The Corner

Responding to The Atlantic: Yes, the Military Has Problems, But Is It Really Losing Wars?

Last week, I wrote two pieces responding to James Fallows’s Atlantic cover story called “The Tragedy of the American Military.” His basic contention is that the American military largely escapes real scrutiny, is the bloated, ineffective instrument of a “chickenhawk nation,” and thus finds itself losing wars, again and again. Here’s Fallows on the performance of our armed forces:

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. Or it has won skirmishes and battles only to lose or get bogged down in a larger war.

Is this statement true? In my previous pieces, I argued against his contentions that the military wasn’t subject to scrutiny or that the United States is a “chickenhawk nation,” but those critiques notwithstanding, is he asserting an important core truth that our military can’t win its wars? I would agree that the United States has failed to achieve its ultimate strategic objectives in Iraq and Afghanistan, but less clear is whether that failure is political or military. The military has proven again and again that it can defeat its foes on the battlefield — winning engagement after engagement, toppling hostile regimes, and even (in the case of the surge) reducing terrorist insurgencies to nuisance levels of violence. Here’s what it has shown it cannot do: Replace tyrants with effective governments, build economies, or change cultures. Long-term governance, economic transformation, and cultural change are not mere products of military occupation but rather depend greatly on political will, underlying cultural factors, and baseline economic strength. Germany and Japan were sophisticated societies before World War II. The allied, prosperous nations we see today did not spring into being merely from the exertions of the U.S. Army. 

To the extent that the political leadership makes political, economic, and cultural transformation military objectives, it fails the men and women in uniform. To the extent the brass agrees that these objectives are attainable through military means (as opposed to providing their contrary counsel, then saluting and doing their best), they fail the men and women they lead.

If contemporary political strategic thinking prevailed in the 19th century, The Atlantic would be running cover stories about how the Union lost the Civil War. After all, if the traditional military objective (defeat of the Confederate army followed by forcible national reunification) is expanded to include a follow-on goal of “replacing the law and culture of slavery with a law and culture of legal equality and modernizing the Southern economy to grant greater economic opportunity for former slaves and poor whites,” then the war was an abject failure, with almost a full century passing before legal equality in the South and a truly modernized economy.

Since Vietnam (perhaps even since Korea), the Left has done a very good job of delegitimizing military efforts (or even diplomatic efforts) that don’t end in a state of quasi-utopia. It wasn’t enough to oppose the Soviet Union. We also had to make sure that our allies were sufficiently virtuous. It wasn’t enough to resist North Vietnamese aggression. South Vietnam had to be a model democracy. It’s not enough to depose Saddam Hussein. His replacement had to usher in the Middle East’s first (non-Israeli) enlightened democracy. While — ideally — we certainly don’t want to replace evil with a separate evil, the objective of the United States military is not to increase earthly virtue but to defend the Constitution by deterring and, if necessary, defeating the enemies of the United States. 

Imposing impossible objectives on the military — then browbeating it for failing — is a form of disguised pacifism. Rather than saying, “You shouldn’t fight,” the argument is, “You can’t win.” It is functionally anti-military, but the rhetoric is so high-minded and so powerful that it has sometimes captured even the most pro-military of conservatives. I confess that I had a more ambitious view of what military power could accomplish before I went to Iraq.

I want to be clear, however. Possessing a more modest view of what the military can and should try to accomplish does not mean that the military shouldn’t have deposed the Taliban or toppled Saddam. In his piece, Fallows goes to great lengths to show the disconnect between civilians and those who’ve deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. And he’s absolutely correct that this disconnect is a problem — especially with so few veterans in our political leadership. But — like most leftists — he seems utterly convinced that increased experience in the military would lead to less willingness to fight. I don’t think he’s correct. 

In the map below, Fallows showed the rates of enlistment, per capita, in the United States — the darker the region, the greater the concentration of military service:

What do you notice about this map? The Deep South and Upper Midwest are heavily over-represented while the bastions of the cultural elite are under-represented. Now, which population has been more likely to favor aggressive American military responses since 9/11?

The Left seems to operate with an unshakeable conviction that exposure to the horror of war leads to revulsion at the very thought of military conflict. Hollywood is staffed top to bottom with people who can depict pain and suffering with exquisite and excruciating detail. And they have a knack for finding disillusioned vets who will tell them exactly what they want to hear. But there are many more veterans who understand the horror of war quite well — but also understand there is something more horrible: our enemy’s triumph. 

While Hollywood (and the larger media) portray the suffering of war, they are considerably less diligent at describing our enemy. Lone Survivor faced criticism for showing the Taliban in a one-dimensional light, as decapitating a poor villager. Yet by showing only a single beheading, even that fine film understated our enemy’s actions and purposes. Veterans have seen our enemies. They have seen the face of pure evil. 

I’ve said this many times before, but when I came back from Iraq many people asked me to sum up what I’d learned. I tried to keep my response simple. I learned that deployments were far more difficult than I imagined, and I learned that our enemy was far worse than I thought. And, thus, we had to fight.

Sometimes, doing the right thing is not just hard, but painful to the point of fear and death. We do our men and women in the military no favors when we saddle them with impossible missions and then call them “defeated” when they did all they could reasonably do. Our soldiers aren’t failing. Our leaders are.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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