Not So Chickenhawk: Pushing Back Against Fallows

January 7, 2015

“The country thinks too rarely, and too highly, of the 1 percent under fire in our name,” so says Jim Fallows in a 10,000-word cri de couer in this month’s Atlantic that bemoans the growing cultural and social divisions that separate the American people from its armed forces. This lack of inquiry, and growing distance, Fallows argues, is responsible for not only the promiscuous deployment of U.S. troops around the world, but for Pentagon excesses of which War on the Rocks readers are all too familiar.

Fallows, has long been one of the nation’s best journalists, and it’s hard to disagree with his basic diagnosis that Americans spends far too little time looking at how we spend money on the military, how we deploy our troops, and substitute mindless praise for actual scrutiny. Less clear, however, are the broad conclusions that Fallows is drawing. America’s military is far from perfect and it certainly spends far too much of the taxpayers’ dollars for too little gain. But ultimately, the challenge of U.S. civil-military relations in the 21st century is more complicated—and oddly less problematic—than his argument suggests.

Indeed, the core problem with Fallows argument is that it fails to make a clear distinction between the military and the leaders that send them to war. “Why do the best soldiers in the world keep losing?” screams The Atlantic’s front page. “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,” Fallows writes. He approvingly quotes Jim Gourley, a former military intelligence analyst who says, “it is incontrovertibly evident that the U.S. military failed to achieve any of its strategic goals in Iraq … evaluated according to the goals set forth by our military leadership, the war ended in utter defeat for our forces.” Where is the accountability, asks Fallows?

Putting aside the fact that the killing of bin Laden was more a tactical event than a strategic success, these are fair criticisms, but they are aimed at the wrong target. If you look back at the initial military objectives for Iraq, laid out by then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in March 2003, most of them were achieved. The initial objective of the Iraq war was to topple Saddam Hussein and remove the threat he allegedly represented. It was not to create a Jeffersonian democracy, with American blood and treasure, between the Tigris and the Euphrates.

Of course, the success of the initial invasion quickly evolved into the quagmire of occupation. The military leadership is not completely blameless here, but considering that the Bush Administration largely ignored their pre-war objections and requests for a larger ground force (and post-invasion occupation units), the lion’s share of blame should lie with Washington, not Tampa, where Central Command is headquartered.

As Fallows is certainly aware (and wrote on presciently before the war even began) the Bush Administration had no clear post-invasion strategy for Iraq. After the instability that followed the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the U.S. civilian leadership disbanded the Iraqi Army and then demanded that the U.S. military maintain an occupation of the fractured country with limited resources, unclear political objectives, and poor civilian support.  That the Iraq war led to an uncertain outcome is because the hoped for outcome, established by politicians, was simply unattainable.

Ultimately, the U.S. military didn’t lose the war in Iraq. The United States writ large lost the war in Iraq. That is a crucial distinction.

To be honest, if there is anything over the last 13 years that the military brass should be held to account for, it is the mistakes they made in Afghanistan. After all, in 2009 it was the General Petraeus, Admiral Mullen, and General McChrystal who successfully lobbied the Obama Administration to send more troops to fight the Taliban. Their logic was based on the supposedly valuable lessons the U.S. military took from Iraq on how to defeat insurgencies. The “surge” that followed in Afghanistan turned out to largely be a fool’s errand that has failed to bring stability to the country or do much of anything to further U.S. national security interests. Yet, Fallows has almost nothing to say about the war Afghanistan. As someone who practically pulled his hair out in 2009 trying to alert people about the military’s lousy ideas for counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, I’m all too used to that forgotten corner of the U.S. war on terrorism being ignored. But, one really can’t talk about civilian-military gap without talking about Afghanistan.

While ultimately the responsibility for the mistakes in Afghanistan must lie disproportionately with the civilian leadership, I can’t quite figure out to how to square Fallows statement that “America’s distance from the military makes the country too willing to go to war, and too callous about the damage warfare inflicts,” with the fact that in Afghanistan it was the military brass pushing for escalation (and in my view, causing a serious civilian-military crisis). Moreover, when the Obama Administration wisely pulled the plug on the counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan (after foolishly agreeing to it 18 months earlier) and began the drawdown of U.S. combat troops that ended last week, it was a decision opposed by the U.S. commander in Afghanistan as well as General Petraeus, who—according to one account—said at the time that Obama’s decision “invalidates my entire campaign plan.” If anything, the Afghanistan campaign is evidence of how disconnected the U.S. military is from the push and pull of American politics and the political interests of civilian policy-makers. But, that is not a new story.

