Endless Wars Are Corrupting Our Military and Distracting the US from Bigger Global Threats
(December 4, 2019) — Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer was fired last month, a consequence of President Donald Trump’s foolish decision to pardon three servicemen who were either convicted of or awaiting trial for crimes committed in combat. The president has been rightly excoriated for these pardons, which dishonor the US military and may degrade good order and discipline. But amid this uproar, Americans should note the bigger lesson: Endless wars, especially endless counterinsurgency or counterterrorism wars, slowly chip away at both a military’s ethics and its critical war-fighting skills.
This is not to say that the men Trump pardoned in November were victims or automatons. Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, only three days into his deployment, chose to order his men to shoot two Afghan civilians and then lied about it. Army Maj. Mathew Golsteyn chose to kill a suspected enemy combatant and hide his body. And Navy Special Operations Chief Eddie Gallagher chose to pose with an enemy corpse — and likely did far worse — but was saved by the incompetence and malevolence of his prosecutors.
Military leaders will say their men are being shamed by “a few bad apples” in the ranks. And that is basically true — willful atrocities by American troops have been rare in the post-9/11 wars, though hundreds of thousands of civilians have been “collateral damage.” The vast majority of American troops deployed to combat overseas have “kept their honor clean,” in the stirring words of the Marines’ Hymn.
However, keeping their honor clean becomes harder and harder the longer these wars drag on. Wars among the people, as all our endless wars now are, are inherently dirty. When even senior members of the foreign policy establishment concede that we are not seeking victory in Afghanistan, it becomes harder for soldiers to make hollow mission accomplishment a higher priority than self-preservation.
Treating US soldiers like victims, as Trump implicitly does, also becomes more common. There is now even an attempt to get a pardon for Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who went on a rampage and murdered 16 Afghan civilians in the worst US atrocity since My Lai.
American servicemen and their leaders can bend over backward to do no harm to civilians, and yet fear, proximity and accidents have killed many thousands of foreign civilians. US Central Command’s spokesman insists that US forces “are conducting one of the most precise air campaigns in military history.” Maybe so. But the civilian death rate is perhaps 31 times what the Pentagon claims.
We will never have accurate numbers, but of the 500,000 Global War on Terrorism veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, tens of thousands are surely morally injured from what they have done, often unavoidably, to the Iraqi, Afghan and other civilians we fought among.
Even more serious for American national security is the fact that endless small wars degrade a military’s ability to fight and win big wars — wars that have real consequences for our security and way of life. Yes, the post-9/11 wars have led to tactical and technological advances, primarily in small unit combat and air-delivered fire support.
Our special operations forces have become expert manhunters — though their ability to do the more tedious but essential work of training foreign forces is open to question. But better tourniquets or close-quarters battle skills pale in comparison to what we have lost by taking our eyes off the ball on Russia and China.
Russia may be a declining power, but it has made advances in electronic and cyber warfare while America’s attention was focused on the impossible and the irrelevant, fixing fractured states thousands of miles from our shores.
Chinese capabilities have advanced by leaps and bounds: while America was growing its ground forces and training a generation of soldiers to learn mine detection skills and a few words of Pashto, the Chinese were developing satellites and ship-killing missiles. This is to say nothing of Chinese espionage and the 5G race that may matter far more than any ship or plane. We can say America should be able to walk and chew gum, but the reality is that even a superpower has limited bandwidth.
The Israeli example is instructive. The Israel Defense Forces, long regarded as the premier military in the Middle East, has spent decades waging a grinding counterinsurgency in its Palestinian territories. When called on in 2006 to fight Hezbollah, a well-trained and equipped militia, the IDF fought to an embarrassing stalemate.
Critical competencies of real war — including armor, artillery and the command and control of large formations — had atrophied badly. The Israelis overhauled their training and are now better prepared to defeat Hezbollah and similar threats. But it took a bloody nose to get there. The consequences for the United States could be more severe.
Endless, unwinnable wars slowly degrade even the finest militaries. The United States should think about both its fighters and its future fights and end the fruitless campaigns in the Greater Middle East.
Gil Barndollar is the military fellow-in-residence at Catholic University’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship and a senior fellow at Defense Priorities. He served as a US Marine infantry officer from 2009 to 2016.
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