The Conversation

Responses and reverberations

The Tragedy of the American Military

In the January/February issue, James Fallows examined the consequences—namely, lost wars—of the growing distance between the American public and the country’s armed forces.

All civilians, from the president on down, are getting in the habit of offering the military … “overblown, unlimited praise” instead of the kind of detailed and sometimes critical scrutiny—the investment of attention—they deserve. And so we continue to throw money at the Pentagon for missions we barely understand or acknowledge, and only become alarmed when U.S. casualties occur, which ratchets up the sense of guilt while creating grievances among career military members that their fellow citizens have no idea what they experience, which is true.

We have become, says Fallows, a “chickenhawk nation,” one that wages and ends wars via remote control and without a whole lot of debate.

What to do about it? Some people (myself included) think a restoration of the idea of national service—not a draft, and not universal military conscription, but well-funded opportunities for most young Americans to spend a brief period of time in civilian or military service as a quasi-universal right of passage—would help enormously. Barring that, a reassertion of the idea that civilian control of the military is essential to civil health should replace the sort of cringing and begging a lot of politicians now express when addressing the armed forces, which undermines real respect on everyone’s part. And just as importantly, Americans need to take the military and its often violent role seriously enough to pay close attention to it—respectfully, but not superficially—even when they are not directly and personally affected by its triumphs, failures, and risks. That’s more difficult in an age of shadowy limited wars waged by special forces and drones. But it’s the only way to avoid waking up some fine day and realizing we’ve created, authorized, and ritualistically praised a war machine we barely recognize as our own.

Ed Kilgore
Excerpt from a Washington Monthly blog post

“The Tragedy of the American Military” should be read by career military personnel and political leaders. However, Fallows leaves out an important point about how our political leaders and the public became disconnected from the military.

We ended the draft and transitioned to an all-volunteer military, not because anyone argued that an all-volunteer force would be more capable. Rather, it was because of the efforts of “chickenhawk” politicians like Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and Vice Presidents Dick Cheney and Joe Biden to game the draft system in order to avoid service in Vietnam.

To ensure that the American people have “skin in the game,” the solution is not to abolish the all-volunteer force but to activate the Selective Service System during prolonged conflicts, in order to expand the size of the force and make sure that the services do not have to either lower their standards to meet their recruiting goals or redeploy men and women to war zones without sufficient time at home.

Had the Bush administration activated the draft in 2002, when it became clear that we could not achieve our goals in Afghanistan if we also invaded Iraq with an all-volunteer force, the American people and their congressional representatives would have asked a lot more questions about the necessity of the Iraq War, and avoided becoming Fallows’s chickenhawk nation.

On a personal note, I spent four years on active duty during Vietnam as a naval flight officer and found, like Joseph Epstein (as Epstein described in his companion article, “How I Learned to Love the Draft”), that it was a life-changing experience. When I was the assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, I persuaded the president to go back on his campaign promise to abolish the Selective Service, preserving one of the few links between the general population and the military.

Lawrence Korb
Former Assistant Secretary of Defense, 1981–85

Alexandria, Va.

James Fallows gets many things right. The disconnect of the public and the elite from the military, the relegation of military duties to a small minority of the U.S. population, and the emphasis on technology at the cost of neglecting the human factor—all are important contributors to our military defeats in unconventional wars. But Fallows only hints at a related and even more significant issue: the absence of a careful effort to define the collective security interest of the United States in the wars in which we have failed, especially in those irregular wars where political creation is as important as physical destruction.

In many of these wars, we failed to notice whether or not the political base we required to sustain the conflict even existed in the target country. It can be convincingly argued that in both Vietnam and Iraq, and to a lesser degree in Afghanistan, no significant U.S. security interest existed that would have justified the necessary costs. In all three places, the required local political support for the effort was not there, and its absence was obvious beforehand. It was the absence of these external requirements for justifiable war that loomed large in our defeats in these countries. We need to more critically appraise the necessity of getting involved abroad, and more judiciously decide whether we can then legitimately sell the war to the American people.

Wayne Bert
Arlington, Va.

Fallows talks about personal consequence for military failure. If the mission given is to protect, pursue, build, capture, or whatever, the military unit succeeds if it does what has been asked. If Fallows suggests that failing to build a secure nation is a military failure, I believe he has misassigned the responsibility. Our military is not a colonial force tasked with governing. That mission is a governmental one, and our civilian leadership has to understand the difference and assign nation-building to the U.S. agencies that supposedly have the capability to do it. As has been well supported by a review of insurgencies (one example being The Utility of Force, by Rupert Smith), while outsiders can train local forces, provide a modicum of security, and even supply ample resources to fight, only the host nation can gain the support of the people in the long term. All of the outsiders at some point “go home,” and the residents are left only with the protection and support of their government.

Our military force has not been defeated—our nation has not been able to help the governing agent in Iraq or Afghanistan, or Vietnam for that matter, capture the support of the people who are its citizens. So if one wants to say who lost, it is the United States of America, not the armed forces.

