« The Immune Group: Hol… | Home | Election 2012! The On… »

The Best Trained, Most Professional Military...Just Lost Two Wars?

On Meet The Press on Feb. 28, 2010, John McCain told David Gregory, “We have the highest trained, most professional, best military in history.” Milbloggers, last year, signed a joint statement opposing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. It opened with the line, “We consider the US military the greatest institution for good that has ever existed. No other organization has freed more people from oppression, done more humanitarian work or rescued more from natural disasters.” President Obama has described our military as “the strongest military the world has ever known.”
There’s just one problem with this...

That military just lost two wars in a row.

And that’s not all. Since World War II, America has, at best, won one war, lost a few and drawn all of the rest. Korea ended in a stalemate. Vietnam was, well, Vietnam--now a synonym for quagmire. We defeated the Iraqi army in the Persian Gulf War, but bungled the war in Iraq a decade later. Our troops remain in Afghanistan, gaining little forward progress.

If our military is so great, why have the last fifty years been so disastrous? Why has our military absolutely failed in two wars after 9/11? Why is the “greatest military to ever walk the face of the Earth” still in Afghanistan?

I’ll use a sport’s analogy. No one would say that either the Los Angeles Lakers or the Boston Celtics currently have the best basketball teams in the world, because neither team won the championship last year, let alone made it to the finals. Historically, they’re great franchises--with championship eras throughout the last five decades--but in the current rankings, the Heat (unfortunately) rule the roost.

In other words, what have you done for me lately?

Which brings us to the question Michael C asked all last week: who is to blame for America’s military failings over the last fifty years, but especially the last ten? Most people blame politicians. In the 2000s, liberals blamed neo-cons for sending our troops to needless, gigantic overseas, nation-building wars; conservatives blamed the liberal media and ROEs (or deny we have a problem in the first place). We could also blame the last decade on the size of our military, which is too small to fight two wars simultaneously, though few people want a larger military.

To return to the basketball analogy, I blame the organization. Michael C called out the generals last week--in sports terms, the general managers and coaches. I want to blame the entire franchise. That’s right, I think the entire military carries some responsibility.

I’d point to a military culture--from the bottom up--that fails to adapt to modern wars, particularly population-centric counter-insurgency. (Let’s face it, the average soldier and his supporters hates population-centric counter insurgency.) I’d point to a bloated military that spends a lot, but wastes much of it, and no one seems to care. I’d point to lax recruiting standards over the last decade. I’d blame the military culture that causes college educated officers to abandon it in droves. I’d blame nepotism, cronyism and the military industrial complex.

I know why the military escapes blame: Vietnam. America feels like we abandoned our troops during and after the Vietnam war. (Check out a related On V post here.) When the lead up to the Iraq War came, the message was clear: we would support our troops. Even protesters and politicians who criticized the war supported the troops/the military. We learned the lesson from Vietnam; we wouldn’t abandon our soldiers again.

To say our military is the greatest military in the history of the earth is to insulate it from any sort of criticism, which insulates it from improvement too. I support our troops but support without criticism is meaningless. Our culture now refuses criticize our troops, lest we seem unpatriotic or disloyal. By not criticizing the military we have a tool we can’t improve; a knife we refuse to sharpen. Military political correctness has weakened our military.
America will continue to lose wars until we fix this problem.


I’m aware that this post will be as controversial “The Sobel Problem”. Deal with it. And I’m right.

PS, this comes across as very anti-military, which comes across as anti-soldier. I fall back on the analogy with sports. You can’t be the best unless you win. In irregular counter-insurgencies, we haven’t won.

Nice post. I’m not sure this is a fair assessment. Can you define what victory would have looked like in Iraq and Afghanistan? If we had set limited goals during the Iraq War, and left essentially at the “end of major combat operations” and never engaged in nation-building/counter-insurgency, would that have been a victory?

I’d argue that our goals in both countries never had a sole military solution in the first place. It is a failure of policy, not necessarily a military failure.

The UN Command forces’ goal was to recapture all of South Korea and to avoid losing territory. It achieved that goal, and then agreed to an internationally formulated armistice. There’s a reason why some call it the “forgotten victory.”

