James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.
Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.
Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
Yesterday in Sacramento, Jerry Brown was sworn in, at age 76, for his fourth and final term as governor of our most populous and economically most important state.
Today in Fresno he will preside at a symbolic groundbreaking of his major infrastructure project as governor, and the largest one underway anywhere in the country. This is a north-south high-speed-rail program that will start construction in the state's hard-pressed Central Valley region and ultimately link the great population centers of the San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles basin.
You can see Brown's inaugural address yesterday via (non-embeddable) C-SPAN video here. If you jump to 12:20, you'll see an introduction by Brown's wife, Anne Gust Brown (in screenshot below), and get an idea of why she has been considered such an important part of his third- and fourth- term success.
And if you go ahead to roughly 23:00, you will see Brown talking about his high-speed-rail project. It gets a cheer, but to be fair, it's a secondary theme in the speech, which goes in more detail into Brown's plans for education, prison reform, and environmental protection. If you're wondering what it's like to talk with Jerry Brown, the speech as a whole (full text here) will get you started. As I mentioned in my article, the autumnal Governor Brown peppers his formal statements and informal comments with references to his family's many generations in the state, and the state's unusual position in the nation. That's also how he ended this speech:
Whether the early explorers came for gold or God, came they did. The rest is history: the founding of the Missions, the devastation of the native people, the discovery of gold, the coming of the Forty-Niners, the Transcontinental Railroad, the founding of great universities, the planting and harvesting of our vast fields, oil production, movies, the aircraft industry, the first freeways, the State Water Project, aerospace, Silicon Valley and endless new companies and Nobel Prizes.
This is California. And we are her sons and daughters.
Yes, California feeds on change and great undertakings, but the path of wisdom counsels us to ground ourselves and nurture carefully all that we have started. We must build on rock, not sand, so that when the storms come, our house stands. We are at a crossroads. [JF note: This "crossroads" sentence is in vapid contrast with the rest and could have been cut.] With big and important new programs now launched and the budget carefully balanced, the challenge is to build for the future, not steal from it, to live within our means and to keep California ever golden and creative, as our forebears have shown and our descendants would expect.
* * *
Now, the rail project. Why am I for it? Beyond the details laid out in the previous installments, here are the summary reasons.
1) America is direly short on infrastructure; the financial and political resistance to remedying that is powerful (for reasons Mancur Olson once laid out) and usually prevails. China is biased toward wastefully building infrastructure it doesn't need. The U.S. is biased the opposite way. So when there's is a real chance to build something valuable in America, I start out in favor of it.
2) The counties of the Central Valley of California, where the first stages of the construction will begin, are not just the poorest part of a rich state but also, taken on their own, would constitute the poorest state in the entire country. Of the five poorest metro areas in the United States, three are there. Most dynamic analyses of the effects of the rail project indicate that it would bring new jobs to a region that most needs them, while chewing up less farmland than normal sprawl and freeway expansion would destroy. Which leads to ...
3) The state's population is growing, and so is the demand for intra-state travel. Any other way of getting California's 30-plus million people from north to south, via cars on new (or more crowded) freeways or planes to new (or more crowded) airports, will be more destructive of the state's finances, its farmland, and its environment than a rail system.
And, maybe the biggest factor of all:
4) There is an established track record of overestimating the problems of big infrastructure projects, and short-sightedly under-envisioning their benefits. Here's the crucial contrast with big military construction projects I've written about recently. Repeatedly, big military projects have come in over budget, past schedule, and below performance promises.
Repeatedly the opposite has been true of big national or regional infrastructure projects. Their drawbacks have been exaggerated before they've been started, and their potential benefit has been grossly under-imagined. Here's a few of the projects that seemed impractical, quixotic, ruinously expensive, or not worth the bother when proposed:
The Louisiana Purchase
The Erie Canal
"Seward's Folly" of buying Alaska
The Transcontinental Railroad
The Panama Canal
The Golden Gate Bridge, and the Bay Bridge
The TVA, REA, and WPA, plus Boulder/Hoover Dam
The expansion of a continental airport system
The GI Bill
The Interstate Highway system
Washington, D.C.'s Metro and San Francisco's BART
Details on some of these in the first post in the series.
All of these projects have had their problems. But without any one of them, the United States would be in far worse shape than it is today. High-speed rail also has its problems, and will have more. But the record of big ventures of this sort suggests that we are better at worrying about the problems and noting imperfections than we are at envisioning long-term rewards. Thus I think that the benefit of the doubt should go with the proponents. People on their side have more often been right.
"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.
Two days ago, on the occasion of Mario Cuomo's death, I mentioned his ability to "think in public" through his major speeches, notably his address on private faith and public policy at Notre Dame.
This morning, readers Allison B. and then Kevin M. talked about the music of spoken prose and the allusive power of 20th-century speakers from Cuomo to Robert F. Kennedy.
This evening reader David M. closes the loop with an old West Wing segment that bears on exactly these questions. The first two minutes of "War Crimes," an episode from Season 3 of the program in late 2001, could have been in response to ... well, to a blog post 13 years later.
The clip above is legit as of the time I post it, from YouTube. If it turns out to be unauthorized and you can't see it any more, after the jump you'll find a transcript (via David M.) of the exchange I'm directing your attention toward. Placeholder note: Although, as noted over the years, I am not a spiritual person, my inner sense of the proper shape and pace of an English sentence is heavily affected by having heard, recited, and engraved into my brain passages from the old (Thomas Cranmer) version of the Book of Common Prayer thousands of times through my youth. If you watch the West Wing clip you might see why I mention this.
Back to military discussions soon. See transcription after the jump. Envoi: A dozen years after this show appeared, it's conventional to make fun of faster-paced-than-real-humans-could-manage Aaron Sorkin banter. But these two minutes are a reminder of what was impressive in this show.
