Never let it be said that I don't go the extra mile...
In mid-September, while President Obama was fending off
complaints that he should have done more, done less, or done something
different about the overlapping crises in Iraq and Syria, he traveled to
Central Command headquarters, at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida. There he
addressed some of the men and women who would implement whatever the U.S.
military strategy turned out to be.
The part of the speech intended to get coverage was
Obama’s rationale for re-engaging the United States in Iraq, more than a decade
after it first invaded and following the long and painful effort to extricate
itself. This was big enough news that many cable channels covered the speech
live. I watched it on an overhead TV while I sat waiting for a flight at
Chicago’s O’Hare airport. When Obama got to the section of his speech
announcing whether he planned to commit U.S. troops in Iraq (at the time, he
didn’t), I noticed that many people in the terminal shifted their attention
briefly to the TV. As soon as that was over, they went back to their smartphones
and their laptops and their Cinnabons as the president droned on.
Usually I would have stopped watching too, since so many
aspects of public figures’ appearances before the troops have become so
formulaic and routine. But I decided to see the whole show. Obama gave his
still-not-quite-natural-sounding callouts to the different military services
represented in the crowd. (“I know we’ve got some Air Force in the house!” and
so on, receiving cheers rendered as “Hooyah!” and “Oorah!” in the official
White House transcript.) He told members of the military that the nation was
grateful for their non-stop deployments and for the unique losses and burdens
placed on them through the past dozen years of open-ended war. He noted that
they were often the face of American influence in the world, being dispatched
to Liberia in 2014 to cope with the then-dawning Ebola epidemic as they had
been sent to Indonesia 10 years earlier to rescue victims of the catastrophic
tsunami there. He said that the “9/11 generation of heroes” represented the
very best in its country, and that its members constituted a military that was
not only superior to all current adversaries but no less than “the finest
fighting force in the history of the world.”
If any of my fellow travelers at O’Hare were still
listening to the speech, none of them showed any reaction to it. And why would
they? This has become the way we assume the American military will be discussed
by politicians and in the press: Overblown, limitless praise, absent the
caveats or public skepticism we would apply to other American institutions,
especially ones that run on taxpayer money. A somber moment to reflect on
sacrifice. Then everyone except the few people in uniform getting on with their
The public attitude evident in the airport was reflected
by the public’s representatives in Washington. That same afternoon, September
17, the House of Representatives voted after brief debate to authorize arms and
supplies for rebel forces in Syria, in hopes that more of them would fight
against the Islamic State, or ISIS, than for it.
The Senate did the same the next day — and then both
houses adjourned early, after an unusually short and historically unproductive
term of Congress, to spend the next six and a half weeks fund-raising and
I’m not aware of any mid-term race for the House or
Senate in which matters of war and peace — as opposed to immigration, ObamaCare,
voting rights, tax rates, the Ebola scare — were first-tier campaign issues on
either side, except for the metaphorical “war on women” and “war on coal.”
* THOSE OF US WHO CONSIDER OURSELVES "TEA
PARTY" AMERICANS RAISE THE ISSUE CONSTANTLY...
* THOSE ON THE LEFT... NOT SO MUCH... (AT LEAST UNLESS
THERE'S A REPUBLICAN PRESIDENT IN OFFICE...)
This reverent but disengaged attitude toward the military
— we love the troops, but we’d rather not think about them — has become so
familiar that we assume it is the American norm.
But it is not.
When Dwight D. Eisenhower, as a five-star general and the
supreme commander, led what may have in fact been the finest fighting force in
the history of the world, he did not describe it in that puffed-up way. On the
eve of the D-Day invasion, he warned his troops, “Your task will not be an easy
one,” because “your enemy is well-trained, well-equipped, and battle-hardened.”
As president, Eisenhower’s most famous statement about the military was his
warning in his farewell address of what could happen if its political influence
* ABOUT THE MILITARY-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX, NUMB-NUTS...
At the end of World War II, nearly 10% of the entire U.S.
population was on active military duty — which meant most able-bodied men of a
certain age (plus the small number of women allowed to serve).
Through the decade after World War II, when so many
American families had at least one member in uniform, political and
journalistic references were admiring but not awestruck. Most Americans were
familiar enough with the military to respect it while being sharply aware of
its shortcomings, as they were with the school system, their religion, and
other important and fallible institutions.
* FOLKS... I REALLY WANT YOU TO THINK ABOUT WHAT HE JUST
Now the American military is exotic territory to most of
the American public. As a comparison: A handful of Americans live on farms, but
there are many more of them than serve in all branches of the military. (Well
over 4 million people live on the country’s 2.1 million farms. The U.S.
military has about 1.4 million people on active duty and another 850,000 in the
reserves.) The other 310 million–plus Americans “honor” their stalwart farmers,
but generally don’t know them. So too with the military.
Many more young Americans will study abroad this year
than will enlist in the military — nearly 300,000 students overseas, versus
well under 200,000 new recruits.
As a country, America has been "at war" non-stop
for the past 13 years. As a public, it has not. A total of about 2.5 million
Americans, roughly three-quarters of 1%, served in Iraq or Afghanistan at any
point in the post-9/11 years - many of them more than once.
The difference between the earlier America that knew its
military and the modern America that gazes admiringly at its heroes shows up
sharply in changes in popular and media culture. While World War II was under
way, its best-known chroniclers were the Scripps Howard reporter Ernie Pyle,
who described the daily braveries and travails of the troops (until he was
killed near the war’s end by Japanese machine-gun fire on the island of
Iejima), and the Stars and Stripes cartoonist Bill Mauldin, who mocked the
obtuseness of generals and their distance from the foxhole realities faced by
his wisecracking GI characters, Willie and Joe.
