Tag: military

What War Does to Our Society

The Department of State recently released newly declassified documents covering U.S. policy toward Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from January 1973-July 1975. At a State Department conference commemorating the release of these documents, diplomat, strategist, and Nobel laureate Henry Kissinger bemoaned the torment that consumed a generation of Americans as the conflict wore on. The insight Kissinger provides–possibly unintentional–underscores why assessments of war should go beyond critiques of its political and geostrategic ramifications; they should also extend to the various ways that war affects our society and public more generally.

In Kissinger’s somber assessment of America’s involvement in Southeast Asia, he said he regrets that what should have been straightforward disagreements over the U.S. approach to Vietnam became “transmuted into a moral issue – first about the moral adequacy of American foreign policy altogether and then into the moral adequacy of America.”

He goes on to say, “To me, the tragedy of the Vietnam war was not that there were disagreements—that was inevitable, given the complexity of the (conflict)—but that the faith of Americans in each other became destroyed in the process.”

Kissinger called himself “absolutely unreconstructed” on that point.

“I believe that most of what went wrong in Vietnam we did to ourselves,” he said, adding, “I would have preferred another outcome—at least another outcome that was not so intimately related to the way that we tore ourselves apart.”

Disappointingly, much of what Mr. Kissinger said is true.

Certainly, much of the burdens associated with our foreign policies do not affect the average person; they are absorbed by America’s all-volunteer military. Still, wars and debates over wars have the power not only to tear our society apart, but also to destroy our faith in each other in the process. These factors are latent, ignored, and often misunderstood, but are detrimental to our country nonetheless.

In this respect, criticism of war should not end at an aversion to deficit spending. Certainly, increased public debt and diminished civil liberties are enduring, adverse effects of war. As writer Randolph Bourne famously declared during World War I, “War is the health of the state.”

But in addition to expanded government power, wars also become a template for regimentation in other areas of life. As we witnessed in the lead up to the war in Iraq, war can erode what should be the public’s normal propensity to question authority and lead to a herd mentality that demands blind obedience to state authority.

Over time, and through decades of continual foreign intervention, wars can radically alter our national character and transmogrify the spirit and moral temperament of our society. Sadly, such a perilous path could doom our nation to a fate that befell history’s other predominant great powers.

Check out the most recent volume of State Department reports on Vietnam. You won’t be disappointed.

Concerning the End of “Combat Operations” in Iraq

Several of today’s front pages feature iconic images of U.S. troops marching onto troop transports and into the sunset in Iraq. Today’s story by Ernesto Londoño in the Washington Post, features Lt. Col. Mark Bieger of the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division,  “This is a historic mission!” Beiger bellows as his troops prepared to depart Baghdad for the last time, ”A truly historic end to seven years of war.”

No disrespect to Col. Bieger and his troops, but the war isn’t over, and it won’t be so long as there are significant number of U.S. troops in Iraq at risk of being caught in the cross-fire of a sectarian civil war.

The Iraqi government, more than five months after nationwide elections, remains in limbo. Talks over a power sharing arrangement have broken down. Meanwhile, violence is on the rise. Call it whatever you like, but the 50,000 troops who remain in Iraq are still dealing with a lot of challenges.

Much of the confusion in the media reporting revolves around semantics, words and phrases such as “combat” and “combat units.” It doesn’t help that George W. Bush declared on May 1, 2003 that ”major combat operations in Iraq have ended” under that infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner. But beyond Bush’s irrational exuberance, such terms are increasingly misleading in an era in which conventional, state vs. state organized violence – what we used to think of as war – has been replaced by murky, disorganized violence, perpetrated by disparate militias, or merely disgruntled individuals unhappy with their lot in life, and determined to take it out on anyone who happens to be around at the time.

Unfortunately, I have very little confidence that that state of affairs will change any time soon. And I seriously doubt that our people – our men and women in uniform, and, explains Michael Gordon in the New York Times, soon many more U.S. civilians and contractors – will be able to put everything right, and not for lack of trying. Meanwhile, I am deeply troubled by the rising chorus of voices calling on the Obama administration to ignore the remaining provisions of the status of forces agreement (SOFA) and prepare for an indefinite military presence in Iraq. (On this, see Ted Galen Carpenter’s latest entry at TNI’s The Skeptics blog.)

So, no, the war isn’t over. For better or worse (and chiefly the latter),  Americans will remain associated with an unpopular and government in Baghdad as it struggles to hold together the country’s disparate factions. They will be at great risk if the current political paralysis collapses into still wider violence.

Needless to say, I hope that doesn’t happen. But I won’t be striking up the band and declaring the war American in Iraq to be truly over, until all of our troops are back home.

