I write a lot about the U.S. military, partly because I served in it for 20 years, partly because I’ve been reading about it since I could read, and partly because I have a lot of affection for colleagues, young and old, who still serve. My articles tend to be critical because there’s much to criticize about our military. I get interesting responses, like the one from a military man who said I wrote well and had a few interesting things to say, but why couldn’t I write more positive articles about the military? Why couldn’t I just focus on “good news”? I explained to him that the military has a small legion of public affairs officers and that sharing good news is their job, not mine. He didn’t write back.
I have a few critical things to say in my latest article at TomDispatch: “Seventy Years of Military Mediocrity.” You can read the entire article here; what follows is an excerpt on America’s most senior officers and some of their faults and failings. As ever, I welcome your comments.
America’s Senior Officers: Lots of Ribbon Candy, No Sweetness of Victory
In my first article for TomDispatch back in 2007, I wrote about America’s senior military leaders, men like the celebrated David Petraeus. No matter how impressive, even kingly, they looked in their uniforms festooned with ribbons, badges, and medals of all sorts, colors, and sizes, their performance on the battlefield didn’t exactly bring to mind rainstorms of ribbon candy. So why, I wondered then, and wonder still, are America’s senior military officers so generally lauded and applauded? What have they done to deserve those chests full of honors and the endless praise in Washington and elsewhere in this country?
By giving our commanders so many pats on the back (and thanking the troops so effusively and repeatedly), it’s possible that we’ve prevented the development of an American-style stab-in-the-back theory — that hoary yet dangerous myth that a military only loses wars when the troops are betrayed by the homefront. In the process, however, we’ve written them what is essentially a blank check. We’ve given them authority without accountability. They wage “our” wars (remarkably unsuccessfully), but never have to take the blame for defeats. Unlike President Harry Truman, famous for keeping a sign on his desk that read “the buck stops here,” the buck never stops with them.
Think about two of America’s most celebrated generals of the twenty-first century, Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal and how they fell publicly from grace. Both were West Point grads, both were celebrated as “heroes,” despite the fact that their military “surges” in Iraq and Afghanistan proved fragile and reversible. They fell only because Petraeus was caught with his pants down (in an extramarital affair with a fawning biographer), while McChrystal ran afoul of the president by tolerating an atmosphere that undermined his civilian chain of command.
And here, perhaps, is the strangest thing of all: even as America’s wars continue to go poorly by any reasonable measure, no prominent high-ranking officer has yet stepped forward either to take responsibility or in protest. You have to look to the lower ranks, to lieutenant colonels and captains and specialists (and, in the case of Chelsea Manning, to lowly privates), for straight talk and the courage to buck the system. Name one prominent general or admiral, fed up with the lamentable results of America’s wars, who has either taken responsibility for them or resigned for cause. Yup — I can’t either. (This is not to suggest that the military lacks senior officers of integrity. Recall the way General Eric Shinseki broke ranks with the Bush administration in testimony before Congress about the size of a post-invasion force needed to secure Iraq, or General Antonio Taguba’s integrity in overseeing a thorough investigation of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. Their good deeds did not go unpunished.)
Authority without accountability means no one is responsible. And if no one is responsible, the system can keep chugging along, course largely unaltered, no matter what happens. This is exactly what it’s been doing for years now in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
Can we connect this behavior to the faults of the service academies? Careerism. Parochialism. Technocratic tendencies. Elitism. A focus on image rather than on substance. Lots of busywork and far too much praise for our ascetic warrior-heroes, results be damned. A tendency to close ranks rather than take responsibility. Buck-passing, not bucking the system. The urge to get those golden slots on graduation and the desire for golden parachutes into a lucrative world of corporate boards and consultancies after “retirement,” not to speak of those glowing appearances as military experts on major TV and cable networks.
By failing to hold military boots to the fire, we’ve largely avoided unpleasantness between the military and its civilian leadership, not to speak of the American public. But — and here’s the rub — 70 years of mediocrity since World War II and 14 years of failure since 9/11 should have resulted in anti-war protests, Congressional hearings, and public controversy. It should have created public discord, as it did during the Vietnam War, when dissent was a sign of a healthy democracy and an engaged citizenry. Nowadays, in place of protest, we hear the praise, the applause, the thank-yous followed by yet another bombastic rendition of “God Bless America.” Let’s face it. Our military has failed us, but haven’t we failed it, too?
The passionate discussion generated by our last article, America’s Military Academies Are Seriously Flawed, was heartening. Our military academies will not be improved if we merely accept the status quo, with allowance for minor, mainly cosmetic, reforms. But truly radical reforms are difficult to achieve since the academies are so deeply rooted in tradition. A reluctance to change can be a good thing, especially when an institution is performing well. Yet since the Korean Conflict, and certainly since the Vietnam War, America’s military performance has been mediocre. Placing blame here is obviously contentious, with military professionals tending to point to poor decisions by civilian leaders, among other causes.
