By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
I rarely write on military affairs, but with the pot boiling in Ukraine and Syraqistan, The Tragedy of the American Military by James Fallows comes at an opportune time, and has the merit of speaking some very obvious but unspoken truths, which the NC readership may wish to factor into its thinking. Were the rhetorical question in the headline to have been written in Latin it would, no doubt, have been marked with the particle num. In English, the implied answer is obviously “No” and Fallows, who seems to have called his shot on Iraq correctly, back in 2002, even while bending over backward to give “the war party” fair treatment (“Iraq: The Fifty-First State“), helps explain why.
First, the U.S. military lost both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. (Pause to explain that although the usual suspects, and some of the more colorful locals, made a great deal of money on both wars, that’s not synonymous with “winning.” States make war, commit their citizens to the wars they make, and win or lose them. That is true even in the mercenary world of Renaissance Italy, in the age of the city-, and not nation-state.) Fallows writes:
Ours is the best-equipped fighting force in history, and it is incomparably the most expensive. By all measures, today’s professionalized military is also better trained, motivated, and disciplined than during the draft-army years. No decent person who is exposed to today’s troops can be anything but respectful of them and grateful for what they do.
If, as Aristotle says, “We are what we repeatedly do,” then that’s what “we” are: Losers. Fallows goes on:
Or it has won skirmishes and battles only to lose or get bogged down in a larger war. Although no one can agree on an exact figure, ; Linda J. Bilmes, of the Harvard Kennedy School, recently estimated that the total cost could be three to four times that much.
Even these days, a trillion or two is a lot of money.
“At this point, it is in Iraq,” a former military intelligence officer named Jim Gourley wrote recently for Thomas E. Ricks’s blog, Best Defense. “Evaluated according to the goals set forth by our military leadership, for our forces.” In 13 years of continuous combat under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the longest stretch of warfare in American history, U.S. forces have achieved one clear strategic success: the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Their many other tactical victories, from overthrowing Saddam Hussein to allying with Sunni tribal leaders to mounting a “surge” in Iraq, demonstrated great bravery and skill. But they brought in, that part of the world. When ISIS troops overran much of Iraq last year, the forces that laid down their weapons and fled before them were members of the same Iraqi national army that U.S. advisers had so expensively yet ineffectively trained for more than five years.
So, oopsie, right? And now we’re going back to “train” the Iraqis again! Remember the old A-A joke, except not, that “Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results”? How many wars do the ruling factions of our political and national security classes plan on losing, anyhow? Three? Four? (Before moving on, I admit there’s a genre of analysis that claims we really won Iraq and Afghanistan, that this or that really important strategic objective was achieved, whatever. However, these advocates need to persuade the political class of this, because if the political class believed we won those wars, there would be victory parades, and one of the parades would be politicians taking credit.)
Second, there’s been (almost) no accountabilty for losing the wars whatever. There’s been (almost) no accountabilty in the political class. Fallows again:
It is striking how rare accountability has been for our modern wars. Hillary Clinton paid a price for her vote to authorize the Iraq War, since that is what gave the barely known Barack Obama an opening to run against her in 2008. George W. Bush, who, like most ex-presidents, has grown more popular the longer he’s been out of office, would perhaps be playing a more visible role in public and political life if not for the overhang of Iraq. But those two are the exceptions. Most other public figures, from Dick Cheney and Colin Powell on down, have put Iraq behind them. In part this is because of the Obama administration’s decision from the start to about why things had gone so badly wrong with America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But such willed amnesia would have been harder if more Americans had felt affected by the wars’ outcome. For our generals, our politicians, and most of our citizenry, there is .
Nor has there been accountabitility in the national security class:
Wlliam S. Lind is a military historian who in the 1990s helped develop the concept of “Fourth Generation War,” or struggles against the insurgents, terrorists, or other “nonstate” groups that refuse to form ranks and fight like conventional armies. He wrote recently:
The most curious thing about our four defeats in Fourth Generation War—Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan—is the utter silence in the American officer corps. Defeat in Vietnam bred a generation of military reformers … Today, the landscape is barren. Not a military voice is heard calling for thoughtful, substantive change. Just more money, please.
During and after even successful American wars, and certainly after the standoff in Korea and the defeat in Vietnam, the professional military’s leadership and judgment were considered fair game for criticism. Grant saved the Union; McClellan seemed almost to sabotage it—and he was only one of the Union generals Lincoln had to move out of the way. Something similar was true in wars through Vietnam. Some leaders were good; others were bad. Now, for purposes of public discussion, they’re all heroes. In our past decade’s wars, as Thomas Ricks wrote in this magazine in 2012, “.” This, he said, was not only a radical break from American tradition but also “an important factor in the failure” of our recent wars.
Nor — shifting away from Fallows — has there been any accountability for our famously free press. I pointed out an especially shocking, or not, example of airbrushing on Iraq from Times Editor Baquet the other day; and rather than multiply examples, I’ll simply provide this video of The Moustache of Understanding, Thomas Freidman, speaking on the rationale for the Iraq war:
and note that Freidman still has a platform at The World’s Greatest Newspaper, and is treated as a Serious Person at Davos.