From Mister Roberts to South Pacific to Catch-22, from
The Caine Mutiny to The Naked and the Dead to From Here to Eternity, American
popular and high culture treated our last mass-mobilization war as an effort
deserving deep respect and pride, but not above criticism and lampooning.
The collective achievement of the military was heroic,
but its members and leaders were still real people, with all the foibles of real
life. A decade after that war ended, the most popular military-themed TV
program was The Phil Silvers Show, about a con man in uniform named Sgt. Bilko.
As Bilko, Phil Silvers was that stock American sitcom figure, the lovable
blowhard — a role familiar from the time of Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners
to Homer Simpson in The Simpsons today.
Gomer Pyle, USMC; Hogan’s Heroes; McHale’s Navy; and even
the anachronistic frontier show F Troop were sitcoms whose settings were U.S.
military units and whose villains — and schemers, and stooges, and occasional
idealists — were [often] people in uniform. American culture was sufficiently
at ease with the military to make fun of it, a stance now hard to imagine
outside the military itself.
Robert Altman’s 1970 movie M*A*S*H was clearly “about”
the Vietnam War, then well into its bloodiest and most bitterly divisive
period. (As I point out whenever discussing this topic, I was eligible for the
draft at the time, was one of those protesting the war, and at age 20 legally
but intentionally failed my draft medical exam. I told this story in a 1975
Washington Monthly article, “What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy?”)
* THE AUTHOR IS THUS... A PIECE OF SHIT.
But M*A*S*H’s ostensible placement in the Korean War of
the early 1950s somewhat distanced its darkly mocking attitude about military
competence and authority from fierce disagreements about Vietnam. (The one big
Vietnam movie to precede it was John Wayne’s doughtily pro-war The Green Berets
in 1968. What we think of as the classic run of Vietnam films did not begin
until the end of the 1970s, with The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now.) The TV
spin-off of Altman’s film, which ran from 1972 through 1983, was a simpler and
more straightforward sitcom on the Sgt. Bilko model, again suggesting a culture
close enough to its military to put up with, and enjoy, jokes about it.
Let’s skip to today’s Iraq-Afghanistan era, in which
everyone “supports” the troops but few know very much about them.
The pop-culture references to the people fighting our
ongoing wars emphasize their suffering and stoicism, or the long-term personal
damage they may endure. The Hurt Locker is the clearest example, but also Lone
Survivor; Restrepo; the short-lived 2005 FX series set in Iraq, Over There; and
Showtime’s current series Homeland. Some emphasize high-stakes action, from the
fictionalized 24 to the meant-to-be-true Zero Dark Thirty. Often they portray
military and intelligence officials as brave and daring. But while cumulatively
these dramas highlight the damage that open-ended warfare has done — on the
battlefield and elsewhere, to warriors and civilians alike, in the short term
but also through long-term blowback — they lack the comfortable closeness with
the military that would allow them to question its competence as they would any
The battlefield is of course a separate realm, as the
literature of warfare from Homer’s time onward has emphasized. But the distance
between today’s stateside America and its always-at-war expeditionary troops is
Last year, the writer Rebecca Frankel published War Dogs,
a study of the dog-and-handler teams that had played a large part in the U.S.
efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Part of the reason she chose the topic, she
told me, was that dogs were one of the few common points of reference between
the military and the larger public. “When we cannot make that human connection
over war, when we cannot empathize or imagine the far-off world of a combat
zone … these military working dogs are a bridge over the divide,” Frankel wrote
in the introduction to her book.
It’s a wonderful book, and dogs are a better connection
than nothing. But … dogs?
When the country fought its previous wars, its common
points of reference were human rather than canine: fathers and sons in harm’s
way, mothers and daughters working in defense plants and in uniform as well.
For two decades after World War II, the standing force remained so large, and
the Depression-era birth cohorts were so small, that most Americans had a
direct military connection. Among older Baby Boomers, those born before 1955,
at least three-quarters have had an immediate family member — sibling, parent,
spouse, child — who served in uniform.
(*PROUDLY RAISING MY HAND*)
Of Americans born since 1980, the Millennials, about one
in three is closely related to anyone with military experience.
The most biting satirical novel to come from the
Iraq-Afghanistan era, Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk, by Ben Fountain, is a
take-down of our empty modern “thank you for your service” rituals. It is the
story of an Army squad that is badly shot up in Iraq; is brought back to be
honored at half-time during a nationally televised Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving
Day game; while there, is slapped on the back and toasted by owner’s-box moguls
and flirted with by cheerleaders, “passed around like everyone’s favorite
bong,” as platoon member Billy Lynn thinks of it; and is then shipped right
back to the front.
The people at the stadium feel good about what they’ve done
to show their support for the troops. From the troops’ point of view, the
spectacle looks different. “There’s something harsh in his fellow Americans,
avid, ecstatic, a burning that comes of the deepest need,” the narrator says of
Billy Lynn’s thoughts. “That’s his sense of it, they all need something from
him, this pack of half-rich lawyers, dentists, soccer moms, and corporate VPs,
they’re all gnashing for a piece of a barely grown grunt making $14,800 a
year.” Fountain’s novel won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction
in 2012, but it did not dent mainstream awareness enough to make anyone
self-conscious about continuing the “salute to the heroes” gestures that do
more for the civilian public’s self-esteem than for the troops’.
As I listened to Obama that day in the airport, and
remembered Ben Fountain’s book, and observed the hum of preoccupied America
around me, I thought that the parts of the presidential speech few Americans
were listening to were the ones historians might someday seize upon to explain
the temper of our times.
