Sebastian Junger, who has produced moving accounts of the human face of combat in Afghanistan and elsewhere (to say nothing of the narrative mastery of The Perfect Storm), and whose war movie Restrepo I recommended a few years ago, has written what he presents as a counter or critique to my "Tragedy of the American Military" article.
I hope you will read it. When you're done, I invite you to head back here.
* * *
The overwhelming majority of the (overwhelming) response I've gotten to this article has impressed me by engaging with the case I actually made. I mention this because so frequently that does not happen on controversial topics. You can see an example in the reader letters I quote here on a different subject: Benjamin Netanyahu's upcoming speech to Congress. In that case the angriest messages came from people reacting to exactly the opposite of what a previous correspondent was trying to say. Readers of a certain age, who have heard of Gilda Radner's performances in the early days of SNL, will recognize this as the "Miss Emily Litella" syndrome, a heated denunciation of views you misheard or misunderstood.
Unfortunately I feel that Junger's heartfelt arguments are the exception to most of the response to this piece, in their misalignment with the thrust of my article. Here are some examples.
Democratic feedback system. Early on Junger makes this point:
Fallows takes this idea [of civic disengagment] and puts a particularly sharp edge on it: “Because so small a sliver of the population has a direct stake in the consequences of military action,” he writes, “the normal democratic feedbacks do not work.”
It’s an appealing theory that persists despite the fact that it’s demonstrably untrue. By the end of World War II, nearly 10 percent of Americans were on active military duty. That should have resulted in massive public resistance to the war, but it was exactly the opposite.
It appears that Junger understood me to be saying something as over-simple as "the bigger the military, the more unpopular the war." Thus World War II would seem to be a powerful counterexample: big army, but broad public support. He could have gone on to mention the Civil War in the same vein: very broad participation, very broad support. Therefore my point, as he understood it, must be demonstrably untrue.
But of course the argument in the article was not that at all. In simplest form it was: The broader the civic engagement and exposure to the consequences of military action, the greater the chance that the public will take its military seriously. And the less the engagement, the more likely a nation will be careless and sloppy in how it applies military force. As the article put it, "A chickenhawk nation is more likely to keep going to war, and to keep losing, than one that wrestles with long-term questions of effectiveness." That is not quite the same as "big army = unpopular wars."
What would be the signs that the country was taking its military seriously? They would include thinking carefully about the causes to which we commit troops, holding military leaders accountable for tactical and strategic competence, holding political leaders accountable for their judgment in military matters, being close enough to the realities of military operations to understand that some spending is crucial and other is sheer porkbarreling waste.
All of those traits describe the fully committed America of the World War II era and its aftermath, when it was first fighting the Nazis and Imperial Japanese and then digging in against Stalin's Soviet Union. None of them (I contend) apply to the America of the chickenhawk era. Thus for the point the article was actually making, World War II is strong evidence that the argument is "demonstrably true" rather than the reverse. Why do you think I wrote about World War II and its aftermath so much?
As Andrew Bacevich wrote, in a quote I used in the piece, “A people untouched (or seemingly untouched) by war are far less likely to care about it.” During and after World War II most Americans were touched by war, and cared about it. During today’s long wars most Americans aren’t, and don’t.
The 1 percent problem. Several times in the piece, I emphasize how small a share of the American public is involved in the military or has served in our recent wars. For instance, Americans who served in either Iraq or Afghanistan at any point since 2001 make up three-fourths of 1 percent of the population.
Junger imagines that I am presenting the small size of today’s military as a problem to be solved in itself, rather than as both symptom and cause of the real disorder I am discussing: the estrangement of the military from most of society. Therefore he wonders how much bigger I would like the military to be and whether I would like a draft:
But what’s the solution? Saying that 1 percent is too low implies that the figure should be higher. But how high? Five percent? Ten? Does the United States really need an army of 5 million people? Do Americans really want to pay for that?
Maybe when people get upset about the 1-percent figure, what they’re really getting upset about is the lack of a military draft.
These would be strong points if I had said that the military needs to be bigger, which I didn't, or if I thought the draft would return, which it won't.
Thirty-five years ago, when the volunteer army had been running for only a few years and the (then) Soviet Union had just invaded Afghanistan, Jim Webb and I co-wrote a feature for The Atlantic arguing that the United States would be better off in the long run if it brought the draft back. That was a different world. Barring changed circumstances no one can foresee, there is zero likelihood that the U.S. will bring conscription back. Similarly, I don't think, and didn't say, that the United States needs more people in uniform. In fact I quoted retired Admiral Mike Mullen, former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on why we should have a smaller military, to make it harder to drift into "casual" wars.
To spell it out again: A smaller army is not itself the problem. It's a symptom of America's inattention to its military, which is the real challenge to address.
