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.
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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.
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 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/
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"We are quick to jail some junior enlisted teenager for leaking secrets or acting out in the stressors of war. But was anyone fired for failure to secure the supply lines, not protect our troops, engage in the protracted war?"
On the title of this installment No. 9: Long ago when I was starting in magazine journalism at The Washington Monthly, its founder and editor Charles Peters hammered away at the concept of "meanwhile, the realities." That is, the gap between theoretical discussion of some public issue and the way things actually looked on the delivery end. Here are three notes in that vein.
1) Helicopters are boring but important. From a Pentagon official involved in aircraft tests:
I've long been troubled by our country's emotionally empty "support" of our military, so I quite enjoyed your article. I'm [directly involved in engineering new aircraft] for the DoD, and while I'm not authorized to speak for my organization in any official capacity, I'd like to comment on the procurement-related piece of your writing.
The F-35 is certainly a large, high-profile, example of aviation procurement gone wrong. It illustrates the problems inherent with developing a complex, multirole, aircraft on a compressed timeframe. Other journalists have explored the failure of the "concurrency" concept for development and fielding.
F-35 is also emblematic of our fascination with high-tech toys that are largely irrelevant to recent wars. The military has spent billions on advanced fighters like F-35 and F-22, but also on anti-submarine aircraft like the P-8. None of the assets has been used in any meaningful capacity in the War on Terror, yet they absorb a large percentage of our RDT&E [research, development, test, and evaluation] budget.
Meanwhile, our military has struggled with aging and obsolete helicopters to perform the actual mission during our 13 years at war. The Army has failed with every major helicopter upgrade program (RAH-66, H-60M Upgrade, ARH-70), while the Marines have limped along on the 30-year old CH-53E for their heavy lift mission.
Rotorcraft are not as sexy as pointy-nose fighters, and perhaps it's harder for policymakers to envision us fighting the Soviets with them. Still, it seems that our focus and spending is misplaced when emphasizing jet fighters over helicopters.
2) The procurement racket. From someone with experience in defense contracting:
The company I work for used to have a major software contract with [one of the military branches]. We don't any more because it was gradually pried away from us by first forcing us to pair with one of the big-name DoD contractors, and eventually awarding the contract to them outright instead of to us.
The hollowness of this bid was immediately evidenced when they hired our entire project staff outright.
3) "Where is the accountability?" From a veteran of the invasion of Iraq:
As a junior officer and part of the initial invasion I came back from the war with more questions and extreme frustration. This wasn’t any sort of PTSD but pent-up frustration that accumulated for several years, then exploded into apathy and an unconscious desire to stay distant from the war.
For me, your article shed some light on why I was so frustrated. It’s the disconnect between policymakers, civilians, and the military.
I was part of the last class of [a program] that allows for learning between various services and branches—why they discontinued this program is beyond me. I first expressed my frustration with two simple points that you alluded to in your article but would be worth expanding upon.
1) Why were we not able to secure the main supply lines in Iraq? These are basically 3-4 open highways similar in size and scope to Texas.
2) Why were we not able to immediately retrofit the HMMWVs to become armored resistant from the beginning of the invasion or at least when IEDs were becoming routine.
The points above would pale in comparison to some of the tasks for the WWII mobilization. One of the few reasons I can think of is that the policymakers didn’t have any of their own kids in the fight. They didn’t get it.
Our unit directly benefited from the A-10. This plane eliminated opposition forces that could have killed our troops during the first few weeks. I remember seeing an engine of this plane coming into a landing at the Tailil air-force base in Nasiriya. The pilot got out and joined us in the lunch line without even acknowledging the damage. Kind of like the dent in your old pickup truck.
3) No sense of urgency from generals or politicians
a. I remember hearing (second hand) that General Abizaid gave a speech at Harvard in 2007 or so where when asked why we were still in Iraq and the response or how it was conveyed to me was we were there to buy time until the policy figured itself out. Wow. I’d hate to be a parent of a soldier killed because we were trying to buy time to figure things out.
b. The Hart Plan that you cite is fine but for $1.5 trillion can’t we find more competent policymakers and a greater sense of urgency to implement these basic ideas before the invasion? Asymmetric warfare is nothing new.