D. Peter Gleichenhaus
Colonel, U.S. Army (Retired)
San Francisco, Calif.

As a service member for the past 27 years, I applaud James Fallows’s article. He has taken an accurate stock of the current maladies facing our armed forces, but I do take issue with his use of the word losing. Clausewitz has taught us: “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” Therefore losing should reflect the status of the politics that started the fight or the will to continue the fight. Both parties have proved adept at using the military to suit their political needs, and Mr. Fallows correctly points out that there is little repercussion when things go south. Because war is bound up so tightly with politics, our warriors have limits—limits placed upon them (rightly so) by politicians. We have the best soldiers in the world, but it is our political masters who will ultimately determine whether we win or lose.

Another famous dictum of Clausewitz’s holds that “the result of war is never final.” It is way too early to call either Iraq or Afghanistan lost. That history cannot be accurately written for another 40 years. You can say we lost in Vietnam, yet that very same country now welcomes our presence and influence.

We as a nation would do well to remember that America has three avenues of international engagement: military, economic, and diplomatic. Our military is scrutinized on a fairly regular basis and our economic capabilities speak for themselves, but when is the State Department going to get a hard look at its win/loss scorecard? I would be very interested in seeing Mr. Fallows write a similar article on foreign diplomacy. Perhaps more diplomatic victories would equal fewer military engagements—something I think both political parties could support.

James Lins
Captain, U.S. Navy
Everett, Wash.

By Fallows’s logic, more veterans in politics would encourage a greater reluctance to let the military have its way. Never mind that the logical conclusion of this absurd premise would be to start more wars and create more veterans. The numbers simply don’t support him. When the Senate voted in 2002 to grant George W. Bush unilateral power to invade Iraq, 39 of its 100 members were veterans. Only seven of those vets voted against this supreme folly. Granted, they were not all combat-hardened veterans: Jesse Helms was only a recruiter during World War II; Mitch McConnell joined the Reserves during the Vietnam War, and received a medical discharge. Other pro-war senators were battle-scarred, however, or had been tortured, like John McCain, and in some cases severely mangled, like Max Cleland of Georgia. The truth is that the Iraq War was triggered by the same reflexive embrace of violence and military solutions that has prompted most of our other deplorable military adventures, from endless violent meddling in Latin America to the Iran-Contra scandal to the notorious School of the Americas.

There is obviously far more reason for vets to support—instead of challenge—the military. After all, vets have drunk more deeply of the martial Kool-Aid than have mere civilians. The military relies on heavy indoctrination programs to foster unflinching loyalty to the service and powerful patriotic sentiments. Politicians emerging from the military are quite willing to play on these feelings for political gain. Witness Tom Cotton, the new Republican senator from Arkansas, who fought in Iraq: “I have served you before in distant lands where troops tonight bravely defend this free government of ours.” That nobody questions this tripe about defending our free government by destroying Iraq is by no means the result of our lack of familiarity with soldiers. It’s a symptom of a pathological disengagement from reality.

As he lurches toward the end of his essay, Fallows sounds rather optimistic about this year’s new Congress having “more than 20 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.” In this new crop of veteran-politicians, however, Republicans out-number Democrats three to one, and Republicans are almost always more inclined to saber rattling than are Democrats. Hence, there is scant hope that these new politicians will demand significant reform of the military.

Bob Schildgen
Berkeley, Calif.

Fallows asks why military spending keeps going up as the capability delivered goes down. I think a big part of the answer is that the Pentagon is still trying to run its affairs like a centrally planned economy, while our adversaries are increasingly being run as a free market. And the same inherent disadvantages that crippled the Soviets’ centrally planned economy in trying to compete with the American free-market-capitalism model are coming to bear on the Pentagon.

The Pentagon approaches its budget by first trying to figure out what threats it will face in the future, what capabilities it will need to address those threats, and then what specific systems are best suited to provide those capabilities. It then develops budgets and execution plans to procure and field those systems.

The problem is that this approach requires the Penta-gon to know exactly what threats it will face years in advance of when they will appear, just as the Soviets had to figure out consumer demand for products before it actually emerged. Moreover, the Pentagon has to figure out ahead of time what the one best way is to deliver a specific capability, as opposed to the free-market model of trying them all and the best ones emerging. Any political scientist will tell you that the principle of bounded rationality means it is impossible to have perfect knowledge, perfect understanding of that knowledge, and enough time to actually do what the Pentagon is trying to do.

When the only real adversary was the Soviet Union, you could make the system work, because it was easier to figure out the threat. But the Pentagon currently faces a proliferation of threats from near-peers, failed states, and nonstate actors. It’s no longer possible to build one single set of systems that can meet all those threats. Moreover, it is easier for those adversaries to take advantage of changes in technology. They are more agile, because they don’t have the same legacy systems or bureaucracy to deal with. As technological innovation speeds up, it becomes harder and harder for a centrally planned system to keep up.