Rather than placing blame, let’s entertain some probing questions about the future structure and mission of military academies, with the intent of making them better schools for developing military leaders, as well as better institutions for defending America and advancing its values.
Here in no particular order are a few questions and proposals:
1. Is America best served by military academies that emulate undergraduate colleges in providing a course of study lasting four years? Or should the academies recruit from students who have already finished most (or all) of an undergraduate degree? The academies could then develop a concentrated course of study, specifically tailored to military studies, lasting roughly two years. In effect, the academies would become graduate schools, with all cadets graduating with master’s degrees in military studies with varying concentrations (engineering, science, English, history, and so on). Such a change would also eliminate the need to kowtow to undergraduate accreditation boards such as ABET.
2. West Point and the AF Academy rely primarily on serving military officers as instructors, whereas Annapolis relies primarily on civilian instructors. Is this a distinction without difference? Would West Point and the AF Academy profit from more civilian instructors, and Annapolis from more military ones? Should all the service academies work harder to bring in top instructors from the Ivy League and similar universities as full-time visiting professors?
3. How much of today’s experience at military academies is busy work? Or work driven mainly by tradition, i.e. “We do this because we’ve always done this.” Do we still need lots of inspections, marching, parades, and the like? Do freshman (call them plebes, doolies, smacks, what have you) truly profit from being sleep-deprived and harassed and otherwise forced into compliance as a rite of passage in their first year? Does this truly develop character? Or are cadet schedules so jam-packed that they have little time to think?
4. Why do cadets continue to have limited exposure to the enlisted ranks? NCOs are the backbone of a professional military, a fact that is not stressed enough in officer training. How do we increase opportunities for cadets to work with NCOs in the field?
5. A strong emphasis on physical fitness and sports is smart. But is it necessary to place so much emphasis on big-time sports such as Division I-A football? What is gained by focusing academy recruiting on acquiring athletes that will help to win football games? What is gained by offering such athletes preferential treatment within the corps of cadets? (Some will claim that athletes receive no preferential treatment; if you believe this, I suggest you listen very carefully to cadets who are outside of the charmed circle of celebrated athletes.)
6. When I was a serving officer at the AF Academy, cadets used to ask me whether I believed they were “the best and the brightest.” Certain senior leaders had told them that, by virtue of being selected to attend a military academy, they were better than their civilian peers at universities such as Harvard or MIT. Is it wise to sell cadets on the idea that they are America’s best and brightest?
How I answered the question: I told my cadets that comparing military academies to universities such as Harvard or MIT was an apples/oranges situation. First and foremost, military academies were and are about developing military leaders of strong character. If you compared cadets to their peers at Harvard or MIT, of course you’d find smarter students at these and similar top-flight universities. But that wasn’t the point. Military academies had a different intent, a different purpose, a different mission. This answer seemed to satisfy my cadets; what I sensed was that they were tired of being told they were America’s best, when they could see for themselves that this often wasn’t true.
We do our cadets no service when we applaud them merely for showing up and working hard, just as our civilian leaders do the military no service when they applaud us as the best-led, best-equipped, best-trained, and so on, military force in all of human history. Any student of military history should laugh at such hyperbolic praise.
7. And now for a big question: Are the academies contributing to America’s current state of perpetual war? Have we abandoned Washington’s ideal of Cincinnatus, the citizen-soldier, the soldier who fights reluctantly and who seeks not military honors but only a return to normalcy and an end to war?
Some will argue that the world today demands perpetual vigilance and a willingness to use overwhelming “shock and awe” force to intimidate and defeat America’s enemies. And that only a professional corps of devoted regulars can lead such a force. Perhaps so.
But is it time to consider new paradigms?
What are the most serious threats that America faces today? For example, American infrastructure is crumbling even as we spend hundreds of billions in Iraq and Afghanistan with indifferent results. Should West Point return to its roots, unleashing its officer-engineers to lead a new Civilian Conservation Corps to rebuild America? (Recall that George C. Marshall ran the CCC.) Should America’s military be refocused not on winning the “global war on terror” (unwinnable by definition, for terror will always be with us), but on preserving the global environment?
As humans wage war against our planet and biosphere, should not a force dedicated to the defense of America focus on preserving our livelihood as represented by our planet’s resources? With its global presence, the American military is uniquely situated to take the lead here. Indeed, the U.S. Navy already advertises itself as “A global force for good.” Can we make that a reality?
Too pie in the sky? The U.S. military has enormous resources and a global role in leadership. What would it mean to America if our military took the lead in preserving the earth while rebuilding the core strength of America? Aren’t these “wars” (against global environmental degradation; for America’s internal infrastructure) worth fighting? Are they not more winnable than a perpetual war on terror?