4) No accountability from policymakers. This enables your idea of easier to go to war.
a. We are quick to jail some junior enlisted teenager for leaking secrets (which doesn’t say much for our control on keeping them) or acting out in the stressors of war but what is said about the $1.5 trillion failure for the points you mentioned and I’ve listed above? Was anyone fired for failure to secure the supply lines, not protect our troops, engage in the protracted war? When ISIS recently rolled through five years of blood, sweat, and tears, was anyone held accountable, like, “Hey this plan was really fucked up from the beginning, training the Iraq troops didn’t work”? All the people supporting training the Iraqi troops should be fired or at least barred from making poor choices in the future. I mean no accountability.
5) Commo—why is it that will all the advancements in military technology are communications constantly down in a fire fight??
I could go on and on but ... this article has helped me personally understand some of the sources of my frustration. Not many things help me so thank you.
"The same inherent disadvantages that crippled the Soviet centrally planned economy in trying to compete with the American free-market-capitalism model are coming to bear on the Pentagon," says a former Air Force officer.
I've spent most of the past two days reading through the ~ 1,200 emailed or paper-mailed responses I've gotten, most from past or current military people and most supportive overall if differing in degree. Obviously I can't quote from (or unfortunately even acknowledge) all of them, but I'll excerpt some as feasible in coming days. Again, I'll assume that I am free to quote from incoming messages unless specified otherwise, but I won't use real names unless you say so in advance.
Today's theme: business aspects of what I call the chickenhawk economy.
1) Centrally planned economies have failed elsewhere; so too with the Pentagon. Brian Weeden, with experience in military and civilian space projects, writes:
I served for nine years in the Air Force in both nuclear ICBM and space operations. I now work for an NGO on space policy, and your article touched on a lot of the issues the U.S. military is facing in space.
Early on you asked why military spending keeps going up as the capability delivered goes down. I think a big part of the answer is that the Pentagon is still trying to run their affairs like a centrally planned economy, while their adversaries (and the world in general) is increasingly being run as a free market. And the same inherent disadvantages that crippled the Soviet centrally planned economy in trying to compete with the American free-market-capitalism model are coming to bear on the Pentagon.
The Pentagon approaches the budget by first trying to figure out what threats it will face in the future, what capabilities it needs to address those threats, and then what specific systems are best suited to provide those capabilities. It then develops budgets and execution plans to procure and field those systems.
The problem is that this approach first requires the Pentagon to know exactly what threats it will face years in advance of when they will appear, just as the Soviet economy had to figure out consumer demand for products before it actually emerged. Moreover, the Pentagon has to figure out ahead of time what the one best way is to deliver a specific capability, as opposed to the free-market model of trying them all and the best ones emerging. Any political scientist will tell you that the principle of bounded rationality means it is impossible to have perfect knowledge, perfect understanding of that knowledge, and enough time to actually do what the Pentagon is trying to do.
When the only real adversary was the Soviet Union, you could make the system work because it was easier to figure out the threat. But the Pentagon currently faces a proliferation of threats from near peers, failed states, and non-state actors. It's no longer possible to build one single set of systems that can meet all those threats. Moreover, it is easier for those adversaries to take advantages of changes in technology. They are more agile because they don't have the same legacy systems or bureaucracy to deal with. As technological innovation speeds up, it becomes harder and harder for a centrally-planned system to keep up.
The only long-term answer that I can see is to shift towards more of a free-market approach that gives commanders in specific geographic regions, or perhaps even units preparing to face specific threats, more flexibility to go out and procure systems and capabilities that meet their own needs. Doing so would require breaking the centrally planned budget and delegating more budget authority to lower levels. But that would be a massive cultural and political shift, one that I don't think the military bureaucracy is ready for, as it would have huge repercussions on everything from training to logistics.
2) The specific instance of the F-35. My article spent a lot of time talking about the financial and technical problems of the F-35 multi-purpose fighter. In an article a dozen years ago, I said that the F-35, then known as the Joint Strike Fighter, would be an important test of whether Pentagon budget-and-contract problems could be solved. The results of the test appear to be in, and they're not positive. From someone in the business:
I would like to put my 2¢ worth in on the F-35.
I worked as a performance analysis engineer on the Boeing entry [which lost to the Lockheed Martin design]. From the beginning I had serious doubts about the combat capability of our design. Primarily it seemed the weapon load was too small and the combat radius too small. Also there was NO capability for engine growth, which is vital for a front-line fighter.
No one in management seemed concerned, so I figured I wasn’t completely informed. I can only assume Lockheed’s winning design had many of the same shortfalls.
