These letters are long, but I hope you'll find time to read and think about them. I'll save set-up comments for after the jump.
First, from a young Marine whom I don't know, but whose identity and record I have confirmed, on how he feels his service has been corrupted during the "long war" years and why a disengaged public is ultimately to blame:
I am a Marine Captain who has served for the last eight years. While deployed to the Helmand Province, I struggled to understand our strategic purpose there.
We lauded local accomplishments in terms of high-value-targets captured and drugs seized, but the leadership could not coherently explain how our tactical successes contributed to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Marine Corps leaders, including Marine Commandant Jim Conway, boasted about how they fought to carve out a Marine-only area where they would be freed from having to fight under Army leadership and could demonstrate how Marines could do counterinsurgency better than the Army.
In his memoir, Robert Gates considered his failure to rein in the Marine leadership his greatest mistake in overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: “The Marines performed with courage, brilliance, and considerable success on the ground, but their higher leadership put their own parochial service concerns above the requirements of the overall Afghan mission.”
The Helmand was a (deservedly) neglected backwater in 2009, and the additional troops allocated in the Afghanistan surge should have been allocated toward more populous and strategically significant regions, especially Kandahar. But the Marine leadership hijacked the allocation of the surge forces in order to carve out a Marine Corps piece of the Afghanistan war and protect their concept of the Marine Corps style of war fighting, at the cost of supporting the overall U.S. military mission in Afghanistan.
I do not pretend to claim that history would have changed significantly if Marines had deployed to Kandahar instead of the Helmand. But the blatant institutional self-interest that our generals displayed is, for me, an unforgivable sin. It undermined all the sacrifices that Marines made in that corner of the world. My Marines did not sacrifice and die to protect America by stabilizing the Afghan government; they were sacrificed for the glory and continued existence of the Marine Corps.
That sickens me and is the reason I am resigning.
As we wind down from our wars, our generals continue to jockey for relevancy (and consequently, budget protection) by looking for work for their services. This creates continued lobbying for military intervention based not in strategy, but in institutional self-interest.
These tendencies are by no means unique to the military. But it is exacerbated by the very forces you identify—our reverence of the military and isolation from it. We use our military because we have it, and we fund it because we use it.
I don’t think it is possible to correct the system from within. The system is still capable of producing (though not uniformly) great unit leaders at the battalion and squadron level (O-5), but their influence is largely limited to within their unit. It is clear to me that from O-6 and above, when leaders begin to gain organizational influence, that the Marine Corps is quite effective at selecting for institutional loyalty.
I believe the military leadership and their relationship to the nation is as broken as it was during the Vietnam War, but I don’t see any appetite for self-reflection or reform from our civil or military leadership. I hope that the increasing representation of young Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in Congress will lend more weight to greater civil oversight of the military.
Military leaders often (privately) complain about congressional visits as a waste of time and an insult to their competence. They would prefer to be taken at their word and be left alone. But I have witnessed professional HASC [House Armed Services Committee] staff incisively tear apart the rosy picture that generals and their staffers try to paint.
Our officers' disdain for Congress and the Executive branch is evidence that our leadership has lost sight of who they serve. Our military has failed the public, and especially the young men and women in uniform whose patriotism and sacrifice have been misused and wasted over the past decade. It is past due for our civil leadership to exercise intrusive leadership over an institution run amok.
As an Army Officer who has watched the evolution of American support for the military grow exponentially since 9-11-2001, I am a little unsettled by the country's blind appreciation of the military and outrageous approval rating.
While it is nice to receive a 10% discount at Home Depot because of my service, I would much rather the country as a whole better understood the complicated problems that come with foreign diplomacy and the application of military force, than the blind appreciation we currently experience.
Your comparison of the F-35 and A-10 programs highlights the fiscal absurdity that we in uniform deal with on a daily basis. Aside from the preposterous budgetary issues, you hit the nail on the head with your segment on the military portrayal in popular culture.
As you note, there was a time when the country could laugh at the comical exploits of our men and women in uniform through shows like The Phil Silvers Show and Gomer Pyle, USMC. Now it seems like the general public views the military as completely infallible, which paves the way for rampant spending because we can, and no one is going to question us. In the wake of the release of the film American Sniper, several celebrities have been heavily criticized for their off-comment remarks about the marginally-true movie. Why are we so uptight about critiquing a branch of our own government?
Finally, you speak about the civil-military divide. That has begun to be a heavily-discussed topic within the military. Unfortunately, not enough of those outside of the military and government are speaking on the subject.
This is JF again. I am grateful to these young men and the (literally) thousands of other people, mainly military-related but also civilian, who have written in with experiences and insights about the consequences of our chickenhawk age.
I am grateful for the care and (often, as here) the eloquence with which they have made their case, and also for their trust in the Atlantic as a forum for their discussions. I know the real identities of virtually everyone I have quoted, since that is important for assessing their credibility; but I have published their names or identifying info only when a writer specifically asks that this be done.
Please reflect, too, on the connection between this No. 18 installment and yesterday's, about the F-35 and A-10 airplanes. Each post was about operational details, but even more they were about questions of character, and its absence. These moral questions—about the military, and about its country—dominate the messages I have received.
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. I will be doing the Bill Maher show tomorrow.
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) The one you are reading now.
I will be on Real Time with Bill Maher tonight talking about these trends.