As I listened I kept asking myself who wrote the lecture (Cuomo himself, I presume) and how he learned to do that? How does it work, practically speaking? I'm not expecting an answer, I just wanted to let you know one result from this short article.
I know how to write a research paper and how to get from a topic to a doc. But the spoken phrasing? The timing? The timbre and oratorical glory??? Yes the writer knows the man and how his rhythms and the words he can speak without embarrassment (Salvific! Although Cuomo knew the word and knew he could say it there). How to deflect cliché and leave grandness. I could never do it.
Wow, what a gift in the writer and the speaker.
I have spent a lot of my working life wrestling with versions of such questions. How does it work, in practical terms, this process of learning to convey thoughts and emotions in words? And learning about the different tools that are available for meaning conveyed on a page or screen, versus through the sound of a voice in a broadcast, versus the look and bearing of a speaker before a group? And the odd art of writing words someone else will deliver, via a script or a speech, versus those where writer and speaker are the same?
As with any learned-and-practiced craft, there are no set answers to any of these questions, simply the ongoing practice. I don't know whether anyone ever thought to ask Mario Cuomo a version of Allison B.'s question, or whether the process was conscious enough for him that he would have been able to offer an answer beyond: I listen and think and try.
* * *
Update: Reader Kevin M. has this astute follow-up:
It was not in the segment of the San Francisco keynote that you linked, but I still distinctly remember him saying “mirabile dictu” at one point in that speech, which I watched on TV and have never rewatched or reread it.
And that reminds me of RFK quoting Aeschylus in Indianapolis the night King was assassinated.
Both of those moments cause me to wonder if the answer to Allison B.’s question is that once upon a time it was more common for politicians to know who they were, knew that it included being intelligent and articulate, and didn’t feel the need to be ashamed of it. Yes, Cuomo could “get away” with salvific at Notre Dame, but the keynote speech was not offered to Catholic scholars.
Moreover, what would happen to a politician, a white politician no less, who started musing on Aeschylus before an African-American audience, especially at such a moment?
Thanks for this addition. Three extra points. First, the RFK/Aeschylus quote on the night of Martin Luther King's assassination was quite extraordinary:
Robert F. Kennedy, delivering an extemporaneous eulogy to Martin Luther King, Jr., the evening of April 4, 1968, in Indianapolis, Indiana, said, “Aeschylus wrote: ‘In our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’”
Second, I also remember hearing Cuomo use mirabile dictu in a major convention speech—but the one eight years later, when he nominated Bill Clinton in 1992. In a great NYT article about that 1992 speech, Michael Winerip quoted Cuomo as saying, no doubt with a wink, "You write that in for guys like Bill Buckley."
Third, when being reminded of Cuomo's and Kennedy's classical allusions, I naturally thought of another politician I'd written about recently, Jerry Brown. As I mention in my article, he was throwing off references to Yeats and Comenius (?!) when I talked with him, and not in a trying-to-seem-impressive way. What Cuomo, Kennedy, and Brown had in common, of course, is an old-school Catholic education. Brown actually spent three years in a seminary; Cuomo and Kennedy (plus Buckley) were very public about the importance of religion in their lives.
"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.
As Captain David Ryan remarked in a Tweet just now, "So much for the Right to be Forgotten." Thirty years ago, when Ronald Reagan was in his second term, I did a cover story for this magazine called "The Case Against Credentialism." Now, as Barack Obama is in his second term, I am surprised (to put it mildly) but also gratified to see the same article turning up today as a trafficked item on our home page.
At right you see how an Atlantic cover looked in those days. I could feel either depressed or encouraged that so many of the themes that I was writing about, and the magazine was covering, under our editor Bill Whitworth in the 1980s are the same ones we're concentrating on under Scott Stossel and James Bennet now. So I'll choose to be encouraged!
We wrote a lot then about the role of the military, its relationship with civil society, its proper role around the world. We wrote about the strengths and vulnerabilities of the U.S. economy and important American businesses, and how they matched those of other economies around the world, plus the dawning of the digital tech age. We wrote about the functions and dysfunctions of families and schools. And we wrote about the openness, fairness, and opportunity of American society, on axes of race and gender and class.
Those are more or less our main subjects now too. This "Credentialism" piece is obviously from a different era, and a few fugitive online typos reflect the fact that it was scanned in from our bound-copy archives.
But the matters it deals with are, I think, related to those of racial justice that Ta-Nehisi Coates has so memorably been developing; and those of economic mobility and justice that Don Peck and others have dealt with; and to the ongoing questions of class, opportunity, resilience, and identity that Deb Fallows, John Tierney, and I have been approaching with American Futures; and even to the nature of the military that I've approached in our current issue. (For the record, later in the 1980s I wrote a book on these questions of class, mobility, and opportunity in America, especially in comparison with then-rising Japan. It was called More Like Us, and it came out in 1989.)
I'm grateful too that the magazine has resurrected this part of our journalistic past, for the relevance it may have to today's debates and what it shows about our magazine's long view.
"I can offer you no final truths, complete and unchallengeable. But it's possible this one effort will provoke other efforts—both in support and contradiction of my position—that will help all of us understand our differences and perhaps even discover some basic agreement."
While in transit, I've heard the sad news of Mario Cuomo's death. From sketchy connections in airport(s), here are two ways to remember him.
First, Cuomo's speech 30 years ago at the Democratic Convention in San Francisco, which did more to electrify its audience than any other such speech I have heard, including Barry Goldwater's 20 years earlier (which I watched on TV as a kid in Southern California) and Barack Obama's 20 years later (which I saw in person in Boston).
Listened to 30 years later, Cuomo's speech is startling in its partisan edge. Franklin Roosevelt talked more or less this way. Modern aspirant Democrats don't. Contrast it with Obama's reputation-making convention speech—Obama was much more conciliatory, as given his historical situation he probably had to be.