The Australian assessment you offer a link to is quite frank, as opposed to U.S. and Great Britain head-in-the-sand approach.
3) The case for the F-35, from inside the Air Force. A lieutenant colonel on active duty in the Air Force writes to disagree with my criticism of the F-35. On equal-time principles I'll quote him in full:
After 20 years in the Air Force, mostly in the airborne reconnaissance business with about 11 years flying both the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper (with thousands of hours flying close air support over Iraq and Afghanistan), there was a few points I found intriguing, and a few points with which I must take some issue. [JF note: to be clear, both the MQ-1 and MQ-9 are drones rather than manned aircraft.]
One question: In 2002 you wrote a fairly positive article on the acquisition of the F-35. Now you think it’s an example of wasteful spending. What changed? [JF note: What changed is what happened in the past dozen years.] As I recall, the fly-away costs of the F-35 significantly grew during the development years, but then the program was restricted and now the flow-away costs are pretty close to the projections made when the contract was awarded ($80M in 2001 dollars).
Still, that’s crazy expensive. Having spent some time at Air Combat Command headquarters, my own suspicion is that the concept of joint acquisition is to blame. Rather than realize efficiency, the attempt to make one program meet the unique requirements of each service just drives up costs and results in duplication of effort. That combined with the failed concepts of spiral development and low-rate initial production concurrent with developmental testing spell real trouble. In an effort to save money, we signed up for a much bigger bill.
I saw the same thing with the Army acquisition of the MQ-1C Grey Eagle [also a drone]. The Air Force program was much more mature, and the Air Force had already committed itself to transitioning to an all-MQ-9 fleet (a huge increase in capability over the MQ-1B for a marginal increase in costs, since all the ground elements of the system are the same). But the Army insisted that it had unique requirements for a separate airplane. And OSD’s insistence on trying to find common payloads and software only drove up development costs without ultimately achieving any common procurement.
I suspect the F-35 shook out the same way—especially with the Marine Corps “requirement” for short take-off and vertical landing. The Marine version is almost a completely different airplane. And even with a lot of common parts, all three services have to set up their own logistics chains, depot support, and operational maintenance—the real culprit when it comes to high operating costs and the reason the Air Force wants to kill the A-10 ($4.6B per year just to maintain an A-10-unique sustainment chain).
As for the Air Force and the F-35, we have to have it. We’re replacing about 2,000 F-16s and F-15Es with the 1,767 F-35s at the same time that we’re replacing 600 F-15Cs with 185 F-22s. We’re therefore accepting strategic risk in an age when we’re already too small of a force and possessing of too few resources to cover all the taskings expected of us.
With that small of a fleet, we will have a very difficult time defending Taiwan, South Korea, or our allies in the Gulf or Europe in the face of any serious aggression. There has not been an American killed on the ground by an enemy aircraft since the Korean War. We in the Air Force believe that air supremacy is an American birthright, and a gap in the combat air forces puts that at risk. It would one thing if our civilian leaders had made a conscience decision to accept that risk and took responsibility for it. But of course that hasn’t happened (the closest anyone came was when Secretary Gates put the procurement cap at 187 F-22s and declared that he believed the F-35 could fill the counter-air gap).
Notice that I did not include the A-10 as an aircraft that will be replaced by the F-35. In my view, the A-10 and the F-35 have little to do with each other. Rather, the aircraft that will replace the A-10 and fill the CAS role is the MQ-9.
Despite the emotionalism of A-10 proponents, the truth is we just don’t do CAS at 300 feet with a 30mm cannon any more. We do it at 30,000 feet with targeting pods and a bunch of laser-guided weapons. The MQ-9 is far better at this than the A-10, owing to its endurance (20+ hours vs. 2-ish for an A-10), it’s speed (just as fast as the A-10 but able to cover a lot more ground with its endurance), the situational awareness of the crew (due to the fact that it’s much easier to pump things like Link-16 and Blue Force Tracker with an unlimited number of communications links into a ground-based cockpit), the global distribution of data and video inherent in the way the MQ-9 is flown (allowing the crew to leverage the support of intelligence analysts, tactical ops centers, etc. anywhere in the world), and the fact that the MQ-9 pilot sitting at one G and zero knots has none of the physiological issues of manned flight, and therefore at least has the potential (along with the patience) to make better combat decisions.