If I were writing such a history now, I would call it
Chickenhawk Nation, based on the derisive term for those eager to go to war, as
long as someone else is going. It would be the story of a country willing to do
anything for its military except take it seriously. As a result, what happens
to all institutions that escape serious external scrutiny and engagement has
happened to our military. Outsiders treat it both too reverently and too
cavalierly, as if regarding its members as heroes makes up for committing them
to unending, unwinnable missions and denying them anything like the political
mindshare we give to other major public undertakings, from medical care to
public education to environmental rules. The tone and level of public debate on
those issues is hardly encouraging. But for democracies, messy debates are less
damaging in the long run than letting important functions run on autopilot, as
our military essentially does now.
A Chickenhawk Nation is more likely to keep going to war,
and to keep losing, than one that wrestles with long-term questions of
* PARTICULARLY WITH THE "LEADERSHIP" AND
OUTSIDE FORCES "RUNNING" THAT LEADERSHIP THAT AMERICA HAS!
Americans admire the military as they do no other
institution. Through the past two decades, respect for the courts, the schools,
the press, Congress, organized religion, Big Business, and virtually every
other institution in modern life has plummeted. The one exception is the
military. Confidence in the military shot up after 9/11 and has stayed very
high. In a Gallup poll last summer, three-quarters of the public expressed “a
great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military. About one-third had
comparable confidence in the medical system, and only 7% in Congress.
Too much complacency regarding our military, and too weak
a tragic imagination about the consequences if the next engagement goes wrong,
have been part of Americans’ willingness to wade into conflict after conflict,
blithely assuming we would win.
* AND, AGAIN... WHILE, YES, WE WIN THE BATTLES... WE SEEM
TO REGULARLY END UP LOSING THE WARS!
“Did we have the sense that America cared how we were
doing? We did not,” Seth Moulton told me about his experience as a marine
during the Iraq War. Moulton became a Marine Corps officer after graduating
from Harvard in 2001, believing (as he told me) that when many classmates were
heading to Wall Street it was useful to set an example of public service. He
opposed the decision to invade Iraq but ended up serving four tours there out
of a sense of duty to his comrades. “America was very disconnected. We were
proud to serve, but we knew it was a little group of people doing the country’s
Moulton told me, as did many others with Iraq-era
military experience, that if more members of Congress or the business and media
elite had had children in uniform, the United States would probably not have
gone to war in Iraq at all.
Because he felt strongly enough about that failure of
elite accountability, Moulton decided while in Iraq to get involved in politics
after he left the military. “I actually remember the moment,” Moulton told me.
“It was after a difficult day in Najaf in 2004. A young marine in my platoon
said, ‘Sir, you should run for Congress someday. So this shit doesn’t happen
again.’” In January, Moulton takes office as a freshman Democratic
representative from Massachusetts’s Sixth District, north of Boston.
* YA KNOW WHAT? I'LL GLADLY TAKE THIS DEMOCRAT EXAMPLE! IT'S
CERTAINLY NOT THE NORM... BUT THAT'S EXACTLY WHY I'LL TAKE IT SERIOUSLY!
What Moulton described was desire for a kind of accountability.
It is striking how rare accountability has been for our modern wars. Hillary
Clinton paid a price for her vote to authorize the Iraq War...
* NO. NOT REALLY.
...since that is what gave the barely known Barack Obama
an opening to run against her in 2008.
* THIS WAS "PERSON SPECIFIC" 0R RATHER
"PERSONS (PLURAL) SPECIFIC." ONLY OBAMA COULD HAVE TAKEN OUT HRC... (NOT
GORE... NOT KERRY... NOT OTHER OPPONENTS OF THE IRAQ WAR.)
George W. Bush, who, like most ex-presidents, has grown
more popular the longer he’s been out of office, would perhaps be playing a
more visible role in public and political life if not for the overhang of Iraq.
* NOPE. WRONG AGAIN. IT'S HIS PERSONALITY AND
UNDERSTANDING OF "WHAT'S PROPER" AND WHAT ISN'T IN TERMS OF
Most other public figures, from Dick Cheney and Colin
Powell on down, have put Iraq behind them.
* NEITHER MAN IS A "POLITICAL FIGURE" IN THE
SENSE THEY'RE GOING TO RE-ENTER THE FRAY OF ELECTIVE OR APPOINTED "SERVICE."
* POWELL GETS A PASS ANYWAY DUE TO SKIN COLOR - WHILE
CHENEY WILL NEVER ESCAPE HIS "DARTH CHENEY" "WARTIME"
In part this is because of the Obama administration’s
decision from the start to “look forward, not back” about why things had gone
so badly wrong with America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But such willed
amnesia would have been harder if more Americans had felt affected by the wars’
outcome. For our generals, our politicians, and most of our citizenry, there is
almost no accountability or personal consequence for military failure. This is
a dangerous development — and one whose dangers multiply the longer it
* NOW HERE - ON THIS - THE AUTHOR IS ABSOLUTELY CORRECT!
Ours is the best-equipped fighting force in history, and
it is incomparably the most expensive. By all measures, today’s
professionalized military is also better trained, motivated, and disciplined
than during the draft-army years. No decent person who is exposed to today’s
troops can be anything but respectful of them and grateful for what they do.
Yet repeatedly this force has been defeated by less
modern, worse-equipped, barely funded foes.
* NO... NOT ON THE BATTLEFIELD... NOT DURING BATTLE...
BUT "BIG PICTURE." WE WIN THE "BATTLES" BUT LOSE THE WARS!
