James Fallows

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.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
  • Updates: Airplane-Parachute Selfie, the Immortal Boiling Frog, Community College

    Ever wonder how it looks if you're inside a plane headed toward the ocean? Wonder no more. Plus: policy news, both bad and good.

    The view from inside a plane as it headed toward the Pacific ( ABC News, via The Flight Academy )

    Over the weekend a Cirrus SR-22 airplane, the same kind that Deb and I have been flying around the country on our American Futures travels, made an unplanned descent into the Pacific. The extra fuel tanks for the long ferry flight from California to Hawaii developed some kind of valve problem; the pilot realized that without that extra gas he couldn't make it all the way; so in coordination with the Coast Guard, he picked out a site in the vicinity of a cruise ship. Then he used the Cirrus's unique whole-airplane parachute to lower the plane to the water and crawl into his rescue raft. I told the story here.

    Now the pilot, 25-year-old Lue Morton, has gone on Good Morning America to describe the experience—and share a GoPro video he shot from inside the plane as it was coming down. You can see the remarkable footage here or below (after pre-roll ad):


    World News Videos | ABC World News

    Good for Cirrus, the Coast Guard, Lue Morton and his colleagues at The Flight Academy, the Holland America cruise ship Veendam, and all others involved.

    * * *

    On a less upbeat note, Andrew Jacobs of the NYT has an update on the darkening saga of Chinese authorities intensifying their effort to cut China's people off from the international Internet. I also had a note about this over the weekend.

    One of Jacobs's ways of making the point:

    “I need to stay tuned into the rest of the world,” said Henry Yang, 25, the international news editor of a state-owned media company who uses Facebook to follow broadcasters like Diane Sawyer, Ann Curry and Anderson Cooper. “I feel like we’re like frogs being slowly boiled in a pot.”

    Sigh. Seriously, the Chinese internal squeeze-down is bad news. And among its less-serious consequences is that people in China are walled off from the knowledge that they need to add "apocryphal" before "boiled frog." Or else "decerebrated," since frogs only behave this way if their brains have been removed. (You can check it out.)

    * * *

    In San Francisco today I gave a speech at a League of California Cities convention, telling city managers from across the state what we'd discovered about "successful" cities and regions in our travels through the past year-plus. I had a list of ten markers of places-on-the-rise—not counting, of course, the presence of start-up craft breweries. No. 7 on the real list was an active, creative, and effective community college system. This report from Mississippi will give an idea why, plus this one from Georgia on high school counterparts.

    California, at one time a leader in public higher education, has in recent years been a laggard on the community-college front. We'll be saying more on this front. Thus I was glad to see in this morning's news that Jerry Brown, beginning his fourth and final term as governor, has proposed a boost in state efforts here. According to EdSource:

    The governor’s budget proposal for 2015-16 includes $876 million for career technical education and other job training initiatives at K-12 schools and community colleges – welcome news for programs that saw course offerings cut and enrollments decrease over the past several years.

    The governor identifies the programs as a key part of a larger, $1.2 billion statewide effort aimed at “reinvesting and reshaping California’s workforce preparation systems.” The effort aims to get students into training programs that are more closely linked to regional workforce needs and to better coordinate job training programs at colleges and schools.

    * * *

    Good news from aviation, bad news from the most populous country, good news from our most populous state. We muddle ahead.

  • Would a U.S. Strike Against Iran Actually Work?

    Please read Jeffrey Goldberg's new analysis of the split between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama. Then please read a decade-old article about what a "preemptive" strike against Iran would really entail.

    President Obama having a pleasant talk on the phone with Prime Minister Netanyahu back in 2012 (Reuters)

    The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg has put up an excellent and authoritative analysis of the strategic problems that Benjamin Netanyahu has created for himself, his party, and his country. It's the most-trafficked item on our site at the moment, so it may seem superfluous to suggest you read it. But if you haven't done so yet, please give it a look.

    Once you've read this new item, there's an older article that I hope you'll consider too. It came out in the December 2004 issue of our magazine, it was called "Will Iran Be Next?", and as it happens its author was me.

    The premise of the article was to conduct a war game-style exercise to examine the feasibility and effects of an American preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. The upshot of the exercise was that such a strike could not possibly "work." Set aside questions of whether a bombing raid would be "necessary" or "just." From a strictly military point of view, according to the defense-world authorities who took part in our war game, the strike would almost certainly be a counterproductive failure. It could not put more than a temporary damper on Iran's capacities and ambitions; it would if anything redouble Iran's determination to develop nuclear weapons (so as to protect itself from such strikes in the future); and it could unleash a range a countermeasures that would make the United States rue the idea that this could have been a "clean" or "surgical" exercise. You can read the details for yourself.

    That was more than a decade ago. Since then, only one aspect of Iran's leverage has weakened: there are no longer tens of thousands of U.S. troops next door in Iraq as potential Iranian targets. In all other ways, Iran is 10 years further along in protecting its facilities and considering its options. "After all this effort, I am left with two simple sentences for policymakers," our main war-game designer, retired Air Force colonel Sam Gardiner, said at the end of our 2004 exercise. "You have no military solution for the issues of Iran. And you have to make diplomacy work." That was true then, and truer now.

    Here's why I bring the story up. I disagree with one clause in Jeff Goldberg's story—only one, but an important one. It's the part I've put in bold type below:

    Whatever the case, the only other way for Netanyahu to stop Iran would be to convince the president of the United States, the leader of the nation that is Israel’s closest ally and most crucial benefactor, to confront Iran decisively. An Israeli strike could theoretically set back Iran’s nuclear program, but only the U.S. has the military capabilities to set back the program in anything approaching a semi-permanent way.

    Israel doesn't have the military capacity to "stop" Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and neither does the United States, at least not in circumstances short of total war.

    Why does this matter? As a question of negotiation, I think it's fine for U.S. officials from the president on down to act as if they might seriously be considering a military strike. George W. Bush and Barack Obama alike have consistently said that "all options are on the table" when it comes to Iran, and that's fine too. It can be shrewd to keep an opponent guessing about what you might do if provoked.

    This negotiating stance could be useful, as long as it doesn't spill over from fooling the Iranians to fooling ourselves. (A la, "we'll be greeted as liberators!") Letting Iran's leaders think the U.S. is contemplating a strike might pay off. Actually contemplating it could be disastrous.

  • The Reform the Military Is Already Undertaking: Chickenhawk, No. 19

    "We need junior officers willing to stick their necks out and write." On the military's internal efforts to learn from its recent distress

    Slide from the documentary 'Bridging the Gap' ( Stomoway Productions )

    The theme in this installment is a number of worthwhile (in my view), powerful links and posts on the general question of self-criticism within the military, and joint civilian and military efforts to direct real attention to the chickenhawk pathology.

    1) "Stick Your Neck Out," by two junior naval officers, LT Roger Misso and LTJG Chris O'Keefe, on the US Naval Institute site. They are arguing for creative ferment among the young officer class:

    We need junior officers willing to stick their necks out and write. Our service and our country are dealing with serious challenges, many of which may have non-traditional solutions. This generation of junior officers will be judged for our courage to stand up and work to solve those problems. The nation can no longer afford our silence.

    2) Stay in and fight. Also from a junior naval officer, in response to episode No. 18 in the chickenhawk saga, in which young Captain X and Captain Y explained why they had decided to resign:

    Nothing will ever change if these officers leave the service. These are exactly the kind of people who should stay IN the service! The young men and women who can clearly identify that there is a problem, and an impediment to the solution.  Yet, rather than risking it by continuing to push for the solution, or teach others how to push for a solution and later achieve critical mass, they leave the service.

