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.

James Fallows: Military

  • Sebastian Junger on Chickenhawk Nation

    In today's formless, open-ended wars, it can be hard to know what "victory" would mean. It's much easier to identify defeat. A response to Sebastian Junger.

    The Atlantic

    Sebastian Junger, who has produced moving accounts of the human face of combat in Afghanistan and elsewhere (to say nothing of the narrative mastery of The Perfect Storm), and whose war movie Restrepo I recommended a few years ago, has written what he presents as a counter or critique to my "Tragedy of the American Military" article.

    I hope you will read it. When you're done, I invite you to head back here.

    * * *

    The overwhelming majority of the (overwhelming) response I've gotten to this article has impressed me by engaging with the case I actually made. I mention this because so frequently that does not happen on controversial topics. You can see an example in the reader letters I quote here on a different subject: Benjamin Netanyahu's upcoming speech to Congress. In that case the angriest messages came from people reacting to exactly the opposite of what a previous correspondent was trying to say. Readers of a certain age, who have heard of Gilda Radner's performances in the early days of SNL, will recognize this as the "Miss Emily Litella" syndrome, a heated denunciation of views you misheard or misunderstood.

    Unfortunately I feel that Junger's heartfelt arguments are the exception to most of the response to this piece, in their misalignment with the thrust of my article. Here are some examples.

    Democratic feedback system. Early on Junger makes this point:

    Fallows takes this idea [of civic disengagment] and puts a particularly sharp edge on it: “Because so small a sliver of the population has a direct stake in the consequences of military action,” he writes, “the normal democratic feedbacks do not work.”

    It’s an appealing theory that persists despite the fact that it’s demonstrably untrue. By the end of World War II, nearly 10 percent of Americans were on active military duty. That should have resulted in massive public resistance to the war, but it was exactly the opposite.

    It appears that Junger understood me to be saying something as over-simple as "the bigger the military, the more unpopular the war." Thus World War II would seem to be a powerful counterexample: big army, but broad public support. He could have gone on to mention the Civil War in the same vein: very broad participation, very broad support. Therefore my point, as he understood it, must be demonstrably untrue.

    But of course the argument in the article was not that at all. In simplest form it was: The broader the civic engagement and exposure to the consequences of military action, the greater the chance that the public will take its military seriously. And the less the engagement, the more likely a nation will be careless and sloppy in how it applies military force. As the article put it, "A chickenhawk nation is more likely to keep going to war, and to keep losing, than one that wrestles with long-term questions of effectiveness." That is not quite the same as "big army = unpopular wars."

    What would be the signs that the country was taking its military seriously? They would include thinking carefully about the causes to which we commit troops, holding military leaders accountable for tactical and strategic competence, holding political leaders accountable for their judgment in military matters, being close enough to the realities of military operations to understand that some spending is crucial and other is sheer porkbarreling waste.

    All of those traits describe the fully committed America of the World War II era and its aftermath, when it was first fighting the Nazis and Imperial Japanese and then digging in against Stalin's Soviet Union. None of them (I contend) apply to the America of the chickenhawk era. Thus for the point the article was actually making, World War II is strong evidence that the argument is "demonstrably true" rather than the reverse. Why do you think I wrote about World War II and its aftermath so much?

    As Andrew Bacevich wrote, in a quote I used in the piece, “A people untouched (or seemingly untouched) by war are far less likely to care about it.” During and after World War II most Americans were touched by war, and cared about it. During today’s long wars most Americans aren’t, and don’t.

    The 1 percent problem. Several times in the piece, I emphasize how small a share of the American public is involved in the military or has served in our recent wars. For instance, Americans who served in either Iraq or Afghanistan at any point since 2001 make up three-fourths of 1 percent of the population.

    Junger imagines that I am presenting the small size of today’s military as a problem to be solved in itself, rather than as both symptom and cause of the real disorder I am discussing: the estrangement of the military from most of society. Therefore he wonders how much bigger I would like the military to be and whether I would like a draft:

    But what’s the solution? Saying that 1 percent is too low implies that the figure should be higher. But how high? Five percent? Ten? Does the United States really need an army of 5 million people? Do Americans really want to pay for that?

    Maybe when people get upset about the 1-percent figure, what they’re really getting upset about is the lack of a military draft.

    These would be strong points if I had said that the military needs to be bigger, which I didn't, or if I thought the draft would return, which it won't.