There you have it. Let’s hear your ideas in the comments. And thanks.
As Veterans Day approaches, I thought I’d revive a column I wrote for TomDispatch.com back in 2009. I continue to marvel at the militarism of the USA, and the way in which the troops are defined as “warriors” and “warfighters” who increasingly see themselves as being divorced from, and superior to, “civilians” in the USA. Of course, there was a time in America when our troops were proud to define themselves as citizen-soldiers, with the emphasis on citizen. Not anymore. The ethos has changed, pushed toward a “professional” military that sees itself as a breed apart. And that’s not good for democracy.
I still recall the example set by Major Dick Winters, memorialized in the “Band of Brothers” series on HBO. Dick Winters swore that when the war was over against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, he’d return to his farm in Pennsylvania and leave soldiering and war behind. And that’s exactly what he did. No “warrior” nonsense for him.
Anyway, here’s the article I wrote five years ago. Sadly, its theme is more relevant today than it was in 2009.
What Ever Happened to Gary Cooper? A Seven-Step Program to Return America to a Quieter, Less Muscular, Patriotism By William Astore
I have a few confessions to make: After almost eight years of off-and-on war in Afghanistan and after more than six years of mayhem and death since “Mission Accomplished” was declared in Operation Iraqi Freedom, I’m tired of seeing simpleminded magnetic ribbons on vehicles telling me, a 20-year military veteran, to support or pray for our troops. As a Christian, I find it presumptuous to see ribbons shaped like fish, with an American flag as a tail, informing me that God blesses our troops. I’m underwhelmed by gigantic American flags — up to 100 feet by 300 feet — repeatedly being unfurled in our sports arenas, as if our love of country is greater when our flags are bigger. I’m disturbed by nuclear-strike bombers soaring over stadiums filled with children, as one did in July just as the National Anthem ended during this year’s Major League Baseball All Star game. Instead of oohing and aahing at our destructive might, I was quietly horrified at its looming presence during a family event.
We’ve recently come through the steroid era in baseball with all those muscled up players and jacked up stats. Now that players are tested randomly, home runs are down and muscles don’t stretch uniforms quite as tightly. Yet while ending the steroid era in baseball proved reasonably straightforward once the will to act was present, we as a country have yet to face, no less curtail, our ongoing steroidal celebrations of pumped-up patriotism.
It’s high time we ended the post-Vietnam obsession with Rambo’s rippling pecs as well as the jaw-dropping technological firepower of the recent cinematic version of G.I. Joe and return to the resolute, undemonstrative strength that Gary Cooper showed in movies like High Noon.
In the HBO series The Sopranos, Tony (played by James Gandolfini) struggles with his own vulnerability — panic attacks caused by stress that his Mafia rivals would interpret as fatal signs of weakness. Lamenting his emotional frailty, Tony asks, “What ever happened to Gary Cooper?” What ever happened, in other words, to quiet, unemotive Americans who went about their business without fanfare, without swagger, but with firmness and no lack of controlled anger at the right time?
Tony’s question is a good one, but I’d like to spin it differently: Why did we allow lanky American citizen-soldiers and true heroes like World War I Sergeant Alvin York (played, at York’s insistence, by Gary Cooper) and World War II Sergeant (later, first lieutenant) Audie Murphy (played in the film To Hell and Back, famously, by himself) to be replaced by all those post-Vietnam pumped up Hollywood “warriors,” with Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger-style abs and egos to match?
And far more important than how we got here, how can we end our enduring fascination with a puffed up, comic-book-style militarism that seems to have stepped directly out of screen fantasy and into our all-too-real lives?
A Seven-Step Recovery Program
As a society, we’ve become so addicted to militarism that we don’t even notice the way it surrounds us or the spasms of societal ‘roid rage that go with it. The fact is, we need a detox program. At the risk of incurring some of that ‘roid rage myself, let me suggest a seven-step program that could help return us to the saner days of Gary Cooper:
1. Baseball players on steroids swing for the fences. So does a steroidal country. When you have an immense military establishment, your answer to trouble is likely to be overwhelming force, including sending troops into harm’s way. To rein in our steroidal version of militarism, we should stop bulking up our military ranks, as is now happening, and shrink them instead. Our military needs not more muscle supplements (or the budgetary version of the same), but far fewer.
2. It’s time to stop deferring to our generals, and even to their commander-in-chief. They’re ours, after all; we’re not theirs. When President Obama says Afghanistan is not a war of choice but of necessity, we shouldn’t hesitate to point out that the emperor has no clothes. Yet when it comes to tough questioning of the president’s generals, Congress now seems eternally supine. Senators and representatives are invariably too busy falling all over themselves praising our troops and their commanders, too worried that “tough” questioning will appear unpatriotic to the folks back home, or too connected to military contractors in their districts, or some combination of the three.
Here’s something we should all keep in mind: generals have no monopoly on military insight. What they have a monopoly on is a no-lose situation. If things go well, they get credit; if they go badly, we do. Retired five-star general Omar Bradley was typical when he visited Vietnam in 1967 and declared: “I am convinced that this is a war at the right place, at the right time and with the right enemy — the Communists.” North Vietnam’s only hope for victory, he insisted, was “to hang on in the expectation that the American public, inadequately informed about the true situation and sickened by the loss in lives and money, will force the United States to give up and pull out.”
There we have it: A classic statement of the belief that when our military loses a war, it’s always the fault of “we the people.” Paradoxically, such insidious myths gain credibility not because we the people are too forceful in our criticism of the military, but because we are too deferential.
3. It’s time to redefine what “support our troops” really means. We console ourselves with the belief that all our troops are volunteers, who freely signed on for repeated tours of duty in forever wars. But are our troops truly volunteers? Didn’t we recruit them using multi-million dollar ad campaigns and lures of every sort? Are we not, in effect, running a poverty and recession draft? Isolated in middle- or upper-class comfort, detached from our wars and their burdens, have we not, in a sense, recruited a “foreign legion” to do our bidding?
If you’re looking for a clear sign of a militarized society — which few Americans are — a good place to start is with troop veneration. The cult of the soldier often covers up a variety of sins. It helps, among other things, hide the true costs of, and often the futility of, the wars being fought. At an extreme, as the war began to turn dramatically against Nazi Germany in 1943, Germans who attempted to protest Hitler’s failed strategy and the catastrophic costs of his war were accused of (and usually executed for) betraying the troops at the front.
The United States is not a totalitarian state, so surely we can hazard criticisms of our wars and even occasionally of the behavior of some of our troops, without facing charges of stabbing our troops in the back and aiding the enemy. Or can we?
4. Let’s see the military for what it is: a blunt instrument of force. It’s neither surgical nor precise nor predictable. What Shakespeare wrote 400 years ago remains true: when wars start, havoc is unleashed, and the dogs of war run wild — in our case, not just the professional but the “mercenary” dogs of war, those private contractors to the Pentagon that thrive on the rich spoils of modern warfare in distant lands. It’s time to recognize that we rely ever more massively to prosecute our wars on companies that profit ever more handsomely the longer they last.
5. Let’s not blindly venerate the serving soldier, while forgetting our veterans when they doff their spiffy uniforms for the last time. It’s easy to celebrate our clean-cut men and women in uniform when they’re thousands of miles from home, far tougher to lend a hand to scruffier, embittered veterans suffering from the physical and emotional trauma of the battle zones to which they were consigned, usually for multiple tours of duty.
6. I like air shows, but how about — as a first tiny step toward demilitarizing civilian life — banning all flyovers of sporting events by modern combat aircraft? War is not a sport, and it shouldn’t be a thrill.
7. I love our flag. I keep my father’s casket flag in a special display case next to the very desk on which I’m writing this piece. It reminds me of his decades of service as a soldier and firefighter. But I don’t need humongous stadium flags or, for that matter, tiny flag lapel pins to prove my patriotism — and neither should you. In fact, doesn’t the endless post-9/11 public proliferation of flags in every size imaginable suggest a certain fanaticism bordering on desperation? If we saw such displays in other countries, our descriptions wouldn’t be kindly.
Of course, none of this is likely to be easy as long as this country garrisons the planet and fights open-ended wars on its global frontiers. The largest step, the eighth one, would be to begin seriously downsizing that mission. In the meantime, we shouldn’t need reminding that this country was originally founded as a civilian society, not a militarized one. Indeed, the revolt of the 13 colonies against the King of England was sparked, in part, by the perceived tyranny of forced quartering of British troops in colonial homes, the heavy hand of an “occupation” army, and taxation that we were told went for our own defense, whether we wanted to be defended or not.
If Americans are going to continue to hold so-called tea parties, shouldn’t some of them be directed against the militarization of our country and an enormous tax burden fed in part by our wasteful, trillion-dollar wars?
Modest as it may seem, my seven-step recovery program won’t be easy for many of us to follow. After all, let’s face it, we’ve come to enjoy our peculiar brand of muscular patriotism and the macho militarism that goes with it. In fact, we revel in it. Outwardly, the result is quite an impressive show. We look confident and ripped and strong. But it’s increasingly clear that our outward swagger conceals an inner desperation. If we’re so strong, one might ask, why do we need so much steroidal piety, so many in-your-face patriotic props, and so much parade-ground conformity?
Forget Rambo and action-picture G.I. Joes: Give me the steady hand, the undemonstrative strength, and the quiet humility of Alvin York, Audie Murphy — and Gary Cooper.