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.
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.
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 red arrow, indicating 24 seconds at this point) works down to zero. Again, it's worth seeing.
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:
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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.
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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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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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.
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:
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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.
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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.]
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.
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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.
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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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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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:
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.
On January 11, I was carefully carrying a load of trash outside my house in Washington D.C., trying like crazy to avoid skidding into oblivion on the two-inch layer of ice on each step.
On January 13, I was going out for a mid-day run at the stadium at the University of Redlands, in California, our operating base during the West Coast swing of American Futures travels, about to resume.
I have no larger point here other than, (1) it is more enjoyable to be warm than cold, notwithstanding overall climate-change perils, and (2) reminder number five zillion of the range of experience in this vast land.
And perhaps (3), hopes that Pete Aguilar, a University of Redlands alum who after becoming the young mayor of the town has just been sworn in as a new Representative in the 114th Congress, first Democrat in the seat since the 1960s, is withstanding the reverse version of this climate shock.
And one more. When I was a school kid here, Joan Didion wrote her famous Saturday Evening Post article about the area, "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream," which was included in her breakthrough collection, Slouching Toward Bethlehem. In her first paragraph, she described this as ...
... a harsher California, haunted by the Mohave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the Eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves.
Yesterday the harsh, dry Santa Ana winds were coming down from the Mojave beyond these very mountains, whining through the palm trees as you see here:
It can be tough to run in the wind, but this time I didn't mind.
Through the past week, while tied up with other projects, I've been reading through the enormous and valuable correspondence that has come in about America's "chickenhawk" status. For reference, 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, and No. 10. This is No. 11. As became the case with the emerging High-Speed Rail correspondence, I'll start grouping these thematically to illustrate a range of arguments.
Today's theme: the tragedies of grand strategy. This first note, from a serving and well-regarded Army officer, echoes many that I received:
I think Fallows has strummed a string in an important way. [But] One slight concern I have, though, having studied this issue, this 'tragedy', over many years now is that by limiting the context of this tragedy to one within the military, we as a Nation on the whole may end up being left off the full hook.
The real or "true" tragedy here is one within American Grand Strategy.... what we see in the current civil society-unformed public service servant imbalances today, both within our military and our policing forces for that matter, are mere symptoms of a much bigger, chronic, and if left untreated potentially 'terminal' disease.
This point is in sync with what I meant to argue in the article. The U.S. military is of course the instrument of national strategy. But through what I contend has been a decade-plus of strategic failure by the United States, members of the military have also absorbed most of the cost of these mistakes. Similarly on the "our military, ourselves" front, a reader writes:
While the American military is in many ways sui generis, many of your piece's themes—failure of venerated institution, total lack of accountability for a cosseted elite, epistemic closure among insular social groups, intractable rent-seeking—are the same stories we've been hearing across American society for the past several decades: Congress, Wall Street, the CIA, the Catholic Church, the NCAA and NFL, etc.
Much of the analysis of this phenomenon has cast the US military as the exception to this trend. Your piece shows it ain't so exceptional.
And now, on the larger strategic perspective, related to the image above:
I read your article “The Tragedy of the American Military” with interest. I did a short stint in the largely peacetime Navy in the early 1990s, but my approach to your article was historical.
They say history doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes, and I find that right now, the 21st Century is rhyming with the 19th. In our century, the US is playing the role Great Britain played in the 19th—namely dominant power. I find the other parallels striking.
In both cases, the dominant power had a military organized to fight Over There, with large navies and relatively small, professional armies. In both cases, lip service is paid to the military (see Kipling’s “Tommy” for an example) but actual attention is not. At least, as long as the wars are Over There.
In your article, you expressed dismay that no US general was relieved of command in Iraq or Afghanistan for incompetence. In Victorian Britain, Raglan and Cardigan, the generals who bumbled their way into the Charge of the Light Brigade, weren’t cashiered but rather promoted. The Charge itself, rather than being seen as an epic screw-up, was lionized as a heroic effort. (Tennyson, the man doing the lionization and Poet Laureate, had no military experience, like many of the elite of his day.)