While that speech is Cuomo's most famous, another one is to me more representative. That was the second speech I want to mention, at Notre Dame, in which the very publicly Jesuitical Governor Cuomo talked about the separation of church and state, in a speech titled "A Catholic Governor's Perspective." You can watch the whole thing via (non-embeddable) C-SPAN report here; or hear an excerpt of Cuomo's speaking (without seeing him) in the video below; or ...
... you can read the full text from Notre Dame's archives, here. It's the source of the quote at the beginning of this article
One thought on Cuomo's legacy. National office in the modern United States—the presidency, or a serious candidacy for it—requires a broader range of skills than any real human being has ever possessed. This is a point I've made in different ways in long Atlantic articles about Barack Obama in 2012, about Jimmy Carter in 1979, about George W. Bush in 2004, and a shorter one about Bill Clinton in 2001.
To succeed fully in national leadership a person would in principle need to be as shrewd a manipulator as Lyndon Johnson, as confidently patient a commander as Dwight Eisenhower, as quickly intelligent as John F. Kennedy, as publicly sunny as Ronald Reagan, as fundamentally sane as Gerald Ford—you get the idea.
Mario Cuomo did not have all these skills. He no doubt was aware of that, which is probably why (through what was generally referred to as his Hamlet-like era in the 1980s) he broke many liberals' hearts by never running for president. If he had run, who knows whether he would have won; if he had won, who knows how "successful" he would have seemed. It's easy to imagine him ending up seeming "feckless" and "indecisive" as president.
But he possessed one of these abilities in remarkable fullness. Among politicians of the past generation-plus seen as national-level contenders, he was the most accomplished and engrossing public thinker. (This is also Obama's strength, and presumably he will overtake Cuomo through the scale of the issues he has been involved in.) Most public officials know, or fear, that they need to buff away the complicated or challenging parts of their views before presenting them in public. That's assuming they ever had, or kept, such thoughts. Mario Cuomo was notable in trying always to talk up to his audience, not down. You see that especially in his Notre Dame speech. It's an example worth reflecting upon.
Rhetorical success, like presidential effectiveness, involves more separate elements than you might think. It helps to have a good voice and physical bearing; to have actor- or announcer-type skills in presentation; to have an ear for sentence-by-sentence euphony; and to understand the intellectual and emotional shape of a speech. Mario Cuomo had all of these, and our public life was richer when he was an active part of it.
The story so far: My piece on "The Tragedy of the American Military" is here; the "Gary Hart Memo" is here; an extra reading list is here; and for previous reader responses see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, and No. 6.
Now, for No. 7, some responses on the question of "winning" and "losing." The magazine presented the article in a deliberately provocative way, asking on the cover "Why Do the Best Soldiers in the World Keep Losing?"
Anyone who reads the article will see that it places responsibility mainly on all of us. That is, on the chickenhawk American public that "will do anything for its military except take it seriously," and on leaders who know that most voters are willing to "honor" their heroes but will not pay attention to how, where, and why they are sent to fight.
But people who didn't read the article could misunderstand the headline, as some manifestly have, to be casually dismissive of U.S. troops as losers. This kind of misunderstanding, inadvertent or purposeful, goes with the territory of public debate. It foreseeably leads to a kind of tribally minded angry response. Tribal? As in: 1) this guy seems to be against us; 2) since he doesn't like us, we don't like him; 3) therefore whatever he's saying is probably wrong.
That's a minority response; I'm touched and overwhelmed, in a good way, by the volume and sophistication of the submissions I continue to receive. Today's installment No. 7, like No. 4, is on meanings and responsibility for victory and defeat.
1) The truest sign of a strong military is not having to use it. From a reader in California:
Your article that should have been written, and perhaps you did write it, during the Reagan era when the military started to become a sacred cow. [JF note: In 1980 I published several Atlantic articles on this theme, and the next year my book National Defense came out.] It is singularly bizarre to spend a trillion dollars a year on national defense. This money, invested in other ways (e.g., health, education, transportation, technology) could have dramatically transformed society. We might indeed have been better off burning that money.
It is even more bizarre to spend so much and then find the military entangled in, and often actively creating, one unwinnable quagmire after another. Even after the debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq, we still found a way to screw up Libya in a manner that was so clearly boneheaded that you'd think someone would have pointed out the only way this could unfold.
The mistakes are so unoriginal, and it is definitely not academic for the people who actually live and die in these places. Getting played repeatedly by Pakistan has cost the U.S. (and several other countries) an incredible amount of blood and treasure, but we have yet to reorient our relationship with this terrorist state. As recent books by Carlota Gall and Anand Gopal illustrate, the U.S. itself has done much more harm than good by blundering into conflicts that could have easily been handled with diplomatic skill and political finesse.
Politicians appear to have discovered that chickenhawkery checks all the boxes. You get to take money away from deserving causes to direct them toward the well-connected. You have genuinely righteous people take on the bullets and bombs so you can laugh all the way to the bank. You get to accuse people who are prudent, brave, and wise, of cowardice. And the voters fall for the chest-thumping, flag-waving displays of jingoism a lot of the time.
The main point that I would've wanted your article to make is that if you have such a powerful military, you should rarely ever have to use it.
2) Winning battles, losing wars. A reader writes in response to James Jeffrey's argument that U.S. military engagements have been much more successful than I claim:
I think Jeffrey redefines "winning" so restrictively that it becomes meaningless. By his definition, the Wehrmacht "won" World War II in the sense that it defeated the enemies it faced in all the principal tactical battles for the first two years or so of the war, and only "lost" when strategic considerations that the army wasn't responsible for, such as the United States entry into the war, led to changes that made it impossible for Germany to win.
