James Fallows has a long cover story in the latest issue of The Atlantic magazine titled The Tragedy of the American Military where he attacks the current attitude in the US where it has become obligatory to talk about the military in hushed and reverential tones as an institution whose members and actions are above criticism, saying that it results in a lack of critical self-examination that leads to the rise of careerists in the ranks and a general ineptitude.
He begins by observing the reactions of the people around him at an airport when president Obama gave a speech to members of the Air Force on the occasion of his decision to re-engage with Iraq.
If any of my fellow travelers at O’Hare were still listening to the speech, none of them showed any reaction to it. And why would they? This has become the way we assume the American military will be discussed by politicians and in the press: Overblown, limitless praise, absent the caveats or public skepticism we would apply to other American institutions, especially ones that run on taxpayer money. A somber moment to reflect on sacrifice. Then everyone except the few people in uniform getting on with their workaday concerns.
What is going to rile up people about the article is that he refers to the US as a chickenhawk nation based on a chickenhawk economy that runs on chickenhawk politics, with a public that seems to think that as long as they effusively praise the military and offer meaningless and often patronizing symbolic gestures (best exemplified by the words “Thank you for your service” that people in uniform receive when out in public), they can then ignore the fact that the US ends up going into unwinnable wars and suffering defeat after defeat.
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.
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.
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.”
“We are vulnerable,” the author William Greider wrote during the debate last summer on how to fight ISIS, “because our presumption of unconquerable superiority leads us deeper and deeper into unwinnable military conflicts.”
Dan Murphy writes that the ceremonial end to the war in Afghanistan that took place two days ago is also a sham.
News websites and broadcasts – and US and NATO press releases – were filled with discussion about the “formal” end of the Afghan war yesterday. But any close reading of the facts will find that they were wrong.
Call it semi-formal, or business casual, whatever you like. The reality remains the same: For American soldiers and for the Afghan people the war that began on Oct. 7, 2001 will go on.
While most of America’s NATO allies that hadn’t already washed their hands of combat will now do so, American fighting and dying will continue, with 11,000 US troops remaining in the country. There will be talk of “advising,” and “training” and “non-combat” presence. But for the most part that can be safely ignored.
If Afghan history is anything to go by, it’s due to get worse as America’s longest war winds down to its inevitable conclusion. For the Afghans, who have been embroiled in a civil war with heavy foreign meddling since 1979, the prospect of peace seems slim.
Murphy also gloomily comes to the conclusion that the US lost the war in Afghanistan.
What has the war bought for the US, at a cost of $1 trillion?
President Obama claimed yesterday that “we are safer, and our nation is more secure” thanks to the sacrifices of the Afghan war. There’s no evidence to support that claim, and plenty to suggest the war has been a long, self-inflicted wound on the country.
None of the claimed long term objectives for the war, either from the Bush or Obama administrations, have been achieved. That’s a defeat by any measure.
Of course, the real losers are the long-suffering Afghan people who have long been subject to the whims of foreign powers (Soviet Union, US, Pakistan), warlords, and Islamic militants (the Taliban and the mujahideen).
At some point it is going to sink into the mind of the general public that the mighty US military, despite spending vast amounts of money, is suffering repeated defeats. Since it is unthinkable that all that money and weaponry could have failed them, we will be back to the post-Vietnam days when it was alleged that it was politicians who lost that war, not the military, and scapegoats will be sought.