Tag: marines

How Not to Fact Check a Presidential Debate

After last night’s debate, I watched the postgame on the Fox News Channel.

They had some problems with their fact checking.

They got off to a solid start, going through the back-and-forth on whether or not the Obama administration attempted to get a Status of Forces Agreement in Iraq that would have exempted U.S. troops from being subject to Iraqi law and therefore left them in the country. Governor Romney was right on that one, and Fox called it for Romney.

Then Chris Wallace decided to “fact check” the repartee over Romney’s point that the U.S. Navy has fewer ships than it has had since 1917. Just as a refresher, here are the relevant bits:

ROMNEY: Our Navy is old — excuse me, our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917. The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We’re now at under 285. We’re headed down to the low 200s if we go through a sequestration. That’s unacceptable to me.

I want to make sure that we have the ships that are required by our Navy. Our Air Force is older and smaller than at any time since it was founded in 1947.

[…]

OBAMA: …I think Governor Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works.

You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.

And so the question is not a game of Battleship, where we’re counting ships. It’s what are our capabilities…

So how did Fox fact check this go round? Here’s what Chris Wallace said:

Well, as it turns out, in the middle of the debate, after he heard this, a Marine tweeted Fox News and said, “The Marines still use bayonets,” so it may not be clear who doesn’t really understand what the military currently uses.

I always thought Chris Wallace was a pretty sharp guy, but this makes me question that judgment. The point wasn’t that bayonets don’t exist anymore, or that they aren’t issued to Marines—they are. The point was that fighting wars is very different than was fighting wars in the early 20th century. Bayonets are not causes of mass death in combat as they were, say, right around 1916 (see photo). The point was that simply tallying the number of ships isn’t apples to apples because one American warship can do so much more today than one warship could back then.

The more precise point would be that we currently measure our navy in terms of tonnage. But don’t take it from me, take it from former Bush/Obama defense secretary Robert Gates:

As much as the U.S. Navy has shrunk since the end of the Cold War, for example, in terms of tonnage, its battle fleet is still larger than the next 13 navies combined—and 11 of those 13 navies are U.S. allies or partners.

Wallace’s idea that what he was doing was somehow a “fact check” overlooks the point that there wasn’t a fact in dispute. There was an argument, slightly more complicated than a simple factual dispute. And Obama’s argument, that the nature of militaries and combat has changed dramatically—nuclear weapons, anyone?—since 1916 and that we measure combat power differently as a result, was clearly correct. Even trying to count the number of bayonets would have been a silly effort to miss the point.

It is disappointing in the extreme to see VP candidate Paul Ryan on television this morning in one breath seemingly understanding Obama’s point, then immediately claiming not to understand the point (“to compare modern American battleships and navy with bayonets, I just don’t understand the comparison…”)

Election 2012: Thank God it’s almost over.

The Strategic Corporal

Retired Generals Charles Krulak and Joseph Hoar have an op-ed over at the Miami Herald making some important arguments against using “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Krulak served as Commandant of the Marine Corps and Hoar served as CENTCOM Commander. CENTCOM is short for Central Command, the regional military command responsible for the Middle East.

Krulak and Hoar endorse the Interrogation Task Force’s recommendation that all future detainee interrogations be conducted within the guidelines in the Army Field Manual on Interrogation. In doing so, they make a point that may be difficult to see unless you have been a leader in the military: condoning torture, or any mistreatment of prisoners, erodes discipline in a military organization.

Rules about the humane treatment of prisoners exist precisely to deter those in the field from taking matters into their own hands. They protect our nation’s honor.

To argue that honorable conduct is only required against an honorable enemy degrades the Americans who must carry out the orders. As military professionals, we know that complex situational ethics cannot be applied during the stress of combat. The rules must be firm and absolute; if torture is broached as a possibility, it will become a reality. Moral equivocation about abuse at the top of the chain of command travels through the ranks at warp speed.

Krulak is no stranger to this topic. In a 1999 article, The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War, Krulak highlighted the difficulty of deploying to low-intensity conflicts and the challenges that enlisted Marines (and soldiers) will face. In a single conflict, a unit could be engaged in humanitarian aid on one block, quelling a riot on the next, and fighting pitched urban combat on the third. Small units led by a corporal may have to take on captain-sized problems. Krulak stressed the importance of leadership and character at the lowest level so that when an officer is not present, low-level leaders will act with the necessary initiative and decision-making skills. The cornerstone for all of this is character.

Honor, courage, and commitment become more than mere words. Those precious virtues, in fact, become the defining aspect of each Marine. This emphasis on character remains the bedrock upon which everything else is built. The active sustainment of character in every Marine is a fundamental institutional competency – and for good reason.

