Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, has apparently been in the hospital, following complications from a surgery for an unknown ailment. He had the surgery and passed the baton to the Deputy Secretary of Defense, Kathleen Hicks, but did not inform the President, the National Security Advisor, and a bunch of other people who should have been kept in the loop.
Worse, Austin’s deputy was apparently on vacation when she was put in charge. This all matters because the military functions through a chain of command, and the Secretary of Defense is a crucial link in that chain, the interface between the uniformed military and the President.
Austin’s actions might seem secretive, worrisome, and self-serving, and indeed they are. But his actions, unfortunately, should not be surprising. A culture of dishonesty and corruption has plagued the Pentagon since Vietnam, and it became particularly flagrant during the failed campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, where then-general Austin served in multiple senior leadership roles.
Year after year, we were told about progress, our brave Afghan and Iraqi partners, all the schools and clinics we had built, how the Taliban were on the run, and how we were just dealing with a few “dead enders” in Iraq, but what we had built turned out to be completely ephemeral. The Iraqi military we trained at great expense retreated en masse when it faced ISIS in 2014, and the Afghanistan government collapsed nearly instantly upon our decision to withdraw in 2021.
In both theaters, a lot of activity happened, of course. Thousands of Americans died, and trillions of dollars went up in smoke or lined contractors’ pockets. Dozens of generals and other career military men festooned themselves with enough medals to make a Latin American dictator jealous, seemingly unembarrassed that they had few tangible achievements to justify it.
In these years, General Austin was a senior Army general. He became U.S. forces commander in Iraq in 2011, and ran our middle eastern operations as the CENTCOM commander from 2014-2016. Austin cannot escape significant responsibility for these failed campaigns.
Civilian Oversight of the Military is Too Weak
As we moved from a conscripted military to a professional one, fewer and fewer people had personal experience with military service. This is problematic, as civilian control of the military ensures the uniformed military’s accountability to the American people through their elected representatives and subordinates.
Widespread knowledge and experience with military service demystifies the military’s recently acquired halo while providing important nuance to interventionists on the limits of military power. At once alienated and overawed, civilian appointees’ have lacked the confidence and willingness to do bureaucratic battle with the uniformed military in the Pentagon.
In parallel, the all-volunteer professional military became a special caste, a country within the country, with its own culture, priorities, and interests. Combined with a post-Vietnam militarism among Republicans, this turned the uniformed military into a privileged political voice and an underscrutinized source of government spending. While its prestige rested on servicemembers being selfless and idealistic, the military was simultaneously a partisan, self-interested, and independent locus of political power.
In addition to pursuing parochial and branch-specific institutional interests, the uniformed military has also attempted to shape foreign policy to protect its own perceived interests. The Army infamously resisted deploying Apache attack helicopters to Kosovo in 1999, and the whole military slow-walked the withdrawal of equipment and personnel from Afghanistan because senior leaders believed a skeleton force should be preserved.
In the last 40 years of America’s global military dominance, civilian control has atrophied significantly, and almost no president has had the mandate or willingness to reestablish such control fully.
A Culture of Perks and Fibs
Returning to Austin’s temporary disappearance, we should consider Austin’s background as a factor. Generals are used to their perks. They get a whole staff at their beck and call: valets, chefs, and even access to private planes. They have very little accountability for failure and often skirt the rules they ruthlessly enforce upon their subordinates.
Indeed, a back-scratching culture of inflated fitness reports has been one of the less savory hallmarks of the professional military since the end of the Cold War. Senior leaders have been caught making up stories to make the institution look better, as in the death of Pat Tilman, who was killed by friendly fire.
In the military culture Austin came up in, disloyalty is even worse than incompetence. This ethic looks unkindly upon honest or public criticism of the institution. The military (like most organizations with a strong institutional culture) replicates itself over time, elevating the people least inclined to disturb its culture, habits, and existing incentive structure.
Austin was a typical product of the Biden-era military: mediocre, overpromoted because of his race, and a company man through and through. He is one of two Secretaries of Defense in recent years who rose to the highest levels of the uniformed ranks before doing a stint in the military industrial complex. Like James Mattis, his civilian appointment required a congressional waiver. Unlike Mattis, Austin has no apparent insight or vision into the broader issues facing the Pentagon or our national defense strategy.
He is just a figurehead, a very large empty suit, who speaks in banalities. He has done nothing to reform the military after the disastrous end of the Afghanistan campaign and the Pentagon’s perennial pattern of blowing through all budgetary limits in procurement. We have been paying more for less for many years, and Austin—who profited handsomely from his Raytheon employment—does not seem to see anything wrong with the status quo.
A Leopard Does Not Change Its Spots
Now why would Secretary Austin jerk around the White House? It seems mostly likely that, being a former four-star general, he has a general’s sense of privilege coupled with the entire uniformed services’ skepticism of civilian oversight—this, even though he is now, in fact, one of those civilian overseers.
So he figured he would bullshit the boss about a surgery, which apparently did not go as well as planned. Then, making matters more complicated, his deputy happened to take the reins from the sunny beaches of Puerto Rico, where she was on vacation, and she may not have even been aware of the surgery or its complications. This all couldn’t go unnoticed for very long. The book-smart National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, apparently took stock of these absences at a meeting, and then it ended up in the papers.
I don’t know if this is a big deal or a minor one compared to ordinary levels of interagency friction between the White House and the Pentagon. It strikes me as somewhere in the middle—not the crime of the century, but an omission borne of embarrassment coupled with a military man’s lifelong habits of secrecy about personal challenges and ailments.
But it is still a problem. As much as I loathe Biden, he is the president, and he is the commander in chief. He deserves to know the truth and have candor from his unelected subordinates. This incident unfortunately serves as a microcosm for corrosive cultural habits that have taken root within the uniformed military. A million such fibs, exaggerations, and self-serving accounts of reality combine to blind senior decisionmakers and the American people about what is going on, leading to creeping inefficiency and incompetence that has slowly reduced our national power.
While there is a lot of talk of accountability and integrity among military professionals, a culture of casual and self-serving dishonesty persists, which elevates the military’s institutional interests and the convenience of its personnel above the country and the government that it serves.
Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.