New Part Three - January 23:
James Fallows
Robert Coram
Donald Vandergriff

Part Two - January 15:
James Fallows
Robert Coram
Donald Vandergriff

Part One - January 8:
James Fallows
Robert Coram
Donald Vandergriff

Robert Coram is the author of three acclaimed nonfiction books and seven novels. Twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his work in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he has also been featured in The New Yorker and numerous other magazines. He is a commercial-rated pilot and one of the few civilians to have flown both the F-100 and the F-15.

Donald Vandergriff is an active duty army officer currently serving as deputy director of Army ROTC at Georgetown University. He was editor of Spirit, Blood, and Treasure: The American Cost of Battle in the 21st Century. He is the author of around twenty-five articles on military affairs.

James Fallows is The Atlantic's national correspondent and the author of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (1996) and of Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel. To learn about his new book and look through an archive of his recent articles, visit

Previously in Fallows@large:

Inside Admissions (September 25, 2002)
A dialogue between James Fallows and Jacques Steinberg, the author of The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College.

The Price of Wealth (July 3, 2002)
A dialogue between James Fallows and Kevin Phillips, the author of Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich.

Signals of Saturation (April 3, 2002)
James Fallows exchanges e-mail with Todd Gitlin, the author of Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives.

More by James Fallows

More on books

More on defense

Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

Atlantic Unbound | January 8, 2003
fallows@large | Dialogues with James Fallows
From: Robert Coram
To: James Fallows
Subject: Re: What's wrong with the military?


First, thanks for inviting me to participate in this dialogue, especially for putting me alongside Maj. Don Vandergriff, whose brilliant book already has become part of the canon.

You are right in saying my book is historical. Therefore I don't have the credentials to answer your question: "Can things be as bad as you suggest?" But what I can do is tell you of the response to Boyd from career military people who, in surprising numbers, are calling and sending e-mails. These are impassioned e-mails and emotional conversations. People weep for Boyd's unbending integrity and great sacrifices and boil in anger at the institutional corruption of the Pentagon. So those contacts not only answer your question with a resounding "yes," but demonstrate emphatically that things have only gotten worse than I portrayed them in the book.

For your readers to understand this, a major shift in what they think they know about the Pentagon is the first step. It is a belief almost universally held that the Pentagon is a Hall of Warriors, a near-mythological place where high-minded generals are dedicated to the idea of preserving and protecting America's freedoms. Many people have an almost blind faith in generals. We revere, and that is not too strong a word, men with stars on their shoulders. We believe their pronouncements about the omnipotent efficacy of every weapon.

The gut-bucket reality is far different. The Pentagon is a corporate headquarters, like Enron. It is a place where too many officers are dedicated to two things: getting more money out of Congress than do generals in other branches of the service, and buying ever more expensive weapons whose efficacy on the battlefield is untested or questionable. Further, their promotion often is based largely on how well they can push a new weapons system through Congress. They come into the Pentagon as perhaps a young major, talking enthusiastically of, for example, how the F-22 is too big, too expensive, too prone to maintenance problems, and knowing it can never perform as advertised. But their idealism is forgotten in their careerism, and fifteen years or so later one of them has become a general in charge of the propulsion system for the F-22 and genuinely believes it is a great airplane. The system makes and shapes officers that way and they become, in one of John Boyd's most telling phrases, "Men who would willingly risk their lives for their country, but not their jobs."

Let me pause here to issue a caveat. While what I say applies to the culture of the Pentagon, it does not apply to every serving officer in the Pentagon. I have an old-fashioned belief in the inherent goodness of mankind, and I believe that some of the most idealistic and principled people in America go into the officer corps of America's armed forces. Many of them pray daily that they will never be assigned to the Pentagon. But many are, and despite their lofty ideals, they are suborned by the Pentagon culture. Either that or they get out. And then we have "The Tragedy of the Commons" in which the genetically inferior prevail.

This means the Pentagon has evolved into a place ruled by small-minded and self-serving men who spend taxpayers' money in a profligate and irresponsible fashion so they can better their own careers and then, in many cases, go to work for the very defense contractor whose project they supervised as an active-duty officer.