Although no one can agree on an exact figure, our dozen
years of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and neighboring countries have cost at least
$1.5 trillion; Linda J. Bilmes, of the Harvard Kennedy School, recently
estimated that the total cost could be three to four times that much. Recall
that while Congress was considering whether to authorize the Iraq War, the head
of the White House economic council, Lawrence B. Lindsey, was forced to resign
for telling The Wall Street Journal that the all-in costs might be as high as
$100 billion to $200 billion, or less than the U.S. has spent on Iraq and
Afghanistan in many individual years.
Yet from a strategic perspective, to say nothing of the
human cost, most of these dollars might as well have been burned.
“At this point, it is incontrovertibly evident that the
U.S. military failed to achieve any of its strategic goals in Iraq,” a former
military intelligence officer named Jim Gourley wrote recently for Thomas E.
Ricks’s blog, Best Defense. “Evaluated according to the goals set forth by our
military leadership, the war ended in utter defeat for our forces.”
In 13 years of continuous combat under the Authorization
for the Use of Military Force, the longest stretch of warfare in American
history, U.S. forces have achieved one clear strategic success: the raid that
killed Osama bin Laden. Their many other tactical victories, from overthrowing
Saddam Hussein to allying with Sunni tribal leaders to mounting a “surge” in
Iraq, demonstrated great bravery and skill. But they brought no lasting
stability to, nor advance of U.S. interests in, that part of the world.
* IN FACT... JUST THE OPPOSITE HAS BEEN THE RESULT!
When ISIS troops overran much of Iraq last year, the
forces that laid down their weapons and fled before them were members of the
same Iraqi national army that U.S. advisers had so expensively yet
ineffectively trained for more than five years.
* OBVIOUSLY THERE WAS A PROBLEM WITH THE TRAINING AS WELL
AS THE TRAINEES.
“Did we have the sense that America cared how we were
doing? We did not,” Seth Moulton told me about his experience as a marine
during the Iraq War.
* AND IT'S TRUE! THE VA FUCKS UP AND WE'RE ALL UP IN
ARMS... RIGHTLY SO! BUT THE ACTUAL MILITARY... IT DOESN'T SEEM TO MATTER
WHETHER THEY'RE EFFECTIVE OR NOT. (AND THAT'S INSANE!)
“We are vulnerable,” the author William Greider wrote
during the debate last summer on how to fight ISIS, “because our presumption of
unconquerable superiority leads us deeper and deeper into unwinnable military
conflicts.” And the separation of the military from the public disrupts the
process of learning from these defeats. The last war that ended up in
circumstances remotely resembling what prewar planning would have considered a
victory was the brief Gulf War of 1991.
* AND AS I SAID THEN... ALLOWING SADDAM TO RETAIN POWER
WAS ITSELF A DEFEAT! WE DEFEATED OURSELVES! PAPPY BUSH FUCKED IT ALL UP!
After the Vietnam War, the press and the public went too
far in blaming the military for what was a top-to-bottom failure of strategy
and execution. But the military itself recognized its own failings, and a whole
generation of reformers looked to understand and change the culture. In 1978, a
military-intelligence veteran named Richard A. Gabriel published, with Paul L.
Savage, Crisis in Command: Mismanagement in the Army, which traced many of the
failures in Vietnam to the military’s having adopted a bureaucratized
management style. Three years later, a broadside called Self-Destruction: The
Disintegration and Decay of the United States Army During the Vietnam Era, by a
military officer writing under the pen name Cincinnatus (later revealed to be a
lieutenant colonel serving in the reserves as a military chaplain, Cecil B.
Currey), linked problems in Vietnam to the ethical and intellectual
shortcomings of the career military. The book was hotly debated — but not dismissed.
(An article about the book for the Air Force’s Air University Review said that
“the author’s case is airtight” and that the military’s career structure
“corrupts those who serve it; it is the system that forces out the best and
rewards only the sycophants.”)
* AND, FOLKS... IF YOU DON'T THINK SEVEN YEARS OF OBAMA
HAS LEFT OUR MILITARY BRASS OVERWHELMINGLY POPULATED BY SYCOPHANTS...
CAREERISTS... UNIFORMED POLITICIANS... THEN YOU'RE A BUNCH OF FOOLS.
Today, you hear judgments like that frequently from
within the military and occasionally from politicians — but only in private.
* I'M CONSTANTLY BANGING THE DRUM... BUT I SEE WHERE THE
AUTHOR IS COMING FROM...
William S. Lind is a military historian who in the 1990s
helped develop the concept of “Fourth Generation War,” or struggles against the
insurgents, terrorists, or other “non-state” groups that refuse to form ranks
and fight like conventional armies. He wrote recently: "The most curious
thing about our four defeats in Fourth Generation War — Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq,
and Afghanistan — is the utter silence in the American officer corps. Defeat in
Vietnam bred a generation of military reformers … Today, the landscape is
barren. Not a military voice is heard calling for thoughtful, substantive
change. Just more money, please."
Grant saved the Union; McClellan seemed almost to
sabotage it — and he was only one of the Union generals Lincoln had to move out
of the way.
Something similar was true in wars through Vietnam. Some
leaders were good; others were bad.
During and after even successful American wars, and
certainly after the stand-off in Korea and the defeat in Vietnam, the
professional military’s leadership and judgment were considered fair game for
Now, for purposes of public discussion, they’re all
In our past decade’s wars, as Thomas Ricks wrote in this
magazine in 2012, “hundreds of Army generals were deployed to the field, and
the available evidence indicates that not one was relieved by the military
brass for combat ineffectiveness.”
* CERTAIN STATISTICAL PROOF OF THE PROBLEM IF EVER THERE
This, he said, was not only a radical break from American
tradition but also “an important factor in the failure” of our recent wars.
* WE KEEP ON PROMOTING PEOPLE TO THE PINACLE OF THEIR
INCOMPETENCE! (HELL... HOW MANY TENS OF MILLIONS OF AMERICANS WANT TO MAKE
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON OUR NEXT PRESIDENT?!)