And a reader in Michigan piles on:
1) Mr. Jeffrey comments that our armed forces have generally been successful on the battlefield. Yes, but with an important qualification. It's been over a century since the U.S. armed forces were unequivocally successful on their own, in the Spanish-American War, fighting against the decrepit Spanish Empire, and arguably in the subsequent insurgency in the Philippines.
All of what are perceived as subsequent successes, such as those in WWI and WWII, were as part of coalitions. In WWI, our largest contribution was economic, not military, and in WWII, the Soviet Union was arguably the most substantial contributor to the conquest of Germany.
Our public discourse is served poorly by our failure, unfortunately highly prevalent, to recognize these facts and our tendency to overestimate the historic impact of the U.S. armed forces. I don't doubt that Mr. Jeffrey knows this but his comments, probably inadvertantly, are consistent with the unfortunate triumphalism that surrounds a great deal of the discussion of the U.S. armed forces.
2) Mr. Jeffrey comments on the general failure of conflating tactical success with strategic success. The most extreme example of this phenomenon is the Bush administration's use of torture in interrogations. As an example of substituting physical force for clear thinking and planning, this is tough to top.
3) Finally, an additional point about the U.S. armed forces and counter-insurgency. A number of critics point to the Vietnam experience and tend to present the Army's subsequent focus on conventional warfare as a kind of post-traumatic repression of the Vietnam experience.
But, the truth is that we were heavily involved in insurgencies in the post-Vietnam era, both supporting insurgencies (Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Southern Africa), and supporting counter-insurgencies (El Salvador). This was generally done through proxies but our involvement was deep and durable. In the Salvadoran Civil War, an estimated 75,000 people, mainly innocent civilians, were killed over the course of a decade. In a country with a population of only 4.5 million, this was an enormous casualty rate, and our proxies in the Salvadoran military and their paramilitary allies were responsible for the great majority of the deaths. We weren't directly involved in the horrible civil war in Guatemala but quite a few of Guatemalan officers who committed genocidal crimes were trained in the U.S.A. Our support of the Afghan insurgencies contributed to what can only be described as the destruction of Afghan society. These facts were well described and well known at the time. If you were an intelligent American officer in the late 1970s and 1980s looking at conflicts around the world, what would you conclude about the nature of insurgency and counter-insurgency? Given the alternative of focusing your career on the tactically and morally straightforward objective of fighting the Soviets, what would you do?
3) Imagine, for a moment, the possibility of a loss. I mentioned in my article that the current "success" of U.S. drone-warfare policy could prove to be Pyrrhic. We won't like these weapons as well when other people have them. A reader in Canada writes:
Your mention of the acquisition of global drone technology by other nations touched on a concern I think needs more discussion: an understanding of the decision to undertake any military operation in terms of reciprocity.
Before invading another country, Americans need to imagine T-72s parked in the White House lawn and on the National Mall, with foreign flags on their aerials and the devices of another army painted on their turrets, and ask: How bad would it have to get in this country for us to look at those tanks as rescuers rather than invaders? To put it another way, how badly would our government have to behave, one way or another, before we looked at the sight of those tanks and had to admit we brought them on ourselves?
Germany, Japan, Italy, and France, among other countries, have gone through that process in recent enough memory that they can incorporate the memories into their policy debates; they can ask themselves if the government they propose to defeat has behaved badly enough to justify the national humiliation that will result. Americans would need to make an effort of imagination to accomplish the same thing.
Thirty-three years ago, in his book Illiterate America, Jonathan Kozol made a chilling prediction concerning the fate of an America struggling with the legacy of government acceptance of mediocre American educational performance. He wrote that Americans as a whole would lack the knowledge and understanding of other countries and other cultures, would not appreciate their perspectives, concerns, or grievances. He predicted American decline in these chilling sentences, which I have never managed to forget: “America will grow into a tougher, taller, more tormented fortress. We will be more lonely.”...
I fear the problems the United States faces with foreign military engagements need far broader solutions than mutual civil military understanding or the reform of the contracting system.
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Thanks to Dan Perkins, creator of the wonderful This Modern World by Tom Tomorrow cartoon strip, for allowing me to use these images from one of his recent panels. One of my great if transient pleasures as editor of US News in the 1990s was getting his cartoons into the magazine. You can find out more about supporting his work here.
As we near the end of the year, 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, No. 3, No. 4, and No. 5
For No. 6 we have two reading-list updates, then a message from a recent Air Force veteran.
1) The F-35 and its gun that won't shoot. It's worth reading this new report by Dave Majumdar of The Daily Beast about the latest travails of the F-35, the plane I described in my article. Short version: The challenged F-35 is scheduled to start becoming operational next year. But software problems reportedly mean that its cannon will not work, and the problem will apparently take longer to fix than the United States spent fighting all of World War II. As the story says:
Even though the Joint Strike Fighter, or F-35, is supposed to join frontline U.S. Marine Corps fighter squadrons next year and Air Force units in 2016, the jet’s software does not yet have the ability to shoot its 25mm cannon. But even when the jet will be able to shoot its gun, the F-35 barely carries enough ammunition to make the weapon useful.
The report relies entirely on unnamed sources, which is not ideal; but several similar preceding reports by Majumdar have not been knocked down by Pentagon responses.
2) Aussie reading on the F-35. It is also worth checking out this quite interesting site. Its head of testing and evaluation, Peter Goon, previews its approach:
What is America and its closest allies like Canada, Japan and Australia going to do in the post-2015 "stealth-on-stealth"/"counter-stealth" world where all the leading reference threats, both airborne and surface based, being proliferated around the world by some of the world's best new-age capitalists, have the common design aim of going up against and defeating the F-22A Raptor and B-2A Spirit stealth bomber; especially when there are so few of the latter capabilities to be a persuasive deterrent let alone an effective defence?
3) "It angers me to the point of an ulcer." Steven Specht, who served in the Air Force from 2006 to 2010, writes:
I suppose I come from a military family as most of the males and at least one female has served in the armed forces, but I don't really think of it as an obligation to family history so much as an obligation as a citizen.