I would also like to comment on our failures in Iraq and Afghanistan and the need for a commission to examine them. I submit that no commission is needed. General Shinseski told Congress on the eve of Iraq that we would need around 250,000 troops to occupy Iraq. Since Afghanistan has roughly the same population, I would assume we would need the same number of troops there. Our highest troop count in either country was barely half of that.
I also submit that, if less than a year after 9/11 the idea of a draft is so toxic that nobody will seriously float the idea, the US will probably not be able (or more accurately, politically willing) to radically increase the size of our Army – certainly not to the level needed to support an occupation force of a quarter of a million. Therefore the simple lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan is either:
1) Don’t invade countries that will require an occupation force of over 100,000, or:
2) Make sure you have sufficient troops lined up from allies to cover the gap, or:
3) Plan on raising native auxiliaries, recognizing said auxiliaries are never as effective, loyal or efficient at US troops.
Over the past six months, I've done a long series of posts on the case for, and against, and then again for the north-south high-speed rail project that Jerry Brown has made a test of his legacy as governor, and that is the most ambitious infrastructure project underway anywhere in the country.
The purpose of this post is to be a one-stop index and compendium of these posts, with a few updates. First, the updates:
1) "Why Today's High-Speed Rail Launch is Miraculous," by David Dayen in Salon. Dayen is a writer based in Los Angeles whose view on many topics is different from mine. But on this one we are in sync. He makes the case for this project as an extension of previous, big, long-term, mocked-at-the-outset efforts that have reshaped our lives for the good. Eg:
Gov. Brown, who really willed high-speed rail forward in 2014, obviously sees it as a legacy project, similar to the University of California system, intra-state highway network and water infrastructure built by his father, Pat Brown, the governor from 1959 to 1967. Those investments drove the state’s prosperity for decades, and the rail line could be a more sustainable component of that growth in the future.
But building out high-speed rail has implications for more than California. Americans have effectively given up on a visionary politics, as the 2014 midterms exemplified.... But those who would drown government and create an own-your-own society cannot explain away the Hoover Dam, or the New York City subway, or the roads linking Maine, Florida, Arizona and Idaho.
2) "A Sharp Contrast in Visions for America's Transportation Future," an editorial on the day of the ground-breaking in the Sacramento Bee. Sample:
In 2008, many Republicans supported the high-speed rail bond measure. Now that Obama and Brown support it, many Republican politicians have flipped....
The view of the Central Valley Republicans is disconnected from the region they represent. The U.S. census recently ranked Fresno as the second most impoverished metropolitan area in the nation... The Central Valley perennially has some of the nation’s dirtiest air and highest rates of asthma. Clearly, more gas-powered automobiles and additional freeway lanes, themselves costly, are not the answer.
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a Republican, is an exception, contending that the rail will give her city a much needed jolt by making Fresno “the essential connecting point for Northern and Southern California.”...
As evidence mounts about the impact of climate change, this nation must find alternatives to oil. One such alternative began to take shape in Fresno on Tuesday. Yes, it was rife with symbolism. The rail won’t be carrying passengers for years. But it was a start, and a wise step into the future.
Now, the compendium. In order, the installments were:
1) "The California High-Speed Rail Debate: Kicking Things Off." An introduction to the role of big infrastructure projects in American history, from the Louisiana Purchase and the Erie Canal onward. Also this contained the first link to a powerful interactive map created by UC Davis and Esri, which allows you to see the staged development plans for the railroad and overlay them on economic and environmental indicators. Plus links to various economic and environmental impact assessments.
10) "Palate Cleanser." A (relatively) brief entry on the question of how and whether 21st-century America can decide on infrastructure projects whose full value might not be felt for many decades.
11) "Thinking in Time." An extension of the point in #10. This also has been an increasing theme in Jerry Brown's speeches, based on his references to medieval masons work on cathedrals whose completion their grandchildren might see.
12) "All Aboard!" Mainly reader mail on the effects of rail networks.