Citizens notice when crime is going up, or school quality
is going down, or the water is unsafe to drink, or when other public functions
are not working as they should. Not enough citizens are made to notice when
things go wrong, or right, with the military. The country thinks too rarely,
and too highly, of the 1% under fire in our name.
"If citizens are willing to countenance a decision
that means that someone's child may die, they may contemplate more deeply if
there is the possibility that the child will be theirs."
* YEP. AND UNFORTUNATELY THAT'S JUST NOT THE CASE. NOT
NEARLY OFTEN ENOUGH. ESPECIALLY NOT WHEN MOST AMERICANS VIEW WAR AS A
America’s distance from the military makes the country
too willing to go to war, and too callous about the damage warfare inflicts.
This distance also means that we spend too much money on the military and we
spend it stupidly, thereby short-changing many of the functions that make the
most difference to the welfare of the troops and their success in combat.
We buy weapons that have less to do with battlefield
realities than with our unending faith that advanced technology will ensure
[Too often purchasing decisions depend upon not what's
best for the troops and for the nation, but they're predicated upon] the
economic interests and political influence of contractors. This leaves us with
expensive and delicate high-tech white elephants, while unglamorous but
essential tools, from infantry rifles to armored personnel carriers, too often
fail our troops.
We know that technology is our military’s main advantage.
Yet the story of the post-9/11 “long wars” is of America’s higher-tech
advantages yielding transitory victories that melt away before the older,
messier realities of improvised weapons, sectarian resentments, and mounting
hostility to occupiers from afar, however well-intentioned. Many of the
Pentagon’s most audacious high-tech ventures have been costly and spectacular
failures, including (as we will see) the major air-power project of recent
years, the F-35. In an America connected to its military, such questions of
strategy and implementation would be at least as familiar as, say, the problems
with the Common Core education standards.
The cost of defense, meanwhile, goes up and up and up,
with little political resistance and barely any public discussion.
By the fullest accounting, which is different from usual
budget figures, the United States will spend more than $1 trillion on national
security this year. That includes about $580 billion for the Pentagon’s
baseline budget plus “overseas contingency” funds, $20 billion in the
Department of Energy budget for nuclear weapons, nearly $200 billion for
military pensions and Department of Veterans Affairs costs, and other expenses.
But it doesn’t count more than $80 billion a year of interest on the
military-related share of the national debt. After adjustments for inflation,
the United States will spend about 50 percent more on the military this year
than its average through the Cold War and Vietnam War.
It will spend about as much as the next 10 nations
combined — three to five times as much as China, depending on how you count,
and seven to nine times as much as Russia.
The world as a whole spends about 2% of its total income
on its militaries; the United States, about 4%.
Yet such is the dysfunction and corruption of the
budgeting process that even as spending levels rise, the Pentagon faces
simultaneous crises in funding for maintenance, training, pensions, and veterans’
care. “We’re buying the wrong things, and paying too much for them,” Charles A.
Stevenson, a onetime staffer on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a
former professor at the National War College, told me. “We’re spending so much
on people that we don’t have the hardware, which is becoming more expensive
anyway. We are flatlining R&D.”
Here is just one newsworthy example that illustrates the
broad and depressingly intractable tendencies of weapons development and
spending: the failed hopes for a new airplane called the F-35 “Lightning.”
Today’s weapons can be decades in gestation, and the
history of the F-35 traces back long before most of today’s troops were born.
Two early-1970s-era planes, the F-16 “Fighting Falcon” jet and the A-10
“Thunderbolt II” attack plane, departed from the trend of military design in
much the same way the compact Japanese cars of that era departed from the
tail-fin American look. These planes were relatively cheap, pared to their
essentials, easy to maintain, and designed to do a specific thing very well.
For the F-16, that was to be fast, highly maneuverable, and deadly in
air-to-air combat. For the A-10, it was to serve as a kind of flying tank that
could provide what the military calls “close air support” to troops in combat
by blasting enemy formations. The A-10 needed to be heavily armored, so it
could absorb opposing fire; designed to fly as slowly as possible over the
battlefield, rather than as rapidly, so that it could stay in range to do
damage rather than roaring through; and built around one very powerful gun.
There are physical devices that seem the pure expression
of a function. The Eames chair, a classic No. 2 pencil, the original Ford
Mustang or VW Beetle, the MacBook Air — take your pick. The A-10, generally
known not as the Thunderbolt but as the Warthog, fills that role in the modern
military. It is rugged; it is inexpensive; it can shred enemy tanks and convoys
by firing up to 70 rounds a second of armor-piercing, 11-inch-long
[A] main effort of military leaders through the past
decade, under the Republican leadership of the Bush administration and the
Democratic leadership of Obama, has been to get rid of the A-10 so as to free
up money for a more expensive, less reliable, technically failing airplane that
has little going for it except insider dealing, and the fact that the general
public doesn’t care.
The weapon in whose name the A-10 is being phased out is
its opposite in almost every way. In automotive terms, it would be a
Lamborghini rather than a pickup truck (or a flying tank). In air-travel terms,
the first-class sleeper compartment on Singapore Airlines rather than
advance-purchase Economy Plus (or even business class) on United. These
comparisons seem ridiculous, but they are fair. That is, a Lamborghini is
demonstrably “better” than a pickup truck in certain ways — speed, handling,
comfort — but only in very special circumstances is it a better overall choice.
Same for the first-class sleeper, which would be anyone’s choice if someone
else were footing the bill but is simply not worth the trade-off for most
people most of the time.
