Iran Drumbeat Watch: 'Edge of Breakdown' for the Military

A reader with a military background writes in response to my claim that "chickenhawks" are overrepresented, and U.S. military leaders underrepresented, among those clamoring for a strike on Iran:

An issue that I do not see being discussed nearly enough if at all in all the talk of further war in the Middle East is that the American military is probably very near the edge of breakdown, both in terms of material and in terms of leadership. My sense is that the senior leadership is well aware of these issues, but reluctant to spell it out in public.

One can look back at the aftermath of almost any war and see the degree to which the force needs to reconstitute before it is really able to execute more operations other than in a dire emergency.  We have now been burning through people and equipment for ten years and exhaustion is setting in. Back in the day (Viet Nam era), as a planner for the Air Force we would think in terms of as much as a three to one ratio for serious force reconstitution. Given the present wars that could mean up to 30 years to put everything back in place--I don't think the equation will necessarily work out that way, but it will take a good bit of time.

By reconstitution I mean not only rebuilding the material resources of the force--which will be substantial once people realize how much we will have to leave behind and how much is damaged beyond continued utility--but also the human side of the problem as burned out and disillusioned leaders are replaced, as junior officer corps and senior enlisted corps get reconstituted etc.

A huge problem with many of the current crop of academic defense thinkers is, as you note, their total lack of actual military experience, which I find leads them to treat the services as if they were machines.  They have no sense of the human dimensions of war, and I do not mean only the human devastation but also the toll on leadership.  After my own service I returned to [an Ivy League university] to do my Ph.D. in philosophy and then taught at [the business school] for a number of years.  Since I had been deeply involved in theater and later strategic planning I became involved in discussions of defense policy, and found too many of my colleagues even then using expressions like "the military instrument," as if they were talking about something you could just pick up and use whenever you needed it with no concern for its care and wellbeing.  Good general officers never take this attitude toward the force for good reason, but it permeates the civilian view of war to a degree that is disturbing.

At any rate, I think it would be interesting to see what would happen if someone would push for a real accounting of the readiness assessments of the services in relation to the position the Chiefs are taking on Iran.  I would add, as a former Air Force contingency planner, that anyone who alleges that Iran's nuclear capability can be "taken out" with air power alone is smoking something they should avoid--or they are a former fighter pilot.  My guess is that an attack on Iran would require at a minimum the preparation of a substantial ground force, and in all likelihood the deployment of that force.
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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. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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