This sounds cynical to those who do not know the Pentagon. But until this view is accepted, the Pentagon will remain surrounded in a Camelot mist beyond which stands an unknowing public accepting every press release as though Moses brought it down from the mountain.

You are correct in saying the U.S. military is bigger and stronger than any opposing force on earth; stronger than any other force in history. But it should be. After all, we spend about $400 billion a year on national defense, more than the next twenty highest countries combined. Iraq, for instance, with whom we are about to do battle, spends less than $2 billion annually.

No matter our military adversary, we should win quickly, we should win big, and we should win decisively.

But do we?

We lost in Vietnam. We took two days to win in Grenada against a few hundred construction workers and, in the process, committed terrible blunders of friendly fire, Navy SEALS drowning, inability of army troops to communicate with naval forces, and we came within an inch of leveling the Venezuelan Embassy and killing the ambassador. Our victory in Gulf War I was hollow in that we accomplished only one of our stated objectives: pushing the Iraqi Army out of Kuwait. We failed to destroy the weapons of mass destruction. We did not destroy the Republican Guard. We did not destroy the Iraqi Army as an effective fighting force. (Just weeks after the end of the war, Saddam was fighting a two-pronged civil war, demonstrating his still-effective helicopters, armor, and command-and-control facilities.) And we failed in an unstated but implicit objective of toppling Saddam. Plus, the vaunted B-1 bomber flunked roll call; it never made it into battle.

You mentioned Somalia, where we had no victory, and where military forces were hobbled with parallel and conflicting chains of command. In Kosovo, yes, enemy forces eventually withdrew, but only after the Russians pulled the plug and we modified our peace terms back to the level the Serbs had virtually agreed to at Rambouillet. The Serb army left intact, victualled, and with most of its weapons in fighting order. In Serbia it was NATO forces against a country with the GNP about two thirds that of Fairfax County in suburban Virginia. The Army could not get its showcase attack helicopter into battle. Enemy forces withdrew with minimal losses. In Afghanistan, the military boasts of taking down the Taliban, a ragamuffin group whose headquarters was a mud hut equipped with a prayer rug and a cell phone. We failed to encircle our adversary at Tora Bora, and during Operation Anaconda we landed in an ambush despite our vaunted surveillance capability and then failed to win decisively because of the military's fear of casualties. We still haven't captured Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar, and today our troops are under almost daily harassing fire, al Qaeda has re-opened training camps, and we are conducting Vietnam-like search-and-destroy missions against an enemy that is regrouping.

Some say failures in Vietnam, Somalia, and Tora Bora et al. were not military failures but political failures. I'm not sure such a distinction can be made. Von Clausewitz said that war is a continuation of politics by other means. That is certainly true in today's world. The consequences would be terrible if the military and politics were separated; remember, some of our generals wanted to nuke North Vietnam.

Now, before I go back to Iraq and the question of character, consider what John Boyd suggested as a sensible grand strategy. It is the strategy of a man who believed that his fellow officers and his country should always hold the moral high ground. He said our strategy should tighten our alliances, pump up our resolve, drain away our adversary's resolve, and attract the uncommitted. He said we should end a war on favorable terms. He said we should ensure that neither the war nor the peace terms provided the seeds of an unfavorable future conflict.

Our national resolve about this war with Iraq is fragmented. We certainly are not draining away the resolve of the Arab world. And we are finding it difficult to attract traditional allies to our cause.

Given what we spend on defense vs. what Iraq spends, the American people have a right to expect a clean, quick, big, and decisive victory that ends the war on terms that do not sow the seeds for a future conflict. And I have little doubt we will win. The imbalances in our favor make it almost inconceivable that we could lose. But because there is a lack of character at the upper level of the U.S. military, we will win with indiscriminate firepower, with a body-count mentality that revels in a high enemy casualty rate, and then—after maybe a year of occupation—we will walk away, pooh-poohing the idea of nation building. Our alliances might dissolve, the uncommitted might turn against us, and—as we become morally isolated—our adversary will grow bolder. There will be no basis for a lasting peace and behind us will be a hatred of America that will last for generations.

Previous Page | Donald Vandergriff - January 8

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