The U.S. Military’s Ethos: Of Busy-work, Sweaty Suffering, White Wall Haircuts, Beribboned Uniforms, and Warrior Talk

W.J. Astore

Why does the U.S. military invest so much pride in working to the point of tedium, if not exhaustion?  A friend of mine, an Army major, worked at the Pentagon.  He worked hard during his normal shift, after which he did what sensible people do – he went home.  His co-workers, noses to the grindstone, would hassle him about leaving “early.”  He’d reply, I can leave on-time because I don’t waste hours at the coffee maker or in the gym.

A caffeinated emphasis on work and fitness, another friend suggested, may be a post-Vietnam War reaction to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s “managerial culture” of the 1960s.  As he put it, “One easy way of showing one has the ‘right stuff’ [in the U.S. military] is to be an exercise nut, and the penumbras of that mind-set have really distorted the allocation of effort in our military.”

Two recent examples of work- and fitness-mania are Army Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal.  The U.S. media extolled them as ascetic-warriors, yet both flamed out due to serious errors in judgment (Petraeus for an affair with his biographer, with whom he illegally shared highly classified information, and McChrystal for tolerating a climate that undermined his civilian chain of command).  Asceticism and sweaty fitness routines, after all, are no substitute for sound judgment and a disciplined mind.

Busy-work within the military is related to Parkinson’s Law, the idea that work expands to fill the time allotted to it.  In this case, with America’s wars on terror being open-ended, or “multi-generational” as the U.S. military puts it, the “work” on these wars will continue to expand to fill this time, with the added benefit of “validating” the extra money ($54 billion in 2017 alone) being shoveled to the Pentagon by President Trump.

Along with busy-work are the virtues of suffering, as related by a societal celebration of Navy SEALs and similar special forces (“100 men will test today/but only three win the Green Beret”).  I’ve lost count of the times I’ve read articles and seen films featuring these “supermen” and their arduous training.  The meme of “sweet–and public–suffering” is related to the whole “warrior” ideal (more on this later) within the U.S. military.  There’s a self-righteous shininess here, a triumph of image over substance, or image as substance.  (Being physically tough is of course an asset in close quarters combat, but it’s no guarantor of strategic sense or even of common sense.)

In the past, some of America’s finest military leaders had no shame in appearing common, most famously the “shabby” Ulysses S. Grant during the U.S. Civil War.

Grant at Cold Harbor, 1864

Civil War officers – true citizen-soldiers, most of them – often had unruly hair and unkempt beards, but they sure as hell fought hard and got the job done.  Nowadays, as another reader put it, “there appears to be a whole lot of Army officers who think a white sidewall haircut proves you’re a great officer. It actually is a homage to the Prussian Army that shaved its soldiers’ heads to prevent lice.”

Speaking again of image, let’s take a close look at the beribboned uniforms of today’s military officers.  General Joseph Votel, presently U.S. Centcom commander, is only the most recent example of an excess of ribbons, badges, and other devices:

Contrast Votel’s image to that of General George C. Marshall, who defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan during World War II.

Marshall in 1946

How did Marshall manage such military feats with so few ribbons?  Nowadays, U.S. generals sport more bling than the Kardashians.

But let’s return to the notion of U.S. troops as “warriors” and “warfighters.”  I’ve written extensively on this subject.  I see today’s “warrior” conceit as a way of eliminating our democratic citizen-soldier ideal, making the U.S. military a thoroughly professional force, subservient to the government and divorced from the people.

However, there’s another aspect to this “warrior” mythology, a powerful psychological one: the duping of the “warriors” themselves, distracting them from a bitter reality they may be little more than cannon fodder for greed-war.*  The U.S. military today is awash with warrior creeds that to me are antithetical to the citizen-soldier ideal of America.

To sum up the U.S. military’s current ethos, then: We have a lot of guys who take great pride in constant busy-work and excessive physical exertion, sporting high and tight haircuts, their uniforms festooned with bewildering displays of ribbons and medals and badges, extolling a warrior code in the service of a government that tells them that multi-generational wars are unavoidable.

And so it shall prove, if these shadows remain unaltered.

*Thanks to Michael Murry for bringing my attention to how the semiotics of “warrior” are dramatically changed if we substitute “gladiator” for “warrior,” followed by less grandiose terms such as “those about to die,” i.e. as scapegoats to the king’s ambition, an insight he gleaned from reading Umberto Eco.

