Over at The Atlantic, James Fallows has written a long, thoughtful cover story called “The Tragedy of the American Military,” taking our nation, our political leaders, and our military to task for creating a bloated, ultimately ineffective fighting force that our country is too eager to deploy. Here’s his core contention:
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 effectiveness.
Essentially — he argues — our nation’s overwhelming respect for the military allows it (and the politicians who support it) to escape effective scrutiny. Given free rein, it plans poorly, purchases poorly, and — ultimately — loses its wars. Some of the points Fallows makes are unassailable. Who’s willing to defend the military’s overall efficiency in procurement and weapons development? And his section on the so-far disappointing and absurdly expensive F-35 makes for depressing reading. He also highlights a number of entirely proper cultural and political concerns that arise when such a small percentage of the population do all our fighting, with the resulting reality that the vast majority of Americans are entirely unaffected by our most recent wars. Ultimately, however, I take issue with a number of his conclusions. His piece is too long to be handled properly in one blog post, so I’ll respond in a short series.
Let me begin with this: His starting assumption — that the military “escape[s] serious external scrutiny” is just flat wrong. It faces intense external scrutiny, not just politically, but in pop culture. The problem isn’t that the military escapes accountability, it’s with the kind of scrutiny it faces, scrutiny that tends not to strengthen it but instead to weaken its effectiveness in a number of important ways.
Fallows spends a considerable amount of time dealing with the pop-culture treatment of the military, but he is highly selective, ignoring the ways that many moviemakers and members of the media have obsessively focused on the military’s failings. One can easily find movies like Redacted, In the Valley of Elah, Stop-Loss, Mark of Cain, and Green Zone. Meanwhile, critical documentaries abound, including The Invisible War, No End in Sight, Fahrenheit 9/11, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, The Kill Team, and many others — the vast majority deeply critical of the military, of the war, and of the conduct of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The New York Times devoted more column inches to the Abu Ghraib scandal than virtually any other event in the entire Iraq War.
I could go on and on, but suffice to say that our military has faced severe, sustained, and critical scrutiny throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet this critique has been considered and rejected by the American public. The portrayals of corrupt military officials, brutal American soldiers, and violently damaged veterans simply don’t square with the reality of the flesh-and-blood military that soldiers experience, that family members of soldiers experience, and the wider public sees. There’s a tendency of many liberal critics to see the only “authentic” veterans’ voice as deeply disillusioned for the reasons liberals believe they’d be disillusioned. Fallows brings up a “biting satirical novel” by a vet as somehow representative while ignoring the avalanche of war memoirs that honestly and authentically portray very different perceptions and experiences.
The men I served with don’t match the profiles of any of the veterans in the anti-war movies mentioned above, and even after years of work in military justice (where I saw the most troubled soldiers) I’m still hard-pressed to find anyone who matches the Hollywood profile. My unit in Iraq, the Second Squadron, Third Armored Cavalry Regiment, fought an entire year during the Surge without a single atrocity. Instead, my brothers went the extra mile — sometimes giving the last full measure of devotion — to safeguard the innocent. Oh, and they’re not broken, haunted men now. They’re good husbands, fathers, and workers — typically pillars of their community.
But while the American people have discarded the Hollywood/media critique and continue to hold the profession of arms in the highest respect, the military has responded to the critique, often in the worst way. Social engineering undermines military morale, unbelievably absurd rules of engagement needlessly cost lives, and “Three Cups of Tea” political correctness leads us to fundamentally misunderstand the cultures and nations we engage. In other words, the military is responding to misguided, wrongheaded criticism that is all-too-often not only ignorant of military culture but also misunderstands our enemy. This critique, internalized, contributed to years of frustrating quagmire in Iraq — until we brought crushing force to bear in the Surge and rejected the “light footprint” strategy that relied on local institutions to essentially build themselves.
I’m not arguing that the military is problem-free. Far from it. Pull aside any soldier in a candid moment, and he or she can recite chapter and verse of issues regarding not just strategy and tactics, but also personnel policies and fiscal responsibility. The military is a large, human institution subject to deeply flawed and ignorant oversight. Failures are inevitable, and sometimes the failures have profound, life-and-death consequences. But the problem isn’t lack of accountability, it’s wrong-headed accountability — often coming from people who don’t see the military as primarily a war-fighting machine but instead an instrument of social policy and political experimentation.
Yes, our nation takes the military seriously. Yes, it engages in “messy debates” over its nature and character. But the debate is deeply flawed, with the military’s critics largely attacking the wrong things — advancing policies that demoralize it and make it a less effective fighting force. Indeed, one sometimes gets the feeling that the military’s leading liberal critics aren’t primarily focused on the military’s effectiveness as a fighting force but rather the circumstances of its use and the progressiveness of daily life in uniform.
As I’ll detail later, some of Fallows’s critiques are spot-on. But it’s just wrong to say the military escapes serious scrutiny. The scrutiny is there, but it’s often ideological, typically ignorant, and consequently largely destructive.