While criticism is essential to all improvement. A few things the civilian population should remember. 1) War is foreign policy by other means. Iraq and Afghanistan are both products of the foreign policy demanded/expected by The People after 911. Entering a conflict with bloodlust will result in fuzzy objectives. 2) The military should be a representation of the society it serves, it used to be, it is no longer. Change for the military comes from the legislature and from within itself. Society needs to participate in both, not just wrinkle their high brows and cast critical eyes.

First , the measure of victory will be seen in history, and I don’t beleive these wars have been lost when so many important strides toward improving the human condition for groups long respressed, have at least been initiated.Democracy and the freedom it brings are long hard fought battles.
Additionally, the comparison to sports is part of the problem with the understanding of the Military and its culture and goals. Soldiers are not highly paid, publically supported,carismatic, entitled, elitist individuals. We have an all volunteer force, who have been asked to leave their families for multiple deployments,with costs that are invisible to most Americans.There is no comparison to any sport team. Its like comparing, well soldiers and athletes, and the measure of victory is different.

Eric interesting article. I very much agree with Don. I think he makes very valid points. Our military was not made to be a nation building organization. As far as casualties For and against I think we overwhelm our enemies every war. I think your point about lax recruiting standards is Far from the truth. Our recruiting centers have never been more strict. During World War II and Vietnam there was a draft, so almost every citizen in a certain age range was eligible. You had people joining the military who didn’t necessarily want to but they just didnt have the means to leave the country or dodge the draft another way. now they have much stricter standards. stricter appearance, fitness and past police reports.

You know Eric and Michael, you guys do good work.

Your best point is that the military fails to adapt well. It doesn’t matter what it can’t adapt to, it can’t adapt well. The apologists will make the usual excuses about small wars being confusing, lack of strategy etc etc etc. But it is a cover for a force that doesn’t adapt quickly. What adaption there is comes from the lower ranking officers and men and it seems to happen in spite of the military establishment. I think the lower guys can adapt and have adapted, sometimes to a remarkable degree. But the multi-stars don’t seem to like it much.

This is fatal for the future if it isn’t changed. The military establishment may think they have conventional war figured out but nobody has the next war figured out. The big surprises that will come will have to be adapted to very quickly. We won’t have the luxury of being able to take years to get it right. Right now we don’t seem to have a military establishment that can handle that. The lower ranks won’t be able to save us the next time because there may not be time.

I always figured that God likes the United States. I’m sentimental that way. With that in mind, with our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan he is showing us that we have grave, potentially fatal problems with our military. We are getting a chance to see those problems and maybe have a chance to fix them before those problems can be fatal. I hope we heed the warning.

Don I think your argument is typical of an apologist for our military failures, especially the part that suggests there was no military solution. That is partially true but in total that kind of argument lets the military establishment off the hook for military failures. In both conflicts it was and is needed that people be killed who oppose us, the right people. That is a military task and the military establishment hasn’t done so great.

Cav Scout the draft was an anomaly in American history. Volunteer forces have been the norm. Those forces could adapt in the old days. If you look at the types of wars we fought from 1812 to the end of WWII they ran the gamut from tiny war to conquering far off islands to industrial war and everything you can think off. The organization adapted pretty well and often it was the same men doing radically different things.

You guys got me all interested so I am talking too much but one last thing. When I was young I used to read things about the Civil War and many of those kinds of “in the history of the world” statements were made about the fighting and efforts. I believed it then. Then I got older and I found out those guys were just boasting in addition to being ignorant about military history. Here we are doing the same thing but with less excuse.

(People are going to have to have better arguments before they figure we shade the armies of Genghis Khan.)

@ Carl – Mainly, ever since we were kids, one of the many history lessons our dad taught us—he’s a US history teacher—is that Generals always fight the last war. I think, watching the country dive into two wars since 9/11, that we saw that lesson come true again.

Initial successes were from standard training, standard warfare. After a few months, both conflicts entered different and non-warfare types of action.

Rational thinking failed solely in the White House for both actions. No President is CIC unless called into the actual service of the US. Art2 Sec2 was written expressly for this purpose. Congress declares the war first. They did not do so.

Adventurism WE don’t need. Revenge WE don’t need. 9/11 was less than Pearl Harbor. 9/11 was not nation to nation. Neither was Iraq. These actions were mismatches between forces and purposes. Ill conceived thought processes added to the misunderstandings, summed the results.