    I want 2015 to be the year we change all that. Despite the pressure that says junior officers can't write about contentious issues, this must be the year we "get each other's backs." Our Navy—our military—is strongest when we engage in respectful, open, well-informed debates about our most important issues. The theme of "Stick Your Neck Out" is that it doesn't matter if writing or expressing a respectful, serious opinion gets you fired—but if you fail to do this because you are worried about your career, then you are actually hurting the service.

    Too many junior officers [JOs]will read your piece from Capt X and Capt Y and think "there is no way I can change this" and then leave the service.  But the message we want to spread is: this HAS to change.  And the only way it can change is well-informed, courageous JOs willing to do the right thing by speaking out or writing on a better way forward.  So what if we get fired by the wrong kind of senior officers along the way?

    3) "The Army's Other Crisis," by Andrew Tilghman in The Washington Monthly eight years ago on this exact issue of leaving versus staying and fighting. "The problem isn't one of numbers alone: The Army also appears to be losing its most gifted young officers."

    4) Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, by Albert O. Hirschman, the absolute-bedrock treatment of issues #1, #2, and #3 on this list.

    5) "Bridging the Gap: The Civilian-Military Divide." I am so sorry I hadn't seen this film before I wrote the article! I have now seen it via a preview reel. You should ask you PBS station to show it sometime soon. Here's a preview:

    6) The challenges of irregular war. From a reader with extensive government-service experience:

    If you've never read the article "Less is More: The Problematic Future of Irregular Warfare in an Era of Collapsing States" by Hy Rothstein, I highly recommend it.  The article appeared in the February, 2007 edition of Third World Quarterly. [JF note: a paywalled version is here.]

    The core of Rothstein's argument cuts to the heart of why the U.S. military keeps losing wars.  An extended excerpt:

    "The American strategic culture is not so flexible.  As a result, irregular threats are handled quantitatively, based on the level of importance or threat posed to U.S. interests, even if a quantitative approach undermines the accomplishment of strategic outcomes.  Threrefore it seems that, for irregular threats, particularly those where local government legitimacy is in question, U.S. success is inversely related to the priority senior U.S. officials (civilian and military) attach to the effort.  Only when the issue at stake is of secondary importance can the U.S. response result in a thoughtful, tailored approach to a non-standard threat."  

    Another good excerpt:

    "But, there are features of both the USA's 'small wars' and its 'big wars' that are troubling and limiting.  Both reveal the USA's military imperative for quantitatively oriented solutions and both are more a way of battle than a way of war, since they fall short of serious thinking about turning military victory into successful policy outcomes."  

    Rothstein goes on to look at three relative U.S. successes - El Salvador, 1980-1994; the Philippines, 2001-2005; and the early phases of the current fight in Afghanistan.  In each case, Rothstein argues that limited resources and autonomy for local commanders (vs. micromanagement from DC and a massive influx of money and troops and civilians) made the difference between success and failure.

    I find Rothstein's argument very compelling.  I work for [an executive-branch department]  and I see here too how once Big Washington takes over an issue it can quickly destroy it by demanding short-term results, beating the nuance out of any policy, and valuing domestic political considerations over any optimal policy outcome.

    Also, once Big Washington takes over, people in the field spend more time reporting back to Washington than they do focusing on solutions to the problem at hand.  Finally, Washington has a tendency to micromanage operations in the field, but how well can anyone in Washington truly understand something as complex as Helmand Province or Anbar?  Instead, once the Washington bureaucracy seizes hold of an issue, it throws money, B-52s and civilian contractors at it until the issue goes away.

    For this reason, I'm actually somewhat hopeful about the U.S. effort against ISIS.  The limited U.S. approach is causing endless handwringing among chickenhawks in the U.S. who continue to argue for boots on the ground, but I find it hard to believe that U.S. combat troops would do any better than the current approach.  More than anything this is a battle for legitimacy in the Sunni parts of Iraq, and only the Iraqi government can win that battle.  

    7) An expanded reading list. From another young officer, on ferment underway:

    I would like to bring your attention to some works and venues used by JO's and not-so-JO's. I really do hope that, perhaps, folks like you and Tom Ricks who want to do good work don't fall to the temptation of the our most... fed up.

    You'll excuse the prolific list here, but I think it important for you to see at least the very slim edge of what is available out there.

    Most close to home to your recent topics, almost ALL "The Bridge" (run y Army and AF J(ish)O's) material recently has been JO/not-so-JO discussions on the nature of "profession" as military personnel:
    https://medium.com/the-bridge

    You should look in to LT Ben Kohlmann's "Defense Entrepreneurs Forum" with two highly successful conferences and an innovation competition under it's belt:
    http://defenseentrepreneurs.org/

    CIMSEC is another instution run by a mess of JO's (and civilians):
    http://cimsec.org/staff


    John Paris's series on comparing and reforming the Navy's surface community:
    http://cimsec.org/virtue-generalist-part-1-day-life-sub-lieutenant-snodgrass/11907
    http://cimsec.org/virtue-generalist-part-2-nuggets-created-equal/12200

    CDR Snodgrass build his own, independent 3rd Party retention study:
    http://www.dodretention.org/blog/

    On our lack of tactical training: (note, this is a specific issue brought up by many has actually been talken up by a three-star)
    http://blog.usni.org/2012/05/30/what-the-professional-naval-conversation-is-missing-tactics
    And some... impassioned responses to the recent disregard to the reality of our rich, debating culture:
    http://cimsec.org/debating-military-youre-listening/10941
    http://cimsec.org/is-there-a-military-millennial-problem-twelve-responses-to-cdr-darcie-cunningham/12481

    There are many out there: Rich Ganske, Dave Blair, Nic Dileonardo, Roger Misso, Chris O'keefe, BJ Armstrong, Scott Cheney-Peters, Claude Berube, Nathan Finney, Ben Kohlmann, and - really - hundreds more with their own personal blogs, one-off articles, and encouragement they give aspiring JO's with an inkling to think, write, and dare.
    From our foreign policy on China, to our organizational culture, to tactics in the field, to technical innovations - it seems that, too often, our journalists and academics seek out the well meaning but bitter, "this sucks, I'm out" JO's who make a dramatic splash. They are not where you are going to find the reality of the troubles, and opportunities, of our armed forces.

    More »

  • Comradely Greetings to All Snow-Bound East Coasters

    Life is unfair, part nine-million.

    Ted Runner Stadium track at the University of Redlands this weekend

    I had a whole thought-post almost cooked up, which was going to be based on a fascinating episode of the TED Radio Hour, hosted by my friend and former All Things Considered comrade Guy Raz, that I listened to while out for a run this weekend.

    The episode, originally broadcast last fall, was on the subject of Quiet, and for me it had fascinating implications ranging from the importance of introversion in my line of work, to the unique mind-destroying horror of the particular kind of noise that—yes!—leafblowers make. (You can listen for yourself. They actually talk about leafblowers!) Also, the strangely powerful role that singing plays as a way to overcome stuttering. I'd heard about that connection before, and had over the years thought about a related phenomenon of "sing-talking" when it comes to speaking foreign languages. The show helped knit these and some other themes together.

