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.
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:
* * *
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.
* To read about and sign-up for our new American Futures email newsletter, see here. Or just go straight to the sign-up here.
Several times this past fall, I've mentioned that I was concentrating on a big project for the magazine and thus was deferring most other commitments, from our ongoing (and soon-to-be-revamped) American Futures saga to the daily fray of news about politics, China, aviation, etc.
The article I was working on has now come out in the new January-February 2015 issue of the magazine (subscribe!) and has gone online this evening. In the days to come I'll say more about the themes I emphasize in this article, and the ones I decided to leave out. Also about some of the ramifications for policy and politics, plus the reactions I've begun receiving from people who have read the print magazine.
My purpose right now is simpler. It is to point you to:
2. The article above includes some powerful interactive graphics, plus a videoThe Atlantic's online team has created to accompany the online version of the article, which you will see as you read through it. The graphics are meant to underscore one of the "Chickenhawk Nation" themes, which is the stark contrast between the relative handful of Americans directly involved in the country's ongoing wars and the huge majority of politicians who are dealt into what Dwight Eisenhower called the "military-industrial complex" through supply contracts to their home districts. The video illustrates the difference between civilian technology, which grows ever cheaper and more reliable, and military technology, which does the reverse.
3. The brief background on and text of "the Gary Hart memo" that I mention in the article. When I first began reporting on the post-Vietnam War "military reform" movement, in a 1980 Atlantic article called "The Musclebound Superpower" and then in my 1981 book National Defense, Gary Hart was a rising young Democratic senator from Colorado who was assembling a network of historians, technologists, combat leaders, weapons designers, and others to think about how the United States could take a more flexible, realistic, and sustainable approach to defending itself. His main Republican counterparts were the then-young and rising Representatives Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Dick Cheney of Wyoming.
We know about the subsequent paths of Gingrich and Cheney. What many people don't realize about Hart's career since then is how seriously he has maintained his interest in the tactics and strategy of national defense. Because of this background, in 2011 President Obama privately asked Hart to formulate advice on what Obama could do, if he won a second term, to make a difference in long-standing military problems. This memo, published here for the first time, was the result.
4. A collection of arguments pro and con about two controversial military aircraft, the A-10 "Warthog" attack plane and the F-35 "Lightning II" fighter. My article takes a hard line in arguing that the A-10 illustrates some of the best practices in weapons-design, and the F-35 the reverse. Thus I argue that the current policy of phasing out the A-10 while pouring money into the F-35 is a costly and illustrative mistake.
The civilian and military officials in the Pentagon who have been pushing for the F-35 and against the A-10 obviously disagree. The links on this page will allow you to explore the claims and responses and see which you find most convincing. And since the main argument of my article is that the hollow practice of "honoring our heroes" at halftime ceremonies and through priority boarding at airports has become a cheap substitute for serious engagement with the real problems of our defense establishment, whatever you conclude about specific weapons or policies, wading into the issues is important in itself.
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The memo from Gary Hart's small group was meant to be terse and suggestive rather than encyclopedic. Knowing how fiercely competed-for a president's time and attention are, Hart insisted that the memo be kept under 2,500 words in length.
My article, as you might notice, is not quite that short. Even so, with about 10,000 words to work with, there are a lot of themes and discussions we decided to save for another time, in the interest of concentrating this one on its central chickenhawk theme. For instance, the "Air-Sea Battle" concept, which could loom large in future tensions between the United States and China, is important. So, obviously, are the future of the nuclear deterrent, and the implications of cheaper, widely dispersed drones, and the ways in which the military trains and promotes its officers. But we decided to deal with those later.
This article, plus its accompanying material, is meant to raise questions rather than resolve them all, begin a discussion rather than conclude it.
In his January/February Atlanticcover story, I write about politicians' reluctance to reform the military:
In the spring of 2011, Barack Obama asked Gary Hart, the Democratic Party’s most experienced and best-connected figure on defense reform, to form a small bipartisan task force that would draft recommendations on how Obama might try to recast the Pentagon and its practices if he won a second term. Hart did so (I was part of the group, along with Andrew J. Bacevich of Boston University, John Arquilla of the Naval Postgraduate School, and Norman R. Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin), and sent a report to Obama that fall. He never heard back. Every White House is swamped with recommendations and requests, and it responds only to those it considers most urgent—which defense reform obviously was not.
That memo, which was titled “Bending the Arc of Military History,” can be read below.
Twenty-first Century Directions for America’s Defense. War has changed and we have not kept pace. The potential for traditional nation-state wars is decreasing. Unconventional, irregular conflicts are increasing. Rather than traditional, hierarchical command systems managing concentrated, large-scale force structures designed for major global wars, 21st century conflicts require networked, smaller-scale combat units configured for maneuver, mobility, flexibility, and surprise operating under a modern, faster, cohesive command structure.
