James Fallows and the chickenhawks

James Fallows writes: Every institution has problems, and at every stage of U.S. history, some critics have considered the U.S. military overfunded, underprepared, too insular and self-regarding, or flawed in some other way. The difference now, I contend, is that these modern distortions all flow in one way or another from the chickenhawk basis of today’s defense strategy.

At enormous cost, both financial and human, the nation supports the world’s most powerful armed force. But because so small a sliver of the population has a direct stake in the consequences of military action, the normal democratic feedbacks do not work.

I have met serious people who claim that the military’s set-apart existence is best for its own interests, and for the nation’s. “Since the time of the Romans there have been people, mostly men but increasingly women, who have volunteered to be the praetorian guard,” John A. Nagl told me. Nagl is a West Point graduate and Rhodes Scholar who was a combat commander in Iraq and has written two influential books about the modern military. He left the Army as a lieutenant colonel and now, in his late 40s, is the head of the Haverford prep school, near Philadelphia.

“They know what they are signing up for,” Nagl said of today’s troops. “They are proud to do it, and in exchange they expect a reasonable living, and pensions and health care if they are hurt or fall sick. The American public is completely willing to let this professional class of volunteers serve where they should, for wise purpose. This gives the president much greater freedom of action to make decisions in the national interest, with troops who will salute sharply and do what needs to be done.”

I like and respect Nagl, but I completely disagree. As we’ve seen, public inattention to the military, born of having no direct interest in what happens to it, has allowed both strategic and institutional problems to fester.

“A people untouched (or seemingly untouched) by war are far less likely to care about it,” Andrew Bacevich wrote in 2012. Bacevich himself fought in Vietnam; his son was killed in Iraq. “Persuaded that they have no skin in the game, they will permit the state to do whatever it wishes to do.”

[Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Mike Mullen thinks that one way to reengage Americans with the military is to shrink the active-duty force, a process already under way. “The next time we go to war,” he said, “the American people should have to say yes. And that would mean that half a million people who weren’t planning to do this would have to be involved in some way. They would have to be inconvenienced. That would bring America in. America hasn’t been in these previous wars. And we are paying dearly for that.” [Continue reading…]

Mullen says “inconvenienced” — presumably that’s a euphemism for drafted — but Fallows claims that reintroduction of the draft would be “unimaginable.”

Perhaps the draft is not so unimaginable as a policy recommendation as much as it is unimaginable coming from Fallows.

During the Vietnam War, Fallows dodged the draft rather than resisting it, an option he made because, as he wrote in 1975: “What I wanted was to go to graduate school, to get married, and to enjoy those bright prospects I had been taught that life owed me.”

Having told an examining doctor at his Cambridge draft board that he had contemplated suicide, and having thus been deemed “unqualified” for military service, Fallows said: “I was overcome by a wave of relief, which for the first time revealed to me how great my terror had been, and by the beginning of the sense of shame which remains with me to this day.”

No doubt that sense of shame would now make it impossible for Fallows to be an advocate for the draft.

But by now dodging this issue, he avoids drilling deeply into the most basic questions about the role of the military in America.

Fallow’s war-weariness and that of many other Americans seems to stem not so much from the fact that the United States has engaged in so much unnecessary war over the last decade or so, than the fact that its military efforts have been such a colossal and expensive failure.

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. Although no one can agree on an exact figure, our dozen years of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and neighboring countries have cost at least $1.5 trillion; Linda J. Bilmes, of the Harvard Kennedy School, recently estimated that the total cost could be three to four times that much. Recall that while Congress was considering whether to authorize the Iraq War, the head of the White House economic council, Lawrence B. Lindsey, was forced to resign for telling The Wall Street Journal that the all-in costs might be as high as $100 billion to $200 billion, or less than the U.S. has spent on Iraq and Afghanistan in many individual years.

Yet from a strategic perspective, to say nothing of the human cost, most of these dollars might as well have been burned. “At this point, it is incontrovertibly evident that the U.S. military failed to achieve any of its strategic goals in Iraq,” a former military intelligence officer named Jim Gourley wrote recently for Thomas E. Ricks’s blog, Best Defense. “Evaluated according to the goals set forth by our military leadership, the war ended in utter defeat for our forces.” In 13 years of continuous combat under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the longest stretch of warfare in American history, U.S. forces have achieved one clear strategic success: the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

That Fallows views the killing of bin Laden as the “one clear strategic success” — without his intention — goes right to the heart of his polemic on America’s chickenhawk culture.

The celebration of bin Laden’s death is no less cowardly than support for wars triggered by 9/11.

If this killing could have served America in any way, it might conceivably have functioned as the symbolic end to an era. Clearly it did not have that effect.

A strategic success would be defined by its effect — by its ability to forestall undesirable outcomes and create a better future. Killing bin Laden had no such effect. Had he been captured and put on trial, it is conceivable that justice would have been served in a constructive way.

The willingness of Americans to support or acquiesce to a succession of military misadventures after 9/11 flowed very much from the fact that so few people were willing to question America’s need for vengeance. Moreover, America’s need to look strong was the product much less of the magnitude of the threat it faced than of a fear of looking weak.

Fallows hopes that America might be able to choose its wars more wisely and win them, but in that hope lies the most basic fallacy: that war should be a matter of choice.

In a war of true necessity, a nation goes to war because it has no choice. It fights not because it is convinced it will win but because the alternative would be worse than war.

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1 thought on “James Fallows and the chickenhawks

  1. Sharon

    Was disgusted by his draft dodge story but I get the sense he feels awfully guilty. I wonder if he’d want to ever serve his country though. The problem is now we don’t face conventional threats. We face low probability but high impact events from Islamic fundamentalists.

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