The Financial Times on Robert Gates

Kudos to the Financial Times (subscription may be required) for figuring out what most other journalists and editorial writers haven’t seemed to grasp concerning Robert Gates’s economy initiative at the Pentagon.

[H]is aim is not to cut the overall budget radically; it is merely to achieve savings in the military bureaucracy and thus, against a background of broader fiscal constraint, protect spending on new weapons and other outlays.  (my emphasis)

The reforms in and of themselves are “commendable,” the FT notes, but they don’t amount to very much in the grand scheme, and they therefore do not go nearly far enough. Indeed, as I and others have noted, U.S. military spending will continue to rise if Bob Gates gets his way. This isn’t good enough.

The FT editors agree:

The US needs a much more searching review of its military spending, one that aims to do more than merely curb its growth.

Anyone interested in a comprehensive proposal (three, actually) for substantially reducing U.S. military spending by revisiting the roles, responsibilities, and missions that are currently assigned to Gates’s department can find it here.

Does McChrystal Rhyme with MacArthur?

Apparently not. Unlike Douglas MacArthur, Stanley McChrystal has tendered his resignation. President Obama should accept it, and move swiftly to put this unfortunate incident behind him.

This story moved so quickly that I wasn’t able to keep up. In the early morning, we learned that McChrystal had been called to Washington for face-to-face meetings with President Obama (aka The Commander in Chief), and Robert Gates (the SecDef who has built a reputation for sacking generals). McChrystal’s press aide was fired. By early afternoon, others, including those sympathetic to the general, were predicting that he would step down, or that he should be fired if he did not (Eliot Cohen “This is a firing offense”; Peter Feaver “This is clearly a firing offense”).

I won’t repeat what Justin Logan, Malou Innocent, and I said in our statements this morning. It is obvious that Gen. McChrystal showed very poor judgment, and this is not the first time. When his assessment of what was required in Afghanistan (More Forces or “Mission Failure”) was leaked before the president had settled on a strategy, the White House was furious. They felt that he was trying to bully them. Strike one. When he challenged the chain of command with his remarks in London in October, dismissing Vice President’s Biden’s preferred counterterrorism approach as “shortsighted,” Obama summoned him for a private meeting on Air Force One. Strike two. There was more than enough material in the Rolling Stone story to constitute strike three. And four, five, and six.

I urge people to read the story. It might be remembered as the article that put an end to Stanley McChrystal’s storied career. I wonder if the article might serve a broader purpose: undermining the already wavering support for COIN. Look past McChrystal, a man who has given his life to the military, and has much to show for it. Look at the enlisted guys who are just beginning their careers, or the NCOs or junior officers who are in the third or fourth tours (in either Iraq or Afghanistan). They’re growing frustrated. They’re in an impossible situation. They are fighting a war that depends upon strong support here in the United States, and that aims to boost support for a government that no one believes in. And while they understand COIN as preached by McChrystal, they struggle with the rules of engagement that COIN requires.

One soldier shows me the list of new regulations the platoon was given. “Patrol only in areas that you are reasonably certain that you will not have to defend yourselves with lethal force,” the laminated card reads. For a soldier who has traveled halfway around the world to fight, that’s like telling a cop he should only patrol in areas where he knows he won’t have to make arrests. “Does that make any [expletive] sense?” asks Pfc. Jared Pautsch. “We should just drop a [expletive] bomb on this place. You sit and ask yourself: What are we doing here?”

I give up. What are we doing there?

Ending DADT, Again

Stuart Koehl has a piece at The Weekly Standard against ending Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT). He presents a comprehensive set of arguments based on readiness, that ending DADT will hurt the effectiveness of the force.

I disagree, and it’s worth pointing out that he is quick to dismiss the fact that other first-rate militaries have allowed gays to serve without damaging readiness. As he puts it:

But history provides plenty of evidence that homosexuality does undermine unit cohesion.  The current practices of other armies are an experiment in progress, which should not overturn empirically proven policies.  There are also significant differences between those armies and the United States military.  The first is scale—the entire British army is barely the size of the Marine Corps, while the Israeli army is very small unless fully mobilized.  Neither the British nor the Israeli armies undertake extended overseas deployments of the length or scale of the U.S. military; Israeli army is very much a “commuter” force, with most troops living at home unless serving in the field—which is only an hour or so from home.  As a result, neither has any experience with homosexuals serving in the field for extended periods.  Finally, neither the British nor the Israeli armies have experienced anything approaching an extended, high-intensity war, so neither has any idea what effect homosexuals in the ranks might have on combat effectiveness.

Israel certainly has experience with an extended, high-intensity war. Since its birth it has faced the threat of invasion and terrorism, and the forecast for the last few decades has been scattered machine-gun fire with a chance of rockets by mid-afternoon.