And the Air Force is buying 300 MQ-9s—the same number as current fleet of A-10s but with a lot more capability and reliability (over 95 percent mission-ready rates) per aircraft—and as you point out, lower acquisition and operating costs. It’s pretty clear to me that the MQ-9 is the A-10 killer.
What the MQ-9 can’t do, and what the A-10 was never expected to do, is something that the F-35 will excel at—kicking down the door on Day 1 of the big war. [JF note: This is for another day.] With its dependence on data links, lack of on-board self-defense systems, and low maneuverability, the MQ-9 would never survive in a contested air environment. But of course neither could the A-10—not against 4th-gen Russian fighters. And we just won’t have enough F-22s to do the job.
So we will absolutely need the F-35 in part for the counter-air mission, but mainly for the suppression of enemy air defenses and the electronic warfare missions in a contested or denied environment. Once Phase 1 of the big war is complete and air supremacy is achieved (which you would need as a pre-cursor to sending in the Army anyway), we can bring in dozens of MQ-9s and provide all the persistent close air support you like.
So we’ve got to make the F-35 work—and we will. We always do. But it won’t be cheap. And in the meantime, the MQ-9 is the breakthrough technology like they have in the private sector that does the job better and cheaper than the A-10.
4) Combat aircraft as viewed from the ground. An opposing view from an active-duty marine:
Thank you very much for writing about the excesses of the F-35 program and the DoD. I am a Marine captain who served in the infantry and reconnaissance fields with four deployments, two of those being combat tours in Afghanistan. Before commissioning, I studied political science in college and my senior thesis was on the "Iron Triangle." After seven years of service, the theories I read about and the warnings from leaders past sadly did not prove to be unfounded.
Military worship and the blank check that it guarantees for those on the hill is extremely dangerous, as has been borne out over the last decade. It clouds discourse over the real merits of our military interventions and campaigns abroad. And, for a variety of reasons, in the public sphere the topic is conveniently "out of sight, out of mind." Civic society and its decay was a popular topic a decade ago when I was in school, and I am glad you are trying to bring renewed attention to that theme in your writing.
I have personally experienced nearly being killed by the excesses of the collusion between industry and the military, a la the V-22 Osprey. I was forced to use this platform despite its limitations in theater, and due to various reasons I can't discuss, I feel it was responsible for nearly getting myself and my men killed. Yet, top brass shoves down the throats of career-minded subordinate commanders that it is a sound platform, with dog and pony shows put on toward "proving" that.
The Paladin system also comes to mind, being absolutely unnecessary among a branch (artillery) that is in an existential crisis as to why it exists at all in the modern era. Instead of busting rust on the venerable self-towed howitzers for the (remote) possibility that we must engage a conventional force in a WWII/Korea-style land campaign, they choose to buy a logistically expensive and mechanically complicated piece of equipment like the Paladin that has no real place on the battlefield.
I am a believer in what my colleagues would describe as a bit of heresy—a complete restructure of the Department of Defense as a unified force. Component services (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines) are an anachronism, lead to budgetary infighting and politicking, and bleeds equipment and personnel through redundancy. A new model should be developed that is based on SOCOM [Special Operations Command] with a vertical alignment of budgets, a concerted effort to deconflict lines of operation, and a streamlining of equipment and personnel (read: smaller!) That is what the F-35 is all about, while failing miserably—one end system that all component services can dip their hands into for their purposes. It is a fallacy, and a symptom of the problem that a unified and truly Joint DOD would fix.
Let me explain why: Why would the Marine Corps need a VTOL (Verticle Take-Off and Landing) F-35 variant? To replace an aging Harrier as a close air-support platform is the official line. The real reason why is the protect the Marine Corps' raison d'etre; amphibious warfare, also largely an anachronism—a divorce from the Navy and its carrier fleet with platforms that can provide the same capabilities (the F-18). The result is an engineering dud if you are talking 5th-generation air war against a near-peer. This bureaucratic infighting with expensive consequences is repeated many times over with all sorts of major and minor end systems.
If you're joining us late: My piece on "The Tragedy of the American Military" is here; the "Gary Hart Memo" is here; an extra reading list is here; and here are previous reader responses No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4. As mentioned earlier, I'm including these in our American Futures saga because, while from a different vantage point than our normal city-visits, they're about the civic texture of American society
Today's installment No. 5 is reader mail on the general subject of recognizing those who serve.
