Originally published in TomDispatch.
Professional sports is a cutthroat business. Succeed and the people running the show reap rich rewards. Fail to meet expectations and you get handed your walking papers. American-style war in the twenty-first century is quite a different matter.
Of course, war is not a game. The stakes on the battlefield are infinitely higher than on the playing field. When wars go wrong, “We’ll show ’em next year — just you wait!” is seldom a satisfactory response.
At least, it shouldn’t be. Yet somehow, the American people, our political establishment, and our military have all fallen into the habit of shrugging off or simply ignoring disappointing outcomes. A few years ago, a serving army officer of unusual courage published an essay — in Armed Forces Journal no less — in which he charged that “a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”
The charge stung because it was irrefutably true then and it remains so today.
As American politics has become increasingly contentious, the range of issues on which citizens agree has narrowed to the point of invisibility. For Democrats, promoting diversity has become akin to a sacred obligation. For Republicans, the very term is synonymous with political correctness run amok. Meanwhile, GOP supporters treat the Second Amendment as if it were a text Moses carried down from Mount Sinai, while Democrats blame the so-called right to bear arms for a plague of school shootings in this country.
On one point, however, an unshakable consensus prevails: the U.S. military is tops. No less august a figure than General David Petraeus described our armed forces as “the best military in the world today, by far.” Nor, in his judgment, was “this situation likely to change anytime soon.” His one-word characterization for the military establishment: “awesome.”
The claim was anything but controversial. Indeed, Petraeus was merely echoing the views of politicians, pundits, and countless other senior officers. Praising the awesomeness of that military has become twenty-first-century America’s can’t miss applause line.
As it happens, though, a yawning gap looms between that military’s agreed upon reputation here and its actual performance. That the troops are dutiful, seasoned, and hardworking is indisputably so. Once upon a time, “soldiering” was a slang term for shirking or laziness. No longer. Today, America’s troops more than earn their pay.
And whether individually or collectively, they also lead the world in expenditures. Even a decade ago, it cost more than $2 million a year to keep a G.I. in a war zone like Afghanistan. And, of course, no other military on the planet — in fact, not even the militaries of the next 11 countries combined — can match Pentagon spending from one year to the next.
Is it impolite, then, to ask if the nation is getting an adequate return on its investment in military power? Simply put, are we getting our money’s worth? And what standard should we use in answering that question?
Let me suggest using the military’s own standard.
According to the United States Army’s 2021 “Posture Statement,” for example, that service exists to “fight and win the nation’s wars.” The mission of the Air Force complements the Army’s: “to fly, fight, and win.” The Navy’s mission statement has three components, the first of which aligns neatly with that of the Army and Air Force: “winning wars.”
As for the Marine Corps, it foresees “looming battles” that “come in many forms and occur on many fronts,” each posing “a critical choice: to demand victory or accept defeat.” No one even slightly familiar with the Marines will have any doubt on which side of that formulation the Corps situates itself.
In other words, the common theme uniting these statements of institutional purpose is self-evident. The armed forces of the United States define their purpose as winning. Staving off defeat is not enough, nor is fighting to a draw, waging gallant Bataan-like last stands, or handing off wars-in-progress to pliant understudies whom American forces have tutored.
Mission accomplishment necessarily entails defeating the enemy. In General Douglas MacArthur’s famously succinct formulation, “There is no substitute for victory.” But victory, properly understood, necessarily entails more than just besting the enemy in battle. It requires achieving the political purposes for which the war is being fought.
So when it comes to winning, both operationally and politically, how well have the U.S. armed forces performed since embarking upon the Global War on Terror in the autumn of 2001? Do the results achieved, whether in the principal theaters of Afghanistan and Iraq or in lesser ones like Libya, Somalia, Syria, and West Africa qualify as “awesome”? And if not, why not?
A proposed Afghanistan War Commission now approved by Congress and awaiting President Biden’s signature could subject our military’s self-proclaimed reputation for awesomeness to critical scrutiny. That assumes, however that such a commission would forego the temptation to whitewash a conflict that even General Mark Milley, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged ended in a “strategic failure.” As a bonus, examining the conduct of America’s longest war might well serve as a proxy for assessing the military’s overall performance since 9/11.
The commission would necessarily pursue multiple avenues of inquiry. Among them should be: the oversight offered by senior civilian officials; the quality of leadership provided by commanders in the field; and the adequacy of the military’s training, doctrine, and equipment. It should also assess the “fighting spirit” of the troops and the complex question of whether there were ever enough “boots on the ground” to accomplish the mission. And the commission would be remiss if it did not take into account the capacity, skills, and determination of the enemy as well.
But there is another matter that the commission will be obliged to address head-on: the quality of American generalship throughout this longest-ever U.S. war. Unless the commission agenda includes that issue, it will fall short. The essential question is obvious: Did the three- and four-star officers who presided over the Afghanistan War in the Pentagon, at U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), and in Kabul possess the “right stuff”? Or rather than contributing to a favorable resolution of the war, did they themselves constitute a significant part of the problem?
