Analysis: According to James Fallows, "The American public and its political leadership will do anything for the military except take it seriously. The result is a chickenhawk nation in which careless spending and strategic folly combine to lure America into endless wars it can't win."
The following is excerpted from James Fellow's cover story in the January/February 2015 issue of The Atlantic. The full story can be read in The Atlantic magazine.
The Tragedy of the American Military James Fallows / The Atlantic
(January/February 2015) -- In mid-September, while President Obama was fending off complaints that he should have done more, done less, or done something different about the overlapping crises in Iraq and Syria, he traveled to Central Command headquarters, at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida. There he addressed some of the men and women who would implement whatever the US military strategy turned out to be.
The part of the speech intended to get coverage was Obama's rationale for reengaging the United States in Iraq, more than a decade after it first invaded and following the long and painful effort to extricate itself. This was big enough news that many cable channels covered the speech live. I watched it on an overhead TV while I sat waiting for a flight at Chicago's O'Hare airport.
When Obama got to the section of his speech announcing whether he planned to commit US troops in Iraq (at the time, he didn't), I noticed that many people in the terminal shifted their attention briefly to the TV. As soon as that was over, they went back to their smartphones and their laptops and their Cinnabons as the president droned on.
Usually I would have stopped watching too, since so many aspects of public figures' appearances before the troops have become so formulaic and routine. But I decided to see the whole show. Obama gave his still-not-quite-natural-sounding callouts to the different military services represented in the crowd. ("I know we've got some Air Force in the house!” and so on, receiving cheers rendered as "Hooyah!” and "Oorah!”
in the official White House transcript.) He told members of the military that the nation was grateful for their nonstop deployments and for the unique losses and burdens placed on them through the past dozen years of open-ended war. He noted that they were often the face of American influence in the world, being dispatched to Liberia in 2014 to cope with the then-dawning Ebola epidemic as they had been sent to Indonesia 10 years earlier to rescue victims of the catastrophic tsunami there. He said that the "9/11 generation of heroes” represented the very best in its country, and that its members constituted a military that was not only superior to all current adversaries but no less than "the finest fighting force in the history of the world.”
If any of my fellow travelers at O'Hare were still listening to the speech, none of them showed any reaction to it. And why would they? This has become the way we assume the American military will be discussed by politicians and in the press: Overblown, limitless praise, absent the caveats or public skepticism we would apply to other American institutions, especially ones that run on taxpayer money. A somber moment to reflect on sacrifice. Then everyone except the few people in uniform getting on with their workaday concerns.
The public attitude evident in the airport was reflected by the public's representatives in Washington. That same afternoon, September 17, the House of Representatives voted after brief debate to authorize arms and supplies for rebel forces in Syria, in hopes that more of them would fight against the Islamic State, or ISIS, than for it. T
he Senate did the same the next day -- and then both houses adjourned early, after an unusually short and historically unproductive term of Congress, to spend the next six and a half weeks fund-raising and campaigning full-time. I'm not aware of any midterm race for the House or Senate in which matters of war and peace -- as opposed to immigration, Obamacare, voting rights, tax rates, the Ebola scare -- were first-tier campaign issues on either side, except for the metaphorical "war on women” and "war on coal.”
This reverent but disengaged attitude toward the military -- we love the troops, but we'd rather not think about them -- has become so familiar that we assume it is the American norm. But it is not. When Dwight D. Eisenhower, as a five-star general and the supreme commander, led what may have in fact been the finest fighting force in the history of the world, he did not describe it in that puffed-up way.
On the eve of the D-Day invasion, he warned his troops, "Your task will not be an easy one,” because "your enemy is well-trained, well-equipped, and battle-hardened.” As president, Eisenhower's most famous statement about the military was his warning in his farewell address of what could happen if its political influence grew unchecked.
. . .
The most biting satirical novel to come from the Iraq-Afghanistan era, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain, is a takedown of our empty modern "thank you for your service” rituals. It is the story of an Army squad that is badly shot up in Iraq; is brought back to be honored at halftime during a nationally televised Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving Day game; while there, is slapped on the back and toasted by owner's-box moguls and flirted with by cheerleaders, "passed around like everyone's favorite bong,” as platoon member Billy Lynn thinks of it; and is then shipped right back to the front.
The people at the stadium feel good about what they've done to show their support for the troops. From the troops' point of view, the spectacle looks different. "There's something harsh in his fellow Americans, avid, ecstatic, a burning that comes of the deepest need,” the narrator says of Billy Lynn's thoughts. "That's his sense of it, they all need something from him, this pack of half-rich lawyers, dentists, soccer moms, and corporate VPs, they're all gnashing for a piece of a barely grown grunt making $14,800 a year.”
Fountain's novel won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 2012, but it did not dent mainstream awareness enough to make anyone self-conscious about continuing the "salute to the heroes” gestures that do more for the civilian public's self-esteem than for the troops'.
As I listened to Obama that day in the airport, and remembered Ben Fountain's book, and observed the hum of preoccupied America around me, I thought that the parts of the presidential speech few Americans were listening to were the ones historians might someday seize upon to explain the temper of our times.