1) All the whooping and hollering. From a young American who has not been in the military but has spent time in Iraq and Turkey working with Kurdish refugees:
One point in your analysis that finally puts into words something I have struggled to vocalize for years. I was always put off by the whooping and hollering that went along with those military appreciation football games at [the University of North Carolina].
Those young men and women were paraded onto the field, drunk college kids falling over one another to show how proud they were by screaming "America!" and "Go Heels, Go America!"
I sat questioning what exactly it was that these folks were cheering for. Were they cheering because they knew what these young people would face if they were deployed? Were they cheering because of the useless and sometimes counterproductive violence that our military and political leaders would ask these young people to inflict upon others? Were they cheering with the knowledge that the C.I.A. had failed to notify our soldiers that they might come into close proximity and/or handle leftover chemical weapons in Iraq (even after they knew these weapons existed)?
No, none of these, they were cheering because they wanted to be seen as patriots and they wanted to feel as if they were doing something rather than do anything at all.
To think critically about the military would be too difficult, too risky, too doubt-inducing. So instead, they choose to cheer and go home, forgetting about the military or anyone in it until the next game day.
I sometimes find myself becoming bitter when I think of how superficial all of it is—from politicians, to students, to older folks, no one knows what our military really does, how they do it, or why. They'd rather not know, and hang out their "support our troops" sign and forget about it all. They don't want to know what's wrong, they just want to think they are safe.
I never cheered at these games... Then I attended a program at the U.S. Army War College and another program at the U.S. Air Force Academy. These programs gave me the chance to speak directly with the people who have made it a part of their life to understand, improve and participate in the military. My thoughts on it, surprisingly, did not catch their ire, rather, they were welcomed. In mainstream society, any rebuke of the military in any form is quickly quashed by nationalistic fervor and patriotic ramblings, and sometimes, personal attacks.
I am well-educated, come from a modestly wealthy family, and I was lucky enough to be afforded great opportunities. It is people like myself who shun or even despise the idea of serving in the military. Although I never served, through my time roaming the streets of Cairo, Erbil, Hatay, Tehran, Ramallah, Mosul, etc. I have met many soldiers and others associated with the military. These interactions have shown me that the job is difficult, it is important, and it is crucial, for our soldiers are our country's most accessible ambassadors in regions of the world where our dominance is questioned, tenuous and good will towards our nation dwindles if it is not cultivated. Soldiers are part of a larger culture that must be developed in a thoughtful and democratic manner.
2) What kind of service is "thankworthy"? From another reader who has not been in uniform:
Two quick comments. Nothing profound.
First, my dad was drafted for Vietnam, hated every second of it, and could never stand it when people thanked him for his service—or the pervasive, treacly displays of thanks to others' for their service.
Second, I did an extended volunteer tour in the U.S. Peace Corps (three years, instead of two) in the mid '90s, and nobody has ever thanked me for my service. Not that I really give a damn (I would probably laugh if anyone did.) But it is odd that the military is the only national service deemed "thankworthy" by the public.
It makes me wonder whether Peace Corps (or Americorps, or anything where you don't use firearms) would even "count" if we had compulsory national service.
3) "When you say, 'Thank you for your service,' this is what I hear." From a Marine Corps combat veteran of Vietnam, with later service in the Balkans:
I read your article with great interest.
Things have changed since 9/11 but not the isolation of the military from mainstream America.
And I can’t help it but when I hear someone say to me “Thank you for your service” it sounds more like “Get the hell back in your foxhole.”
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Background: My piece on "The Tragedy of the American Military" is here; the "Gary Hart Memo" is here; an extra reading list is here; and here are previous reader responses No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3.
Today's installment No. 4 is an essay-in-response by James Franklin Jeffrey, who was an Army infantry officer in Vietnam, was then in the Foreign Service, and is now a fellow at the Washington Institute in D.C. I'll save responses for later—although, okay, I'll say that I think we actually agree on fundamentals and disagree on the terminology of where "blame" for America's strategic failures should be placed. But let me turn it over to him:
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By James Franklin Jeffrey
James Fallows has done yet another service to public discourse on national security with his Atlantic piece “Why Do the Best Soldiers in the World Keep Losing.” But I have two problems with it. First, he asserts that various problems, from the military’s insular nature to erratic weapons development, help explain why our soldiers allegedly keep losing wars—without proving the connection, particularly on weapons development—a problem dating back decades. Second, I dispute Fallows’ core argument that “our soldiers … keep losing.” As winning not losing is the central purpose of having a military, let’s start there.