1. Combat units must become smaller, faster, and more lethal. Unlike the 20th century when size meant power, today smaller combat units have much greater power due to technology, weapons precision, and networked communications and information systems. Brigade, regiment, and company size units seamlessly networked will be much more effective on the 21st century battlefield. These more powerful and effective combat units can be “scaled-up” into larger, more traditional formations if required by larger-scale conflicts.
2. Conduct a critical review of the U.S global posture. Our foreign “footprint” is represented by our current legacy regional commands heavily layered since the end of World War II. This review should determine which foreign headquarters and bases may be consolidated, reduced, or replaced by maritime assets.
3. Streamline the Cold War national security apparatus. Replace it with a smaller, more compact system designed to provide the commander in chief with focused, precise, and timely advice based on refined real-time intelligence. This new national command authority support structure should be augmented with a small senior Defense Council composed of seasoned national security experts free from institutional responsibilities who would report directly to the President.
4. Clarify the decision-making process for use of force. Such critical decisions, currently ad hoc, should instead be made in a systematic way by the appropriate authority or authorities based on the most dependable and persuasive information available and an understanding of our national interests based on 21st century realities.
5. Appoint a Commission to Assess the Long Wars. This commission should undertake a dispassionate effort to learn lessons from Afghanistan and Iraq concerning the nature of irregular, unconventional conflict, command structures, intelligence effectiveness, indigenous cultural factors, training of local forces, and effective combat unit performance. Such a Commission will greatly enhance our ability to know when, where, how, and whether to launch future interventions.
6. The Commander in Chief as military reformer. Major political and technological changes require the President once again, as in previous instances in U.S. history, to become a bold military reformer. Under differing circumstances this role has been played by Presidents Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Reagan.
7. Restore the civil-military relationship. The President, in his capacity as commander-in-chief, must explain the role of the soldier to the citizen and the citizen to the soldier. The traditional civil-military relationship is frayed and ill-defined. Our military and defense structures are increasingly remote from the society they protect, and each must be brought back into harmony with the other.
Purpose of this memorandum: Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, and after a decade of experience in a different kind of warfare brought on by new kinds of threats, our military remains fundamentally unchanged from its Cold War organizational schemes. We inherited and continue to maintain a military structure, spending patterns, and habits of thought that owe too much to threats and technologies of a bygone age and reflect too little the strategic challenges and technological opportunities of the decades ahead.
Over time, we cannot continue to outspend the rest of the world, combined, on military forces when our economy represents one quarter of the world’s output and requires sustained domestic investment to preserve and increase economic leadership and opportunity for the American people. A restructured 21st century military should cost no less nor no more than is required to defend our country. But savings in lives and money will result from making that military more effective.
We face a security environment increasingly mismatched to our legacy national security systems. Evolving threats are specifically designed to avoid our fortified points. Opportunities for strengthening American economic and political power are being sacrificed to the maintenance of a military system from the last century.
At critical historical moments, such as following World War II and the Vietnam War, our nation has adapted its security resources to the realities of the age. In these and other cases we learned from experience and profited by correlating our strategies and military resources to the realities of changing times. Lessons learned from two current long wars must guide us in undertaking long overdue post-Cold War reforms.
1. Smaller combat units have much greater power due to technology, weapons precision, and networked communications and information systems. These more powerful and effective smaller combat units can be “scaled-up” into larger, traditional formations if required by larger scale conflicts. Technology, especially high technologies such as robotics, now enable us to reverse the recent pattern of “scaling down” and, instead, make our baseline forces the brigade, regiment, or company which can be “scaled up” in the event of a major nation-state war.
Scaling-up, fitting smaller combat units into larger division, carrier task group, and bomber wing formations, can be accomplished in a timely fashion, when required, through training, equipping, and exercising, to achieve combat presence in the case of threatened conflicts at the nation-state level.
However, about two dozen wars are presently underway around the world, all of them irregular, attritional and protracted. We are presently militarily involved in three of them. This memorandum recommends changes designed to enable us to engage with smaller, nimbler, more networked forces. This will in turn make it possible for us to sustain combat presence, when our interests or our ethics demand, without exhausting our military in the process of endless repeated deployments of large combat and support contingents.
Networked intelligence systems constructed laterally will increasingly erode the traditional intelligence hierarchy accustomed to secrecy hoarding. The National Directorate of Intelligence is a layer of hierarchy that makes networking (lateral information sharing) harder. Advanced technologies both enable us and require us to must transition from centralized intelligence to networked intelligence. Serious consideration should be given to the elimination of the NDI structure.