    I'll still do that post at some point. But for the moment I mainly wanted to send comradely wishes to my fellow citizens on the blizzard-immured East Coast, where I was all last week. What you see above is the late-January view on the running track at the University of Redlands, our base during the western swing in our reporting. Two days ago, on Saturday morning, the 40-mph Santa Ana winds were roaring out of the Mojave desert and had bent the palm trees halfway over. By that afternoon it was calm and benign and even nicer than it looks.

    Of course yesterday it got a little cloudy.

    Stay warm and safe, if you're in the blizzard zone! And if you happen to be in my part of the world right now, please come to a (free) convocation talk I'm giving at the University of Redlands, on "Is America a Chickenhawk Nation?" tonight at 7 pm.

  • The Parachute That Saved a Plane

    Who says Pacific cruises aren't interesting?

    Cirrus SR-22 coming down under its parachute, near a cruise ship off Hawaii ( US Coast Guard video )

    Yesterday afternoon a small Cirrus SR-22 airplane—yes, the same kind of airplane my wife and I have been flying around the country for our reporting—was being ferried across the Pacific to a customer in Australia.

    This is obviously a very long journey. The first leg of this trip, from the SF Bay area to a refueling stop in Hawaii, would have taken about 14 hours. Since the Cirrus can normally fly at most five-plus hours on a full load of fuel, ferry planes are rigged with temporary extra gas tanks inside the cockpit and allowed to take off (because of the added fuel) at much more than the usual "maximum gross weight" limit.

    The ferry flight's planned route, via Flight Aware; it ditched some 250 miles before reaching Maui.

    On yesterday's flight, the pilot discovered that a valve from the extra fuel tanks was jammed or broken. So he was fated to run out of gas before reaching Hawaii. After several hours of debugging and discussion with his flight-managers by radio, as the fuel level dwindled he decided to fly as close as possible to a cruise ship (which was alerted) and then pull the Cirrus's unique whole-airplane parachute and come down to the sea for rescue by the ship.

    This incredible video, shot from a Coast Guard C-130 that was monitoring the whole process, shows what happened next. Further notes after the video.

    The video compresses a long stretch of action into four-plus minutes. There's a time counter in the upper left corner of the video. Some points to note:

    • At around time 02:40.25 on the counter, you'll see that the pilot has pulled the parachute handle. A rocket blasts out of the back of the cockpit and the parachute begins to deploy. In previous tests (and experience) the chute fully deploys, and holds the plane level, in well under ten seconds. This time takes nearly 20 seconds, for reasons I assume the company will look into.
    • Although you can't really see it from this film, apparently the Pacific seas at the time were very high and rough, with winds above 25 knots and swells of 9 to 12 feet. Thus not very long after the plane hits the water, the plane starts taking on water. Within a minute it has turned over. That requires the pilot to get out promptly. Still, it's a lot better crash-into-the-sea option than otherwise.
    • Even though the plane was aiming for the cruise ship, and the cruise ship knew it was coming, the pilot is in the water for much more than 20 minutes before the ship's launch can get to him. This is why pilots are required to take water-survival gear, including rafts like the one you see this pilot using, on overwater flights. (If this had not been the warmish mid-Pacific but the frigid North Atlantic ... )

    Main point: When the Klapmeier brothers, Alan and Dale, made the parachute mandatory equipment in the first Cirrus SR-20 airplanes they brought to market in the late 1990s, many grizzled veterans in the aviation world scoffed at them. ("A good pilot doesn't need these training wheels" etc.) [This is part of the story I told in my book Free Flight.] Now the Klapmeiers are in the Aviation Hall of Fame, and the Cirrus SR-22 is the most popular small plane of its kind in the world, because of the step they took. Plus, this ferry pilot is alive.

    Here are the Klapmeier brothers when they were mere kids starting the company—Alan on the left, Dale on the right—in a photo I saw at Cirrus's Duluth headquarters in the 1990s when I was writing about them.

    Update: A few months ago I reported on a similar parachute "save" after a mid-air collision at a small airport near Washington DC.  

  • One Clip, Two Views of China

    Take a look at this video. These are the people the Chinese government thinks shouldn't get open access to the Internet.

    'Happy' song set in Shenzhen, southern China ( Youku via The Nanfang )

    This item from The Nanfang, a site covering the big cities of southernmost China (nanfang, or 南方 = "southward"), does a nice job of conveying the discouraging and enlivening aspects of China that so often coexist.

    Discouraging: the latest tightening of The Great Firewall, the Internet-censorship system that is unworthy of a population as large, increasingly sophisticated, and information-hungry as China's. This is just so retrograde and embarrassing.

    Enlivening: the latest remake of Pharrell Williams's Happy song, this one set in Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong.

    Let's agree that remakes are not necessarily signs of cultural strength. But I like this one because it shows off some of the look, range, and pizazz of the city of Shenzhen, which I've written about over the past decade and which, for all the reputational and cultural dominance of Shanghai and Beijing, often seems the most exciting part of China.

    If you watch the Chinese and international dancers in this video, after a built-in pre-roll ad from the Chinese YouTube-like site Youku, you'll get a perhaps-surprising idea of what the Shenzhen area looks like. It's where many of your electronic goods got their start. I've been to most of the places used in this video, and I'm glad to see them displayed to advantage.

    The Youku servers are on the other side of the Great Firewall, so it may take a while for the full video to load. But if you get to see it, think for a minute: the Chinese people you see here are the ones the government thinks aren't ready for full use of the Internet.

    * * *

    Update-update: It turns out that this video has been around since last summer! Here is a link on YouTube, which should remove some of the server problems of Youku and the Great Firewall. Thanks to reader CW for the tip.

    Update: If you get an error message from the Youku servers that looks like the one below, just wait it out until the countdown clock (shown by the red arrow, indicating 24 seconds at this point) works down to zero. Again, it's worth seeing.

  • Two Young Officers on How the Country Let the Military Down, and Vice Versa

    A pair of captains call for closer civilian scrutiny to fix the institutions they love.

    The Atlantic

    These letters are long, but I hope you'll find time to read and think about them. I'll save set-up comments for after the jump.

    First, from a young Marine whom I don't know, but whose identity and record I have confirmed, on how he feels his service has been corrupted during the "long war" years and why a disengaged public is ultimately to blame:

    * * *

    By Capt. Y, US Marine Corps

    I am a Marine Captain who has served for the last eight years. While deployed to the Helmand Province, I struggled to understand our strategic purpose there.

    We lauded local accomplishments in terms of high-value-targets captured and drugs seized, but the leadership could not coherently explain how our tactical successes contributed to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Marine Corps leaders, including Marine Commandant Jim Conway, boasted about how they fought to carve out a Marine-only area where they would be freed from having to fight under Army leadership and could demonstrate how Marines could do counterinsurgency better than the Army.

    In his memoir, Robert Gates considered his failure to rein in the Marine leadership his greatest mistake in overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: “The Marines performed with courage, brilliance, and considerable success on the ground, but their higher leadership put their own parochial service concerns above the requirements of the overall Afghan mission.”

    The Helmand was a (deservedly) neglected backwater in 2009, and the additional troops allocated in the Afghanistan surge should have been allocated toward more populous and strategically significant regions, especially Kandahar. But the Marine leadership hijacked the allocation of the surge forces in order to carve out a Marine Corps piece of the Afghanistan war and protect their concept of the Marine Corps style of war fighting, at the cost of supporting the overall U.S. military mission in Afghanistan.

    I do not pretend to claim that history would have changed significantly if Marines had deployed to Kandahar instead of the Helmand. But the blatant institutional self-interest that our generals displayed is, for me, an unforgivable sin. It undermined all the sacrifices that Marines made in that corner of the world. My Marines did not sacrifice and die to protect America by stabilizing the Afghan government; they were sacrificed for the glory and continued existence of the Marine Corps.

