The cost of being a chickenhawk nation

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.


  1. Jean says

    Those wars are a resounding success for those who want them. They generated a huge revenue stream for the rich; that also allowed generous campaign contributions, golden parachutes and other perks to the elected people; and that created the conditions worldwide to make sure that there will be a need to continue and even increase military spending so that the US people remain “safe”.

    So a great success for the few and a disaster for the rest. But the rest doesn’t matter as long as the rich get more money and more power.

  2. tbrandt says

    But the politicians did indeed lose these wars, right? Not the politicians who ended the wars in defeat, of course, but the ones who started them. The army does what it is paid to do. It is very, very good at blowing up anything in its crosshairs. As the blogger Jon Swift put it years ago (I can’t find the link), nation building is a waste of an army. It prevents an army from doing what it excels at, which is knocking things down, and asks it to do what it is terrible at, which is building things up. Whether knocking things down serves the interest of the nation is a question for the politicians, and they usually give the wrong answer.

  3. says

    The army does what it is paid to do. It is very, very good at blowing up anything in its crosshairs.

    Every one of the soldiers that participated in a war of US aggression: war criminal
    Every soldier who engaged in or ordered or participated in area bombardment: war criminal
    Every soldier who followed illegal orders from the chain of command: war criminal

    There may be a few soldiers in the US military that aren’t. But it’s hard to imagine how.
    A war hero is someone who refuses to participate.

  4. Trickster Goddess says

    Imagine if those $Trillions were instead spent at home: universal healthcare; first rate education system and cheap university tuition; renewed infrastructure and high speed rail lines. With that kind of internal investment the economy would be booming and poverty would be at an all-time low.

    It is such a tragedy to see such potential greatness being forsaken and instead watching a country being hollowed out for the sake of fruitless attempts to prop up and expand an empire.

  5. Glenn says

    The US can continue losing wars on the battlefield as long as money is being won in the boardrooms.

    Give a state a billion dollars and it can buy oil for itself till the money is gone. Give a state a billion dollars worth of weapons and it can steal oil for itself until the oil is gone. (This allegory usually deals with fish and teaching a man to fish.)

    Thank servicemen for BEING sacrificed, not FOR their sacrifices. The servicemen are not the ones sacrificing; they are the ones being sacrificed.

    The fox invited the chicken for dinner.
    How nice said the chicken, What’s for dinner?
    Before the chicken could figure what the fox meant, he was already half eaten.

  6. eidolon says

    “Every one of the soldiers that participated in a war of US aggression: war criminal
    Every soldier who engaged in or ordered or participated in area bombardment: war criminal
    Every soldier who followed illegal orders from the chain of command: war criminal”

    Really? EVERY soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan a war criminal? And just how have you reached this determination, Marcus? Perhaps those involved in torture and other clearly defined acts counter to law are indeed war criminals but every one of the soldiers is a bit overmuch doncha think? I have a large living room needing painting. Come on over with that very broad brush of yours.

  7. md says

    The idea that one must have served in the military in the past to have a respected opinion about a current or potential war is an odd one, particularly coming from the left. Seems like the ultimate appeal to authority.

    Further, this idea in Fallows article that we havent won a war since WWII is just bizarre. We’ve won plenty of wars, usually the peace proves much harder.

    Thankfully Milton Friedman convinced Nixon to get rid of the draft and we havent undone his wisdom. If we could just get back to the Constitutionally mandated vote for going to war (before we actually get there) we’d be in better shape.

  8. steffp says

    @eidolon, #6
    EVERY soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan a war criminal? And just how have you reached this determination, Marcus?
    As a thought experiment, eidolon, try to read the first sentence in a more general form:
    Every one of the soldiers that participated in a war of aggression: war criminal. That sounds a bit different, though it has to be said -- especially in the light of the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials, that those courts treated category A violations -- crimes against peace -- as top brass crimes, while lower officers and orderlies fell into categories B and C, “conventional war crimes” and “crimes against humanity”. Area bombardment is regarded illegal and a war crime (1977 Additional Protocol I, which binds the US as international customary law).
    As for “illegal orders”, see United States v. Keenan, and here.

    @md, #7
    this idea in Fallows article that we havent won a war since WWII is just bizarre. We’ve won plenty of wars
    Well, if you count two interventions in Lebanon, and the Kosovo, Haiti, Grenada and Panama conflicts as wars… the only grown-up war the US won was Bush senior’s Desert Storm, most likely because the allies stopped the US from continuing the conflict. Korea and Bosnia ended as stalemates, Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan -- the big and important ones -- all were defeats. So was the Somalia intervention…

  9. md says

    Bosnia a stalemate? And What would victory have looked like? Yugoslavia ethnically disaggregated, which contra multiculti dogma, is a proven path to peace. Worked in Cypress too.

    Korea, sure, an armistice. And if we did what would’ve been necessary to win folks would have complained about that too, called us big meanies or something. But contemporary South Korea is a massive success. Not bad for a stalemate.

    Iraq and Afghanistan — lost? This is incorrect. We militarily routed our opponents. Its the nation-building and culture changing that follows that we cannot win. Please do not you too lay that task on the American Military. That is not their function. Its akin to using a wrecking bar to paint watercolors. I know that our fearless leaders ascribe them such tasks so its tempting to judge the military on it, but don’t fall into that trap.

    Yea, yea Vietnam and Somalia. Never should have been in Vietnam of course, and Somalia, well, some problems do not have solutions. Baby Boomers have always struggled with that unpleasant reality, Clinton was no different.

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