Katrina Johnson '06 Participates in Discussion About Critical Thinking in the Military

Mission: Intellectual
Fountain Walker, Katrina Johnson, Tobias Switzer, and Brian Penoyer
University of Chicago Magazine
September 14, 2012

At Alumni Weekend, UChicago’s Military Affinity Group and the Committee for Veterans Affairs organized a panel on “Critical Thinking in the Armed Forces: A Chicago Perspective.” Moderated by Marine Corps veteran and UChicago police commander Fountain Walker, the panel included Katrina Johnson, JD’06, who served as a brigade judge advocate in northwest Iraq and now works at a private firm in Washington; Tobias Switzer, SB’99, an Air Force major who flew helicopters in support of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations in Iraq and now advises foreign special operations aviation units; and Brian Penoyer, AB’88, a 22-year Coast Guard captain and acting chief of congressional and governmental affairs. He’s also a military fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Fountain Walker How does an officer differentiate between the military mission and his or her moral compass?

Katrina Johnson I was a legal adviser, so I didn’t get to make my own decisions. There’s legal advice that we give called “legal but stupid.” My brigade commander ... would say, “Katrina, we have a mission, we need to make it happen, you need to get to yes.” So I had to find a legal way to get to yes. ... But you think about the legal but stupid. And what that means is, “Yes, sir, absolutely we can do it, I can find a way for us to meet the mission requirements, but it might not be the smartest thing.” In today’s environment, commanders have to think about the CNN factor: if this ends up on CNN, how is this going to make us look as the United States, as the Army, as a commander. I couldn’t make that decision for him or her.

Sometimes, especially with the younger commanders, the company commanders on the ground who just want to get the mission done, they are so focused, they’re in the weeds. Sometimes it was my job to reel them back a bit and say, “If this ends up on the front page of the news, how’s it going to make us look? How’s it going to make you look?” And it happens; people make bad decisions all the time. I don’t think it’s necessarily because they want to, but they’re in the moment, in the mission, trying to do the best that they can. In our world today with Twitter and Facebook and news flying everywhere, commanders have to look at that perspective as well.