So, to recap, we’ve got a military that lit a trilllion dollars or so on fire and threw it into the air in the process of losing two wars, while firing no generals; and we’ve got a national security and a political class that looks on blankly, twiddling their fingers, whistling a little or occasionally humming, for what, thirteen years? while the smoking, bloody ball of severed limbs and torn metal rolls, gathering speed and size, downhill. This is imperial decadence of a Caligulan scale. To reframe the question posed by the headline: Do you want Caligula putting “boots on the ground” in Syria or Ukraine? Again, a rhetorical question marked with the particle num. Though I don’t know if there’s a Latin way to say “Not ‘No.’ Hell no!”
In this post, I won’t go into the causes of our current plight. (It might, after all, be no bad thing to have a military so bad that we can’t, sensibly, send it to war, although checks and balances were supposed to handle that function.) I’d like to draw out some future institutional implications that will play out for the next few decades (absent serious change). As it turns out, we’re optimizing the Federal civil service for Veterans:
Obama began accelerating the hiring of veterans five years ago in response to the bleak employment prospects many service members faced after coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq. It is the government’s most visible effort to reward military service since the draft ended in the 1970s.
Veterans benefit from preferential hiring for civil service jobs under a law dating to World War II, but the administration has boosted the extra credit veterans get, giving them an even greater edge in getting those jobs. The government has also set hiring goals for veterans at each agency, and managers are graded on how many they bring on board, officials said.
Last year, , the Office of Personnel Management said. They now represent , holding positions well beyond the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments.
I have literally no idea what the effects of optimizing Federal hiring policy to employ the former military will be, but I imagine a sociologist or anthropologist would find much of interest:
On a recent Monday, the entire team trickled into a lunchtime staff meeting in the basement of their L’Enfant Plaza headquarters. The employees talked openly about their different work styles. Matt Frazer, who came from the private sector, said that if he found a different way to get something done, he would try it. But, he told the veterans, “you guys don’t question the path to get to your goal.”
At the same time, he acknowledged some envy over the veterans’ bond. “It’s like you have your own fraternity,” he said.
Bob Landau, also a non-veteran, defended those who came from the military, saying they are more driven. “Civilians just get promoted because of time,” he added [very much unlike Generals, eh?]
During the meeting, it was hard to distinguish who had served in the military and who had not. .
They ribbed each other over whether anyone could tell them apart.
“This is where it starts,” Landau joked, rolling his eyes in anticipation of the war stories to come.
Dominance games…. (To be clear, I’m not blaming the grunts, at least any who participated in Abu Ghraib or took trophies and are unrepentant — such incidents, to my mind, being at least in part symptoms of demoralization stemming from the so evidently rotten leadership, not to mention an ill-defined mission.)
The same optimization seems to happen, more subtly, in the 20%. Returning to Fallows:
whether or not this was a conscious plan, the military gets a substantial PR boost from the modern practice of placing officers in mid-career assignments at think tanks, on congressional staffs, and in graduate programs across the country. For universities, military students are (as a dean at a public-policy school put it to me) “a better version of foreign students.” That is, they work hard, pay full tuition, and unlike many international students face no language barrier or difficulty adjusting to the American style of give-and-take classroom exchanges. Most cultures esteem the scholar-warrior, and these programs expose usually skeptical American elites to people like the young Colin Powell, who as a lieutenant colonel in his mid-30s was a White House fellow after serving in Vietnam, and David Petraeus, who got his Ph.D. at Princeton as a major 13 years after graduating from West Point.
At this point, let me note that Colin Powell [genuflects] was responsible for selling Bush’s manufactured WMD evidence to the UN while making the case for the Iraq War; and that “scholar-warrior” Petraeus got taken down in a weird scandal involving sex with his biographer (!). If these two examples are the best and brightest (the “people like”) of the officer corp, I have to say I don’t think much of them; gullible at the very best in the one case; narcissistic in the other.
If I didn’t know better, I’d say we were setting ourselves up for a lot more self-licking ice-cream cones.
So, on the narrow question of policy, yeah, we’d be nuts to send our military into either Ukraine or Syria. They’re losers. Worse, because they’re never held accountable for failure, we’d just be setting ourselves up for more losing, down the line.
On the broader question, I have no idea what the implications are of optimizing Federal hiring for the enlistees in a military that lost two major wars, or of populating the political and national security classes with officers who led those enlistees to failure, while nobody held them accountable. I can’t imagine anything good. Imperial decadence, as I said. Iceberg? What iceberg?
 Heaven forfend that the employment prospects of all citizens improve!
A joking dialog:
QUESTIONER: How will we know when the aircraft carrier is obsolete?
ADMIRAL: When it fails in war.
I don’t think the process of decadence visible here is at anywhere near an end, and I think we have barely seen the consequences of it, so far.
UPDATE In budgetary terms, the military doesn’t deserve the money. So we should take it away from them. Lots of it. Fallows also has an entertaining segment on the F-35. Bernie should straighten himself out on that before he becomes a national figure.