The constant prattle of "first, I want to thank you for your service" angers me to the point of an ulcer. Normally I just mutter a thank you and go on ordering my coffee, but deep down I feel a seething anger of wanting to ask them precisely what they want to thank me for.
The anger came to a head this most recent Veterans Day when I was asked to come to a Veterans Day event held by a local lawyers organization. (I am a vet and a law student). I wrote the following piece titled "If You Want to Thank Me for My Service." I think it captures some of the substance of what you speak of.
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By Steven Specht
It is Veterans Day.
I will be thanked a few dozen times for my service. I will feel some combination of irritation and embarrassment as I mumble a thank you for the thank you. I am generally humble about what I did. It’s not that I don’t like to talk about it but that there isn’t much to say. Any pride is rooted in the crews and teams I served with. They are some of the best people I will ever know, and it was an honor to serve among them. Some of them are dead; some have moved on; some are lifers that will stay in the uniform until the government tells them to go home. Despite what I was told in briefings, I wasn’t that special. I was but a tiny cog in a giant war machine.
If you want to thank me and honor my friends, do so by being a good citizen.
I do not take the term citizen lightly, and I bristle when politicians and pundits refer to us as consumers or some “percent.” We are American citizens, and we deserve more than this. However, as American citizens, we owe much more than we have been willing to give.
Good citizenship entails more than standing for the Pledge of Allegiance or taking our hats off for the Star Spangled Banner. These are bare-minimum acts of citizenship. I won’t call them meaningless, because they do forge a sense of national identity, but they are akin to reciting the alphabet, something learned alongside the Pledge of Allegiance in kindergarten. When moving beyond the age of six, good citizenship is so much more. It is constant work that begins at the first moments of cognizance and ends only when our minds and bodies have failed us.
I write to point out what Good Citizenship means to me as a veteran and what a thank you looks like.
The first step is to read the U.S. Constitution. This remains the supreme law of our nation. So many are quick to thump their chests and assert what is constitutional, but so few people have ever bothered to read our founding documents; fewer ever try to understand them. At 4,400 words, it should take less than an hour to bulldoze through the content, but it takes much more time to explore its meaning. We must think in terms of years rather than hours. We must realize that there are multiple ways to view each clause. For everything that seems obvious, there is another clause which may counter that belief. The brilliance of the document is the necessity of interpretation and political growth rather than being locked into a single paradigm forevermore. The task of reading the U.S. Constitution is to be done annually, for understanding will likely change over time. That understanding serves as the basis of our legal system.
Once we are informed on our legal values, we must work toward being informed on a variety of issues. This does not mean establishing an opinion and finding information to justify it. It means learning over time through a wide array of sources. Cable news is a beginning, but it isn’t sufficient, even when consciously seeking out anchors with whom we disagree. Read magazines, newspapers, and blogs. Go to conspiracy sites and see what the fringe believes. View foreign sources to understand how we are perceived and the things that affect those beyond our borders but never make it to the front page of The New York Times. Just like reading the U.S. Constitution, learning is a lifelong process. What we know today may be irrelevant tomorrow.
We must test our knowledge through civic engagement. Good national citizenship starts locally, so join a lodge, or start a community garden. Meet with people in a book club. The greatest source of learning is through interacting with others, and while we don’t have to agree on the details, we can generally face forward and embrace our fellow citizens. Don’t just embrace the ones that agree with you. Despite what the pundits tell us, I seriously doubt any among us actually hate America. We may just disagree on what is best.
We must vote. I would like to say that voting is one of the bare-minimum acts of citizenship, but it seems most of us have missed that memo. I am embarrassed by a country which speaks on changes in Congress last week after only 37 percent of eligible voters voted. This is purportedly the lowest turn out since WWII. I say again, I am embarrassed, because I knew Afghans who risked their lives to vote in Afghan elections, but I know many not willing to spend a modicum of time it takes to cast a ballot in my own community. Voting has not always been something we could take for granted. There was a time when we only voted in local elections that often excluded all but white-male landowners. The scope of elections broadened with time to include national elections, women’s suffrage, and equal access for minorities. This change did not come easily as women risked their dignity and familial wealth to achieve their goals. Minorities faced down brutality and lynching to gain access to polls. With early voting and mail ballots, the process is easier than ever. What excuse do 63 percent of Americans have for failing to vote? Why have millions not even registered?
We must learn to question government. When I say question the government, I do not mean we should idle in a smoky room and wonder whether 9/11 was an inside job. I mean we must assert ourselves proudly and politely in front of elected officials who depend on our input to do their job effectively. Write a letter to your representative or call the White House. When that fails, we must take to the streets in protest. Protest does not mean looting and burning parked cars, but it may mean facing down tear gas and uniformed police wielding assault rifles. A great man once said, “If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” Those who signed the Declaration of Independence all knew they would be executed if they failed in their treason. By no means am I using analogy to suggest sedition. I am saying that the revolution that began in 1776 has never actually ended and in each generation, we get better, only by being engaged citizens.
Finally, we must reject the notion of American Exceptionalism. I have no doubt that we are a great nation, but we are not this way through some external force. What makes America great is not an abstraction but angry people who wanted more than death and taxes. If America is exceptional, it will be only because we work to ensure America is continually improved as we lean in toward a more perfect union. We are not the best at everything. We don’t need to be the best at everything, but we do need to work toward constant betterment of ourselves and our nation.
This list is not comprehensive. I’ve left some things out purposefully, because these six work concurrently. By doing all of the above, the other requisites of citizenship will become obvious and fall into place. If you want to thank me for my service, do so by telling me that on your day off for a federal holiday, you took an hour of your time to explore the meanings of the Constitution’s Preamble. If you want to honor my friends, tell me that you sat down to write a letter to a politician on an issue of importance to you. Make yourself known. Do not settle for the bare minimum of citizenship any longer.
