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Defensive Drift
The president and his policymakers do not understand war.

President Barack Obama

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Bing West

Policymakers are metaphysical warriors; they have committed to kill at no personal risk. They must especially believe in the righteousness of their cause, because they face but one test. They must look a corporal in the eye and give him a reason to fight: “I expect you to kill and risk being killed because . . . ” If a policymaker cannot fill in the “because,” then he has failed in his duty.

Policymakers must share the implacable warrior spirit they expect our troops to embrace. Enforcing America’s pledge of “no sanctuary” doesn’t require a playbook of legalisms; it requires a commitment to kill our enemies.

But our military leaders haven’t done much for their own cause. On January 24, the military opened up ground-combat billets to females. “If they can meet the qualifications for the job,” Secretary of Defense Panetta said, “then they should have the right to serve.”

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That individual right comes at a collective cost. If you’re a grunt, you go forth to kill. That is your mission. You are an animal on the hunt. Once you insert women into male hunting packs, you introduce the complex dynamics between the sexes. In close, primitive quarters with no privacy, there will be instances of friction, copulation, over-protectiveness, jealousies, miscommunications, and resentments. There is a tradeoff between increasing the career opportunities of the individual female soldier and decreasing the net performance of the pack.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said, “if we do decide that a particular standard is so high that a woman couldn’t make it, the burden is now on the service to come back and explain to the secretary, why is it that high?” The general was practically guaranteeing that politically appointed civilian officials will lower entry standards. It is baffling how standards can be too high when warriors are risking their lives.

If the Joint Chiefs are serious about a substantial influx of females — to, say, 5 to 10 percent of units — into ground combat, they are risking the cohesion of the male hunting packs and greatly increasing their chances of defeat in battle.

That will make it only harder for them to persuade civilian policymakers that war is not a video game. At the same time, the military’s experience of what happens to warriors like Mattis and to ambassadors like Stevens will cause them to be overcautious in their advice. With a shrinking budget and no affinity with the instincts of the civilian appointees, the military bureaucracy will become passive.

After 9/11, the mood of the military was to fight. Twelve years later, that mood has changed.

General Colin Powell came up with the “Pottery Barn rule” — if you employ force in a country, you’re obligated to restore it at whatever cost. Wary of the policymakers and weary of campaigns they themselves initiated, the military will now invoke the Pottery Rule to avert commitment when the next serious crisis hits us. In response, the Obama administration, focused here at home, will click the Special Operations computer mouse to look tough without taking any risk.

Perhaps that will allow us to successfully drift along. Perhaps not.

— Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense and combat Marine, has written seven books about combat, including Into the Fire: a Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle of the Afghanistan War.



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