The U.S. should, finally, declare a policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons. A world without large strategic arsenals is one in which American air power, naval mastery and incomparable ground forces would have their advantages sealed into place. Nuclear weapons in the hands of rogue nations or terror networks pose a terrible threat. Denuclearization – even eventual abolition, carefully and verifiably pursued – should be our goal. It is our obligation under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Both measures make practical national security sense. And it is the right thing to do for future generations.
2. Review the U.S. global posture. Since the end of World War II, every conflict has produced far-flung, permanent foreign deployments now controlled by regional commands top-heavy with bureaucracy. New conflicts produce new commands and sub-commands and those produced by old conflicts are seldom reduced or eliminated.
It is now necessary to liquidate unnecessary foreign deployments and commands, consolidate others, and, where strategically logical, consider replacement of them by maritime assets. Produced by accretion and the reluctance to surrender an established “presence”, our global posture manages to avoid critical examination and proliferates without a rational strategy. A critical review of this crazy-quilt system will produce a much more rational and relevant global posture for the nation, one attuned to the realities of the current new century.
3. The national command structure. The National Security Act of 1947 provides the statutory framework upon which a vast and growing defense structure has expanded by accretion. Layer upon layer of civilian and military command structures and inter-departmental committees and bureaus overlap to a degree that makes focused, well-informed, and timely decisions increasingly difficult. This system must be simplified, rationalized, and made relevant to a newer, faster-moving age. Warning times and therefore reaction times are dramatically more compressed.
A thorough, top-down review by disinterested and experienced advisors can provide a blueprint for achieving this too-long delayed objective. The national command authority is not well served by the present security super-structure. It is more elaborate than necessary and increasingly irrelevant to the realities of the 21st century.
A 21st century support structure for the national command authority should be augmented by a Defense Council composed of those with superior experience in national security affairs who are not encumbered by current institutional responsibilities or allegiances and who are available to give the President their best advice.
4. The use of force. Current practices for determining to commit U.S. military forces are irregular, uneven, and ad hoc. Though the circumstances of conflict will always and inevitably vary, it is possible to produce a regular order for deciding when, where, how, and most importantly whether to apply military resources. This system can and must be superbly informed, based on an agreed data base (and not contradictory intelligence reports and confused and conflicting information), involve a predetermined and established set of senior civilian and military commanders, be based on timely communications, and be premised on an established set of guidelines as to both the advantages and costs, financial and political, of engagement.
A streamlined and effective command structure and decision-making process must also consider projected loss of life among both indigenous populations and U.S. forces and projected time commitments based on realistic, not fanciful, estimates. Future force deployments should take place only after a thorough understanding of the historical and cultural conditions in the theater and their implications for long-term commitments
5. A Commission to Assess the Long Wars. An unprecedented effort to learn the lessons of modern conflict, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq, is required. Traditionally, our society is sufficiently relieved by the suspension of hostilities that we choose not to look back. This reluctance sacrifices invaluable knowledge shared among those who participated in the conflict and those who commanded.
Lessons learned are imperative if we are to prosecute future conflicts more effectively and if we are to know more clearly whether military intervention makes sense. We must assess the nature of unconventional, irregular warfare, indigenous cultural factors, training of local forces, coordination of allied efforts, and effective combat unit performance.
A precedent for this commission may be found in the 9/11 Commission.
Such a commission will greatly enhance our clarity in knowing when, where, how, and whether to commit American military forces. It will help us anticipate when we are committing ourselves to long-term nation building. Most of all, this full-scale review represents a moral duty to those who have sacrificed their lives in these current protracted conflicts.
6. The Commander in Chief as military reformer. A number of previous presidents have influenced major strategy changes, usually in advance of established military theory and doctrine and traditional military institutions. The combination of three on-going conflicts and new national security leadership, provide the platform for the commander in chief to articulate the US approach to conflict in the 21st century.
Abraham Lincoln understood, in many cases ahead of his senior military commanders, the strategic revolutions represented by the railroads and the telegraph. His appreciation of these revolutions directly impacted the Union’s military strategy throughout our Civil War.
Franklin Roosevelt modernized mass mobilization and skillfully allocated resources between two major global combat theaters. American forces at the end of World War II were radically different from those that went to war in December 1941. A decade after 9.11, the U.S. military still looks structurally as it did the day the twin towers fell.
Dwight Eisenhower rejected advice to eliminate adversaries by pre-emptive warfare, including the use of nuclear weapons, and instead established the doctrine of containment and nuclear deterrence that guided us successfully through the Cold War.