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.
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 and No. 2. Background on house rules: I will assume that I can quote from any message that comes in via the "email" button above, unless the sender specifies otherwise. I will assume that I should not use the sender's real name or identifying details, unless specified otherwise.
1. The continuing class war. My article talks about how the military has become exotic territory to most Americans; in his article in the same issue, Joseph Epstein talks about the democratizing effects of the draft in the post-Korean War era. A reader who served in that same period, after graduating from Harvard, reinforces what Epstein says.
The analysis about the military services now being a tiny group about which people know nothing is right on. It was utterly different in my day … (I am 77).
One of my Harvard roommates was NROTC, as was one of my closest friends. They did 2 or 3 years of active duty Naval service between 1959 and 1962. A lot of other classmates satisfied military obligation by joining the reserves and doing 6 months active duty and then another 3 or 4 years of going to meetings plus 2 or 3 weeks of active duty training in the summer.
I volunteered to be drafted for 2 years. (Same as Elvis, BTW, who was in Germany when I was.) My Army serial number began with "U.S." (draftee) vs. "RA" (regular army volunteer). In basic I bunked with overweight kids from the Bronx and tough high school grads from South Boston ... It was a "democratic" experience. But of course Vietnam and the reaction to it changed all that and created a system that provided the Cheneys and Bushes of this world with a ready-to-use mercenary force that can be sent anywhere to fight and die with nary a whisper of protest.
My mixed army of civilian draftees and volunteers appreciated having a few of us college grads down in the ranks. When I arrived at my basic training unit at Fort Hood, the company sergeant called for a show of hands of college graduates ... About half a dozen of us raised our hands. "You're squad leaders," he said. For the next 10 weeks we wore temporary corporal's stripes on our arms ...
2. "People hold their civilian counterparts in contempt, and that's not good":
By way of introduction I am a retired Naval Officer having served [approximately 30 years] in the U.S. Navy and retiring as a Captain. I was a Naval Flight Officer gaining [many thousands of hours of flight experience] in a variety of aircrafts.
The Navy was everything I had hoped it would be in that I joined it to see the world and fly. I got my wish. To say I joined out patriotic fervor was an overstatement—I really didn't. I just wanted to fly and travel and I knew it would give me those opportunities.
That said I am troubled by what I see as the colossal waste of the last 15 years. I am not talking about wasting money—although certainly the country has done that. I am talking about the wasted strategic direction of the country:
First, in its misreading of how to react to 9/11, then in the folly of the invasion of Iraq, which I regard as the biggest foreign policy mistake of the last 30 years. Bye the bye, I am no Johnny-come-lately on being against Iraq, I've been opposed to it since I was first shown the logistics plans for the operation over 11 years ago. It created the current train wreck of long deployments that sailors have to suffer through. We have expended huge efforts on behalf of ungrateful populations overseas, but we do nothing to better ourselves at home. What was the point of serving if it was not to come back to a better country at home?
I agree with your other readers' comments about the disconnect between what military personnel say they believe and what they really need to be advocating. I see it every day at work. People hold their civilian counterparts (not their civilian co-workers, but rather what they see as the unknown "moochers" they have been told exist) in contempt and that's not good.
Most military officers rail conservative talking points about how they hate Obamacare, but have no idea at all how the program really works. But if you try to change military healthcare (which is really 'socialized medicine') watch what happens. If you ever want to see an example of how Fox News shapes opinions for the worse, stick around my office for a while.
If you want proof this is true, go to any of the major military blogs and read their comment sections. Watch how they rise up and viciously attack anyone who opposes the "conventional wisdom". (For example, it is accepted as an article of faith among many that "Obama lost Afghanistan" with his West Point speech. This even though he agreed to his commander's advice about surging more troops.)
One area you did not touch on well, in my opinion, was the social changes that have taken place in the military and how it has been forced to gloss over the costs involved. Yes these changes may have been necessary, but don't kid yourself—mixed gender units are harder to run and a lot of people deeply resent the continued emphasis on diversity. They perceive "preferred customers" being created and that's a problem. It contributes to what you write about in that the public face the military presents is at odds with what is really happening.
This is a complex story and it needs to be told. Andrew Bacevich is right when he says our lack of a program of national service is creating a military that is insulated from the society it serves...
You raised some good points—but I fear like others they won't be discussed.
3. "For the most part, what I have seen is a quiet gratitude." An Army veteran with a view that is more positive than the previous reader's, and than the one in my article:
I have recently retired after 28 years in the Army, this morning actually, and so have had the experience of both the peacetime and wartime service.
I am not a graduate of the military academy nor a commissioned officer so my experience may be somewhat different than your previous posters, but my view of the the American soldier and the perceptions of the public are quite different.
I consider the many soldiers I have known to be among the finest men and women the country has to offer simply because they volunteered to serve their country, most of them joining the military in a time of war. There is nothing remarkable or extraordinary about them. They are in fact very much average Americans. If at times they display acts of courage or heroism it is because they find themselves in extraordinary circumstances.
But you should understand that if they put themselves in danger or sacrifice their life it is out of a sense of loyalty to their fellow soldiers, not for the greater good. [JF note: Yes. This is a theme that rings through any history of combat or accounts by combat veterans. I quoted many people on this point in National Defense.] They join the military and go to war out of a sense of duty but a soldier does not die for his country. He may die to protect his brothers and sisters in arms but not for an abstract idea.
As for the public perception I don't think worship is a fair characterization. For the most part what I have seen is a quiet sincere gratitude. I think it is a mistake to equate the spectacle of entertainment promoters for public sentiment. It is true that most civilians have little understanding of what the costs of war are, but I do not think that we should expect them to. I do not think greater exposure to the evils of war would be in any way of benefit to society though I agree that those who have had firsthand experience in war and understand it's consequences should play a larger role in decisions about whether to go to war or not and in policy decisions that concern military readiness...