* * *
I. Chickenhawk Nation
If I were writing such a history now, I would call it Chickenhawk Nation, based on the derisive term for those eager to go to war, as long as someone else is going. It would be the story of a country willing to do anything for its military except take it seriously. As a result, what happens to all institutions that escape serious external scrutiny and engagement has happened to our military.
Outsiders treat it both too reverently and too cavalierly, as if regarding its members as heroes makes up for committing them to unending, unwinnable missions and denying them anything like the political mindshare we give to other major public undertakings, from medical care to public education to environmental rules. The tone and level of public debate on those issues is hardly encouraging. But for democracies, messy debates are less damaging in the long run than letting important functions run on autopilot, as our military essentially does now.
A chickenhawk nation is more likely to keep going to war, and to keep losing, than one that wrestles with long-term questions of effectiveness.
. . .
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.
Yet repeatedly this force has been defeated by less modern, worse-equipped, barely funded foes. 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, our dozen years of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and neighboring countries have cost at least $1.5 trillion; Linda J. Bilmes, of the Harvard Kennedy School, recently estimated that the total cost could be three to four times that much. Recall that while Congress was considering whether to authorize the Iraq War, the head of the White House economic council, Lawrence B. Lindsey, was forced to resign for telling The Wall Street Journal that the all-in costs might be as high as $100 billion to $200 billion, or less than the US has spent on Iraq and Afghanistan in many individual years.
Yet from a strategic perspective, to say nothing of the human cost, most of these dollars might as well have been burned. "At this point, it is incontrovertibly evident that the US military failed to achieve any of its strategic goals 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, the war ended in utter defeat 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, US 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 no lasting stability to, nor advance of US interests 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 US advisers had so expensively yet ineffectively trained for more than five years.
"We are vulnerable,” the author William Greider wrote during the debate last summer on how to fight ISIS, "because our presumption of unconquerable superiority leads us deeper and deeper into unwinnable military conflicts.” And the separation of the military from the public disrupts the process of learning from these defeats. The last war that ended up in circumstances remotely resembling what prewar planning would have considered a victory was the brief Gulf War of 1991.
. . .
William 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.
* * *
II. Chickenhawk Economy
America's distance from the military makes the country too willing to go to war, and too callous about the damage warfare inflicts. This distance also means that we spend too much money on the military and we spend it stupidly, thereby shortchanging many of the functions that make the most difference to the welfare of the troops and their success in combat.
We buy weapons that have less to do with battlefield realities than with our unending faith that advanced technology will ensure victory, and with the economic interests and political influence of contractors. This leaves us with expensive and delicate high-tech white elephants, while unglamorous but essential tools, from infantry rifles to armored personnel carriers, too often fail our troops (see "Gun Trouble,” by Robert H. Scales, in this issue).
We know that technology is our military's main advantage. Yet the story of the post-9/11 "long wars” is of America's higher-tech advantages yielding transitory victories that melt away before the older, messier realities of improvised weapons, sectarian resentments, and mounting hostility to occupiers from afar, however well-intentioned.
Many of the Pentagon's most audacious high-tech ventures have been costly and spectacular failures, including (as we will see) the major air-power project of recent years, the F-35. In an America connected to its military, such questions of strategy and implementation would be at least as familiar as, say, the problems with the Common Core education standards.
Those technological breakthroughs that do make their way to the battlefield may prove to be strategic liabilities in the long run. During the years in which the United States has enjoyed a near-monopoly on weaponized drones, for example, they have killed individuals or small groups at the price of antagonizing whole societies. When the monopoly ends, which is inevitable, the very openness of the United States will make it uniquely vulnerable to the cheap, swarming weapons others will deploy.
The cost of defense, meanwhile, goes up and up and up, with little political resistance and barely any public discussion. By the fullest accounting, which is different from usual budget figures, the United States will spend more than $1 trillion on national security this year.
That includes about $580 billion for the Pentagon's baseline budget plus "overseas contingency” funds, $20 billion in the Department of Energy budget for nuclear weapons, nearly $200 billion for military pensions and Department of Veterans Affairs costs, and other expenses. But it doesn't count more than $80 billion a year of interest on the military-related share of the national debt.
After adjustments for inflation, the United States will spend about 50 percent more on the military this year than its average through the Cold War and Vietnam War. It will spend about as much as the next 10 nations combined -- three to five times as much as China, depending on how you count, and seven to nine times as much as Russia. The world as a whole spends about 2 percent of its total income on its militaries; the United States, about 4 percent.
Yet such is the dysfunction and corruption of the budgeting process that even as spending levels rise, the Pentagon faces simultaneous crises in funding for maintenance, training, pensions, and veterans' care. "We're buying the wrong things, and paying too much for them,”
Charles A. Stevenson, a onetime staffer on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a former professor at the National War College, told me. "We're spending so much on people that we don't have the hardware, which is becoming more expensive anyway. We are flatlining R&D.”
James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
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