Torture apologists may be found aplenty inside the Beltway, but those who have worn the uniform know better.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Moment in Afghanistan

In yesterday’s Washington Post, veteran newsman Bob Woodward recounts a recent meeting between National Security Advisor James Jones and a few dozen Marine officers in Afghanistan’s Helmand province under the command of Marine Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson. 

The subject on everyone’s mind: force levels. Saying that he was “a little light,” Nicholson hinted that he could use more forces, probably thousands more. “We don’t have enough force to go everywhere,” Nicholson said.

Of course he doesn’t. One senior military commander confided, in Woodward’s telling, ”that there would need to be more than 100,000 troops to execute the counterinsurgency strategy of holding areas and towns after clearing out the Taliban insurgents. That is at least 32,000 more than the 68,000 currently authorized.”

So, Nicholson and other commanders were asking: Can we expect to receive additional troops in Afghanistan any time soon?

Jones’s answer: don’t bet on it.

The retired Marine Corps general reminded his audience in Helmand that Obama has approved two increases already. Going beyond merely an endorsement of the outgoing Bush admiministration’s decision to more than double the force in Afghanistan, Obama accepted the recommendation of his advisers to send an additional 17,000, and then shortly thereafter another 4,000.

Well, Jones went on, after all those additional troops,…if there were new requests for force now, the president would quite likely have “a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment.” Everyone in the room caught the phonetic reference to WTF – which in the military and elsewhere means “What the [expletive]?”

Nicholson and his colonels – all or nearly all veterans of Iraq – seemed to blanch at the unambiguous message that this might be all the troops they were going to get.

Nicholson and his Marines should be concerned. But so should all Americans. The men and women in our military have been given a mission that is highly dependent upon a very large number of troops, and they don’t have a very large number of troops. The clear, hold and build strategy is dangerous and difficult – even when you have the troop levels that the military’s doctrine recommends: 20 troops per 1,000 indigenous population. In a country the size of Afghanistan (with an estimated population of 33 million), that wouldn’t be 100,000 troops, that would be 660,000 troops.

Pacifying all of Afghanistan would be nearly impossible with one half that number of troops. It is foolhardy to even attempt such a mission with less than a sixth that many.

So, what gives? (Or, as the military folks might say, “Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot?”)

It is doubtful that anyone in the White House, the Pentagon, or on Capitol Hill honestly believes that 70,000 U.S. troops can turn Afghanistan into a central Asian version of Alabama – or even Algeria, for that matter. They might reasonably object that they aren’t trying to pacify the whole country, but rather the most restive provinces in the south and east. Perhaps barely 10 million people live there (which my calculator says would require a force of 200,000). Besides, they might go on, the 20 per 1,000 figure is just a guideline, just a rule-of-thumb. Some missions have succeeded with fewer than that ratio of troops, just as other missions have failed with troop ratios in excess of 20 : 1,000.

These seem to be nothing more than thin rationalizations. They reflect the fact that the American public would not support an open-ended mission in Afghanistan that would occupy essentially all of our Marine and Army personnel for many years. The “70,000 troops for who knows how long” is a political statement. They are pursuing a strategy shaped by focus groups and polls, rather than by doctrine and common sense.

No, that is not an argument for more troops. It is not an argument for ignoring public sentiment. It is an argument for a different mission.

The public’s growing ambivalence about the war in Afghanistan reflects a well-placed broader skepticism about population-centric counterinsurgency that are heavily dependent upon very large concentrations of troops staying in country for a very long period of time. Americans don’t support such missions, because the benefits don’t outweigh the costs. And they likely never will. They are equally skeptical of COIN’s intellectual cousin, ambitious nation-building projects.

And if I’m right, and if no one actually believes that killing suspected Taliban, destroying fields of poppies, building roads and bridges,  establishing judicial standards and training Afghan police is actually going to work, then, well,….

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

The mission in Afghanistan, especially the troop increases, appear more and more as face-saving gestures. A show of wanting to do something, even if policymakers doubt that it will actually succeed. It is a delaying action, a postponing of the inevitable, a kicking the can down the road.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope that a miracle happens. I hope that the Taliban disappears. That Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mullah Mohammed Omar, Jalaluddin Haqqani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and every other bad guy I can name winds up dead on an Afghan battlefield. Tomorrow, preferably. I hope that all Afghans (girls and boys) get an education and earn a decent living. I hope that Hamid Karzai learns how to govern, Afghan judges learn how to judge, and that the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police quickly learn how to defend their own country.

In short, I hope that the people who are crafting our Afghan strategy know something that I don’t.

I fear, however, that the deaths and grievous injuries endured by our military personnel during this interim period, which may run for years or even decades, as we seek “peace with honor” or “a decent interval” (or pick your own favorite Vietnam cliche), will weigh heavily on the consciences of policy makers if, in the end, they have merely burdened these men and women with an impossible task.

Ask Robert McNamara how that feels.