Amateurs playing with lives is idiotic. Napoleon played with millions of lives, but he knew what he was doing from years of practice. He should have quit in 1811, but he didn’t.

Knowing when to start and stop are worthwhile, as is continuous truthful evaluation.

There’s a two key items that I think are worth more discussion: we have a failure to abide by the constitutional process for declaring war (none, since 1945), and an increase in complexity both of the problems we’re tackling and the military we’re using to tackle with.

The process failure inhibits our ability to prosecute wars both at home and in the fight. There’s a momentous step when Congress pauses and votes to declare war on a foreign state that calls for serious scrutiny on the case for war. A better-informed public debate over war aims might have revealed that of President Obama’s three strategic objectives in Afghanistan, two (killing bin Laden and defeating the Taliban) were going to take place in Pakistan, and the third (standing up the Afghan government) was dauntingly complex. There’s also an array of policy options that become available in “wartime”, like holding EPWs in North American EPW camps, that we have been unable (or unwilling) to use.

The complexity issue is interesting because it reflects both the complexity of the US military as an instrument and the perceived complexity of the wars we wage. Interestingly, the US COIN effort in El Salvador was largely successful, but it was small and attracted little attention in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. It might be worth doing the small-n study to see if there’s a strong correlation between size (in dollars and deployed personnel) and success in American military operations.

The perceived complexity of the policy problem is another interesting aspect. When Taft was Governor General of the Philippines, he was in charge of all aspects, civil and military, or the American occupation. MGEN Chaffee reported to Taft, who reported to Washington. There was no COCOM, no Joint Staff, no dual civil-military reporting chains. Does the multiplicity of staffs, staff estimates, and support commands enable or inhibit the Nation’s war effort? Do we need human terrain systems, or do we need officers with a liberal (or classical) education, who can contextualize problems based on broad knowledge?

First, thanks everyone for keeping the comments civil and related to the topic.

I’m going to address Don’s question, which I think boils down the entire debate. Could the US have “won” in any sense in Iraq or Afghanistan? With hindsight, it seems easy to say, “No an insurgency would have started no matter what.” But I think that is limiting the scope of history. If the generals had demanded four times as many soldiers, locked down Baghdad, severely limited civilian casualties during the early IED attacks, refused to let a civilian disband the Iraqi Army/civil society and some more options, then we might have actually had a chance to replace the government successfully. Yes, that is hindsight for how we could have done better, but we could have hypothetically “won”.

Of course, we shouldn’t have started the war in the first place, but that is a different issue.

“If the generals had… refused to let a civilian disband the Iraqi Army/civil society”

fairly opposite to the american civil-military relationship, eh?

in all seriousness, i think Joe’s final paragraph is pretty key here. i agree with y’all’s apportionment of blame, but i also feel like the state department is hiding in the shadows, so to speak. it shouldn’t be military commands running COIN or CMO; once the “war is war” portion of a conflict is over, unity of command should apex at the state department, in accordance with our constitutionally established civil-military relationship. this is a pretty fundamental change from the way things are run now, and can be seen in the difference between, say, the state department HQ and the NSA/CIA/DIA HQs in DC… there is a qualitative difference in facilities, commensurate with the respective budgetary differences, between these agencies. this is a pretty visible reflection of where our priorities are WRT to the current conflicts.

our military leadership IS steam-rolling our civilian leadership at the national level, but they lack the demonstrable successes to warrant such behavior (not to mention its inversion of standard American values).

i think i may be getting more rant-y than i want to be, but… i think many of our problems relevant to this discussion stem from an effectively disenfranchised and sidelined state department. where are the ambassadorial equivalents of McChrystal and Petraus and Nagl??

quantitative, even…

hah. that’s the problem with rants, i suppose. words are harder when you’re shooting off at the mouth.

@ MKP – That’s a great point, except I would say that the State Department doesn’t nearly have the cache or love that the military gets, from the US public.

MLK let me clarify exactly what I should have said. “The generals should have thrown their bodies in front of a plan to disband the Iraqi Army. The generals running the army should have avoided taking almost all of the state department’s budget through the 90s, then pleaded that “we don’t do nation building” after they eroded the funds of the organization responsible for reconstruction.”

In other words, I completely agree with you. Yes, I made it sound like generals should run things, but I don’t truly feel that way. (though they can give candid advice that they too seldom do.)