Since World War II the U.S. military has won all its campaigns in strictly military terms, except the 1950 offensive into North Korea and two minor engagements, Beirut in 1983, and Somalia in 1993. By "winning" I mean that it has forced the other side to cease all or most military operations and gained command of the terrain in play. In Vietnam, the U.S. military had largely wiped out the Vietcong insurgency by 1972, and defeated a North Vietnamese Army invasion that same year. In Iraq the U.S. military defeated the Iraqi army in weeks, and in 2007-8 defeated both the al-Qaeda insurgency and uprisings by Shia militias. In Afghanistan the military and CIA took down the Taliban and drove the al-Qaeda movement into Pakistan quickly, and by 2012 had secured most of Afghanistan.
Did we accept a "draw" in Korea, ultimately lose Vietnam, and fail to fully eliminate insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan? All true, but those represent failures of policy at the national level, failures that the military contributed to by not helping develop winning strategies, but the military here has had much company, most importantly presidents with ultimate responsibility for war strategy (and even my institution, the Foreign Service, which has not made clear our dismal record effecting socio-economic transformation and resolving deep sectarian strife in third-world countries even absent insurgencies).
The core purpose of the military is not to win wars but to win at the tactical and operational levels against opposing forces. As noted above, our military has been generally successful at this. But as Clausewitz notes, successful strategy is not just a function of battlefield success and commander genius, but above all the judgment of the political leadership in determining war goals consistent with political objectives and the military, economic and diplomatic means available; in other, Clausewitzian terms—turning tactical victories into a strategic win. This is particularly so in limited wars of choice and inherently political internal conflicts.
In those (Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan) failure came from defining "victory" in terms of an all but impossible non-military objective, to reform societies in our image while eliminating social and political drivers of insurgency. These errors were compounded by not committing sufficient means including time to maximize chances of attaining that elusive objective. (In part because the American public saw this objective as impossible and/or not worth the price.)
While the military must focus its intellectual power on winning in the field, it shares with other institutions responsibility for formulating larger war goals. It thus not only must answer questions about whether and how our troops can defeat opposing forces, but also must help answer the question of what strategic success can be obtained if the military succeeds tactically .
In Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, even when military leaders got the battlefield right, they did not succeed in this secondary but important job. The question is why did not more officers, and with more effect, ask David Petraeus’s 2003 question "how does this end?"
From my observations, the problem is that the military often conflates winning battles with winning the war, as they sometimes assume someone else was engaged in the knitting together of their tactical victories into strategic success. This was all the more understandable when strategic success as in these insurgency wars was defined in socio-political, not military, terms. Meanwhile, elements of the national leadership, congress and public assume that if our esteemed military were on the case, it would produce not only tactical victories—its core job—but also strategic success. To sum up, each side implicitly pushed responsibility for the really big war questions to the other side. This was not the military’s failure alone, and is not "losing" in the military sense, but it is failure none the less.
The final question is, why does the military keep getting this strategic job wrong. One factor, which Fallows does not highlight, but others including Huntington have, is the anti-Clausewitz mindset of the U.S. military. If victory is defined as ‘unconditional surrender’ then strategy and thus victory look a lot like tactical battlefield action on a grand scale. If national leadership (at least of a power without peers) wants such a victory it just pours resources into the military until victory is achieved. And here Fallows has a point.
The more the military is isolated from our society and its political limitations, the more it can harbor this view. Likewise, the more the military is placed on a pedestal, the more its confusion of tactical military success with political victory will go unchallenged by our political system, and likely shift to reluctance to criticize the political leadership’s war goals and means.
Fixing this is hard. Fallows correctly rejects a draft, but even with one, this dynamic was seen during Vietnam. The military puts enormous effort into civilian education and other exposure for its promising officers, but an inbred service family caste, military academies which segregate future officers early from civilian America, base services that isolate service families from their communities, all reinforce the separateness that feeds misunderstanding in both directions.
There is no feasible solution to this isolation, thus better to recognize and deal with it. That begins with our political leadership’s mission of winning conflicts and the military’s role to assist. The military must insist on knowing what the political goals are, which assumptions underlie these goals, what the means will be, and then insist on receiving them. And the country’s political leadership and public must understand that it is their job, not the military’s, to define victory and mobilize resources to achieve it—while holding the military responsible for winning on the battlefield.
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This is J Fallows again, not J. Jeffrey. More to come.