The only long-term answer I can see is to shift toward more of a free-market approach that gives commanders in specific geographic regions, or perhaps even units preparing to face specific threats, more flexibility to go out and procure systems and capabilities that meet their own needs. Doing so would require breaking the centrally planned budget and delegating more budget authority to lower levels. But that would be a massive cultural and political shift, one that I don’t think the military bureaucracy is ready for, as it would have huge repercussions on everything from training to logistics.

Brian Weeden
Washington, D.C.

James Fallows replies:

I received more mail about this article than about anything else I have written in years. As with the sample here, most was from people with some military experience, and most of these writers agreed that there was a problem to be addressed, even if they differed about solutions. I quote some of this mail at my Atlantic Web site, jamesfallows

About the writers on these pages: I share Ed Kilgore’s general perspective. I agree with Lawrence Korb that the shift to a volunteer army, engineered under Richard Nixon, was mainly designed to reduce domestic protest about the Vietnam War. That had the effect Nixon intended—presidents now can more easily decide to go to war—but as I argued in my article, the overall effects have been pernicious.

Like Wayne Bert, I think that America has gone too long without a clear discussion of where, when, and how we should send troops to war. Forcing such an assessment was one of the goals of Gary Hart’s report to President Obama, which I mentioned. As Colonel Gleichenhaus points out, American forces have rarely suffered outright tactical defeat. As a North Vietnamese military commander famously told General Frederick Weyand, when Weyand observed that U.S. troops had not lost any battles in Vietnam, “That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.” For reasons I laid out in the article, I believe that the U.S. effort in Iraq and Afghanistan must be considered a strategic failure.

As Captain Lins says, history is fluid. I agree with him about the other tools America has and should use. And I agree with Brian Weeden about the sources of distortion in military spending.

Bob Schildgen rebuts, at length, something I didn’t say. The value of having combat veterans in Congress is not necessarily that they’ll be antiwar; it’s that they will be more attentive to the realities of the missions on which they send troops. I do, though, contend that the country as a whole would be less cavalier about combat if more people felt they had a stake in the outcome.

Debating the Draft

Alongside Fallows’s article, Joseph Epstein laid out a case for reinstating compulsory military service (“How I Learned to Love the Draft,” January/February).

Though I find it important to look at why the U.S. military can’t parlay billions of taxpayer dollars into battlefield success, I was dismayed by some of the clichéd fixes put forth by James Fallows and Joseph Epstein, especially the notion of bringing back the draft. Both badly confuse making the armed forces more representative with being more democratic. Conscription would, indeed, make the military more diverse, but a government that compels citizens to do that which they do not wish to do is the essence of authoritarianism. Epstein is especially prone to error when he makes World War II analogies that link the draft, patriotism, and support for American institutions. His analysis reifies the exceptional as typical. In truth, World War II was one of the few times in American history when large numbers of citizens did not oppose forced conscription. I suggest he read about resistance to conscription during the Revolutionary War, the draft riots that greeted both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis during the Civil War, the outrage that accompanied the 1917 Selective Service Act, and the less than ringing endorsement given to Korean and Vietnam War–era drafts. A renewed draft is a prescription for civil unrest, not for a stronger military or a new outburst of civic-mindedness.

Robert E. Weir, Ph.D.
Florence, Mass.

Although Joseph Epstein suggests that a draft would make Americans more thoughtful about foreign policy, that is precisely what the government does not want. As James Fallows notes, keeping the people disconnected from the military allows the state to develop pointless weapons systems and thereby spread jobs and money to almost every congressional district. It also avoids massive protests even while the state engages in endless war, ensuring that the wealth spigot never ceases.

The veneration of the military stifles dissent, as challenges to military adventurism become disloyalty to American heroes. The government learned much from Vietnam: not how to avoid military actions that have no purpose, but how to engage in them without restraint.

Barry Bennett
Portland, Ore.

As I sat next to my 5-year-old African American son and read Joseph Epstein’s article, I was nearly driven to tears. His shortsighted solution of sending “gang members who now menace the streets of my city, Chicago, and other major American cities” to the Army was particularly troubling. Why must young men trade the prospect of death at home for death abroad? Must we further victimize black and brown youth who live in substandard housing with failing educational systems and few jobs that offer a living wage? How shallow to think that opposition to the draft is “mainly technical” when, for these youth, Muhammad Ali’s famous declaration against the draft in 1967 still resounds.

Maya Evans
Pleasant Prairie, Wis.


“Is the Most Powerful Conservative in America Losing His Edge?,” by Molly Ball (January/February), suggested that South Carolina held gubernatorial primaries in 2009. They were held in 2010.

“Faking It,” by Julie Beck (December), identified “know thyself” as a Greek aphorism, translated as nosce te ipsum. This is in fact a Greek aphorism, but translated in Latin. The Greek translation is: gnōthi sauton.

To contribute to The Conversation, please e-mail Include your full name, city, and state.