@ Carl, thanks for the kind words. I like the connection with our wars and the civil war and the exceptionalism attached to both. I think that occurs during every war throughout time.

MLK? .

@both C’s:

just found this today: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/20..

it’s a great contextual addition to the conversation… why else is it possible for the american public to fetishize the military (at the expense of our diplomats), except for the politically-engendered attitude that the world is a terrifying, black-and-white place that requires violence to be our primary diplomatic tool?

anywho, cheers. always good to chat around here.

Let’s measure end result with mission objectives in Iraq:
1. End the regime of Saddam Hussein, check
2. Eliminate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, they don’t have them do they? so check
3. Capture or drive out terrorists, OK, many were captured and driven out at various times, but I’ll concede this one was not so successful
4. Collect intelligence on terrorist networks, check
5. Collect intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction activity, the fact we confirmed they didn’t have them would seem to answer, check
6. Secure Iraq’s oil fields, check
7. Deliver humanitarian relief and end sanctions, check
8. Help Iraq achieve representative self-government and insure its territorial integrity, check

One out of eight missed, and that might have been more of having a bad assumption the terrorists were there to begin with. I suppose if we had done something more like Obama did in Libya, and simply walk away from things after the bad man was killed and let it fester into a sucking chest wound in the region then that would be considered success?

@ Kilgore – As we wrote last week, if you think we won Iraq, then this post and the two proceeding it just aren’t for you. I don’t really have the energy to debate Iraq point by point.

I disagree with the premise because winning and losing are such definite terms. For example, the US failed in its objective of stopping the spread of communism, but we can’t really say the VC and North Vietnamese won as they lost somewhere from 3-10 times as many soldiers plus the devastation of Laos and Cambodia due to firebombing. Further, communism eventually proved a failure, so if there is no operational deadline. We technically won.

While the above is exaggeration my point is that war isn’t as simple as winning and losing. It’s more a gray scale than black and white.

I’ll leave it at this: if we lost in Afghanistan and Iraq, who won? Or is this a case of “in war there are no winners?”

Matty P:

I think you are mixing up winning and losing with lack or not of long term benefit and was it worth it. In many if not most instances it is pretty simple to figure out who the winners and losers are, just ask them. The North and South Vietnamese will be pretty definite about the answer. Most of the participants will be pretty definite about that when the war ends.

If you change the question to was the effort worth it or did it result in benefits that lasted, that is when things get more grey. To carry on with sports analogy that the C’s made use of, there was no question who won the Rumble in the Jungle. But if you asked who is doing better now or was the win worth the cost, the answer would not be so clear.

Besides, this does not address the prime point of the post, that being the US military isn’t nearly so good as it is cracked up to be and blind boosterism gets in the way of seeing that and you can’t fix what you don’t see.

H.John Poole said something to the effect that we train our military to use their equipment well, are way too firepower dependent and fall flat on our face in fieldcraft. Oh, and we overload our troops, which seriously destroys their physical performance.

@ Matty P – I love the idea of breaking down the wars by , “Who won?” But by that metric, the US still doesn’t come out ahead.

Who won Korea? Both sides, so it’s a draw.

Who won Vietnam? The North Vietnamese, because Vietnam became communist.

Who won the Persia Gulf? Us.

Who won Iraq? Not us.

Who won Afghanistan? Who knows.

And finally, even if we did win/will win some of those wars, they took way too many lives and cost too much money to justify anything less than an quick, outright win.

Great point though.

@ Carl – You nailed the main point of this post, though it seems like many people didn’t get it.

“Who won Korea? Both sides, so it’s a draw.”- Let’s not forget the Chi-Coms, on foot, using Sun Tzu based doctrine kicked our mechanized forces almost all the way out of Korea ON FOOT. They had no armor, heavy artillery & naval gunfire or heavy bomber support. Yeah, we pushed them back to the 38th parallel, but they achived their goal of restoring North Korea to the communist fold.

“Who won Vietnam? The North Vietnamese, because Vietnam became communist.” Yeah, and furthermore the “We never lost a battle to the NVA” is hogwash. Ever hear of Firebase Ripcord? We had to evacuate it under fire. That doesn’t meet the definition of victory in anyone’s playbook.