|Image: USO - Hampton Roads and Central Virginia|
"The military can’t set its own goals, can’t determine its own budget or which ideals it fights and dies for, and can’t decide how its losses will be honored, dishonored, or appropriated after the fact.
So while America as a whole chooses to express its love for its military in gooey, substance-free displays, our military waits, perhaps hopelessly, for a coherent national policy that takes the country’s wars seriously."
"If the courage of young men and women in battle truly does depend on the nature and quality of our civic society, we should be very worried. We should expect to see a sickness spreading from our public life and into the hearts of the men and women who continue to risk their lives on behalf of a distracted nation.
And when we look closely, that is exactly what we see: a sickness that all the ritualistic displays of support for our troops at sporting events and Veterans Day celebrations, and in the halls of Congress, can’t cure.
Our military is a major part of who we are as a country; it is the force that has undergirded the post–World War II international order. Being an American means being deeply implicated in that, for good or for ill. But as Wellman’s response to his war suggests, the solution to our current dead end doesn’t lie within the military itself.
The military can’t set its own goals, can’t determine its own budget or which ideals it fights and dies for, and can’t decide how its losses will be honored, dishonored, or appropriated after the fact. So while America as a whole chooses to express its love for its military in gooey, substance-free displays, our military waits, perhaps hopelessly, for a coherent national policy that takes the country’s wars seriously.
What would such a thing look like?
It would probably look like rescinding the open-ended Authorization for the Use of Military Force and making the president regularly go before Congress to explain where and why he was putting troops in harm’s way, what resources the mission required, and what the terms of success were.
It would look like every member of Congress carrying out his or her constitutionally mandated duty to provide oversight of our military adventures by debating and then voting on that plan.
It would look like average Americans taking part in that debate, and scorning anyone who tried to tell them they couldn’t. It would look like average Americans rolling their eyes in disgust when our leaders tell us we’re not at war while American troops are risking their lives overseas, or claim that Americans must support the wars their country engages in if they want to support the troops, or when a press secretary argues that anyone who questions the success of a military raid in which a service member died “owes an apology” to that fallen soldier.
It would look like our politicians letting the fallen rest in peace, rather than propping up their corpses for political cover. And when service members die overseas in unexpected places, such as the four killed in Niger last year, it would look like us eschewing the easy symbolic debates about whether our president is disrespecting our troops by inartfully offering condolences or whether liberals are disrespecting our troops by seizing upon those inartful condolences for political gain. It would look like us instead having a longer and harder conversation about the mission we are asking soldiers to perform, and whether we are doing them the honor of making sure it’s achievable.
In short, it would look like Americans as a whole doling out a lot fewer cheap, sentimental displays of love for our troops, and doubling down on something closer to Gunny Maxwell’s “tough love”—a love that means zeroing in on our country’s faults and failures.
if we don’t, then at some point the bottom will drop out. Morale is a hard thing to measure, but plenty of indicators suggest that it’s been falling. Ninety-one percent of troops called their quality of life good or excellent in a survey done by the Military Times back in 2009, when the downturn in violence in Iraq and a new strategy in Afghanistan still held out a promise of victory; by 2014 that had fallen to only 56 percent, with intentions to reenlist dropping from 72 to 63 percent.
Recruiting is also down. For the past three decades, the military has generally accepted about 60 percent of applicants. In recent years that figure has been closer to 70 percent and is climbing. And the active-duty force is getting worn out. When I was in, I was impressed to meet guys with five deployments under their belts. Now I meet guys who have done eight, or nine, or 10.
The situation is particularly bad within the Special Operations community. Last year Special Operations Command deployed troops to 149 countries; some operators cycled in and out of deployments at what General Raymond Thomas called the “unsustainable” pace of six months overseas, six months at home. I recently met an Army ranger who’d done seven deployments. He was on a stateside duty, and told me that when he and his wife realized that he’d be home for two years straight, it freaked them out a bit. They loved each other, and had three kids, but had never spent two solid years together without one of them going on a deployment. This is too much to ask, especially for ongoing wars with no end in sight.
Theresa Whelan, the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and global security, recently told the House Armed Services Committee that the Special Operations community has “had to eat our young … [and] mortgaged our future” to keep going.
Day by day, that mortgaged future creeps closer. When it arrives, who is going to sign up for a vague and hopeless mission? How do you motivate men and women to fight and die for a cause many of them don’t believe in, and whose purpose they can’t articulate? What happens to the bonds between men and women in combat, and to the bonds between soldiers and the citizenry for whom they fight, when we fail as a nation to treat our wars as a collective responsibility, rather than the special mission of a self-selected few?
Without a political leadership that articulates and argues for a mission and objective worth dying for, it’s no surprise that soldiers sometimes stop caring about the mission altogether. A sergeant who deployed to the Korengal Valley, in Afghanistan, told me that by the end of his deployment, he had purposely adopted a defensive posture, sacrificing mission for safety at every opportunity he could.
This is reminiscent of what one officer said of the later stages of the Vietnam War: “The gung-ho attitude that made our soldiers so effective in 1966, ’67, was replaced by the will to survive.” It’s not that those troops lacked courage, but that the ends shifted. “We fought for each other,” I’ve heard plenty of veterans claim about their time in service, and no wonder.
If your country won’t even resource the wars with what its own generals say is necessary for long-term success, what else is there to fight for? But if you think the mission your country keeps sending you on is pointless or impossible and that you’re only deploying to protect your brothers and sisters in arms from danger, then it’s not the Taliban or al-Qaeda or isis that’s trying to kill you, it’s America."