    That sickens me and is the reason I am resigning.

    As we wind down from our wars, our generals continue to jockey for relevancy (and consequently, budget protection) by looking for work for their services. This creates continued lobbying for military intervention based not in strategy, but in institutional self-interest.

    These tendencies are by no means unique to the military. But it is exacerbated by the very forces you identify—our reverence of the military and isolation from it. We use our military because we have it, and we fund it because we use it.

    I don’t think it is possible to correct the system from within. The system is still capable of producing (though not uniformly) great unit leaders at the battalion and squadron level (O-5), but their influence is largely limited to within their unit. It is clear to me that from O-6 and above, when leaders begin to gain organizational influence, that the Marine Corps is quite effective at selecting for institutional loyalty.

    I believe the military leadership and their relationship to the nation is as broken as it was during the Vietnam War, but I don’t see any appetite for self-reflection or reform from our civil or military leadership. I hope that the increasing representation of young Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in Congress will lend more weight to greater civil oversight of the military.

    Military leaders often (privately) complain about congressional visits as a waste of time and an insult to their competence. They would prefer to be taken at their word and be left alone. But I have witnessed professional HASC [House Armed Services Committee] staff incisively tear apart the rosy picture that generals and their staffers try to paint.

    Our officers' disdain for Congress and the Executive branch is evidence that our leadership has lost sight of who they serve. Our military has failed the public, and especially the young men and women in uniform whose patriotism and sacrifice have been misused and wasted over the past decade. It is past due for our civil leadership to exercise intrusive leadership over an institution run amok.

    * * *

    By Capt. X, US Army

    As an Army Officer who has watched the evolution of American support for the military grow exponentially since 9-11-2001, I am a little unsettled by the country's blind appreciation of the military and outrageous approval rating.

    While it is nice to receive a 10% discount at Home Depot because of my service, I would much rather the country as a whole better understood the complicated problems that come with foreign diplomacy and the application of military force, than the blind appreciation we currently experience.

    Your comparison of the F-35 and A-10 programs highlights the fiscal absurdity that we in uniform deal with on a daily basis. Aside from the preposterous budgetary issues, you hit the nail on the head with your segment on the military portrayal in popular culture.

    As you note, there was a time when the country could laugh at the comical exploits of our men and women in uniform through shows like The Phil Silvers Show and Gomer Pyle, USMC. Now it seems like the general public views the military as completely infallible, which paves the way for rampant spending because we can, and no one is going to question us. In the wake of the release of the film American Sniper, several celebrities have been heavily criticized for their off-comment remarks about the marginally-true movie. Why are we so uptight about critiquing a branch of our own government?

    Finally, you speak about the civil-military divide. That has begun to be a heavily-discussed topic within the military. Unfortunately, not enough of those outside of the military and government are speaking on the subject.

    More »

  • Genuinely Bad News About the F-35 and the A-10 (Chickenhawk, No. 17)

    "The moral is to the physical as three is to one," Napoleon said about the elements of military strength. Two signs that would make Napoleon worry.

    Napoleon in an ill humor, even before he heard about the F-35 (Paul Delaroche portrait) ( Wikimedia )

    First, the background. Two military airplanes are getting a lot of attention: the A-10 "Warthog"—"Honey Badger" would be a better name—a kind of flying tank that has been crucial in "close air support" missions from the first Gulf War onwards; and the F-35 "Lightning II," a still-in-development multi-purpose airplane that has been plagued by technical problems, production delays, and cost overruns.

    As my "Tragedy of the American Military" article argues, the two airplanes don't have a necessary logical connection, since they're meant for different roles. But they have a close political and budgetary link, because first the George W. Bush and now the Obama administration have been trying to phase out the (battle-proven, reliable, relatively cheap) Warthog in part to pay for the (opposite of all those things) Lightning II.

    Now the developments, which are genuinely bad.

    1) "F-35 Massages Flight Test Results," which is the title of a new article by Giovanni de Briganti in Defense-Aerospace.com. The article in turn draws from a report by the Pentagon's Director of Operational Test and Evaluation documenting on the mounting technical and financial problems for the project.

    Last Friday Tony Capaccio reported for Bloomberg that this report, then being sent to Congress, was full of bad news about the F-35. "What is clear is that [the F-35] will finish with deficiencies remaining that will affect operational units,” the story quoted testing director Michael Gilmore as saying. According to the story, "Gilmore warned that unless 'immediate action is taken to remedy these deficiencies,' the aircraft’s ability to 'be effective in combat is at substantial risk.'”

    Then on Monday came the Defense-Aerospace.com story, which included the F-35 portion of the report (it is detailed and acronym-dense, but you can read it here) and highlighted something much more damaging than ongoing bugs. Namely, efforts by the F-35 program team to rig the results of their operational tests. The Defense-Aerospace.com report said (emphasis added):

    Recent improvements in F-35 reliability figures are due to changes in the way failures are counted and processed, but do not reflect any actual improvement, according to the latest report by the Pentagon’s Director Operational Test & Evaluation....

    Three different types of data “massaging” are identified in the report: moving failures from one category to another, less important one; ignoring repetitive failures, thus inflating numbers of failure-free hours; and improper scoring of reliability. In all these instances, data reporting and processing rules were changed during the year for no other reason than to paint a more favorable picture.

    Oh, yes, in case you were wondering: Despite the mounting problems the Pentagon is expected to request more F-35 purchases in its next budget—57 for fiscal year 2016, versus the mid-30s this year.

    2) Getting involved in A-10 fight is "treason." Last week the Arizona Daily Independent carried what is at face value a shocking report of an Air Force general telling his troops that speaking positively about what the A-10 could do was "treason." According to a followup in DOD Buzz:

    Major General James N. Post III (Air Force)

    Maj. Gen. James Post [right], vice commander of Air Combat Command, was quoted as saying, “If anyone accuses me of saying this, I will deny it … anyone who is passing information to Congress about A-10 capabilities is committing treason” ...

    In a response to the news outlet, a spokesman at the command, based at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, described the comments to attendees of a recent Tactics Review Board at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada as “hyperbole.”

    A retired Air Force officer named Tony Carr, on a military-related site John Q. Public, said that Gen. Post's comments represented "creeping fascism" within the career military (emphasis in original):

    Assuredly not lost on an officer of Post’s intelligence was that his crowd included many A-10 practitioners as well as others possessed of the view that the Air Force owes ground forces the very best Close Air Support possible, and that this is currently only achievable via the A-10. This wasn’t the first time Post had engaged in this particular exposition. He’s reportedly been saying it to groups of A-10 operators for some time.

    These comments can be seen as nothing less than an attempt to intimidate subordinates into refraining from exercising their rights to free expression and civic participation.

    This is morally reprehensible conduct by someone in a position of such trust and responsibility that it is implausible to think he wouldn’t know better.

    Here's the point that makes these controversies more important than any detail involving this or that airplane. From Napoleon onward, and actually long before, commanders and historians of battle have emphasized that moral traits — commitment, cohesion, belief in the rightness of a cause—matter more in combat than simple material strength. Napoleon's famous way of putting this was, "the moral is to the physical as three to one." As weapons of war, the F-35 and the A-10, with their pluses and minuses, are part of the nation's physical arsenal. The patterns revealed as the weapons are purchased, tested, developed, and promoted reveal say something unpleasant about the moral element of our defense.