Except for the United States, Britain remains the largest donor of forces to Afghanistan (now America’s longest war), according to the ISAF website. This excellent dispatch from Michael Yon portrays them as a first-rate force. There’s even a female combat medic on patrol with Yon. I see no difference between American and British experiences in Afghanistan to support Koehl’s claim.

Setting aside the official policy, American commanders have historically looked the other way during war to allow gays to serve in their units. As I said in this post:

Sergeant Darren Manzella served as a combat medic, and his chain of command investigated the claim that he was gay. Manzella provided pictures and video of him with his boyfriend, but found “no evidence of homosexuality.”

The story makes clear that Manzella gave them plenty evidence of homosexuality, but it didn’t make any sense to get rid of a good soldier in a critical field when he wanted to continue serving and there was a war going on.

Gays are currently serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. I am certain that many of their brothers and sisters in arms suspect or know that they are gay, and don’t care. Ending DADT will not harm military readiness.

Grasping for Rationales, Feeding Conspiracy Theories

On June 13, the New York Times reported that America “just discovered” a trillion dollars worth of mineral resources in Afghanistan (HT to Katie Drummond over at Danger Room for offering some enlightened skepticism on the topic).

Of course, the U.S. Geological Survey has known about Afghanistan’s “large quantities of iron and copper” since 2007. The Los Angeles Times reported that geologist Bonita Chamberlain, who has spent 25 years working in Afghanistan, “identified 91 minerals, metals and gems at 1,407 potential mining sites” as far back as 2001. Chamberlain was even contacted by the Pentagon to write a report on the subject just weeks after 9/11 (possibly to expound upon the findings of her co-authored book, “Gemstones in Afghanistan,” published in 1996.)

Given the recent failure of Marjah, which Gen. McChrystal recently called “a bleeding ulcer,” this new “discovery” could offer Western leaders a new way to convince their war-weary publics that Afghanistan is worth the fight. Government officials are already touting this new “discovery” as yet another “decisive moment” or “corner turned” in the Afghan campaign.

In the NYT article, head of Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus, said, “There is stunning potential here. There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant.”

Afghanistan epitomizes the fate of countries too dependent on foreign patronage, which over time has weakened its security by undermining their leaders’ allegiance to the state. In the long run, $1 trillion worth of mineral deposits could eventually help Afghanistan stand on its own two feet. However, two problems emerge. First, there is little assurance that revenue from mineral resources (which will take years of capital investment to extract) will actually reach the Afghan people and not be siphoned off by Karzai and his corrupt cronies–like much of the international community’s investment does now.

Second, in the short-term, this discovery may feed conspiracy theories that already exist in the region. Though unwise to generalize personal meetings to an entire population, some conspiracy theories that I heard while I was recently in Afghanistan should give U.S. officials pause before announcing that America can help extract the country’s mineral deposits. Some of the wildest conspiracy theories I heard were that the United States wants to occupy Afghanistan in order to take its resources; the Taliban is the United States; the United States is using helicopters to ferry Taliban around northern Afghanistan (courtesy of Afghan President Hamid Karzai); America is at war in order to weaken Islam; and the list goes on.

This “discovery” may force more people in the region to ask: what are America’s real reasons for building permanent bases in Central Asia?

This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post on June 15, 2010.

Militarizing the Border

President Obama is sending 1,200 National Guard troops to the border with Mexico. This should not be viewed as an innovative solution; Bush sent 1,600 troops to the border under parallel circumstances in 2002. As Ilya Shapiro recently wrote, sending some Guardsmen is no substitute for substantive immigration policy reform.

The National Guard, and the military generally, should not be seen as the go-to solution for domestic problems. Certainly the role they will play on the border will not be as offensive as policing the streets of an Alabama town after a mass shooting (which the Department of Defense found was a violation of the Posse Comitatus Act, but declined to pursue charges) or using a city in Iowa as a rehearsal site for cordon-and-search operations looking for weapons, but politicians from both major parties have at one point or another suggested using the military for domestic operations that range from the absurd to the frightening.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta wanted to put Delta Force commandos on airliners after the attacks on September 11, 2001. Air marshals and armed pilots can handle airline counterterrorism; tracking down Al Qaeda organizers in Afghanistan is a better use of Delta’s unique skill-set. Marines conducting counter-drug surveillance near the border shot and killed goat herder Esequiel Hernandez. Something to keep in mind when politicians call for an expanded the role of the military in border security.

Gene Healy’s excellent policy analysis Deployed in the U.S.A.: The Creeping Militarization of the Home Front provides more detail on sensible limits for domestic use of the military. Read the whole thing.