14 1/2) "California High-Speed Rail: It's Happening." Shortly after the 2014 elections, Jerry Brown announced that on the first full day of his fourth and final term, he would go to Fresno to break ground for the rail system. This is No. 14 1/2 because I had promised that No. 15 would be the grand finale.
15) "A Minor End, an Important Beginning." Last week, on the day of the ground-breaking, I explained why I thought that the centuries-long record of American infrastructure investments argued for going ahead with this one.
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Thanks to the hundreds of people who wrote in, pro and con. On looking through the past installments, I am once again impressed by and grateful for the range of expertise, the passion, and the English-composition skills in the diaspora of our magazine's readers. I am also impressed by the range of California-specific art work, commercial art, photography, and other images on the theme of transportation. I've used scores of those and am grateful in particular to the excellent Calisphere site for its riches. While I'm at it, I'll also mention that Calisphere and its parent University of California system are of course themselves examples of public infrastructure investments with wide-ranging benefits.
Today's followups on the question of whether America is a "Chickenhawk Nation," as I argue in this month's issue:
1) "If inequality is our problem, military service is the answer." A powerful op-ed in the L.A. Times by recent USMC veteran and current M.B.A. student Benjamin Luxenberg:
A student at my alma mater, Brandeis University, recently asked me to speak to her school group about my post-college experiences, specifically my time studying in China and Germany and now at Harvard University. There was one major problem with this request: I'd graduated five years ago, and she skipped most of what has defined my adult life—the four years I served in the Marine Corps.
Very much worth reading in full.
2) "Can a Gold-Plated Military Counter ISIS?" From long-time (and frequently quoted-by-me) defense analyst Chuck Spinney, one basic question about today's strategy, and a discouraging but realistic answer. Sample:
Lightly armed guerrilla/insurgent/terrorist forces are once again holding off the high-tech, heavily armed forces of the United States. A string of defeats is slowly accumulating at the strategic and grand-strategic levels of conflict, even though US forces almost always win battles at the tactical level, if they can fix the insurgents and destroy them with overwhelming firepower, particularly bombing. But when viewed through the overlapping lenses of the operational, strategic, and grand strategic levels of conflict guerrillas have advantages to offset US firepower.
One of the underlying points in my current article is that, whether you agree with Spinney or not, questions like this should be in mainstream of U.S. political and media discussion, not consigned to specialty military sites. Also of course worth reading in full, with a link to a piece by the authoritative Patrick Cockburn. It even has a link to the urtext thinking about this form of war, "Patterns of Conflict" by the late Colonel John Boyd.
3) In-house news. I was on C-SPAN this morning, with host Pedro Echeverria, talking about my article and reactions pro and con, notably including the "so what do we do about it?" question. I was also on The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC, to similar effect. The call-in audiences for the typical programs on C-SPAN and WNYC differ but each satisfying and revelatory in different ways. If you are in D.C., this evening at 5 p.m., at TheAtlantic's home office at the Watergate, I'll be doing a session on these themes with Senator Joe Manchin and Helene Cooper of the NYT, moderated by The Atlantic's Steve Clemons. Details here.
4) What is to be done? This question comes up, as it should, in both the C-SPAN and the WNYC interviews. As you'll see and hear, from my point of view there is simply no realistic prospect of reinstating compulsory service via a draft. But there are possible ways to make service of a variety of forms more attractive and practical, and in the near term it is important to move these military questions from the vague periphery closer to the center of political discussion.
For all the reasons to feel a sinking heart about the upcoming round of presidential-race speculation, here is a positive aspect. On both sides the prospects make discussions of national-strategy issues more likely than it was four years ago:
Among the Republicans, the Rand Paul-vs.-the-field divide is over questions of strategic overreach and the national-security state in general.
Among the Democrats, Hillary Clinton's vote for the Iraq War was the main vulnerability that gave Barack Obama his chance in 2008. The potential (long-shot) runs by Jim Webb, Bernie Sanders, even Elizabeth Warren would in different degrees involve questions of military ambitions, especially of course in Webb's case. So maybe on both sides we'll talk about these issues.
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I am trying hard to choose manageable samples from the now thousands of thoughtful responses I've received, mainly from people with military backgrounds. More to come.