    Want a little more? You could check this report on recent Navy scandals, or this on pension excesses among flag officers. Cheerier reader responses tomorrow.

    More »

  • On SOTU Day, a 'City Makers Summit' and Some Next Steps in Civic Life

    A conference in Washington, a development across the country

    Historic Mitla Cafe, still operating in San Bernardino, California. Burger-stand operator Glenn Bell tasted Mitla tacos in the 1950s and decided to mass-produce them. You know the result as Taco Bell. ( OC Weekly )

    If you are in DC tomorrow morning, January 20, please join us (or watch online) for the 2015 City Makers Summit at the Newseum. The premise is that cities are the arenas for the fastest-adapting, most practical-minded, least politically-paralyzed decision-making in America today. The panels will explore what that means for cities that try to foster a Jane Jacobs-like cycle of economic innovation and rising wages.

    I mention this for three reasons. First, to encourage you to come or watch. I will be interviewing the mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed, on what his city has done to create higher-skill, higher-wage jobs and develop the right local talent to fill them. Also I will interview a "maker's" panel of Nan Whaley, the mayor of Dayton, plus Matthew Burnett and Tanya Menendez, the co-founders of Maker's Row. You can see the full lineup, with interviews by the Atlantic's Steve Clemons and CityLab's Sommer Mathis of an interesting range of civic figures, here.

    * * *

    Second is to set up the next subject of our American Futures reports, which is the big, sprawling, now-troubled metropolis of San Bernardino, in the Inland Empire of Southern California, my original homeland.

    As I mentioned last month, San Bernardino has endured a combination of blows that actually make it a purer symbol of the post-2008 collapse than Rustbelt sites like Gary or Detroit. Its population was relatively poor to begin with; the main components of its blue-collar job base—a big railroad yard, a steel mill, an Air Force base—were each shattered within a few years' span; its real-estate values shot up suddenly during the sub-prime bubble of the mid-2000s and then fell extra hard, making it one of the foreclosure centers of the country. Its unemployment rate neared 20 percent at the worst and is still twice the national level. San Bernardino is one of the poorest cities of its size (200,000+) in the entire country, and with Detroit and Stockton it is one of the three largest cities to declare municipal bankruptcy. A WalletHub ranking this week put it dead last on a ranking of job prospects in 150 metro areas.

    WalletHub

    The challenges, and the responses of people in San Bernardino who are trying very hard to make the best of the city's circumstances, are for the next round of dispatches. For the moment, let's make a connection to the theme of the City Makers conference. To wit, the functionality of American government at the national, state, and local levels:

    * * *

    Eighty-plus years ago, Justice Louis Brandeis popularized the idea that state governments could be America's "laboratories of democracy." Fifty-plus years ago, presidential candidate John Kennedy said that the federal government could "get the country moving again," and then Lyndon Johnson used national-level tools to shift realities on voting right and anti-poverty efforts. Richard Nixon, whatever else he did, was by modern standards a radically "green" president, overseeing creation of the Environmental Protection Act, signing and welcoming the Clean Air Act, etc.

    Now, thanks largely to paralysis at the national level, the laboratories of democracy and the arenas of practical-minded politics are generally the cities. "Cities, in short, are ascendant," Mayor Reed of Atlanta, whom I'll interview tomorrow, wrote last year. "People and businesses will turn to cities for leadership, bold thinking, effective services and, yes, hope."

    This is a point that Deb Fallows, John Tierney, and I have made repeatedly through the past year—to give one example, in this article about the surprisingly similar traits that otherwise contrasting cities share. High on the list of positive traits are collaboration, compromise, practical-mindedness, and a willingness to think of the whole community's long-term good.

    Because those traits are so central to so many cities' success, environments where they're missing or imperiled have all the greater handicap. That has been a major part of the San Bernardino story, as we'll describe.

    * * *

    A view of northern San Bernardino and the surrounding San Bernardino Valley three days ago. The distant peak on the right is Mount San Jacinto on the way to Palm Springs. (Fallows)

    Preview: In one of the poorest cities in the state, salaries—and, more important, pensions—for the police and fire squads are, because of a highly unusual local rule, automatically tied to salary and pension levels in other, richer California cities. When Pasadena, Irvine, or Huntington Beach—all part of California's prosperous coast, with household income, taxable base, and living expenses much, much higher than in San Bernardino—raise pay for their police or fire units, pay automatically goes up in San Bernardino as well. Thus a city with household income far below the national and state average thus struggles to pay police and firemen as if they were working someplace posh. In his final "State of the City" speech in 2013, longtime judge and former mayor Patrick Morris pointed out that "our working class families, where the average family of four lives on less than $40,000 [versus more than $50,000 nationwide]," were being served by firemen whose "average annual salary with overtime is $147,000." Here is an interactive Esri map of the Inland Empire that lets you see median household income. Light brown means poor. (You can scroll and zoom to other areas too.) [Update: Arrgh, something was wrong with the layers in that map. Here is a screen shot to give roughly the same idea. San Bernardino is the lightest/"poorest" colored central tract. The large whitish area near the lower center doesn't count, since it's the very large San Bernardino Airport.]

    Esri

    Last fall some people in San Bernardino pushed a ballot measure to change this provision, and set salaries by collective bargaining as they are elsewhere in the state. The police and fire unions (whose members are not required to live in the city, and generally don't) fought back hard to block the measure, and won. So San Bernardino continues its search for sources of future jobs while dealing with the here-and-now of civic bankruptcy, and the opposite of the "in this together" view.

    * * *

    Which leads me to, third, a source of information and hope about places where the various elements of a community are working together, rather than fighting to preserve their piece of the pie.

    Through the past year-plus, we've been impressed by how many institutions are studying, promoting, and linking-together place-making and city-development efforts across the country. To give some of the most obvious examples: the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, directed by Bruce Katz; the Rework America project at Markle (of which I've been an informal part); ArtPlace America, with executive director Jamie Bennett; and many more, crowned of course by the Atlantic family's own CityLab.

    One you might not be aware of is a small undertaking in New York called The Intersector Project, whose goal is to publicize, connect, support, and promote public-private efforts like those we've seen in the healthiest, most successfully growing cities. Its name refers to the sectors that it (correctly) says must be connected for civic health: business, government, and NGOs (including universities, churches, libraries, foundations, etc). It offers case studies of where intersector cooperation has worked best, and a toolkit of how communities that need this kind of cooperation might develop it.

    I first learned about The Intersector because it was created by a longtime friend, a lawyer, investor, and former government official named Frank Weil. I'm mentioning it here, and will say more in installments to come, because its emphasis so closely matches what we've seen in so many cities—and hope to see in places like San Bernardino.

    * * *

    Many problems of this American era mirror those of the first Gilded Age, a century ago. We know about the movements, reforms, and legal and cultural changes that redressed some of those problems the first time around. And we know their names—Populism, Progressivism, the muckrakers, the early women's movement and environmental movements and efforts for African-American rights. Similar positive developments are afoot in the country now. It's worth connecting and highlighting them, as The Intersector and other groups are, and figuring out and making known their new names.

  • We're Not Chickenhawks: A View From the Left

    "How do your corporate sponsors affect your choice of story line? There could be more profit in peace than in war, but you would have to step on some toes to point this out."

    Korean War poster depicting North Korean and Chinese unified front against Yankee paymasters and their lackeys ( Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre )

    I've mentioned in some previous updates—a full index is after the jump—that most of the response I've received on "The Tragedy of the American Military" has been from people with some military connection. While many of these readers have disagreed on details, most have accepted the larger "chickenhawk" premise. That is: that we have become a nation willing to do anything for its military except take it seriously, and thus we keep sending troops on an open-ended series of unwinnable wars.

