Even if James Fallows’ new Atlantic cover story about “The Tragedy of the American Military” wasn’t full of fascinating facts and figures about the armed forces’ relationship to the nation’s broader society today and throughout U.S. history, I’d wholeheartedly recommend it. It’s an absolutely terrific and absorbing read that spotlights an extraordinarily wide range of crucial issues too often left to so-called defense experts and the politicians they service to address.
Particularly effective are the darts it throws at today’s almost universal practice of treating the military “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 one big-picture argument Fallows makes with which I disagree concerns the American military’s war-fighting record. As he puts it, “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.” He’s most insistent that the wars in Afghanistan and especially Iraq were strategic failures that “brought no lasting stability to, nor advance of U.S. interests in, that part of the world.”
Just one look at the Middle East today seems the most obvious proof. But this failure in my view stems overwhelmingly from civilian leaders who either saddle the military with “unending, unwinnable missions,” or who remain cluelessly determined to confuse the requirements of core American security with their own naive ambitions to nation-build.
Indeed, there’s a strong case to be made that the armed forces enhanced U.S. national security in Afghanistan and Iraq by completing the tasks they were rightly assigned – ousting the Taliban and Saddam Hussein from power. As a result, the odds dropped dramatically that Afghanistan would be used again as a terrorist base for planning 9-11-like attacks on the American homeland, and that Saddam would spend years more amassing the oil wealth and, yes, the advanced weapons that could produce decisive influence over the energy-rich Persian Gulf. (Remember – this was a decade before the recent U.S. energy boom and related oil price nosedive.)
As I’ve written these essential American interests in the region could have (and still can) be achieved through a combination of airstrikes and small-unit operations aimed at harassing and keeping sufficiently off-balance foes like ISIS and a potentially resurgent Taliban. This strategy could protect the United States long enough to enable the nation to create the domestic-focused defenses that are by far its best guarantee of adequate levels of security (e.g., genuine control of American borders). It’s certainly a much better bet than the current approach, which aims ultimately to stabilize the dysfunctional Middle East.
My only other important objection to Fallows’ article concerns its failure to identify clearly the main reason for what he rightly calls the emergence of a “Chickenhawk” culture, society, economy, and politics that treats the entire range of military issues so cavalierly. Although he comes awfully close in spots, he doesn’t explicitly tie both the nation’s inattention to military issues and its unwillingness to fund and use the armed forces intelligently to the gaping disconnect between the core American security requirements I mentioned above, and the stated goals of the nation’s security and broader foreign policy strategies.
As I’ve written previously, America today is and for so long has been so existentially secure that its citizens see little need to think rigorously about the relationship between military campaigns (and other aspects of foreign policy) and their own safety. And the nation remains so intrinsically wealthy that it simply hasn’t yet suffered debilitating, enduring losses even from its worst recent foreign policy misadventures. (Vietnam came closest to being an exception.) In other words, the country is too weak and/or intellectually lazy to achieve many of its foreign policy goals, but so far too strong for that to matter. Small wonder that military policy and the institution’s very structure have been shaped so significantly by glib pseudo-strategists and pork-barrel politics.
Fallows’ article offers many useful specific recommendations for ending the tragedy of the American military. But the sea change he rightly urges is unlikely to take place until the nation’s overarching global strategy is much better aligned with its real needs – or until Americans pay a price big enough to leave them no choice.