These are not questions that the senior ranks of the officer corps are eager to pursue. As with those who reach the top in any hierarchical institution, generals and admirals are disinclined to see anything fundamentally amiss with a system that has elevated them to positions of authority. From their perspective, that system works just fine and should be perpetuated — no outside tampering required. Much like tenured faculty at a college or university, senior officers are intent on preserving the prerogatives they already enjoy. As a consequence, they will unite in resisting any demands for reform that may jeopardize those very prerogatives.
A Necessary Purge
President Biden habitually concludes formal presentations by petitioning God to “protect our troops.” While not doubting his sincerity in praying for divine intervention, Biden might give the Lord a hand by employing his own authority as commander-in-chief to set the table for a post-Afghanistan military-reform effort. In that regard, a first step should entail removing anyone inclined to obstruct change or (more likely) incapable of recognizing the need to alter a system that has worked so well for them.
On that score, Dwight D. Eisenhower offers Biden an example of how to proceed. When Ike became president in 1953, he was intent on implementing major changes in U.S. defense priorities. As a preliminary step, he purged the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which then included his West Point classmate General Omar Bradley, replacing them with officers he expected to be more sympathetic to what came to be known as his “New Look.” (Eisenhower badly misjudged his ability to get the Army, his own former service, to cooperate, but that’s a story for another day.)
A similar purge is needed now. Commander-in-chief Biden should remove certain active-duty senior officers from their posts without further ado. General Mark Milley, the discredited chair of the Joint Chiefs, would be an obvious example. General Kenneth McKenzie, who oversaw the embarrassing conclusion of the Afghanistan War as head of Central Command, is another. Requiring both of those prominent officers to retire would signal that unsatisfactory performance does indeed have consequences, a principle from which neither the private who loses a rifle nor the four stars who lose wars should be exempt.
However, when it comes to a third figure, our political moment would create complications that didn’t exist when Ike was president. When he decided which generals and admirals to fire and whom to hire in their place, Eisenhower didn’t have to worry about identity politics. Top commanders were of a single skin tone in 1950s America. Today, however, any chief executive who ignores identity-related issues does so at their peril, laying themselves open to the charge of bigotry.
Which brings us to the case of retired four-star general Lloyd Austin, former Iraq War and CENTCOM commander. As a freshly minted civilian, Austin presides as the first Black defense secretary, a notable distinction given that senior Pentagon officials have tended to be white or male (and usually both). And while, by all reports, General Austin is an upright citizen and decent human being, it’s become increasingly clear that he lacks qualities the nation needs when critically examining this country’s less-than-awesome military performance, which should be the order of the day. Whatever suit he may wear to the office, he remains a general — and that is a problem.
Austin also lacks imagination, drive, and charisma. Nor is he a creative thinker. Rather than an agent of change, he’s a cheerleader for the status quo — or perhaps more accurately, for a status quo defined by a Pentagon budget that never stops rising.
A speech Austin made earlier this month at the Reagan Library illustrates the point. While he threw the expected bouquets to the troops, praising their “optimism, and pragmatism, and patriotism” and “can-do attitude,” he devoted the preponderance of his remarks to touting Pentagon plans for dealing with “an increasingly assertive and autocratic China.” The overarching theme of Austin’s address centered on confrontation. “We made the Department’s largest-ever budget request for research, development, testing, and evaluation,” he boasted. “And we’re investing in new capabilities that will make us more lethal from greater distances, and more capable of operating stealthy and unmanned platforms, and more resilient under the seas and in space and in cyberspace.”
Nowhere in Austin’s presentation or his undisguised eagerness for a Cold War-style confrontation with China was there any mention of the Afghanistan War, which had ended just weeks before. That the less-than-awesome U.S. military performance there — 20 years of exertions ending in defeat — might have some relevance to any forthcoming competition with China did not seemingly occur to the defense secretary.
Austin’s patently obvious eagerness to move on — to put this country’s disastrous “forever wars” in the Pentagon’s rearview mirror — no doubt coincides with the preferences of the active-duty senior officers he presides over at the Pentagon. He clearly shares their eagerness to forget.
As if to affirm that the Pentagon is done with Afghanistan once and for all, Austin soon after decided to hold no U.S. military personnel accountable for a disastrous August 29th drone strike in Kabul that killed 10 noncombatants, including seven children. In fact, since 9/11, the United States had killed thousands of civilians in several theaters of operations, with the media either in the dark or, until very recently, largely indifferent. This incident, however, provoked a rare storm of attention and seemingly cried out for disciplinary action of some sort.
But Austin was having none of it. As John Kirby, his press spokesperson, put it, “What we saw here was a breakdown in process, and execution in procedural events, not the result of negligence, not the result of misconduct, not the result of poor leadership.” Blame the process and the procedures but give the responsible commanders a pass.
That decision describes Lloyd Austin’s approach to leading the Defense Department. Whether the problem is a lack of daring or a lack of gumption, he won’t be rocking any boats.
Will the U.S. military under his leadership recover its long-lost awesomeness? My guess is no. In the meantime, don’t expect his increasingly beleaguered boss in the White House to notice or, for that matter, care. With a load of other problems on his desk, he’s counting on the Lord to prevent his generals from subjecting the troops and civilians elsewhere on the planet to further abuse.