trashed — by critics whose focus is on flaws known, unknown, or imagined. The only institution to escape this race to disgrace is America’s military.
Tim Bakken wants to do something about that with The Cost of Loyalty: Dishonesty, Hubris, and Failure in the U.S. Military. By its title, we know where he’s going. He does a poor job.
Bakken has glued together a long list is grievances, studies, and reports — some from the military itself — to make his case. He throws in some old news to bolster his position: Douglas MacArthur was a martinet with imperial fantasies; William Westmoreland’s strategy in Vietnam was deeply flawed; and so on.
Into this mix, he adds his own personal complaints. He is a civilian who teaches law at West Point, the heart of the beast, as he sees it. He had a grievance against the academy and won an appeal. For this, he calls himself a whistleblower. One of his complaints? That he was told he had to be in his office from nine to five, which he saw as a violation of the faculty manual he helped write.
Bakken’s basic criticism in this book is that the military has its own culture. He notes that only one percent of the population serves on active duty today, but then claims the military has somehow hijacked the nation into its corruption.
He writes that the U.S. military has not “won a war in 75 years,” and makes the mistaken assertion that the military is responsible for getting America into these battles through its hubris and shady influence, ignoring the fact that civilian leaders, not generals, make the decision to go to war.
It can be argued that the military “won” in Iraq because it destroyed Saddam Hussein’s military. What it did not do was win the peace, which is the responsibility of civilians, not soldiers. Nevertheless, Bakken blames the military for the failure.
I know something about the military. I come from a military family and am the third of five generations to serve. We have fought in every major war since 1918. I grew up on Army bases. I know that there is plenty to criticize about the military. There is also plenty to praise. Bakken seems unaware of the latter.
So, what does the author get right? West Point and the other academies are not like regular colleges. Harvard and Ohio State are training young men and women to participate in civilian society. Military academies are training young men and women to destroy America’s enemies. So, when Bakken complains that West Point isn’t like other institutions of higher learning, he’s correct.
Applicants to the service academies must obtain a letter of recommendation from their member of Congress, opening up the process to political favoritism. He’s right on that, too. He complains that the selection process is not as rigorous as it’s claimed to be. Maybe that’s something to look into. He also grumbles that most cadets are politically conservative. In an absurd statement, he writes:
“In personality tests, they are ‘traditionalists’ who value words like dependability reliability, thoroughness, responsibility, duty, trustworthiness and service to society.”
It would seem that these are the very qualities one would desire in an officer. Yet, according to Bakken, the young people who embrace them later become evil plotters in a corrupt military system. Or, as he puts it, “Any ideology that dominates an institution the way conservatism dominates the U.S. officer corps will produce stagnation and groupthink.”
I can put his mind to rest on that one. I have many friends who are active or retired military, and they’re quite liberal in their politics.
West Pointers are known within the Army as “ring knockers” for the class rings they wear. They take pride in their time at the academy. Most are not career officers. Only 20 percent of active-duty Army officers are West Pointers; only half of today’s generals are. Many high-ranking generals are instead the product of ROTC or Officer Candidate School. Both Colin Powell (Army) and James Mattis (Marines) were ROTC officers.
The elephant in the room here is that the one percent of Americans who serve are protecting the 99 percent who don’t and, therefore, are not like everyone else. If they were, they wouldn’t be in the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Space Force, or Coast Guard.
Are they perfect? Of course not. Are mistakes made? Of course.
There are many very good books about the military and its flaws. Tim Bakken’s is not one of them. Maybe if he wants to read an excellent work about the military, he’ll pick up Mattis’ Call Sign Chaos. He might learn something.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2020.]
Larry Matthews is author of the novel Take a Rifle from a Dead Man.