    What is it like when people disagree not with the details but with the main premise? Here is a sample, from a reader in Massachusetts:

    Your characterization of the American public as chicken hawks is not accurate. They/we are mostly ignorant of the reasons for our country's belligerent foreign policy. And they/we are generally uninvolved in foreign policy debates, which mostly don't happen anymore, as you noted in your piece.

    I wondered why you didn't choose to mention that most famous American chicken hawk, if there ever was one, Dick Cheney. Also, you failed to mention that when polled, Americans often are not in favor of war. We are more peaceniks than chicken hawks.

    You also don't mention the fact that the Pentagon hasn't been audited in over 10 years and that Congress finds this huge budget issue very uninteresting, not worthy of debate. Now, they are very concerned when an opportunity arises to cut food stamps or unemployment, but not 700 billion and more in Pentagon spending.

    Something doesn't add up here, yes? How about tackling this story?

    Another propaganda message about the struggle against profiteers (Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre)

    What are your thoughts on how your corporate sponsors affect your choice of story line? There could be more profit in peace than in war, but you would have to step on some toes to point this out. For every million, or billion, dollars spent by the Pentagon, many more jobs would be created if the same amount were spent on education, health care, alternative energy, you name it.

    Also your piece on Americans' relationship with the military would be more complete if you mentioned Marine officer Smedley Butler [JF note: the celebrated early 20th century warrior and major general] who said famously that "War is a racket. The few profit, the many pay." Or words to that effect. He figured this out 100 years ago while fighting in US wars in Central America to make the world safe for United Fruit.

    Most of your responses have come from ex-military and maybe that is the conversation you prefer to have.

    But if you want Americans as a whole to enter in, you'll need to address the bigger picture: the Pentagon budget, the rubber-stamping of the corporate agenda by Congress in all areas, and the lack of a real democratic process around our military and all aspects of government.

    "The war is over, my boy. Forget it!" Life magazine, 1919 (OldMagazineArticles.com)

    I'll leave this reader's message on its own, except to say: I've made my points about former V.P Cheney over the years, for instance here and here; and an assumption that we invested in and highlighted this story in an effort to please our advertisers would not be correct.

    More »

  • Solving the Chickenhawk Problem: Is It All Up to the Vets?

    A man who has recently left the Air Force suggests that people like him should take the lead in re-connecting civil and military culture. No. 15 in our Chickenhawk series.

    The Atlantic

    An interesting reply from a reader who has just left the Air Force after six years as an officer:

    You wrote your article to talk about the importance of an engaged citizenry that thought and talked about the military past the simple "thank you for your service," and gave examples of the consequences that have followed from not putting a critical eye on the professional military.

    The follow-up discussion seems to have been dominated by veterans who are critiquing the internal culture of the military.

    Speaking about the problems we have with the organization we left is a good thing, since we are now civilians. And I think it's only natural for veterans to dominate the discussion - active duty service members will hesitate to speak out against a culture and organization they're still in and have not decided to step away from, whereas civilians do not feel comfortable speaking about an organization which has been deified and which they know little about.

    I guess what I'm getting to is (at the risk of sounding self-important) - are veterans the key to breaking the "chickenhawk" dynamic?

    The messages I've quoted in this and previous installments (see index after the jump) accurately reflect the huge volume of mail I've received. That is, mainly I've heard from people with current or past military experience, who are mainly concerned about cultural problems inside the military and its unnatural relationship with mainstream politics, media, and daily life.

    On the possible role of recent vets: In my article, I noted that the new 114th Congress actually has a much higher proportion of Iraq-Afghanistan veterans than does the population as a whole. People who served at any point in those wars represent about 3/4 of one percent of the U.S. population—and at least five percent of the new Senate and House.

    That shared experience won't make them any likelier to agree on policy: New Sens. Joni Ernst and Tom Cotton were gung-ho for the Iraq war, new Rep. Seth Moulton, who also served there, was against it. Similarly, John McCain and John Kerry were both Navy veterans of the Vietnam war but have usually disagreed on military policy. (And, a theme for another time, there is a long political tradition of candidates hyping a military record when running for office.) Still, this could mean progress on one front I discussed: toward taking the military at least as seriously as we do other major public institutions, from the school system to the medical system to the courts and police.

    More »

  • A Generation of Lions, Led by Lambs: The Chickenhawk Chronicles

    Reports of "a general, quiet dissonance between the younger and older officers in the military."

    Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom, 1826 ( Wikimedia commons )

    A recurring theme in responses I have received about my "Tragedy of the American Military" article involves generational rifts. Today's young officers and enlisted troops, those who came of age in the era of open-ended war, have often written to describe the distance they feel from commanders half a generation older — those who joined the military before the invasion of Iraq, and who plan to stay for the long run.

    Here is an example, from a USMC veteran who asks that I not use his name. He is responding to a message yesterday from Z.K. Rosson, who left the Air Force after service as an A-10 pilot.

    I was an officer in the Marine Corps from 2004 until 2012 when I resigned. I served with artillery batteries and forward observation and close air support units in that time. I deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan, and I have given a lot of thought to the issue of careerists that Mr. Rosson raised and how it came to be.

    Your mentioning of Once an Eagle was particularly poignant and helpful in crystallizing my thoughts, actually. In that book Mr. Myrer rails against "box checkers." His antagonist, actually, epitomized these individuals. More concerned with their career than the success of the organization. I believe this mindset thrives between wars, in times of relative peace. Times such as the 90's when the current military's colonels and generals were coming up. As those individuals became majors and lieutenant colonels, Iraq and Afghanistan kicked off and they were ushered along by a growing military.

    This has now become a larger problem and, I think, the cause of the general malaise you speak to among those in the military. Speaking frankly, there is a generation of lambs trying to lead a generation of lions. Senior captains and junior majors have done nothing but fight wars for more than a decade. So, naturally, when someone who grew up "checking boxes" tells them they are doing it all wrong, offense is taken. I don't think this is overtly recognized as a problem. Rather, I think there is a general, quiet dissonance between the younger and older officers in the military.

    This, among many other reasons, some you covered and still more, is the cause of a certain malaise. It is also, I believe, the reason for an exodus of junior officers books like Bleeding Talent highlight.

    The tensions between yesterday's generation and tomorrow's are of course an evergreen theme. But I have heard from enough younger veterans, still in uniform or having left, to think we should pay attention to this divide. Many of its implications are positive, in suggesting a rising generation of soldiers and citizens determined to make changes based on the real-world struggles they have lived through.

    ***

    Here is a running index of previous installments:

    "The Tragedy of the American Military," my article in the Jan-Feb issue. A C-Span interview is here; an NPR "All Things Considered" interview is here; a PBS News Hour interview and segment is here.

    1) Initial responses, including an argument for the draft.

    2) Whether Israel comes closer to a civil-military connection than the U.S. does.

    3) "Quiet Gratitude, or Dangerous Contempt?" How veterans respond to "thank you for your service."

    4) "Actually We Keep Winning." An argument that things are better than I claim.

    5) "Get the Hell Back in Your Foxhole." More on the meaning of "thanks."

    6) "Showing Gratitude in a Way that Matters." What civilians could do that counts.

    7) "Winning Battles, Losing Wars." A response to #4.