Sebastian Junger says that if you're not willing to expand the army or reinstitute the draft, there's no point in talking about this 1-percent problem. Obviously I disagree and feel that we are in terrain similar to what William James explored long ago with that most American of all meaning-of-America essays, "The Moral Equivalent of War." Its premise was that the Civil War, for all its horrors, had evoked a kind of nobility in individual and collective purpose. The question was how a nation could evoke some of that nobility without all the carnage. In my own more limited sphere I was asking how we could repair the civic-military connection without having a huge military or restoring the draft.
Winning and losing. Sebastian Junger says that it can be difficult to know whether you have "won" in today's open-ended combat. I agree.
He says that therefore you can't know if you have "lost." I disagree completely.
Here is how he frames his point:
"One of the most powerful arguments against the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan has been that it lacked any clear definition of “winning.” But if we accept the premise that there’s no definition of winning, then there’s no definition of losing, either, and we forfeit the right to use either word. You can’t “lose” a race that has no finish line."
I don't think Junger himself would agree with this if he thought about it for a minute. Here is what it means to “lose” a modern war:
You spend several trillion dollars—at least 10 times more than a figure the Bush administration dismissed as impossibly high before the Iraq War began. (Paul Wolfowitz, of course, predicted that the Iraq War would be self-financing, from local oil.)
You sacrifice thousands of American lives, to speak only of the losses on our nation's side, and shatter tens of thousands of families through disability and long-term trauma. What everyone considers a left-wing film, The Hurt Locker, and what everyone considers a right-wing film, American Sniper, are to my mind essentially the same film, showing brave young Americans placed in impossible circumstances in unwinnable wars and suffering long-term consequences. Reduced to a message, Restrepo can be seen the same way.
As I said in my piece, the U.S. scored one big success in killing Osama bin Laden, and another in the initial campaign to drive the Taliban from Afghanistan—before troops and attention were diverted to Iraq. Yet nothing in the circumstances of either Iraq or Afghanistan after 13 years of war resembles what any U.S. leader would have called “successful” before the wars began. For a truly sobering look at the situation in Iraq, please see this new analysis from Chuck Spinney.
You know you have lost when you have done those things—and when you have left the United States in worse shape with nearly all allies, done profound damage to its moral standing, and exposed the limits rather than the extent of its military reach.
That is defeat. That is what we have suffered. And the real point of my article was that the fault lies with our nation as a whole, for thinking that calling our troops "heroes" makes up for thoughtlessness in this gravest of national decisions.
I am glad that Sebastian Junger took the time to read and write about my article. I do hope you'll read his essay for the good points he makes. But I am sorry that he seems not to have registered what my article said.
I am resuming the Chickenhawk responses with this installment. Here is the running index of previous installments:
"The Tragedy of the American Military," my article in the Jan-Feb issue. A C-Span interview is here; an NPR "All Things Considered" interview is here; a PBS News Hour interview and segment is here; and the Bill Maher show is here.
1) Initial responses, including an argument for the draft.
2) Whether Israel comes closer to a civil-military connection than the U.S. does.
3) "Quiet Gratitude, or Dangerous Contempt?" How veterans respond to "thank you for your service."
4) "Actually We Keep Winning." An argument that things are better than I claim.
5) "Get the Hell Back in Your Foxhole." More on the meaning of "thanks."
6) "Showing Gratitude in a Way that Matters." What civilians could do that counts.
7) "Winning Battles, Losing Wars." A response to #4.
8) "The Economic Realities of a Trillion Dollar Budget." What we could, or should, learn from the Soviet Union.
9) "Meanwhile, the Realities." Fancy weapons are sexy. Boring weapons save troops' lives.
10) "Chickenhawks in the News." The 2012 presidential campaign avoided foreign-policy and military issues. What about 2016?
11) "A Failure of Grand Strategy." Half a league, half a league, half a league onward ...
12) "Careerism and Competence," including the testimony of an A-10 pilot who decided to resign.
13) "Vandergriff as Yoda." A modest proposal for shaking things up.
14) "Lions Led by Lambs." On a possible generation gap among military officers.
15) "Is it all up to the vets?" Whether correcting the civil-military divide is primarily the responsibility of recent veterans.
16) "We Are Not Chickenhawks." A critique (of me) from the left.
17) "Genuinely Bad News About the F-35 and A-10." Whether new weapons are being assessed honestly.
18) "Two Young Officers," with the laments of Captain X and Captain Y.
19) "The Reforms the Military is Undertaking," with a reading list of ongoing internal dissent.
20) "Brian Williams and the Guitar Hero Syndrome." What the problems o the former NBC anchor showed about civilian attitudes toward the military.
21) The one you are reading now.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.