I oppose compulsory service because being continually on a war footing is neither healthy nor productive for a society. It is better that the military not be on the minds of the public except when they on occasion happen to meet a soldier on the street and they say thank you for your service.
4. No decent person... On the other hand:
I stopped reading your Atlantic piece when I got to:
"No decent person who is exposed to today’s troops can be anything but respectful of them and grateful for what they do."
I consider myself to be a decent person but I have no respect for or any gratitude for our cowardly, sadistic, murderous men and women in uniform.
Do you have any idea what they have done since WWII? You must. It's incredible. You don't know about the atrocities, the massacres, the civilians slaughtered, countries ruined, demolished. You don't know about the misery, hatred, fear spread by your friends in the military.
[Seth] Moulton got his reward for his four tours of duty much like Kerrey did during and after the Vietnam War. Do you remember the Vietnam War? You must. I don't have to spell it out. And this is what you respect?
Have you followed subsequent wars since? What are you, one of those blame the politicians types or is it blame the public?
I am a Vietnam era draft resister and proud of it. I was charged for Failure to Comply with the Selective Service Act, investigated by the F.B.I. and indicted by the Justice Department. I have nothing but disgust for military apologists such as James Fallows.
Maybe the draftees and enlistees were duped but what could your excuse possibly be. Sick, psychologically sick. And for what: failure after failure, bodies heaped upon bodies, cities, countries lying in smoking ashes—caused by your vaunted military heroes. The heroes in body armor, night goggles, in tanks and armored vehicles, afraid to confront an enemy without air support. Jesus Christ, man, take a look in the mirror; that's you, the killer, the destroyer, the liar, the violent, brutal, merciless face of American military might.
I'm tagging this as part of our American Futures series because these discussions are another way of examining the civic fabric of America, the strains it is undergoing, and our successes or failures in recognizing and coping with them. You can see past installments here or sign up for the newsletter here.
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 is reader response No. 1.
Next we have No. 2: Scott Kirkpatrick, who grew up in America and is now a professor in the school of computer science and engineering at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, writes about my 40-year-old Washington Monthly article, "What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy?"
I read your article when it appeared [in 1975]. Have you read John Lithgow's description from 2-3 years ahead of you (from his book "Drama: An Actor's Education")? [JF answer: No.] He put his full set of dramatic skills plus a few months of starvation and filth-buildup into a psychological profile for which he was rejected. He didn't go down to the reception center with a Harvard busload—it seems to have been a more lonely process. As a result, rather than drawing a social moral from the experience, he seems to have been deeply shamed by the whole thing, plus feeling that he misused his art.
My experience was closer to yours. Grad-school deferments, had to pass an exam one year, and I had aged out when I finished my Ph.D. and left Harvard for the Real World in 1969.
I live now in Israel ... Service is broadly interpreted, but it is definitely universal, starting at age 18 and followed by years of reserve obligations.
The class stratification is visible. Kids from good middle-class backgrounds know how to use awesome test scores to get into the most career-advancing and least life-threatening intelligence groups. The macho appeal of fighter training and commando groups draws pretty widely, even though the minimum enlistments there are for 6+ years. We have many new immigrants, who seem to get shuffled into the army more randomly.
A recent Ukrainian student of mine served on a bomb-disposal squad (Hurt Locker stuff with IEDs) that had several casualties in the course of his two active years. As one of your commenters has pointed out, Army service when there is shooting is a fertile ground for recruiting into the more fundamentalist religious groups.
Here the nationalist/Zionist/settler direction is the most troubling. But we are a country in which the military is broadly understood, both in its power and in its limitations. Still is is not clear that this shared knowledge is getting translated into a national consensus to go beyond a politics of preserving and expanding what we presently hold.
I asked my Atlantic colleague Jeffrey Goldberg, who has written a book about his own service in the Israeli security forces, what he thought about the trends Kirkpatrick had noted. Here is his reply.
A number of observations on this:
1. Service in Israel is still, relative to everywhere else I can think of off the top of my head, universal, with some notable exceptions: Palestinian-Israelis are exempt from service, and the ultra-Orthodox still rarely serve.
2. Some of the changes your correspondent is writing about are due to the different needs of the IDF today. Unit 8200, which is Israel's NSA equivalent in many ways, has a huge need for big, trained brains. These big, trained brains are going to be found at Israel's best high schools. I know of some kids who would rather have gone to combat units, but the army didn't give them a choice.
3. On the other hand, for the obvious reason that graduates of 8200 are largely responsible for Israel's tech boom, very smart kids who want to go build start-up nation (or to make the commute between Silicon Valley and Tel Aviv) know that the education they receive in 8200, and the products they devise, could help make them successful and rich. (One caveat to all of this is that some of the best best kids, especially those with perfect eyesight, are funneled to pilot training.)
4. Your commenter is right when he suggests that the national-religious camp is providing a disproportionate number of recruits to combat units (infantry units mainly), and he's right to suggest that this has political consequences. The settlements have replaced the kibbutzim as a main feeder to the junior officer corps, though kibbutz kids still go to combat units in sizable numbers, as best as I know.
5. The broader point he makes re: the national consensus on politics is interesting—the generals are usually more dovish than the typical Likud politician, and we've seen, again and again over the years, retired generals (as well as chiefs of the intelligence services) advocating for compromise positions of the sort we don't associate with the current government. What we haven't seen yet is an army general staff dominated by religious officers from the settlements (or, really, religious officers at all.) This may be coming if current trends continue, at which point things become (from my perspective) particularly troubling—if a democratically elected government one day orders the chief of general staff to forcibly evacuate settlements, what will happen if one of those settlements happens to be his home? More broadly, how would the junior officers who would be leading such a forced evacuation react if they were ordered to evict their parents? Theoretical questions for now, but fraught. (On the other hand, the army, in Gaza, did what it was ordered to do in 2005, forcibly evacuating 8,000 Jewish settlers.)
