The Crisis of Our Military

What ruins it for me in Bob Scales’ eloquent op-ed – “Too many wars, too few U.S. soldiers” — in The Washington Post about the Afghanistan shooting and the state of our Army (and armed forces) is that retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales also makes an unsatisfying argument on behalf of his institution and a military solution.

“A succession of national leaders,” Scales says, “fail to recognize that combat units, particularly infantry, just wear out.”  Then it’s the media to blame for “trying to make some association between the terrible crime of this sergeant and the Army’s inability to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.”

Then, the conclusion: “the real institutional culprit is the decade-long exploitation and cynical overuse of one of our most precious and irreplaceable national assets: our close combat soldiers and Marines.”

I agree whole-heartedly with Scales, who I count as friend and colleague, that the young soldiers shoulder an “enormously disproportionate share of emotional stress.”  And I believe something is very wrong.

Retired Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap also has something to say about the Afghan shootings.  I received this press release from Duke University, where the former deputy judge advocate general hangs his hat these days, offering up Dunlap for interviews:

The “news tip” extensively quotes Dunlap making an argument for a “major revamping of Afghan policy” and promoting his hobby-horse of what he calls the scourge of “lawfare.”  Dunlap concludes:

“… given that it is virtually impossible to root out every potential rogue from the millions who serve in uniform, military planners may want to rethink the manpower-intensive strategies that have come to dominate American military policy, and especially counterinsurgency doctrine in which winning hearts and minds is said to be essential.”

I imagine that retired Air Force major general Dunlap, whom I always enjoy, isn’t suggesting a rethink in the same way Scales is.  To the airmen, manpower-intensive means boots on the ground, in other words, an argument for more airpower.

So:  More Army?  More Air Force?  A new, new counterinsurgency doctrine to fight forever wars?  Those are our choices?

I come away hungry for a non-institutional, non-Washington oriented societal argument.  Dunlap calls for “military planners” to rethink, which in the inferiority complex of the air force institution is code for the dominant ground service officers, the Army; Scales seems to only be able to name “national leaders” and “the media” for what he calls “exploitation and cynical overuse.”

One area where Dunlap is inadvertently wrong and Scales is right though is that there are not “millions who serve in uniform.”  Well, not in the way Dunlap means that there are millions.

There are technically just over two million in the active duty and reserves; but the military is nowhere like it was during the draft days of Vietnam or the true mobilization of millions in World War II or the Korean War.  And within that two million who serve are a far smaller number of deployable military personnel.  And within that few hundred thousand who deploy into Afghanistan (or did into Iraq) are a far smaller number who leave the (relative) safety fortresses to fight.  I know out there somewhere are some facts to back me up – that only a scandalously small percentage of all people in uniform have even ever deployed once to those actual countries; in other words, most do in fact shoulder the majority of the burden.

No one has cynically created this circumstance, but the military institution is well aware of this now ten-year old reality.  Firepower has become so concentrated and networks have become so large and ubiquitous that only tiny numbers of soldiers are ‘needed’ on the front lines compared to Scales’ days.  But as Scales and Dunlap both know, firepower isn’t what is going to win these wars, any more than a larger military or an air force/special operations dominated head-hunting campaign would.

We all share the blame for this ethical quagmire.  We cede war-making to an increasingly isolated professional caste, we cede to them the design and makeup of  the military, we facilitate and tolerate what Scales calls “exploitation” of a few as long as the dangers are kept away from us, and we don’t pay attention until our well-oiled and distant machine has a breakdown or an industrial accident.  And once the breakdown occurs – the rogue soldier, the errant bomb, the Abu Ghraib – we expect the floor managers and professionals to fix the machine.  To paraphrase someone: We are the machine.


6 responses to “The Crisis of Our Military

  1. This discussion brings up yet again a concern I have had for some time. That is that we may be building a military force predestined by its very structure for manpower intensive warfare like we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. If you neglect the ability (technology and technique) to project power over great distances truly rapidly you may be putting national leaders in a position where ground force deployment is the only option. Yes, that does imply greater attention to aerospace power…and I can already hear the lamentations and gnashing of teeth among the ground force advocates. Three points:

    ~ Most of our current adversaries, if they must fight the US, want to do it on their terms–bring our troops in close so they can cause as many casualties as possible, that being the centerpiece of their strategy. Do we have to oblige them, and do we have to rebuild (or build from scratch as in Afghanistan) the opposition’s home country every freaking time, keeping our troops in hams way even longer? Colin Powell was right: you break it, you own it.

    ~ Have we forgotten the tremendous success we had early in the Afghanistan campaign with the combination of special forces and air power? Have we forgotten what we did to paramilitary and irregular forces in Serbia with air power? I believe this is a viable option for many of the “twilight wars” against illusive irregular foes we seem destined to fight. Of course, it won’t always be the answer, but we MUST have the option.

    ~ Did we learn anything from starting another ground force war in Iraq at the same time we were engaged in Afghanistan? Our soldiers and Marines have been paying for that one for nine years now. We had Saddam bottled up in his own country with our air forces providing the cork. In my opinion, we blew it.

    Does this imply another pitched battle between the ground and air force bureaucracies for dominance in the race for funds? Maybe. Remember, the prime directive for any bureaucracy is self preservation and advancement. But this time, perhaps the adults in our political leadership should decide how we want to apply our forces, the young people we put in harm’s way, before the fight begins. That would be really refreshing. For God’s sake let’s have some viable options beyond boots on the ground!

  2. Pingback: 40 Percent of U.S. Military Personnel Have Never Deployed to a Combat Zone | William M. Arkin Online

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