    Thirty-five years ago, when the volunteer army had been running for only a few years and the (then) Soviet Union had just invaded Afghanistan, Jim Webb and I co-wrote a feature for The Atlantic arguing that the United States would be better off in the long run if it brought the draft back. That was a different world. Barring changed circumstances no one can foresee, there is zero likelihood that the U.S. will bring conscription back. Similarly, I don't think, and didn't say, that the United States needs more people in uniform. In fact I quoted retired Admiral Mike Mullen, former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on why we should have a smaller military, to make it harder to drift into "casual" wars.

    To spell it out again: A smaller army is not itself the problem. It's a symptom of America's inattention to its military, which is the real challenge to address.

    Sebastian Junger says that if you're not willing to expand the army or reinstitute the draft, there's no point in talking about this 1-percent problem. Obviously I disagree and feel that we are in terrain similar to what William James explored long ago with that most American of all meaning-of-America essays, "The Moral Equivalent of War." Its premise was that the Civil War, for all its horrors, had evoked a kind of nobility in individual and collective purpose. The question was how a nation could evoke some of that nobility without all the carnage. In my own more limited sphere I was asking how we could repair the civic-military connection without having a huge military or restoring the draft.

    Winning and losing. Sebastian Junger says that it can be difficult to know whether you have "won" in today's open-ended combat. I agree.

    He says that therefore you can't know if you have "lost." I disagree completely.

    Here is how he frames his point:

    "One of the most powerful arguments against the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan has been that it lacked any clear definition of “winning.” But if we accept the premise that there’s no definition of winning, then there’s no definition of losing, either, and we forfeit the right to use either word. You can’t “lose” a race that has no finish line."

    I don't think Junger himself would agree with this if he thought about it for a minute. Here is what it means to “lose” a modern war:

    You spend several trillion dollars—at least 10 times more than a figure the Bush administration dismissed as impossibly high before the Iraq War began. (Paul Wolfowitz, of course, predicted that the Iraq War would be self-financing, from local oil.)

    You sacrifice thousands of American lives, to speak only of the losses on our nation's side, and shatter tens of thousands of families through disability and long-term trauma. What everyone considers a left-wing film, The Hurt Locker, and what everyone considers a right-wing film, American Sniper, are to my mind essentially the same film, showing brave young Americans placed in impossible circumstances in unwinnable wars and suffering long-term consequences. Reduced to a message, Restrepo can be seen the same way.

    As I said in my piece, the U.S. scored one big success in killing Osama bin Laden, and another in the initial campaign to drive the Taliban from Afghanistan—before troops and attention were diverted to Iraq. Yet nothing in the circumstances of either Iraq or Afghanistan after 13 years of war resembles what any U.S. leader would have called “successful” before the wars began. For a truly sobering look at the situation in Iraq, please see this new analysis from Chuck Spinney.

    You know you have lost when you have done those things—and when you have left the United States in worse shape with nearly all allies, done profound damage to its moral standing, and exposed the limits rather than the extent of its military reach.

    That is defeat. That is what we have suffered. And the real point of my article was that the fault lies with our nation as a whole, for thinking that calling our troops "heroes" makes up for thoughtlessness in this gravest of national decisions.

    I am glad that Sebastian Junger took the time to read and write about my article. I do hope you'll read his essay for the good points he makes. But I am sorry that he seems not to have registered what my article said.

    More »

  • On the Impossibility of Fighting ISIS

    "I have come to the conclusion that there is no military solution to this issue that can be generated by the U.S. But I believe there is a political solution." How to think about the next war, as we consider getting into it.

    President Obama and his team this past week, announcing that they will seek legislation authorizing military action against ISIS (Reuters)

    Through the past 13+ years, the United States has fought a war of choice in Iraq, and has extended its original, fully justified punitive mission in Afghanistan into a war of choice (including a "surge") there. It has the world's most powerful and most expensive military and has won nearly every tactical engagement in each country. Yet in a strategic sense it has lost both wars.

    Now it faces the challenge of the indisputably evil and brutal ISIS. Of the desirability of crushing ISIS there is no doubt. But after the previous commitments led to grief, people have looked back and asked, 'How could we ever have thought that [Tactic X] would have worked?'

    It's worth trying to ask that question ahead of time with ISIS, as it was worth doing with Iraq. The cover story of our brand-new issue [Subscribe!] is a tremendous, thoroughly reported, vividly told analysis by Graeme Wood of the history, ambitions, strengths, and vulnerabilities of the Islamic State movement. I urge you to read it and think about its implications.

