The Military as 'Abusive Parent': The View Toward Syria From an Exhausted Army

"We have continued to face real physical, psychological, financial, social and spiritual consequences for decisions exactly like this one."
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I am violating my normal rules for frequency of posts (average one per day) and variety of subject (have some) because the Syrian news is happening in real time, and because so much response has come in. Here is the background to the very interesting note below.

1) A reader whose name turns out to be Tim Russo argued for intervention, and said "we don't know war." 2) A serving officer wrote back bitterly. 3) Russo responded to that.

I won't make this an open-ended back and forth, and you can read Russo's continuing views on his own site. But the note that follows is not personalized, and I think is very much worth reading as we consider another engagement of armed force. (Image of "Exhausted Army" from this site.) A reader writes:

As an actively serving officer’s wife, I would like to offer a short explanation/response/defense for the frustrated officer (presumably NOT my husband!)[JF note: correct, NOT]  that Mr. Russo responded to.

I think that the frustration the officer expressed about the clueless “We don’t know war” stems from a general “last straw” feeling in the military community.  Undeniably, any sort of military option in Syria exponentionally increases the risk that we are going to have  a prolonged or extended military action/presence there. The current administration (and Congress, to fairly share the blame) treats service members like disposable minions.

As Mr. Russo acknowledged *WE* (service members and their family) are the ones who have “known war” but he seems to gloss over that *WE* are the ones who are actually putting lives on the line and families on the backburner to carry out this adventure. Mr. Russo’s initial statement was abrasive in that it echoes the acts (though not the words) of the President and Congress in ignoring the fact that the military members are living, breathing people with mortgages and babies and retirement dreams who have actually faced and continue to face REAL physical, psychological, financial, social and spiritual consequences for decisions exactly like this one.

Those who don’t follow the Army Times or have active involvement with the military can’t fully appreciate the feelings of frustration, disillusionment and despair that service members feel about everything that is going on, taken as a whole. To sum up everything that I am about to type below: “After everything you are putting us through, why should we go risk our lives for you AGAIN?”

1)      We have been constantly at war for more than a decade. My own husband has been deployed seven times and is currently getting ready for his fifth trip to Afghanistan (three of his previous deployments were to Iraq). He is not alone (and, frankly, he’s one of the lucky ones who tends to have a year or more in between deployments.)

2)      During the build up/surge, recruitment needs were such that standards dropped to serious lows. Waivers were granted willy-nilly. As a result, the service ended up with a lot of shiftless thugs who have now served long enough to be in leadership positions (or at least positions where they can be obstructionist and demoralizing).

3)      The military does everything in its power to keep soldiers deployable, including ignoring injuries and mental health problems. Soldiers basically get two options: quit (and give up your years toward retirement so that you can go in an endless queue and hope that the VA processes your case and gives you treatment) or soldier on in pain.

4)      The military uses semantics to evade its promises. We are told that troops are being withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan. In reality, soldiers are still being deployed and endangered, we just call them “peacekeepers” and “instructors” and “trainers” now.

5)      Service members are being used as a pawn in the budget fiasco. Troops currently being deployed (for the fourth, sixth, ninth, etc. time) are being told that their tours may stretch one indefinitely due to “lack of funds to train replacements”.

6)      The Army’s response to budget cutting is to weed out the older/more expensive soldiers before they can retire. Yes, physical fitness standards are important, but the move toward “tightening up” the standards (basically taking away the lower performance requirements for older soldiers) is a sneaky way to screw someone who has fought for the country for eighteen or nineteen years out of his or her pension (in most cases, you don’t get anything if you are even a day short of 20 years).

7)      Proposed/rumored changes to pensions are extremely worrying. For soldiers in their late 30s and beyond, it is too late to earn a full civilian pension if the Army fails to follow through on its promises.

8)      Cutting back (or perhaps even eliminating) commissaries, on-post schools and MWR is all on the table (budget-wise), as is lowering the amount of BAH that soldiers get (and don’t forget the proposal to lower the cost of living increase). Tuition assistance is being abolished or curtailed. Also, the furloughing of civilian DoD workers, in most cases, just means that the soldiers put in extra hours to make up the difference. Tricare is being modified to require co-pays. There is a rumor (I haven’t seen this confirmed anywhere) that spouses and children are going to  be kicked off Tricare and forced to purchase their own coverage through the health care exchanges under the Affordable Care Act. 

9)      The civilian hiring freeze makes it next to impossible for military spouses to obtain jobs when we are moved to new posts (trust me- I’m a professional. Moving every three years (sometimes to jurisdictions where my license won’t transfer) has been devastating on my career. I credit divine intervention for landing my current job when we PCSd from Texas. It used to be that well-qualified spouses would sign up at the employment liason office and move smoothly from an office on Fort Wherever to Fort Wherever else- but now we can’t), this puts even more financial pressure on military families.

All of that being said- Yes, it is a volunteer Army. My husband knew what he signed up for and his commitment to the service is unwaivering. I don’t mean for this to come off as whining (and my husband would probably die if he knew that I sent this e-mail, so please don’t quote me by name)- but all of this, taken together, still leads to a great deal of frustration and wondering whether or not your loyalty is displaced. A very good career officer friend of ours once referred to the Army as an abusive parent. No matter how many times they hurt you or let you down, you still love them. That description feels very apt

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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