Strategic Outpost at 50 (Columns): Some Reflections
This is the 50th time that our “Strategic Outpost” column has appeared at War on the Rocks. When we published our first piece on January 27, 2015, we had no idea how long our column would last or how it would be received. On this notable occasion, we’ve chosen to share some reflections about these past two and a half years for readers who may have joined us along the way.
Why did we choose to write this column? We saw the potential of a new startup called War on the Rocks to shape the debate on a wide range of defense and foreign policy issues, and we wanted to add our voices to this new and creative endeavor. Our column initially ran every two weeks, and then, to maintain our sanity, every three weeks. It has been an immense and energizing challenge to generate so many new ideas on important national security issues and turn them into short, thought-provoking commentary.
Our 50 columns have covered everything from the changing character of war to the oddities of service cultures to a letter to Santa from the secretary of defense. When we started, we had no idea how much work it would be (a ton) — but it has all been worth it. Our reach and impact has vastly exceeded our expectations. In our inaugural year, one of our columns was the sixth most-read article at War on the Rocks. In 2016, we were gratified that three of our columns ranked among the 10 most-read articles of the year, with a fourth in the top 25.
What matters far more than numbers, however, is that we are sparking conversations throughout the national security community. When we walk the hallways of the Pentagon these days, we get stopped by people of all ranks who now recognize us by our writing for War on the Rocks, not just varied laurels from our past lives. And the same thing happens when we give talks, attend conferences, and conduct the myriad other activities of our professional lives. The best compliment we’ve received so far: “I don’t always agree with you, but you always make me think.”
As we looked back on our body of work, here are some of our favorite pieces, by category.
All of our columns are important, of course, but some of them stand out to us as particularly special, raising a critical issue or perspective that we hadn’t seen anywhere else. Our very first column, called “The Irrelevance of Conventional Warfare,” still meets that threshold. It argued that U.S. society is massively vulnerable to asymmetric attacks, especially in the cyber domain — and that despite a $600 billion defense budget, the Pentagon actually does little to shield American citizens from these threats. The recent waves of disruptive cyber-attacks around the globe reinforce our point from early 2015.
As the U.S. military struggles with ongoing conflicts across the greater Middle East, we recognized that the military services are not at all prepared to fight against a major global power. We wrote “Preparing for the Next Big War” to sound a warning shot for U.S. civilian and military leaders alike. This piece drew the attention of at least one combatant commander, who met with us for almost two hours one evening to discuss our thinking. We continue to worry that the U.S. military is unprepared in size, capabilities, and mindset for this extremely dangerous prospect, even if it remains a low probability.
The day after the first women were allowed to start the U.S. Army’s Ranger School, we published “Female Rangers Will Lead the Way, Sooner or Later.” We argued the first female graduates would effectively end the debate about whether women can serve in the toughest combat units in the all of the services. And we were right. Two women in that class did earn their Ranger tabs, and we were privileged to attend their graduation ceremony, sitting next to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley. Opening all combat positions to women — who make up more than half of the American population — enables the military to draw on the diverse talents of all people who meet the standards, regardless of gender.
Some of our articles don’t resonate among our readers as strongly as others. We’re not always sure why, but we do think some of our columns deserved a bigger reaction than they got. These include “Lying to Ourselves: The Demise of Military Integrity,” about a report from the U.S. Army War College arguing that the impossible demands of Army training requirements were forcing a culture of pervasive dishonesty upon the Army officer corps. We wrote the column in early 2015 to amplify this warning about the erosion of integrity within the officer corps. Yet we have been disappointed that little has apparently been done to reduce the number of mandatory tasks that are often literally impossible to meet.
Another article we felt should have drawn more public attention was “Why We Still Need the Draft.” The all-volunteer force has been extremely successful, and most Americans see the draft as an ineffective, unfair, or irrelevant artifact of the past. Yet we argued that the U.S. military must remain prepared to fight a really big war that might require a much larger force — a war far too large to be able to be fought by volunteers alone. Even though that scenario remains unlikely, the consequences of being unable to wage such a war could prove disastrous. No matter how unpopular, retaining the option of a draft remains a necessity — and it reinforces the critical idea that defending the nation is still one of the most fundamental responsibilities of citizenship.
We addressed another unlikely but deadly scenario in “Three Minutes to Midnight: Closer to Nuclear Conflict than We Think,” which summarized an address by former Defense Secretary William Perry about the risks of a nuclear attack. We believe the United States and most other advanced nations have grown far too complacent about this devastating possibility. Perry highlighted the dangers of nuclear war triggered by accident or miscalculation by Russia; the potential risks of a regional-level nuclear conflict with India, Pakistan, or North Korea; and the horrific possibilities that could erupt from a terrorist group with a nuclear weapon.