John Kennedy managed the Cuban missile crisis, often in contradiction to the wishes of senior military commanders, and is credited with avoiding nuclear confrontation and potential exchange by instituting the quarantine of Cuba.
Ronald Reagan instituted arms control breakthroughs by imagining an exchange of highly advanced space technologies with the Soviet Union adversary. This innovation was resisted strongly by senior military commanders and political advisors alike. He also instituted a maritime strategy and presided over the introduction of technologically advanced precision-guided weapons.
7. Restoring a healthy civil-military relation. National security education must be increased in two dimensions: the military academies and officer training schools must be more widely focused in terms of involvement in civilian instructors, such as historians; and the commander-in-chief must play a larger role in educating the public at large concerning national security issues.
Greater attention must be paid to the implications of a widening chasm between civilian and military sectors of society and the increasing detachment of the military from the society it serves. Americans in general and the soldiers, sailors, and airmen and women who protect them must be more closely linked. This may be achieved via educational programs that can give all Americans a deeper appreciation for military and security affairs.
Citizens, especially those who have no family member in the military, see our military as a distant and little-understood system somewhere on the outer edges of our society. Military professionals continue to be respected but do not engage the public’s interests on any immediate basis. Very few members of Congress have any military experience whatsoever and most take little interest in military affairs.
An age in which our military is constantly engaged and our public is not is a potentially serious challenge to American democracy.
Summary. Twentieth century conflict involved traditional nation-state wars with formal declarations of war, direct involvement of the public, conscription and mass mobilization, often increased taxation, and even rationing. These wars had a beginning and an official end.
Late 20th century and early 21st century conflicts have been irregular and unconventional with less Congressional involvement and oversight, much less involvement of civil society and without an official beginning and end. Victory is increasingly elusive and difficult to define.
There are three fundamental reasons to pursue military reforms. First, every period of technological change implies the adoption of new, oft-times radically different, military “tools and practices.” Second, our stressed economic situation and consequent fiscal constraints require us to invest in our military with far more circumspection than in the past. Last, the external security environment, filling up with rising regional powers – and ever more potent networks – should spur us, in our straitened economic condition, to pursue innovative approaches that will restore our somewhat blunted “edge.”
Resistance to change must be confronted from the outset. Militaries practice a dangerous, complex business, and are loath to risk changing from tools and practices that have worked in the past and that they believe may still work. But sometimes the risk of not changing is greater, as was the case a century ago when the great powers marched their armies off into battle, massed shoulder to shoulder, against machine guns and high explosive artillery. Millions were slaughtered needlessly because of the reluctance to embrace change when it was clearly necessary.
Post-Cold War military reform is twenty years over-due.
In the January/February 2015 Atlantic, James Fallows argues that a specific example of flawed defense decision-making, under what he calls "Chickenhawk Nation" circumstances, involves the contrasting fates of two military aircraft. One is the Air Force's A-10 attack plane, nicknamed the "Warthog." The other is a multi-service airplane that was originally called the "joint strike fighter" and now is known as the F-35 "Lightning II." The A-10—which is relatively cheap, highly reliable and battle-tested, and designed for the specific task of flying low and slow over a battlefield so as to support U.S. and allied troops—is being phased out. Much of the money is going to what the article describes as the over-budget, past-schedule, too-complex, problem-plagued F-35.
The article points out that the Department of Defense strongly disputes these views, and says that we will offer links to documents pro and con about these airplanes and other relevant defense issues. Here they are:
I. The Gary Hart Commission memo. As the article discusses, in 2011 Barack Obama asked former Senator Gary Hart, who in the 1980s had been a leader in the “defense reform” movement, to convene a small group and offer recommendations on how a reelected President Obama might work lasting changes on the Pentagon. Read the summary memo, “Bending the Arc of Military History.”
Hart remained in contact with the administration and in 2014 was appointed a special negotiator for Northern Ireland. But, as the article says, he heard no follow-up on these points.
II. Official arguments in favor of the F-35 and against the A-10
“Uncle Sam Builds an Airplane,” a June 2002 Atlantic article by James Fallows, summarizing the reasoning behind the F-35, backed when it was intended to be the solution to the Pentagon's budget problems rather than another illustration of them
The American public and its political leadership will do anything for the military except take it seriously. The result is a chickenhawk nation in which careless spending and strategic folly combine to lure America into endless wars it can’t win.
Everyone has got lots of things to think about at the end of a year. But I wanted to note things we've seen, have reported on, and are about to cover in our ongoing travels across the country.
1. This Past Week: Deb Fallows completed her four-installment chronicle of what it is like to cross the continent at low altitude, with various surprises, rewards, and challenges along the way. If you missed them, they are: