America Needs A Can’t Do Military

W.J. Astore

“Can-do” is an attitude that’s common, indeed obligatory, in the U.S. military. “Can’t do” is for quitters, for losers, for the “whiskey deltas” (weak dicks) who don’t have “the right stuff” to succeed. Yet I’d argue the U.S. military could use a few good men and women who are willing to say “can’t do,” not because they’re losers or lazy or otherwise “weak,” but because they’re smart and willing to speak uncomfortable truths.

“Saluting smartly” goes along with a “can-do” attitude. But was it sensible to salute smartly and invade Afghanistan and seek to remake a complex and decentralized tribal society into a centralized pseudo-democracy? Was it sensible to invade and occupy Iraq, disband its army, and seek to remake an ethnically and religiously fractured society, previously controlled by an authoritarian dictator, into a centralized pseudo-democracy? And by “remake,” I mean imposing a new government by often violent means by outsiders (yes, that’s us). Of course it wasn’t sensible, as events proved. These were “can’t do” scenarios, and never-should-have-done wars, and the U.S. military should have said so, and loudly, rather than saluting smartly and lying year after year about “progress.”

Sometimes, integrity means admitting that you can’t do. It recalls a line from Dirty Harry in “Magnum Force”: A man’s got to know his limitations. Not everything is achievable or even desirable, no matter how much money and “Hooah!” spirit you throw at the problem.

But officers in the military don’t get promoted for saying “can’t do,” no matter how sensible the sentiment may be. You’ve got to make it work, or die or lie trying, no matter the folly of it all. Here I recall a weapon system I worked on in the Air Force in the mid-1990s. It was over-budget, under-performing, and also being overtaken by newer, cheaper, technologies that flight crews liked better. But my job (and possibly my future promotion) hinged on refusing to recognize this truth. Instead, I had to do my part to make the “bad” system work — or seem to work.

As I recently wrote to a fellow former Air Force officer: As a captain, I worked on a project that probably should have been canceled. But the pressure on me was to make it work, at least my piece of it. Jobs depended on it. We are a can-do military even when can’t- or shouldn’t-do would be the much wiser course of action.

This fellow officer, also a captain and engineer, sent along this perceptive comment:

I don’t know about your path to promotion, but in my Support Group position, our annual performance reviews and officer promotion path was dependent upon being responsible for an ever expanding budget, year after year. I could never see a situation where being in charge of less compared to the previous year was ever a positive if one wanted to make a career out of military service. It really didn’t matter if the expansion was due to the inclusion of unnecessary spending. After I left active duty it finally sank in that all of the personal/professional incentives are to continually spend more, never to save the taxpayer money. I have since felt that the personal promotion incentive is one of several internal systems that creates the environment that is present; where DoD spending is commonly and fairly criticized for fraud, waste and abuse and why there are few incentives for the military leadership to do a better job of advising the civilian leadership to war less.

So, for example, saying “can’t do” while saving money is often the worst sort of action one could make if you want to get ahead in the military. Saying “can-do” while burning through money and accomplishing nothing but an expansion of next year’s budget is, however, rewarded by the system. You have proven yourself to be a “team player,” irrespective of results.

Of course, what America really needs is not a can- or can’t-do military but rather one with unimpeachable integrity in its oath to the U.S. Constitution. That oath carries with it an obligation to speak the truth, and a willingness to put the truth before conformity and ambition and “going along to get along.”

Our history since 9/11 would have been far different if the U.S. military knew its limitations and was willing to say “can’t do” when it was given unachievable objectives.

16 thoughts on “America Needs A Can’t Do Military

  1. “Can’t is not a word for princes.”
    And you don’t get the Big Bucks by saying, “We’ll get our lunch handed to us in (wherever)” or “Thanks, but we got plenty of missiles and subs and stuff.”

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Two questions:
    Can the military say NO to the president of the United States ( commander in chief of all the military ) when that person orders an invasion?

    What was said to the president G. Bush when he ordered the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq? Do we have any record of what the chiefs of staff said about those ill conceived plans? Were there any voices of reason that said it was a bad idea to go into those countries?

    The military is like an attack dog, it’s whole life is about attacking something. At least in our country it is the civilian political establishment that makes the choices about where and when the military is to be used. The owner of the attack dog is the one who should take the blame for the mauling their dog gives to someone.

    It seems to be a failure of political maturity and wisdom that got us into Afghanistan and Iraq. I can not remember who made the rejoinder to the statement: ‘In America, anybody can become president.’
    ‘Yeah, that’s the problem’.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I will try to answer:

    1. Presidents are not supposed to be able to order invasions, i.e. declare war. That is the responsibility of Congress. But Congress has opted to evade responsibility through the use of unconstitutional devices like AUMFs. By law, the military can refuse to obey a presidential order to invade when that order is inconsistent with the will of Congress and the people. In practice, we are in a new age of the “unitary executive” in which Congress has ceded far too much authority to the president.