    Along with Graeme Wood's story, please consider this shorter assessment by Kenneth S. Brower, a longtime defense analyst. He doesn't agree with Wood on everything, but in the areas both of overlap and of differences I think you'll find these essays clarifying and valuable.

    Some Thoughts About Our So-Called "War" on ISIS

    By Kenneth S. Brower

    As I see it the Sunni minority in Iraq and the Sunni majority in Syria are under siege by Shia. ISIS is the one successful Sunni group opposing the Shia. A very large portion of Arab Sunnis at least passively support ISIS, not because they support its extreme ideology but because they want the Sunnis to emerge victorious. A subset of the pro-ISIS Sunnis actually support their extreme ideology. What we call the Iraqi military is seen by almost all Arab Sunnis as a Shia army under the influence, if not the control, of Iran. This explains why Turkey maintains open borders, as well as the policy of Jordan, Saudi, and the Emirates.

    I simply do not understand our strategy, assuming we really have one. If our goal is defeating ISIS's ideology and its support of international terrorism this cannot be done by indirect fire, PERIOD! If [conclusive defeat] is our objective we only have limited choices: either military control of 25 million Syrian/Iraqi Sunnis, which will require a sustained force of 500,000 for decades; or creating conditions whereby the majority of Sunni Arabs will see it in their self interest to subjugate the ideological minority.

    If our objective is simply to maintain the borders set by colonial powers in 1919, then air power alone will suffice. But the inevitable result will be Shia control of Syria and Iraq and a strengthening of ISIS ideology and terrorism.

    Lines of the British-French agreement before the end of World War I on how Arab lands of the Ottoman Empire would be divided if the Allies won the war.

    The use of air power is our only feasible military option, but using air power to liberate urban areas, like Mosul means destroying them! That will only create more enemies.

    I have come to the conclusion that there is no military solution to this issue that can be generated by the U.S. But I believe there is a political solution.

    We have to give the Sunnis reason to reject ISIS. That would entail having the U.S. come out against the Sykes-Picot borders, supporting a break-up of Iraq into Kurdish, Shia, and Sunni countries, incorporating most of Syria, while simultaneously and carefully decimating ISIS leadership. I simply cannot understand why it is in the strategic interest of the U.S. to maintain current Middle Eastern borders, which are unsustainable. I see our current approach as guaranteed to fail.

    Terrorism is murder, whether it is in Paris, Copenhagen, or any U.S. town. Every day about 70 Americans are murdered, most by guns. Unless the victims are famous or cute most are ignored by the media. But a minor terrorist attack gets headlines. A YouTube video of a beheading forces the U.S. president to go to " war" in order to avoid being called weak by his domestic political opposition. That's not leadership! Worse, the so-called hawks push for deeper involvement irrespective of military reality. They live in a fantasy world of U.S. military exceptionalism.

    To me the issue is not whether we would be better served if the A-10 were being properly employed. Obviously we would be! Ditto [other military-reform concepts], which have always made sense to me. To me the issue is strategy ... and as I see it our use of force is currently counterproductive.

    In Gaza the IDF has been able to assassinate Hamas leaders sometimes layers deep. So what! The occupants of Gaza have seen their society all but ripped apart, and they continue to support Hamas. If 125,000 were still employed in Israel instead of Asians I wonder how much support Hamas would have?

    If I were a Sunni Arab I would know that when the Syrian Alawite (Shia) used poison gas the U.S. did nothing although thousands were massacred. Yet when two Americans were murdered we bombed Sunnis ... and then we expect Sunnis to love the U.S.

    We have got caught up in tactics, and strategy has been caught up in domestic politics. Military reality is nowhere to be found.

    I am profoundly worried.

    A central argument of my "Tragedy of the American Military" article was that because Americans "honor" their military but don't really take it seriously, we repeatedly send our forces on missions at which they're destined to fail.

    The "easy" part of dealing with ISIS is agreeing on its horror. The difficult part is thinking ahead five steps, about what the use of military power can and cannot do. Wood's reporting and Brower's military analysis are valuable steps in that direction.

  • Brian Williams and the 'Guitar Hero Syndrome'

    An officer serving in Afghanistan on why a newsman's mis-recollection matters: "I actually think it's worse if it WAS inadvertent, as that would confirm what we all suspect that America really does believe that it is more involved in the military's travails than is reality."

    The song "Rebel Yell" from the game Guitar Hero World Tour (Wikimedia)

    A U.S. Army captain now serving in Afghanistan writes about the Williams case. He is responding to my argument that whatever Williams's accounts reveal about the oddities of human memory, they also say something about the political climate of the chickenhawk era.

    What this reader writes is long, but I think you'll find it worth reading in full. He writes:

    Your recent post on the Brian Williams "adventure" on a helicopter brought to mind a parallel that might be accurate; the "Guitar Hero syndrome." I could also throw in pre-ripped, stone-washed jeans for good measure into the stew of things that seem to indicate a psychology dominating the American scene whereby people want to appear as if they are more involved in something than they really are (or actually care to be).

    Why practice a musical instrument when you can simply pick up the video game and within a few days, tada! You are now a guitar hero. Don't want to actually get your hands dirty moving dirt around the yard or climbing rocks or building roads but nevertheless want to appear as if you haven't been laying on the couch all day playing video games (guitar hero, maybe)? No problem; simply head on down to your local clothing outlet of choice for a wide selection of (what used to be considered) work pants that now come in all varieties of ripped, scratched, and discolored to make it appear as if you're "street-wise."

    Hell, you can even buy pseudo-military themed clothing if you want to go ahead and completely usurp the image of those who have volunteered to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat (at risk to themselves of beheading and, lately, immolation).

    Some may find my connection with pre-ripped jeans a far fetched corollary, however I believe that the psychology at work in our society has happened without anyone really even noticing. Why would people think that clothes that have been specifically designed to appear dirty or used are fashionable and hip? Because, somewhere inside our minds, we all share an admiration of "work" as a noble thing that helps make the world a better place. It's how we developed into who we are as humans, building cities and nations and civilizations out of the things we find around us, rather than simply laying out under the trees all day looking for the most easily accessible piece of fruit to grab.

    Brian Williams, bless his mostly-honest little patriotic heart (really, I do tend to like the guy), has either inadvertently or purposely pulled a complete guitar hero on the U.S. military with his little faux pas of journalistic integrity. I actually think it's worse if it WAS inadvertent, as that would confirm what we all suspect (those of us who are concerned about this subject), that America really does believe that it is/has been more involved in the military's travails than is reality.

    Probably, though, he just wanted to sell his brand so he went ahead and popped himself ahead in time temporarily and retroactively in order to be able to say that "he was there" when relating his "war experience" at all the dinners with his journalist buddies.

    I'm not trying to be cynical, just simply stating things without the normal deference that is given to "important people" simply because they did something with the right intentions. In this case, Williams spun it as a story about how great the guys were who came and helped him after the crash, so kudos to the military, right? What's not to like about that? Who cares if it wasn't exactly true?

    I care. Because I've actually been there. Some of us have actually put our lives on the line for real and take great offense when others try to gain street-cred by associating themselves with us. Nobody likes a moocher, especially not one who tries to mooch off the ONLY lasting and noble thing to come out of years of hardship and pain that are what Soldiers refer to as "life." I hate to say it but my own family sometimes annoys me in this way.

    My mom is a school teacher and has asked me on multiple occasions if I would mind coming to her school on Veterans Day to be "the Soldier" that all the kids get to talk to and what not. It may sound harsh, but I have told my own mother no every time (at least three that I can remember) to such requests (the latest of which was not helped by the fact that I am in Afghanistan and she thought maybe we could Skype it).

    I could go on ranting about how nobody "gets it" and the military is being "used" (in an involuntary way) for more than just ensuring access to resources and contracts for big U.S. companies, but I won't... for now.

    * * *

    In my "Tragedy of the American Military" article I wrote about the natural if unconscious attraction that many of the people covering today's soldiers come to feel toward the institutional military:

    Some of [the improving press image of the military] is anthropological. Most reporters who cover politics are fascinated by the process and enjoy practitioners who love it too, which is one reason most were (like the rest of the country) more forgiving of the happy warrior Bill Clinton than they have been of the “cold” and “aloof” Barack Obama. But political reporters are always hunting for the gaffe or scandal that could bring a target down, and feel they’re acting in the public interest in doing so.

    Most reporters who cover the military are also fascinated by its processes and cannot help liking or at least respecting their subjects: physically fit, trained to say “sir” and “ma’am,” often tested in a way most civilians will never be, part of a disciplined and selfless-seeming culture that naturally draws respect.

    Respect for individual brave, disciplined members of the military is natural and appropriate. It can spill over to a less proper suspension of critical judgment about the institutional military and the uses to which it is being put.

    More »

  • The Brian Williams Story as Emblem of the Chickenhawk Era

    What it means that a public figure "misremembered" events in this particular way

    Brian Williams interviewing General David Petraeus at our First Draft of History conference in 2009 (Reuters)

    I know Brian Williams slightly; have always liked his on-air presence; am glad he has participated in Atlantic events, like the one shown above; and am sorry for his current "our helicopter was hit" difficulties.

    I don't mean to compound them, but I want to explain why I find the episode mystifying when it comes to human nature, and revealing about our current politics.

    Mystifying: Memory is tricky. So is presentation-of-self—as David Graham explains in an item just now.

    But with all such allowances, I still find it just about incomprehensible that someone: (a) whose professional background involves observing and reporting events, (b) who holds one of the handful of jobs in the world most reliant on trustworthiness, and (c) who knew he was talking to an audience of millions of people that would (d) include others with first-hand knowledge of the incident, would nonetheless (e) "misremember" what must have been one of the most dramatic and traumatic moments of his life, after (f) accurately reporting the event for the first few years after it took place, and (g) when the whole thing is only a dozen years in the past, not somewhere in the fog of distant childhood memory.

    Again, narrative and recollection are strange. I think I clearly recall vivid or traumatic episodes in my life, starting with the time a pickup truck rammed the car in which I was riding with my mom as a pre-schooler in Jackson, Mississippi. I believe I'm sure that I was sitting in the front seat, in that era before seat belts or child safety-seats, and just missed hitting the windshield, being stopped by the padded dash. But maybe, this many years later, I'm fooling myself. There is no one else around who was there. Three or four times in the past 20 years, I've been in uncomfortable situations while flying an airplane. I think I could recount those episodes in second-by-second slo-mo detail. But I can't be absolutely sure.

    What I find hard to imagine is telling a story I wasn't 100 percent sure of, in public, with the detail, drama, and certainty Williams used in his famous session with David Letterman less than two years ago. The relevant part starts at around time 3:40. It is worth watching the few minutes that follow, knowing what we do now. (This video has the bonus of Italian subtitles.)

    I try to put myself in this situation, and I can't. Like every person I have misremembered things, and like many people I often exaggerate them. But in circumstances like this? Where you know that other witnesses could be listening in? (To spell it out: Everything that appears in our magazine is super-fact-checked, and any residual errors are despite our best efforts. Things I put on this web site are not checked the same way, but I know that anything I write is subject to someone writing in and reporting, "Hey, I also know about that episode, and it didn't happen the way you say.")

    * * *

    Revealing. Of the various commentaries on this issue I particularly recommend today's note by Andrew Tyndall, at his Tyndall Report. He says, as I would, that the misremembering is strange but not of huge consequence in itself, especially after Williams's apology. Then he makes the political point. He mentions my Chickenhawk article, but I would agree with him even if he hadn't. I've added the emphasis:

    This particular fib that Williams chose to tell—to identify himself all the more closely with the perils soldiers face in battle—derives from his underlying editorial judgment to offer instinctive support to the members of the uniformed armed forces ... And it is not only journalists that exhibit such "instinctive support," which is in truth a mere euphemism for "kneejerk adulation." Anyone who attends a major league baseball game observes the same unquestioning endorsement of the uniform and those who wear it.

    Jim Fallows of The Atlantic recently observed that such "reverent" solidarity with our troops acts as a ring-fence that protects the entire military-industrial complex from the scrutiny it deserves. So the editorial importance of the fib Williams told is not only that it displays a reflexive desire toward identification with the military; it also represents his own newscast's self-disqualification as a dispassionate journalistic observer of the Pentagon's role in the domestic body politic and the nation's foreign policy.

    I don't know what more Brian Williams can or will say about his own re-rendering of history. I do think, with Tyndall, that the particular way he re-presented himself says something about our times.

  • 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 »

  • 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 »

  • 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 Chickenhawk Chronicles, No. 11: A Failure of Grand Strategy

    What Alfred Lord Tennyson could teach us about civil-military relations. Plus, the simple lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, from a naval veteran's point of view.

    The Atlantic

    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.

    Charge of the Light Brigade, by Richard Caton Woodville Jr (Wikimedia)

    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.

  • Chickenhawk America, in Today's News

    Might the next presidential race shift attention back to long-neglected military questions?

    The Atlantic

    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 The Atlantic'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.

    * * *

    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.

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