“An inappropriate manner”

The Army isn’t reacting as one would expect to mass insubordination in a combat zone. What’s up?

The word “mutiny” is being tossed around in connection with the refusal of one reserve unit to undertake a support mission in Iraq: by a Washington Times headline-writer, among others. That seems hyperbolic: there was no violent confrontation with superiors. But “insubordination” in a combat situation is plenty bad enough.

But what’s really troubling is the reported comment of a senior Army officer:

Unfortunately it appears that a small number of the soldiers involved chose to express their concerns in an inappropriate manner.

“An inappropriate mannner”? That sounds like a middle school vice-principal, not a military commander.

An official Army spokeswoman, speaking on the record, said “Initial indication is that the soldiers scheduled for the convoy mission raised some valid concerns and the command is addressing them.”

“Raised some valid concerns”? That’s a funny way to describe mass insubordination in a combat zone. But apparently the concerns were sufficiently valid to put the entire 343rd Quartermaster Company on “safety-maintenance stand-down” in which no missions will be undertaken.

Some new details have emerged. Not only was the fuel convoy ordered out will ill-equipped, ill-maintained vehicles and insufficient armed guard, the fuel they were ordered to deliver was fuel they had just tried to deliver to another base, which turned it away as contaminated. (The mission apparently was completed safely by an other unit, but the entire It’s not hard to understand how an order to undertake duty not only hazardous but apparently futile might attract grumbling.

But flat refusal? That’s beyond an “inappropriate” way to raise “valid concerns.” (A reader points out that I was wrong to say, in my earlier post, that it was never justified: an illegal order is to be refused. But there’s no suggestion that he order in question was illegal.)

So why is the Army apparently handling this case with kid gloves, or pretending that it is? (Some of the relatives of the soldiers claim that they’re being held prisoner and deprived of sleep, but the Army denies that anyone is in detention.)

Four hypotheses come to mind:

1. It’s not the only case of this kind, and there have been too many others to make full-out prosecution impracticable. (Makes logical sense, but there’s no evidence that it’s true.)

2. The order was so bone-headed that, while defiance wasn’t legally justified, the members of a military court would be reluctant to convict. (Possible.)

3. The order was so bone-headed that the publicity surrounding a court-martial might be embarrassing to the Army. (Also possible, and consistent with #2.)

4. Someone in the Pentagon decided that a widely-publicized court-martial for insubordiation would interfere with recruiting and retention, which are alread short of their goals. (It probably would. But are things really bad enough to let this sort of incident go?)

5. The insubordination, and the dumb orders and poor conditions that led to it, aren’t consistent with the current Bush campaign spin, and orders came down from the White House to minimize the flap by not hitting the cuprits too hard: at least until after the election. (No evidence for it, but never to be discounted as a possibility as long as Karl Rove is President.)

The least plausible interpretation is that this is truly an “isolated incident” of entirely unjustified insubordination, against a background of a well-functioning, high-morale effort. If it were that, this would be the time to make an example of the recalcitrant unit. That isn’t happening, which suggests some serious problems.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com