My Story on 'Chickenhawk Nation'

"We love the troops, but we'd rather not think about them." What happens when a nation's view of its military is both reverent and disengaged.

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:

1. The article itself, which you can find here, "The Tragedy of the American Military."

2. The article above includes some powerful interactive graphics, plus a video The 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.