We try not to wade into national politics too often, but it has been difficult to avoid during the past year. Last summer, we were disturbed by the prominent roles that retired generals played in the national conventions of both political parties. In “How to Get Generals Out of Politics,” we argued that retired flag officers endorsing presidential candidates puts at risk the apolitical reputation of the U.S. military. We drafted a notional letter that the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and the services chiefs should send to every newly selected general or admiral to help reinforce this critical norm.
After the election, we received numerous calls from friends and colleagues who were trying to sort out whether they should serve in the Trump administration if doing so meant supporting policies that violated their principles. In any administration, there are no easy answers to this deeply personal question. Instead of giving them direct advice, we found ourselves posing several questions whose answers might help guide them to a decision. We then published those questions in “A Moral Guide to Serving in the Trump Administration,” so we could share them more widely. We were told a lot of people found it helpful, especially by students who were thinking about their future careers.
The Marines United scandal provoked us to write what might be our most sharply-worded column so far. In “The War for the Soul of the Marine Corps: It’s Time To Choose,” we argued that this stunning misconduct presented a stark moral fork in the road for the service’s leaders. They can either acknowledge and finally eliminate an unofficial Marine culture of rampant sexism that views women in the ranks as second class citizens, or once again fall back on half-hearted measures that fail to fix that widespread sexism which violates the Marine Corps’ values of honor, courage, and commitment. The Corps’ leaders have subsequently done quite a bit to attack this problem, but a steep battle remains to spread that view throughout their ground combat units and their veterans.
Most Impact (That We Know Of)
Impact is notoriously hard to gauge, of course, but sometimes there are indirect indicators. Our column called “Fighting and Winning in the ‘Gray Zone,’” for example, has been cited in numerous publications, and we subsequently received several invitations to speak on that subject. We also know that our column on DA Form 31 — the Army’s official leave form — struck a nerve throughout the Army, because soldiers continue to approach us with their horror stories about how much paperwork is involved in simply taking vacation time. A year after it was published, we met with the Army’s personnel chief on a different topic, but he spent the first 15 minutes showing us that the leave process is even more cumbersome than we had suggested. We have also heard (though we have not confirmed) that the Army inspector general undertook a detailed inquiry into the amount of wasteful effort involved in the process.
We teach as well as write, and in early 2016, we asked our students in a weekend course called Understanding the Military what they most wanted to learn. Their most common answer surprised us: How to behave in meetings with military personnel. As we developed a short role-playing exercise for them, we realized that those in the military also need to learn how to behave in meetings with civil servants. The result was “The Military is From Mars, Civilians Are From Venus.” We soon heard from many defense civilians and military personnel that they wish they’d read that column before starting their jobs — and that they were passing it along to their more recently arrived colleagues. We hope this one continues to be circulated for a long time, to reduce misunderstandings and build more unity of effort and collegiality across the U.S. government.
We love putting together periodic reading lists, because we get to expand our own horizons while helping our readers do the same. Our first list was for the incoming joint chiefs of staff about two years ago. We enjoyed making the list so much that we decided to make it an annual feature. About a year ago, we published our first annual summer vacation reading list. And we weren’t kidding about the annual part: Watch for our second summer vacation reading list on July 25! (Please send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Without question, though, we have the most fun with our annual holiday lists. In our first year, we brought you Ash Carter’s 2015 letter to Santa, which included 535 digital calculators to help Congress with budget math; a Red Ryder BB gun, so at least one Pentagon weapon would cost less than $1 million; and a SECDEF guilty pleasure, the latest album by Adele. Last year, we brought you Joe Dunford’s holiday shopping list, which included a fortune-telling Magic 8 Ball for the intelligence community; a “New U.S. Allies Welcome Packet” for Vladimir Putin; and an air defense early warning receiver for Santa and his reindeer. Whose list will we publish this year? Stay tuned in December. We hope you enjoy reading these as much as we enjoy writing them.
As you can see, our 50 columns have explored almost every corner of the national security landscape. We believe in the power of provocative ideas from across the political spectrum to start important conversations. Our goal is to provide critical and, at times, disruptive commentary that helps catalyze action and inspire others to undertake much needed changes. As we look ahead, we promise to continue to provide you quality work that provokes thoughtful discussion. If we surprise, inform, challenge, or even anger you as we share our thoughts, we have accomplished our mission. We look forward to giving you the best short writing on national security that we can jointly muster — for the next 50 columns and beyond. Thanks for joining us for the journey!
Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every third Tuesday. To sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter, where you can track their articles as well as their public events, click here.
Image: U.S. Army