    2. Three questions! My guess is that the JCS was more than willing to obey. You may recall that General Shinseki, the Army Chief of Staff, said at the time that the U.S. invasion force was too small for its post-war stability duties. His reward was to be overruled and humiliated by SecDef Rumsfeld. Here’s a link:

    A few in the military saw the folly here, but they either kept quiet or met Shinseki’s fate. What was needed was concerted action by the generals, but the only concerted action was to lie about progress for the next 15-20 years.

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  4. Although the can-do phenomenon you describe, Bill, has possibly the most dramatic effect in the military, it’s prevalent throughout the corporate world, also, from my observation. Everywhere I’ve worked, the culture dictated that one never said anything was impossible. The rule always was, never go to a supervisor with a problem, just a solution. By definition, then, there was supposedly nothing we shouldn’t be able to do.

    An editor with whom I worked wrote a column about the near-universal demand for a higher level of profits every year and asked how it could be possible to net more money every 12 months. He said such demands were impossible and marked the road to ruin. Same with a military that says, “can do,” no matter what the situation.

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    1. our moral and institutional zeitgeists are more medieval and self-destructive than the bands of marauding, malfeasing thieves of yore. yet there seem to be no sheriffs along the road to perdition who are willing to rein us in or hold us accountable for our esurient obsessions. please help me understand why, wja. your extended career in the US airforce as a professor of military history gives you an inimitable platform to pontificate w/ reasonable, illuminating, and logical elucubrations that might guide us toward future, more humane enterprises.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. This is the basis of the prediction that capitalism will ultimately fail – because the desire for profit is infinite and the physical world is not. If there is no such thing as a perpetual motion machine, there surely is no such thing as unlimited profit. It has also been said that a virtue of capitalism is that it has redirected martial ardor into finance…we have titans of industry instead of war lords. Though likely temporary, I guess that’s progress, but it doesn’t deal with the underlying drive for power.

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      1. In a twisted way, one could say that many of the titans of industry are actually sublimating their violent urges into support for the MIC. Thus fulfilling their drives without physically getting their hands dirty.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. it seems that one could conclude, at least in my 8+ decades of experience, that violence as a demiurgic, whether subtly twisted or sublimated as w/ industry titans, or on manifest display as in the military, on the school playground, in the boxing ring, or in pub brawls, the fountainhead of said-violence spews water that sources from a developmental history wherein a child is the victim of incremental belittlement, disdain, bullying, disrespect, physical/sexual abuse, or chronic neglect, whether emotional, intellectual, psychological, or nutritional.

          however, that is a gordian knot that will never be untied. no one dares stand in judgement of who should be allowed to parent and who should not; the augean stable of judgemental repercussions by some appointed board, pro or against parental supplicants, would result in an accumulation of faecal detritus that would be impossible to defenestrate from the barn door.

          again, we have a plethora of concerns regarding violence, collective or individual, w/ no viable answers forthcoming.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. Agree with your points, Jeanie.

            However, once one reaches adulthood, one is responsible for one’s
            behavior choices. Violence as an adult can’t be written off to anything that happened or didn’t happen during childhood.


            1. w/ certitude, yes, den. what is so perplexing is why some victims can reach adulthood and disabuse themselves of their victimhood, their demons, their abnegations by others, their impuissance, their dehumanizations, and yet persist to become existential attributes to society, while others subjected to equal abuse, disapprobation, or even less, become destructive, duplicitous, megalomaniacal elements in societal structures. it is not so simplistic as to inculpate one’s variant genotype. it is a far more complex conundrum of probity vs. malevolence than descrying one’s genotypic proclivities or the propitious timing of ameliorating cynosures at a critical nexus in one’s ambient life-trajectory. it seems a mysterium that is unresolvable, but if we could understand the constituent dynamics involved we might succeed in transforming society from the profane to the hallowed.

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              1. True psychopaths/sociopaths aside, I think adult outcomes are largely a matter of choice. Violence doesn’t just “happen.” One chooses to be a contributer—in any form, from bricklaying to nursing to teaching to stocking shelves—or one chooses the opposite. One decides whether to be violent or not, corrupt or not. The good examples are out there, right along with the bad ones. It’s a matter of doing the hard work involved in being a good person, or not. But if you want to go back to first causes and ask why one individual makes the choice to be honest in the face of temptation, or non-violent in a violent culture, well….that’s beyond the scope here.


                1. this short chris hedges’ clip and the ineffable optimism of trisomy-23 kids have inspiring attitudes and behaviours to share w/ us. we need only to pause and listen in order to pull ourselves away from destructive consumerism, capitalism, militarism, and hedonism.

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  5. My understanding is that, with all relevant aspects proportionately considered (e.g. size), the U.S. armed forces are the greatest polluter, but no one is allowed to discuss or mention it at the lame-duck climate conferences. Have you heard similarly?

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  6. Something my mother always would mention is the saying “the difficult we do immediately, the impossible takes a little time.” Another military thing I remember is TACAMO (take charge and move out).

    If only Obama had and Biden would follow these two sayings on things good for the American people.

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