    8) "The Economic Realities of a Trillion Dollar Budget." What we could, or should, learn from the Soviet Union.

    9) "Meanwhile, the Realities." Fancy weapons are sexy. Boring weapons save troops' lives.

    10) "Chickenhawks in the News." The 2012 presidential campaign avoided foreign-policy and military issues. What about 2016?

    11) "A Failure of Grand Strategy." Half a league, half a league, half a league onward ...

    12) "Careerism and Competence," including the testimony of an A-10 pilot who decided to resign.

    13) "Vandergriff as Yoda." A modest proposal for shaking things up.

  • Chickenhawk, No. 13: Vandergriff as Yoda?

    A 93-year-old steps aside, and the choice of his successor will send a signal.

    MAJ (Ret) Donald Vandergriff, the next Yoda? (Donald Vandergriff)

    Background: My piece on "The Tragedy of the American Military" is here, and for previous reader responses see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, No. 8, No. 9, No. 10, No. 11, and No. 12. Also as background, last night Margaret Warner did a very good piece on the PBS News Hour about my argument and possible rebuttals.

    Today, for a lucky-No. 13 installment, a thought-experiment solution. In previous episodes, I've quoted present and former officers on the perils of group-think and risk-avoidance as aspirants make their way up the military promotion ranks.

    Suppose Barack Obama, still-SecDef Chuck Hagel, or his successor-designate Ashton Carter wanted to do something to shift this culture. There could be few clearer signs of an intention to shake things up than appointing Donald Vandergriff as the next Yoda.

    Yoda? This very good review by Carlos Lozada in the Washington Post explains why the name has been attached to Andrew Marshall, who at age 93 is just now stepping down as director of the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment and all-purpose eminence grise in the military world. I was going to compare Marshall's influence to that of Admiral Hyman Rickover, until I realized that Rickover was on active duty only until age 82 and died at 86. Lozada's article will tell you more about the ups and downs of Marshall's tenure.

    Now the Pentagon is advertising for his successor—literally, there's a job description and application form online. Want to signal a change? My candidate, until someone has a better idea, is Donald Vandergriff, who has in fact applied for the job.

    Vandergriff spent 24 years on active duty an enlisted member of the Marine Corps and an Army officer. When he retired ten years ago as a major, a relatively junior rank, he exemplified the tensions between an independent-thinking, irrepressible, let's-rock-the-boat reformer and the "don't make waves" normal promotion machine.

    Because of his writings and advocacy, near the end of his active-duty tenure Vandergriff was described as "the most influential major in the U.S. Army." I did an Atlantic-online discussion with him and Robert Coram, author of a popular biography of the late Air Force colonel John Boyd, a dozen years ago. He has written many well-received books about working fundamental change in the training and promotion of officers, including The Path to Victory; Spirit, Blood, and Treasure; and Raising the Bar. If you want an illustration of someone willing to take (and suffer) career risks in the cause of telling unpleasant but important organizational truths, he would be your man.

    Is this going to happen? I'm not holding my breath. It would be like appointing the (pre-Senatorial) Elizabeth Warren to run the SEC, or my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates to head a police review board. But just as in those cases, such an appointment would be a sign that you were serious about changing an organization's course, plus recognizing and rewarding those who had taken risks for the right reasons. Despairing about where even to start in signaling cultural shifts in the military? Please consider the potential of this move.

  • Chickenhawk Chronicles, No. 12: Careerism and Competence

    "Upon redeployment from combat, our squadron was greeted by a new commander who proceeded to tell us that none of us were going to get promoted if we didn't get our masters degrees finished." Veterans discuss the internal tragedies of the military.

    The underside of an A-10 as it rolls away from a fuel-tanker plane over Afghanistan. The pilot of such a plane writes about command dysfunction. ( U.S. Air Forces Central Public Affairs Photo by Master Sgt. William Greer, via Wikimedia )

    Background: My piece on "The Tragedy of the American Military" is here, and for previous reader responses see No. 1, No. 2,No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, No. 8, No. 9, No. 10, and No. 11. Today's theme for No. 12 is the question of competence and careerism in the professional military.

    My article argued that our military failures through the "long wars" were mainly failures of grand strategy, of the nation as a whole. But one consequence of America's chickenhawk view of the military—we love the troops, but we'd rather not think about them—was an incentive and promotion system within the military less tied to win-or-lose measures of success than in some other eras. From the Civil War onwards, generals or admirals were sometimes removed from command for mistakes on the battlefield, not just for what we now (sadly) call Gen. Petraeus-style cases of personal indiscipline. That has not happened in our recent wars. Today, three shorter reader messages on the question of competence, and then one quite long and powerful report from an Air Force veteran that I hope you will read all the way to the end.

    1) The Lake Woebegone Effect, or all our leaders are above average. The fancier term for a world in which everyone is special is the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Many readers wrote in to mention it, for instance:

    In their paper, "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments," professors Justin Kruger and David Dunning write that, "People tend to hold an overly favorable view of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains."

    They suggest, "overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunates choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it."

    This, the reader went on to argue, could explain a view of a military in which all members were heroes and all leaders were outstanding on every measure.

    2) "The culpability of the general officer corps." An Army veteran argues that senior officers should have resigned rather than undertake campaigns they knew would fail.

    I am a reserve Army captain, having left active duty last year. I spent a year in Afghanistan (2011-2012). I left the active Army for several reasons, but foremost among them was an inability to lead soldiers into strategically incoherent wars.

    I’d like to focus on one point that I do not think has been adequately or candidly discussed—the culpability of the American general officer corps.

    You discuss the lionization of the military in general and of its leaders in particular, and touch on modern Presidents’ aversion to confronting their generals. I would go farther, and lay both the failure in Afghanistan and the spectacular blunder into Iraq squarely upon the general officer corps.

    Beginning in my cadet days, I was taught that officers were duty-bound to refrain from overly political recommendations. I believe this overdeveloped ethos has contributed to the strategic blunders we have endured over the past 15 years. Specifically, the general officer corps had an obligation not only to state honestly what it would take to invade Iraq (see Gen. Shinseki) but to articulate, whether it was asked to or not, whether this was a reasonable idea. I think the invasion of Iraq, and the concomitant failure in Afghanistan, foreseeably weakened American security. I think the chiefs had an obligation to resign before they executed orders they reasonably knew would be to the detriment of American security.

    LTG McMaster, a lesser-known but key Army leader, wrote a book about the phenomenon as it related to Vietnam—‘Dereliction of Duty.’ Unfortunately, I think McMaster’s thesis applies to our wars today. [JF note: Yes, McMaster is lesser-known to the public but very prominent in defense-reform debates. I have written about and recommended this book before.] The general officer corps’ facilitation of incompetent politicians’ bad ideas is a dereliction of their duty to the American public. Generals are always subordinate to the civilian leadership, but they should resign before executing strategically incoherent wars. I would emphatically put Afghanistan, Iraq, and the current campaign against ISIS in this category.

    3) "I have been shocked by the scandals recently." From an American who lives in Asia:

    I am a Navy veteran (LT USN), resigned in 1989. I completely agree with many of the sentiments expressed in article, although I am not a professional in defence or military matters any more.

    What really hit home for me was: "military’s career structure “corrupts those who serve it; it is the system that forces out the best and rewards only the sycophants.”

    Thats why I resigned many years ago.

    I have been shocked by the scandals recently, that seems to have sunk under the radar - Glenn Defense Marine Asia scandal in Asia was particularly shocking to me, as the 7th Fleet staff fleet scheduling officer was corrupted to schedule ships into ports to please his contractor.