Each new generation of weapons tends to be “better” in
much the way a Lamborghini is, and “worth it” in the same sense as a
first-class airline seat. The A-10 shows the pattern. According to figures from
the aircraft analyst Richard L. Aboulafia, of the Teal Group, the “unit
recurring flyaway” costs in 2014 dollars — the fairest apples-to-apples
comparison — stack up like this: Each Warthog now costs about $19 million, less
than any other manned combat aircraft.
(A Predator drone costs about two-thirds as much.)
Other fighter, bomber, and multipurpose planes cost much
more: about $72 million for the V-22 Osprey, about $144 million for the F-22
fighter, about $810 million for the B-2 bomber, and about $101 million - or
five A‑10s - for
(There’s a similar difference in operating costs.
The operating expenses are low for the A-10 and much higher for the
others largely because the A-10’s design is simpler, with fewer things that
could go wrong. The simplicity of design allows it to spend more of its time
flying instead of being in the shop.)
In clear contrast to the A-10, the F-35 is an ill-starred
undertaking that would have been on the front pages as often as other botched
federal projects, from the ObamaCare rollout to the FEMA response after
Hurricane Katrina, if, like those others, it either seemed to affect a broad
class of people or could easily be shown on TV — or if so many politicians
didn’t have a stake in protecting it.
One measure of the gap in coverage: Total taxpayer losses
in the failed Solyndra solar-energy program might come, at their most dire estimate,
to some $800 million. Total cost overruns, losses through fraud, and other
damage to the taxpayer from the F-35 project are perhaps 100 times that great;
yet the Solyndra scandal is known to probably 100 times as many people as the
travails of the F-35.
(Here’s another yardstick: the all-in costs of this
airplane are now estimated to be as much as $1.5 trillion, or a low-end
estimate of the entire Iraq War.)
The condensed version of this plane’s tragedy is that a
project meant to correct some of the Pentagon’s deepest problems in designing
and paying for weapons has in fact worsened and come to exemplify them. An
aircraft that was intended to be inexpensive, adaptable, and reliable has
become the most expensive in history, and among the hardest to keep out of the
shop. The federal official who made the project a symbol of a new, transparent,
rigorously data-dependent approach to awarding contracts ended up serving time
in federal prison for corruption involving projects with Boeing. (Boeing’s
chief financial officer also did time in prison.) For the record, the Pentagon
and the lead contractors stoutly defend the plane and say that its teething
problems will be over soon — and that anyway, it is the plane of the future,
and the A-10 is an aging relic of the past.
In theory, the F-35 would show common purpose among the
military services, since the Air Force, the Navy, and the Marine Corps would
all get their own custom-tailored versions of the plane. In fact, a plane
designed to do many contradictory things — to be strong enough to survive Navy
aircraft carrier landings, yet light and maneuverable enough to excel as an Air
Force dogfighter, and meanwhile able to take off and land straight up and down,
like a helicopter, to reach marines in tight combat circumstances — has
unsurprisingly done none of them as well as promised. In theory, the F-35 was
meant to knit U.S. allies together, since other countries would buy it as their
mainstay airplane and in turn would get part of the contracting business. In
fact, the delays, cost overruns, and mechanical problems of the airplane have
made it a contentious political issue in customer countries from Canada and
Holland to Italy and Australia.
The country where the airplane has least been a public
issue is the United States. In their 2012 debates, Mitt Romney criticized
Barack Obama for supporting “green energy” projects, including Solyndra.
Neither man mentioned the F-35, and I am still looking for evidence that
President Obama has talked about it in any of his speeches.
In other countries, the F-35 can be cast as another
annoying American intrusion. Here, it is protected by supplier contracts that
have been spread as broadly as possible. ... Cost overruns sound bad if someone
else is getting the extra money. They can be good if they are creating business
for your company or jobs in your congressional district. Political engineering
is the art of spreading a military project to as many congressional districts
as possible, and thus maximizing the number of members of Congress who feel
that if they cut off funding, they’d be hurting themselves.
A $10 million parts contract in one congressional
district builds one representative’s support. Two $5 million contracts in two
districts are twice as good, and better all around would be three contracts at
$3 million apiece.
Every participant in the military-contracting process
understands this logic: the prime contractors who parcel out supply deals
around the country, the military’s procurement officers who divide work among
contractors, the politicians who vote up or down on the results. In the late
1980s, a coalition of so-called cheap hawks in Congress tried to cut funding
for the B-2 bomber. They got nowhere after it became clear that work for the
project was being carried out in 46 states and no fewer than 383 congressional
districts (of 435 total). The difference between then and now is that in 1989,
Northrop, the main contractor for the plane, had to release previously
classified data to demonstrate how broadly the dollars were being spread.
The next big project the Air Force is considering is the
Long Range Strike Bomber, a successor to the B-1 and B-2... By the time the
plane’s full costs and capabilities become apparent, Chuck Spinney wrote last
summer, the airplane, “like the F-35 today, will be unstoppable.” That is
because even now its supporters are building the plane’s “social safety net by
spreading the subcontracts around the country, or perhaps like the F-35, around
Politicians say that national security is their first and
most sacred duty, but they do not act as if this is so. The most recent defense
budget passed the House Armed Services Committee by a vote of 61 to zero, with
similarly one-sided debate before the vote. This is the same House of
Representatives that cannot pass a long-term Highway Trust Fund bill that both
“The lionization of military officials by politicians is
remarkable and dangerous,” a retired Air Force colonel named Tom Ruby, who now
writes on organizational culture, told me. He and others said that this
deference was one reason so little serious oversight of the military took
* WHICH IS WHAT YOU NATURALLY GET WHEN SO FEW IN
CONGRESS OR THE EXECUTIVE BRANCH HAVE PERSONALLY SERVED IN UNIFORM.