6. On the broadest point, there is still a more or less high desire on the part of the majority of high school males across the political and religious spectrum to serve in combat units—most of Israel is still geared to venerate the combat soldier. This veneration crosses many lines, and you'll still find plenty of self-identified left-wing young men in combat units. (For instance, the left-wing novelist David Grossman's son was a tank commander who died in Lebanon in 2006—a story I wrote about several years ago in The Atlantic.) But the army's needs are changing, and parts of the culture are changing—certainly there are pockets of Tel Aviv, and other upper-income, culturally liberal areas, where army service holds much less attraction than it used to, and of course there are 18-year-olds who try to avoid service (and there are always a certain number of declared conscientious objectors as well.)
Still, I would say that Israel provides great arguments for those who argue for a draft, or some form of national service, in America. To a greater extent than any other institution, the army mixes kids from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds (and even confessional backgrounds —the number of Druze and Bedouin in the army is high, and some Arab Christians are now volunteering for service.) And of course, the universal draft means that the army leadership, and the political echelon above it, must be sensitive to the feelings and fears and wishes of a nation of Jewish mothers.
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Additional in-house note: In my article I say that Seth Moulton, who will soon take office as a freshman Democratic representative from Massachusetts, "enlisted" in the Marine Corps after graduating from Harvard in 2001. In fact he was commissioned as a Marine Corps officer. I understand the difference and am sorry for the careless mis-phrasing.
Last night my article on "The Tragedy of the American Military" went online. The article is here; an accompanying reading list is here; the "Gary Hart memo" that I mention in the article is here. And a video on how the troubled F-35 fighter plane exemplifies larger Pentagon problems is here.
Rather than wait a few days to quote reader mail, I'm going to dig right in and start doing so now, since so much has arrived with such range and intensity of argument. I'll do two or three per installment.
From a West Point graduate who became a successful business executive:
I am an [post-Vietnam era] West Point grad. Resigned after 5 years.
Your article is spot on. I often wonder what the rest of the world thinks of us when at each major sporting event, we have fly overs of fighter planes, B-52s, Apache helicopters and legions of troops getting awards at halftime.
I see in my classmates a total divorce from civilian reality. They live in a rarefied world where they are the only ones who are honest, law abiding, and religious.
They totally disdain social welfare programs as they receive health benefits to death, commissary privileges, and pensions. In their view, civilians are not worthy of these programs.
It is a dangerous slope we are on where we worship the troops, have no clue what they do, or why, and as along as we don't need to know, we are happy.
I hope your article stirs discussion. I fear it won't. The coup may in fact be coming.
From a reader in the West:
I am Vietnam Vet of two tours ('68-70). I strongly believe at least some of the issues regarding present day military-civilian interactions is ownership. There is none.
As you stated at the beginning of your article: Having another war is OK as long as someone else is going to do the fighting. If a draft had been in place at the beginning of the Iraq War, the war might not have started or not have gone on as long as it did and the same would hold true for the Afghan war.
In this last midterm elections only 33.6 percent (nationally and some states were as low as 22 percent) of the electorate showed up to vote. In my mind that is total disrespect towards those whom the fans cheer for at any of the respective sporting events.
The Iraq and Afghanistan wars were sold to the American populace stating these military actions are being fought to preserve American Freedoms and way a of life, yet the electorate throws their right to vote in the circular file.
As a retired Army officer I concur with your overall assessment and see Gary Hart’s three recommendations as key. Of the three, I see restoring the military-civilian relationship as the most vital.
I strongly support the return of the draft and the citizen soldier. That’s a tall order considering our high tech military. It takes a great deal of time to train soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen/women. So how long would our new draft have to be—three years?
The draft changed my life for the better, and I rose through the ranks to retire as a field grade officer. I feel certain that it could also do wonders for many of our nation’s youth—especially those of the elite. And perhaps by extension, keep us out of unnecessary conflicts.
On this last reader's point, I agree in principle that a broadly based draft might rebuild a connection between the citizenry and its military, as well as creating additional drag against launching "wars of choice." In the current issue, Joseph Epstein writes about what such a draft meant for the America of the early Cold War era.
But as a practical matter, I think there is simply zero possibility that the United States will adopt compulsory service of any sort, absent some change in world circumstances no one can now foresee. Therefore I view this as a thought experiment rather than as a real option.
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Three process notes:
1) Comments. For reasons explained here and here, I've never allowed comments on my portion of The Atlantic's site, although comments are enabled on my article itself. Instead I enjoy receiving, quoting, and learning from reader emails, as I am doing here and will in coming days. For me this approach offers most of the benefits of a comments section, including exposing a range of informed (or sometimes only passionate) response, without the drawbacks that are on display in many unmoderated comment sites.
A carefully moderated comments site, like the one that Ta-Nehisi Coates has operated over the years, is in principle the best solution of all. But I've never been willing to commit the time to run a site that way.
2) American Futures. I'm tagging this post as part of our American Futures series, because we're really talking about another part of our ongoing question about the civic fiber of the country. It's different in nature from the other entries but it meant to get at similar long-term themes.
3) Editing. Some messages I quote originally began with something like "Great story" or "I'm glad you wrote this!" On principle I edit most of this out. Although I crave compliments as much as the next person, it just seems creepy to quote them about yourself. Thus when I leave in positive comments, as I have in a message here, it's either because they're addressed at some criticism I've posted, or because they seem germane to the larger point the reader is making. I realize that it is a form of humblebrag to raise this point at all, but it seemed part of explaining the reader/writer interaction on which online forums rely.
Thanks for these reader messages. That's all for the process notes. More comments on the substance of civil-military issues coming shortly.
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