    I also attended [a Navy event in a major Pacific Rim city] a couple of years ago where Rolex watches, donated by defense contractors, were raffled off to military personnel. I felt shame for that to happen in front of our allies from other southeast Asia nations.

    * * *

    4) Now, the account by Z.K. Rosson, a former A-10 and MQ-9 pilot. I am setting it off separately because of its length and detail, and because he has agreed to be quoted by name. I hope you will read this all the way through.

    By Z.K. Rosson

    As a 2002 West Point graduate, who spent 12 years in the Air Force flying A-10s and MQ-9s, I saw firsthand a lot of the issues you describe in your article. I think you are spot on with your assessment that the general public's lack of desire to hold military leaders accountable has been a major factor in our 14 years of failed combat.

    Your quote from William S. Lind as he condemned the "utter silence in the American officer corps" was especially powerful. I also believe Congressman Moulton was correct when he said that the military has "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."

    I'll give you a couple examples from my time in the service as support to the points you made in the article.

    In 2009, I was deployed to Afghanistan flying the A-10. Back then, we referred to our missions as "TIC-hopping." We would take off with our pre-planned tasking in hand, only to be immediately re-rolled to one "troops-in-contact" situation after another.

    While the amount of fire fights that our ground forces were still engaging in after five years of conflict speaks volumes to our lack of progress, the amount of personal satisfaction I got from being there for them is difficult to put into words.  Many times, we didn't even need to employ our weapons, as a simple low pass over the enemy position was often all that was needed to save the day. I would return from those missions knowing I was getting to fight and walk amongst the best fighter pilots on the planet.

    Unfortunately, upon redeployment from combat, our squadron was greeted by a new commander who proceeded to tell us that none of us were going to get promoted if we didn't get our masters degrees finished. He said we should feel proud of our contribution to the fight, but should realize that the Air Force doesn't care about that stuff. He said we needed to get busy checking boxes, and fast, if anybody wanted to be a commander someday.

    After the proudest experience of my life, I went on to lose all faith in my branch of service.

    Fast forward to 2012, and the box-checking careerist mentality that I had first become aware of in 2009, had grown like cancer into an unmanageable sickness. I was now flying the MQ-9 [Reaper] (transferred from the old redheaded stepchild--the A-10--to the new one--the "drone"). I was back in Afghanistan launching MQ-9s and handing them off to crews back in the states. We ended up with more people deployed than we needed, so I was able to launch and land a few missions, then spend the remaining hours of my days flying close air support missions.

    Our volunteer mission quickly became highly regarded at the lower and intermediate levels because we were able to provide highly-needed kinetic support to ground troops in southern Afghanistan, while freeing up a lot of Kandahar-based F-16s to move to higher priority areas in northern Afghanistan. Our single mission improved "CAS status" throughout all of Afghanistan.

    The war-fighters all loved us, but that didn't stop our self-serving group commander from shutting us down. On one mission, we were able to take out six insurgents planting an IED and preparing an ambush against coalition forces. We found out shorty after the strike that we had taken out the only IED-maker in that particular AO. Intel analysts assessed that it would take at least a month before insurgents would be able to go back to planting IEDs in that area, because it would take at least that long to get another skilled bomb-maker in from Pakistan.

    We had effectively provided a month of "freedom-of-movement" for our ground troops in one engagement. That didn't stop our self-serving careerist group commander from removing us from the fight, though. After he saw our engagement video he stated that he was only tracking two metrics: hours and numbers of aircraft flying "base-defense" sorties overhead Kandahar, which is the only thing he said his boss cared about. We were to stop flying CAS missions immediately and begin scanning for rockets being set-up around Kandahar. It only mattered that his metrics went up and made him look good to his boss.

    I returned from that deployment more cynical than ever. It only got worse, though, as I attempted to put two of my NCOs in for quarterly awards and was told that "nobody looks at the job related bullets--you need to make sure their volunteer bullets look good to win the award." This was in a wing that performed a 24/7/365 combat mission.

    The Air Force (probably the other services as well) is completely inundated with a careerist/self-serving culture in both the officer and enlisted corps. I was once told that the key to success in the Air Force is to check all the right boxes without being the "tall blade of grass."

    Though many at the field-grade level and below will tell you this, nobody in the flag ranks will admit this because they are direct benefactors and creators of the current culture. A careerist culture is incapable of critical thought. Therefore, I believe the military services are incapable of fixing this problem on their own. It requires public involvement, debate, and ACCOUNTABILITY. American citizens cannot shirk this responsibility just because they haven't seen combat themselves. I applaud [the Atlantic and me] for bringing this issue to the forefront. Though, I wonder if Kim Kardashian would have been a better messenger to keep this in the public sphere (but that is just the cynicism in me). [JF note: Of course!]

    So I don't run afoul of Mr. Lind, I will continue to speak out within my sphere of influence, including at my blog:

    http://www.zkrosson.com/blog. This is but a small pebble against a mountain to be sure, but I will do my best to do my part.

    * * *

    This is JF again, to add a final point. In all our previous wars, popular culture and mainstream journalism were full of accounts of the sort of careerist-vs-competence choices that Z.K. Rosson describes. This was a theme of Catch-22, of South Pacific, of The Caine Mutiny and From Here to Eternity, of The Bridges at Toko-Ri by James Michener, of The Hunters by James Salter, of that perennial military favorite Once an Eagle by Anton Myrer, even of Apocalypse Now. But current public culture seems almost afraid of this "some of them were good, some were not" assessment of military leadership in the recent wars. The closest we come is the more familiar terrain of bureaucratic scheming in Homeland and, to a degree, Zero Dark Thirty.

    Next in the series: a person with an idea about shaking up military culture.

  • The Glamorous Life of a Journalist, Collaboration Edition

    "You may contribute to the ideas for this article if you wish." Now you've got my attention!

    "The Art and Mystery of Printing," Grub Street Journal, 1732. ( British Museum/The Grub Street Project )

    From the email inbox this morning, quoted in full except for the sender's name:

    To: James Fallows

    From: J .....

    Subject: Are you interested in article collaboration? theatlantic.com

    Hi,

    I am just contacting you to ask if you would be interested in an article collaboration for your website, theatlantic.com. I do apologise if you have received a similar email from me.

    I am running a new and exciting campaign, and I am looking to provide you with an informative article which for your website. You may contribute to the ideas for this article if you wish.

    We are keen to establish a mutually beneficial relationship with you. Could you please let me know if you would be interested? I would be glad to send you more detailed information about this.

    I look forward to hearing back from you and thank you for taking the time to read this email.


    Kindest regards,

    J....

    Digital Outreach Agent

    ..@...

    Full "glamorous life" archives here. A few guideposts:

    From 2009, on adventures in cosmetic dentistry.

    From 2010, "experts delivered" right to my doorstep. Also, a personal message "to (outlet name)" and "thanks for your great piece on (country name)."

    From 2011, on spin control from then-Rep. Anthony Weiner making its way straight into news stories.

    From 2012, opportunities to learn about "the Father of Fat Grafting" and the "Hottest CBS Personality."

    Where your articles come from: the floor of LAX.

    From 2013, who else but the Amazing Kreskin, plus racy "fan fiction" starring the First Family. Also, the glamour of working on the road.

    From 2014, the couples-getaway edition, and an offer for a free drink from the PR person of a country that wants to clear up all that messy talk about rampant human rights violations.

    Glad to keep the tradition alive this year.

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