T. X. Hammes, a retired Marine Corps colonel who has a
doctorate in modern history from Oxford, told me that instead of applying
critical judgment to military programs, or even regarding national defense as
any kind of sacred duty, politicians have come to view it simply as a teat.
“Many on Capitol Hill see the Pentagon with admirable simplicity,” he said: “It
is a way of directing tax money to selected districts. It’s part of what they
were elected to do.”
In the spring of 2011, Barack Obama asked Gary Hart, the
Democratic Party’s most experienced and best connected figure on defense
reform, to form a small bipartisan task force that would draft recommendations
on how Obama might try to recast the Pentagon and its practices if he won a
second term. Hart did so (I was part of the group, along with Andrew J.
Bacevich of Boston University, John Arquilla of the Naval Postgraduate School,
and Norman R. Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin) and sent a report
to Obama that fall. He never heard back.
* HE... NEVER... HEARD... BACK.
Every White House is swamped with recommendations and
requests, and it responds only to those it considers most urgent — which
defense reform obviously was not.
Soon thereafter, during the 2012 presidential race,
neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney said much about how they would spend the
billion and a half dollars a day that go to military programs, except for when
Romney said that if elected, he would spend a total of $1 trillion more.
In their only direct exchange about military policy,
during their final campaign debate, Obama said that Romney’s plans would give
the services more money than they were asking for. Romney pointed out that the
Navy had fewer ships than it did before World War I. Obama shot back, “Well,
Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our
military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes
land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.” It
was Obama’s most sarcastic and aggressive moment of any of the debates, and was
also the entirety of the discussion about where those trillions would go.
Jim Webb is a decorated Vietnam veteran, an author, a
former Democratic senator, and a likely presidential candidate. Seven years ago
in his book "A Time to Fight," he wrote that the career military was
turning into a “don’t break my rice bowl” culture, referring to an Asian phrase
roughly comparable to making sure everyone gets a piece of the pie. Webb meant
that ambitious officers notice how many of their mentors and predecessors move
after retirement into board positions, consultancies, or operational roles with
defense contractors. (Pensions now exceed pre-retirement pay for some very
senior officers; for instance, a four-star general or admiral with 40 years of
service can receive a pension of more than $237,000 a year, even if his maximum
salary on active duty was $180,000.)
* SOUNDS... INSANE.
Webb says it would defy human nature if knowledge of the
post-service prospects did not affect the way some high-ranking officers behave
while in uniform, including “protecting the rice bowl” of military budgets and
cultivating connections with their predecessors and their post-retirement
businesses. “There have always been some officers who went on to contracting
jobs,” Webb, who grew up in an Air Force family, told me recently. “What’s new
is the scale of the phenomenon, and its impact on the highest ranks of the
* YEP. THE SCALE...
“It is no secret that in subtle ways, many of these top
leaders begin positioning themselves for their second-career employment during
their final military assignments,” Webb wrote in A Time to Fight. The result,
he said, is a “seamless interplay” of corporate and military interests “that
threatens the integrity of defense procurement, of controversial personnel
issues such as the huge ‘quasi-military’ structure [of contractors, like
Blackwater and Halliburton] that has evolved in Iraq and Afghanistan, and
inevitably of the balance within our national security process itself.”
I heard assessments like this from many of the men and
women I spoke with. ... A man who worked for decades overseeing Pentagon
contracts told me this past summer, “The system is based on lies and
self-interest, purely toward the end of keeping money moving.” What kept the
system running, he said, was that “the services get their budgets, the
contractors get their deals, the congressmen get jobs in their districts, and
no one who’s not part of the deal bothers to find out what is going on.”
Of course it was the most revered American warrior of the
20th century, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who warned most urgently that business and
politics would corrupt the military, and vice versa. Everyone has heard of this
speech. Not enough people have actually read it and been exposed to what would
now be considered its "dangerously anti-military views."
Which mainstream politician could say today, as
Eisenhower said in 1961, that the military-industrial complex has a “total
influence — economic, political, even spiritual — felt in every city, every
State house, every office of the Federal government”?
Seth Moulton, a few days after his victory in last fall’s
congressional race, said that the overall quality and morale of people in the
military has dramatically improved since the days of a conscript force. “But
it’s become populated, especially at the highest ranks, by careerists, people
who have gotten where they are by checking all the boxes and not taking risks,”
he told me. “Some of the finest officers I knew were lieutenants who knew they
were getting out, so weren’t afraid to make the right decision. I know an awful
lot of senior officers who are very afraid to make a tough choice because
they’re worried how it will look on their fitness report.” This may sound like
a complaint about life in any big organization, but it’s something more. There’s
no rival Army or Marine Corps you can switch to for a new start. There’s almost
no surmounting an error or a black mark on the fitness or evaluation reports
that are the basis for promotions.
* FOLKS... ALL VERY TRUE!
Every institution has problems, and at every stage of
U.S. history, some critics have considered the U.S. military over-funded, under-prepared,
too insular and self-regarding, or flawed in some other way. The difference
now, I contend, is that these modern distortions all flow in one way or another
from the "Chickenhawk" basis of today’s defense strategy. At enormous
cost, both financial and human, the nation supports the world’s most powerful
armed force. But because so small a sliver of the population has a direct stake
in the consequences of military action, the normal democratic feedbacks do not
I have met serious people who claim that the military’s
set-apart existence is best for its own interests, and for the nation’s. “Since
the time of the Romans there have been people, mostly men but increasingly
women, who have volunteered to be the Praetorian Guard,” John A. Nagl told me.
Nagl is a West Point graduate and Rhodes Scholar who was a combat commander in
Iraq and has written two influential books about the modern military. He left
the Army as a lieutenant colonel and now, in his late 40s, is the head of the
Haverford prep school, near Philadelphia.
