By Major General Jerry Curry, USA (Ret.)
In May, 2008, 1Lt. Michael Behenna found himself in Afghanistan interrogating a terrorist who had killed two of his soldiers. Suddenly, the terrorist lunged for Lt. Behenna’s pistol. Fortunately Lt. Behenna’s reflexes were faster than the terrorist’s and he was able to fire a bullet into his chest and head, killing him. By any measure it was good shooting.
But Lt. Behenna was charged by the Army with premeditated murder and found guilty of doing what he had been trained to do – kill terrorists. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. The seven men who found him guilty are non-infantry officers. That means their combat experience is limited and they haven’t had to stare death in the face where the fastest and most accurate shooter lives.
There is no such thing as being guilty of the premeditated murder of an Islamic terrorist. The deaths of all terrorists merit premeditation. And Lt. Behenna merits a presidential pardon, but that won’t happen. Writing in his memoire, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates says that President Obama is distrustful of America’s military officers so he would have no reason to believe that Lt. Behenna acted appropriately.
Similarly, Lt. Col. Matthew Dooley, a highly decorated combat commander, was reassigned from Afghanistan back to the US to teach a course entitled “Perspectives on Islam and Islamic Radicalism” at the US Joint Forces Staff College. The curriculum Lt. Col. Dooley was assigned to teach was approved many years ago, but for some reason did not come to the attention of Muslim special interest groups until Lt. Col. Dooley arrived. Fifty-Seven Muslim organizations signed a letter to the Department of Defense demanding that training materials offensive to them be purged and instructors disciplined.
Eventually the letter was passed to General Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This was shortly followed by a Defense Department press release condemning the course material being taught as not “simply objectionable” but “inflammable.” Later on General Dempsey would say that the course’s content was “totally objectionable” and “against our values.” Lt. Col. Dooley was relieved of his teaching assignment and his exemplary career effectively trashed.
Most surprising is that no one is speaking up for Lt. Behenna and Lt. Col. Dooley. It is not easy but admirals and generals need to find a way to satisfy their civilian masters in the Department of Defense while at the same time standing up for and speaking up for the troops they lead. This is particularly true today when our Armed Forces are being gutted, hollowed out, and grossly misused.
Each soldier, sailor, airman and marine needs to know, down to last one, that the President and his Secretary of State will not cavalierly send them off to fight and die on some irrelevant foreign battlefield for some abstract political cause that neither the President nor the nation believes in. And once on a foreign battlefield, the military’s rules of engagement should favor saving the lives of America’s Armed Forces, not Al-Qaeda.
Our troops should be free to do whatever is necessary to defend their own lives, to blow away any terrorist who even looks like he is about to fire on our troops or allies. If a mistake is made and an innocent is killed, restitution should be made as best as is possible. But there should be no second guessing of our soldiers’ actions.
Our senior generals and admirals would do well to remember the words of German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoeller who, when speaking of the NAZIs once said, “First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out … Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.”
No nation can survive for long if there is a breach of faith and trust between its President and its Armed Forces. Most disturbing of all is the trend in today’s military to throw under the bus officers that are brave enough to stand up and tell it like it is or to make decisions which they know are right but of which the headquarters staff might not approve.
Jerry Curry is a retired Army Major General, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Carter administration; Acting Press Secretary to the Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration; and Administrator of the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration in the Bush Sr. administration.