Indeed, this gets to the other problematic element of Fallows piece. He harks back to a halcyon era when more Americans served, more Americans knew someone who served in the military and, as a result, politicians better scrutinized the armed forces and were less inclined to send them into harm’s way.

There is a seemingly obvious rejoinder to this argument: Vietnam. If America is today a “chickenhawk nation” and, as Fallows claims, “more likely to keep going to war” and willing “to wade into conflict after conflict, blithely assuming we would win,” then how did the United States end up sending, at its peak, 500,000 troops to Vietnam and losing more than 50,000 lives there? More important, why for 25 years after Vietnam – in an era when the United States had an all-volunteer force – did the country fight wars in a manner that was more rather than less risk averse?

Between the end of Vietnam and 9/11, the United States de-emphasized large scale military engagements; when fought, wars were limited with clear political objectives. Overwhelming military force and allied support were considered paramount.

The Iraq war – and to a lesser extent Afghanistan – are of course major exceptions, but they are also outliers in the post-Vietnam era. Indeed, since the surge in 2009, the Obama Administration has sought to lessen America’s global military footprint by relying more on airpower than boots on the ground.

Ironically, one the loudest and most persistent criticisms directed at President Obama over the past two years was that he was unwilling to keep U.S. troops in Iraq after 2011 and that he should have engaged militarily in Syria. That criticism may represent a chickenhawk contingent of politicians, but Obama largely rejected those calls while at the same time continuing the drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Wouldn’t a chickenhawk nation have put troops on the ground in Libya and perhaps Yemen and Pakistan (rather than using drones)? Wouldn’t it have gotten involved earlier in Syria, and would it have completely ruled out sending U.S. ground troops to Iraq to battle the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)?

Fallows claims that “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,” but the general reluctance of U.S. presidents to engage in long-drawn out conflicts with significant military footprints and potentially high casualties since the end of the Vietnam War says otherwise.

Americans are seemingly more than willing to support wars that involve dropping bombs from the sky or firing cruise missiles, but far less inclined to support those that lead to lots of Americans being killed. When presidents embark on the latter course, they more often than not pay a serious political price.

Consider that when Lyndon Johnson was inaugurated as president in January 1965 he told the country, “Terrific dangers and troubles that we once called ‘foreign’ now constantly live among us. If American lives must end, and American treasure be spilled, in countries that we barely know, then that is the price that change has demanded of conviction and of our enduring covenant.” It seems impossible to imagine an American politician saying that today.

Instead, as Fallows notes at the opening of his piece, we end up talking about the military in reverential, sometimes cavalier terms. He cites, for example, a September 2014 speech by President Obama at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, in which he lavishes praise on the men and women in uniform all the while trying to build public support for the U.S. mission against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Fallows, who watched the speech in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, reports that few of his fellow passengers paid much attention to the president’s words. He claims this disengagement is rooted in the fact that “we love the troops, but we’d rather not think about them.” In short, we’re ultimately indifferent to their sacrifice.

I’d posit another interpretation. In that speech at MacDill, Obama also said this: “As your Commander-in-Chief, I will not commit you and the rest of our Armed Forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq.”  Why should Americans be overly concerned when the president goes out of his way to say the U.S. forces sent to Iraq have no combat mission and that the only engagement with the enemy will come from a distance of 30,000 feet above the ground?

I should say that, in general, I have enormous praise for Fallows in embracing this issue and pushing back on the “can do no wrong” mindset that so often dictates how we talk about the U.S. military.   But ultimately what is missing from his argument is the fact that our armed forces are an instrument of national policy. When they are asked to fight stupid wars, the principles of civilian control of the military demands they must obey. So, while we should be critical of many things the U.S. military does, we should be careful in laying the responsibility for strategic failures directly at the feet of our entire armed forces. To do so risks distracting from the much larger and more salient issue of civilian responsibility for losing America’s wars. What’s more, we should avoid the temptation to look back at civil-military relations with nostalgia: strategic incompetence, military misuse (and military overreach) and civilian-military divides are hardly new developments.

I hope as Fallows continues to explore this issue that he’ll take into account some of the arguments here.


Michael A. Cohen is a columnist for the Boston Globe and a fellow at the Century Foundation.