“They know what they are signing up for,” Nagl said of
today’s troops. “They are proud to do it, and in exchange they expect a
reasonable living, and pensions and health care if they are hurt or fall sick.
The American public is completely willing to let this professional class of
volunteers serve where they should, for wise purpose. This gives the president
much greater freedom of action to make decisions in the national interest, with
troops who will salute sharply and do what needs to be done.”
* BUT THE PRESIDENT WAS NEVER MEANT TO BE A WARLORD!
PRESIDENTS HAVE TAKEN THIS POWER OVER TIME... CONGRESSES HAVE GIVEN IT OVER
TIME... BUT THIS WAS NOT THE FOUNDERS' INTENT!
* AMERICA WAS CREATED AS A REPUBLIC; THE POLITICIANS HAVE
UNWITTINGLY AND IRRESPONSIBLY MADE US AN EMPIRE - AND ANY PRESIDENT WHO CHOOSES
TO PLAY CAESAR... HAS A LEG UP IF AND WHEN HE CHOOSES TO MISUSE HIS OFFICE.
* HERE'S THE PAY-OFF, MY FRIENDS:
“A people untouched (or seemingly untouched) by war are
far less likely to care about it,” Andrew Bacevich wrote in 2012. Bacevich
himself fought in Vietnam; his son was killed in Iraq. “Persuaded that they
have no skin in the game, they will permit the state to do whatever it wishes
Mike Mullen thinks that one way to reengage Americans
with the military is to shrink the active-duty force, a process already under
way. “The next time we go to war,” he said, “the American people should have to
say yes. And that would mean that half a million people who weren’t planning to
do this would have to be involved in some way. They would have to be
inconvenienced. That would bring America in. America hasn’t been in these
previous wars. And we are paying dearly for that.”
With their distance from the military, politicians don’t
talk seriously about whether the United States is directly threatened by chaos
in the Middle East and elsewhere, or is in fact safer than ever (as Christopher
Preble and John Mueller, of the Cato Institute, have argued in a new book, "A
Dangerous World?"). The vast majority of Americans outside the military
can be triply cynical in their attitude toward it.
One: “honoring” the troops but not thinking about them.
Two: “caring” about defense spending but really viewing
it as a bipartisan stimulus program.
Three: supporting a “strong” defense but assuming that
the United States is so much stronger than any rival that it’s pointless to
worry whether strategy, weaponry, and leadership are right.
The cultural problems arising from an arm’s-length
military could be even worse. Charles J. Dunlap Jr., a retired Air Force major
general who now teaches at Duke law school, has thought about civic-military
relations through much of his professional life. When he was studying at the
National Defense University as a young Air Force officer in the early 1990s,
just after the first Gulf War, he was a co-winner of the prize for best student
essay with an imagined future work called “The Origins of the American Military
Coup of 2012.”
His essay’s premise was cautionary, and was based on the
tension between rising adulation for the military and declining trust in most
other aspects of government. The more exasperated Americans grew about economic
and social problems, the more relieved they were when competent men in uniform,
led by General Thomas E. T. Brutus, finally stepped in to take control. Part of
the reason for the takeover, Dunlap explained, was that the military had grown
so separate from mainstream culture and currents that it viewed the rest of
society as a foreign territory to occupy and administer.
Recently I asked Dunlap how the real world of post-2012
America matched his imagined version.
“I think we’re on the cusp of seeing a resurgence of a
phenomenon that has always been embedded in the American psyche,” he said.
“That is benign anti-militarism,” which would be the other side of the
reflexive pro-militarism of recent years. “People don’t appreciate how
unprecedented our situation is,” he told me.
What is that situation?
For the first time in the nation’s history, America has a
permanent military establishment large enough to shape our dealings in the
world and seriously influence our economy. Yet the Americans in that military,
during what Dunlap calls the “maturing years of the volunteer force,” are few
enough in number not to seem representative of the country they defend.
“It’s becoming increasingly tribal,” Dunlap says of the "at
war" force in our Chickenhawk nation, “in the sense that more and more
people in the military are coming from smaller and smaller groups. It’s become
a family tradition, in a way that’s at odds with how we want to think a
democracy spreads the burden.”
“I think there is a strong sense in the military that it
is indeed a better society than the one it serves,” Dunlap said. “And there is
some rationality for that.” Anyone who has spent time with troops and their
families knows what he means. Physical fitness, standards of promptness and
dress, all the aspects of self-discipline that have traditionally made the
military a place where misdirected youth could “straighten out,” plus the
spirit of love and loyalty for comrades that is found in civilian life mainly
on sports teams. The best resolution of this tension between military and
mainstream values would of course come as those who understand the military’s
tribal identity apply their strengths outside the tribe. “The generation coming
up, we’ve got lieutenants and majors who had been the warrior kings in their
little outposts,” Dunlap said of the young veterans of the recent long wars.
“They were literally making life-or-death decisions. You can’t take that
generation and say, ‘You can be seen and not heard.’ ”
In addition to Seth Moulton, this year’s
Congress will have more than 20 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, including new
Republican Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Joni Ernst of Iowa. The 17 who
are already there, including Democratic Representatives Tulsi Gabbard and Tammy
Duckworth and Republican Representatives Duncan D. Hunter and Adam Kinzinger,
have played an active role in veterans’ policies and in the 2013 debates about
intervening in Syria. Gabbard was strongly against it; some of the Republican
veterans were for it — but all of them made arguments based on firsthand
observation of what had worked and failed. Moulton told me that the main lesson
he’ll apply from his four tours in Iraq is the importance of service, of whatever