The Start of a Long Year
A few weeks back home were a blessing and also a time to partake in my favorite thing to do which is doing nothing. I’m an expert. While I was away a few articles caught my attention and they serve as a useful point of departure to evaluate where we are at the start of 2011 which will be the bloodiest year to date.
The american military is under significant strain after almost a decade of fighting. This is common knowledge which has been reported on for years yet it remains difficult for those of us outside the military to gauge the true cost fighting the Long War. A few weeks back Richard Cohn at the Washington Post penned an opinion piece reflecting the typical liberal view on our military which can be found here. He opened his piece with this sentence:
“I present you with a paradox. The U.S. Army that fought the Vietnam War was reviled, not spit upon (that’s a myth) but not much admired, either. In contrast, the Army of Iraq and Afghanistan is embraced and praised.”
I hate it when liberal commentators dismiss inconvenient truths with “that’s a myth”. From Rick Atkinson’s book The Long Grey Line we take up the story of Army Captain Tom Carhart West Point class of 66 (pages 324 & 325):
“Still in uniform, he was strolling through the O’Hare terminal in search of a telephone when group of hippie girls darted up and spat on him. The shock and pain could have not been more intense if they had slashed him with knives. Reeling with surprise and uncertain what to do, he did nothing.”
There are more first hand accounts of being spit upon on the web along with plenty of research claiming the spitting stories were an urban myth. The comment thread on this snopes page is typical. I place more stock in the story above but maybe I’m touchy about the subject. The Cohen comment irritates me to no end.
Cohen went on to point out that the military of today is removed from society at large, is composed mostly of southern white guys and is so effective that it can be deployed to fight indefinitely because the vast majority of the American public is unaffected by perpetual war. Few of our elected leaders have served or understand the military which is so impressive that it is “awfully hard for mere civilians – including the commander in chief – to question it.” I have seen this same theme being repeated in the liberal press for 20 years. The military does what it is told to do and bends over backwards to fall in line with the current thinking of the National Command Authority. Examples of senior military leaders rushing to embrace the latest PC fad which is being forced down their throats are too numerous and depressing to site. Our military is in great disarray; Mr. Cohen’s concerns are ridiculous.
This month’s Atlantic Magazine has a relevant, well written piece by former Air Force intel officer Tim Kane titled Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving. The bleeding of talent seems to be a problem that crops up on a regular basis within the military. I remember listening to a talk by Sen Jim Webb at the Naval Academy in 1996 where he pointed out that 53% of the post-command aviation squadron commanders had retired after their tours. His speech, which almost caused a fist fight between then Secretary Webb and one of President Clinton’s National Security staffers, can be found here and is interesting reading when contrasted with the article from Atlantic.
Despite the bleeding of top talent being a perennial topic amongst the officer corps I think Tim Kane is onto something:
“Why is the military so bad at retaining these people? It’s convenient to believe that top officers simply have more- lucrative opportunities in the private sector, and that their departures are inevitable. But the reason overwhelmingly cited by veterans and active-duty officers alike is that the military personnel systemâ€”every aspect of itâ€”is nearly blind to merit. Performance evaluations emphasize a zero-defect mentality, meaning that risk-avoidance trickles down the chain of command. Promotions can be anticipated almost to the dayâ€” regardless of an officer’s competenceâ€”so that there is essentially no difference in rank among officers the same age, even after 15 years of service. Job assignments are managed by a faceless, centralized bureaucracy that keeps everyone guessing where they might be shipped next.”
That was not my experience in the Marines but I’ve been retired for 10 years so my experience is irrelevant. Our military is being asked to accomplish a very difficult mission while simultaneously being forced to absorb a radical change in its culture. If Tim Kane is on target then I suspect our military is heading for some very hard times and that is not good for our country or the rest of the world. National Reviews’ John Derbyshire spoke with great insight about the change being forced on our military in his podcast a couple of weeks back – we join Mr. Derbyshire in mid rant:
“the downward side of our military from a formidable fighting force with an ethos of service, sacrifice, comradeship and manliness to a social welfare organization with an ethos of multicultural cringing and pandering. Or to put it another way, from an instrument for winning wars to an instrument for celebrating the moral vanity of our ruling class.
Our military today Consists of a few lethal units of dedicated fighters, in the finest military tradition, embedded like steal splinters in a bun in a great soft doughy mass of flabby time servers, single moms, diversity enforcers, touchy yet untouchable Muslims, Oprhafied weepers and rejects from other kinds of government work.”
That would be funny were it not so true. I have addressed risk aversion many times in past posts. Risk averse commanders leading units in combat has got to be the ultimate morale killer which would be reflected in dismal retention statistics. That this is a major concern after almost a decade of intense combat operations in two different countries is disturbing. By now one would think that the value of innovation and risk taking in the spirit of the British SAS motto “Who Dares Wins” would be recognized, valued and rewarded. But it’s not and that may be because there is no “win” to win.
We can drive the Taliban out of areas they once dominated with the sustained commitment of infantry and keep them out. We can train Afghan security forces and despite the mixed results we have fielded some good units. I saw a dismounted ANA patrol the other day who looked to be as switched on and professional as any I have ever seen. ISAF forces in the south have clearly gone on the offensive and are off the FOB’s protecting the population but they cannot generate the social capitol required to “win”. We’re not fighting a top down ideology which is incompatible with western interests. You could kill off the Nazi’s in Germany or the Communist in Cambodia without having to then fight the people too. We’re fighting a bottom up ideology fueled by religion. We can never get enough social capitol to “win” because we’re not Muslims. We can’t separate the Taliban from the people nor can me reduce the attractiveness of jihad against infidel foreigners.
This is where having the military Richard Cohen thinks we have would come in handy. Professional Legions accustomed to incessant campaigning are probably better suited for hard fighting in limited wars on foreign shores. They may better understand that they fight for each other when they are sent into battle while having little concern about where they are fighting or why. High intensity limited warfare is no place for a risk averse commander who is concerned with not making mistakes or avoiding battle. This is going to be a long year of heavy fighting and it is important that we inflict serious losses on the Taliban fighters who take us on because that is the only way we can drive the level of violence down.
I have little confidence in reaching an acceptable end-state but having seen first hand the progress in Marjah and Nawa it seems possible to pacify the areas we are currently clearing thus avoiding three years of heavy combat. That’s the best we will be able to do but it can only be done by those tough splinters John Derbyshire describes. Instead of valuing and supporting those splinters our military and congress is going to ruin them if they don’t stop with the social engineering to focus on the tasks at hand. But we all know that’s not going to happen so I guess we are now living in interesting times.