Saturday, January 24, 2015

When All the King's Horses and All the King's Men Can't.

The Atlantic's James Fallows was interviewed on Bill Maher's show last night. The discussion focused on Fallows' article in the latest edition, "The Tragedy of the American Military."

One point that Fallows addresses is how the mightiest, most costly and best equipped military in the world lost America's last two wars - in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Fallows accuses the American people of becoming a Chickenhawk Nation, plenty eager to go to war as long as someone else is sent to do the killing and the dying.

Too much complacency regarding our military, and too weak a tragic imagination about the consequences if the next engagement goes wrong, have been part of Americans’ willingness to wade into conflict after conflict, blithely assuming we would win. “Did we have the sense that America cared how we were doing? We did not,” Seth Moulton told me about his experience as a marine during the Iraq War. Moulton became a Marine Corps officer after graduating from Harvard in 2001, believing (as he told me) that when many classmates were heading to Wall Street it was useful to set an example of public service. He opposed the decision to invade Iraq but ended up serving four tours there out of a sense of duty to his comrades. “America was very disconnected. We were proud to serve, but we knew it was a little group of people doing the country’s work.”

...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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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, 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 no lasting stability to, nor advance of U.S. 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 U.S. advisers had so expensively yet ineffectively trained for more than five years.

Fallows deals with the modern collapse of accountability in top military ranks.

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, “hundreds of Army generals were deployed to the field, and the available evidence indicates that not one was relieved by the military brass for combat ineffectiveness.” This, he said, was not only a radical break from American tradition but also “an important factor in the failure” of our recent wars.

The author goes on to link the American public's detachment from their military with the madness of modern military procurement.

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.

Fallows reserves special attention for the overpriced, overdue and under-performing F-35.

“Political engineering,” a term popularized by a young Pentagon analyst named Chuck Spinney in the 1970s, is pork-barrel politics on the grandest scale. Cost overruns sound bad if someone else is getting the extra money. They can be good if they are creating business for your company or jobs in your congressional district. Political engineering is the art of spreading a military project to as many congressional districts as possible, and thus maximizing the number of members of Congress who feel that if they cut off funding, they’d be hurting themselves.

The next big project the Air Force is considering is the Long Range Strike Bomber, a successor to the B-1 and B-2 whose specifications include an ability to do bombing runs deep into China. (A step so wildly reckless that the U.S. didn’t consider it even when fighting Chinese troops during the Korean War.) By the time the plane’s full costs and capabilities become apparent, Chuck Spinney wrote last summer, the airplane, “like the F-35 today, will be unstoppable.” That is because even now its supporters are building the plane’s “social safety net by spreading the subcontracts around the country, or perhaps like the F-35, around the world.”

...In the spring of 2011, Barack Obama asked Gary Hart, the Democratic Party’s most experienced and best-connected figure on defense reform, to form a small bipartisan task force that would draft recommendations on how Obama might try to recast the Pentagon and its practices if he won a second term. Hart did so (I was part of the group, along with Andrew J. Bacevich of Boston University, John Arquilla of the Naval Postgraduate School, and Norman R. Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin), and sent a report to Obama that fall. [Here is that memo.] He never heard back. Every White House is swamped with recommendations and requests, and it responds only to those it considers most urgent—which defense reform obviously was not.

...Seth Moulton, a few days after his victory in last fall’s congressional race, said that the overall quality and morale of people in the military has dramatically improved since the days of a conscript force. “But it’s become populated, especially at the highest ranks, by careerists, people who have gotten where they are by checking all the boxes and not taking risks,” he told me. “Some of the finest officers I knew were lieutenants who knew they were getting out, so weren’t afraid to make the right decision. I know an awful lot of senior officers who are very afraid to make a tough choice because they’re worried how it will look on their fitness report.” This may sound like a complaint about life in any big organization, but it’s something more. There’s no rival Army or Marine Corps you can switch to for a new start. There’s almost no surmounting an error or a black mark on the fitness or evaluation reports that are the basis for promotions.

Obviously America's cultural-political-military problems are an order of magnitude greater - and worse - than what  confronts us today in Canada.  Yet we too are a society detached from our military, a people too willing to support sending our soldiers into unwinnable wars by Chickenhawk politicians to suit their own ends and often led by ticket punchers that populate the highest ranks.  

America wasn't alone in losing the Afghan war.  We lost it too.  Every ISAF contingent lost that war.  Yet we don't speak of that.  We'll have no scrutiny of what went wrong and what went right, no post-mortem, without which we're entirely vulnerable to making the same blunders in our eagerness to send other young Canadians into harm's way whenever the coalition horns sound.  

No one has dared ask Harper why we lost.  We have on record his declaration of what we were fighting for in Afghanistan and what we were determined, even bound to achieve.  In that, our prime minister set the bar that determines victory or defeat for our Afghan campaign and, by his boastful criteria, we failed.  We didn't even have a solitary defeat because Harper kept lowering the bar as the war dragged on until, at the end, success was so hollowed out as to become a function of getting our troops and the bulk of our equipment out of Afghanistan. 

It wasn't the sergeants and corporals or the lieutenants and captains who let us down.  They fought admirably.  By elimination that leaves our political and military leadership who must be held accountable but they're not talking. 


rumleyfips said...

When was the last time that an foreign invader won a war against a highly motivated , patriotic populace ?

Owen Gray said...

Vietnam should have served as a lesson. But today's leaders didn't serve in Vietnam.

The Mound of Sound said...

WWII comes to mind, Rumley. The Germans fought on long after the issue was decided. It's believed that the Japanese people would have resisted fiercely had the US not resorted to atomic bombs.

@ Owen. The Powell Doctrine emerged post-Vietnam: no war without an achievable, worthwhile objective and a clear exit strategy. That all got swept aside by the neo-cons after America's lopsided, near bloodless victory in Desert Storm.

Troy said...

The madness of the US government. And Canada's not much better off.
And people are burned out, not knowing what to do. Therefore, they're even more susceptible to the lies and antics of the hucksters and shysters who've permeated every inch of our governments.
No one important offers much alternative. Merely different snake oil remedies, and even more war to solve all our current woes. After all, our difficulties can't be caused by anything within. It must all be caused from without. Nothing can be our own fault! Ever!

The Mound of Sound said...

It's like being knee-deep in wet clay, isn't it.

the salamander said...

.. had to laugh out loud at the CDA Institute fellow on The Agenda with Steve Paiken yesterday.. He was denying that Canadians were now in combat against ISIS.. and there was insufficient 'intimacy of contact', or some such tripe.. and there was not brigade level troops, and the troops were just visiting the front when attacked by indirect fire only, from mortars and machine guns.. certainly not direct or intimate fire..

Thankfully the closet queen Harper declared the bad guys had fired on 'us' .. and 'we' fired back.. and 'we're' all just so proud of 'us' ..

The Mound of Sound said...

Harper loves the military, Sal, just so long as they're churning up plenty of political capital. If he had access to an aircraft carrier we might have seen a "mission accomplished" banner during the first year or two of Harper's reign. Then, as Afghanistan quite predictably jellied into quagmire, Harper fell mute and turned to other things for his hyper-gratification needs.

He'll play the ISIS thing for whatever he can get from it and today's Canadian public will, true to course, go along with it.