Our Foreign Policy Mantra: Troops, Weapons, Influence

Sorry, world: America prefers the sword
Sorry, world: America loves the sword

W.J. Astore

There was a time when American democracy, however imperfectly practiced, and American ideals served to inspire peoples and independence movements around the world.  Heck, even Ho Chi Minh in the 1940s confessed his admiration for Thomas Jefferson and the U.S. Declaration of Independence.  But now it seems all that really matters in our foreign policy is troops and weapons.  If we’re not basing troops or at least deploying them to a country, or if we’re not exporting arms to a country, we believe we have no influence.

Take this headline from FP: Foreign Policy.

The United States is in danger of losing its clout in Baghdad. Courage on the battlefield is how respect is won in the Middle East. The lack of U.S. presence in the fight for Tikrit is allowing Iran, whose forces are leading the charge, to gain leverage in Baghdad. FP’s Lara Jakes and Kate Brannen: “It is clear that the top U.S. priority in Iraq is to defeat the Islamic State — and deal later with Iran’s ever-growing influence in Baghdad. Yet that trade-off carries long-term consequences, and it’s not clear Washington has thought them through.”

So: Unless we’re fighting wars in Iraq (or Syria, or maybe even Iran?), the United States has no leverage.  Indeed, in Iraq the U.S. risks being emasculated by the Iranians, who are swinging their big dicks in the form of tanks, rockets, and so on.

And those primitive Iraqis: All they respect is military force, right?  If that’s so, why don’t they love America?  After all, no country has “courageously” bombed them more over the last 25 years.

Talk about projection!  Maybe it’s not the Iraqis or other unnamed Middle Easterners who are enthralled by “courage on the battlefield.”  Maybe it’s all those “American sniper” wannabees, especially in Congress.

Consistent with Members of Congress clamoring for more war, America’s real ambassadors today are special forces and the special ops “community.”  As Nick Turse noted for TomDispatch.com:

During the fiscal year that [started on October 1, 2013 and] ended on September 30, 2014, U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) deployed to 133 countries — roughly 70% of the nations on the planet — according to Lieutenant Colonel Robert Bockholt, a public affairs officer with U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM).  This capped a three-year span in which the country’s most elite forces were active in more than 150 different countries around the world, conducting missions ranging from kill/capture night raids to training exercises.  And this year could be a record-breaker.  Only a day before the failed raid that ended Luke Somers life — just 66 days into fiscal 2015 — America’s most elite troops had already set foot in 105 nations, approximately 80% of 2014’s total.”

As the U.S. deploys its special ops forces around the planet, part of their mission, stated or unstated, is to encourage foreign military sales (FMS in the trade).  Naturally, in selling weapons to various “allies” around the world, the United States continues to dominate the world’s arms trade, a lead that we’re supposed to keep until the year 2021.  Think about it.  What other sector of industrial manufacturing will the U.S. dominate for the next seven years?

Here’s an excerpt from the Grimmett Report (2012) that tracks weapons sales around the globe.  Note that U.S. dominance of the global arms trade has come under a Democratic president who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize:

Recently, from 2008 to 2011, the United States and Russia have dominated the arms market in the developing world, with both nations either ranking first or second for each of these four years in the value of arms transfer agreements. From 2008 to 2011, the United States made nearly $113 billion in such agreements, 54.5% of all these agreements (expressed in current dollars). Russia made $31.1 billion, 15% of these agreements. During this same period, collectively, the United States and Russia made 69.5% of all arms transfer agreements with developing nations, ($207.3 billion in current dollars) during this four-year period. In 2011, the United States ranked first in arms transfer agreements with developing nations with over $56.3 billion or 78.7% of these agreements, an extraordinary increase in market share from 2010, when the United States held a 43.6% market share. In second place was Russia with $4.1 billion or 5.7% of such agreements. In 2011, the United States ranked first in the value of arms deliveries to developing nations at $10.5 billion, or 37.6% of all such deliveries. Russia ranked second in these deliveries at $7.5 billion or 26.8%.”

When it comes to deploying troops to foreign countries or to selling weapons overseas, the U.S. is indeed Number One. And that is precisely the problem.  Troops and weapons do not spread freedom.  Troops are trained to fight wars; they are trained to kill. Weapons are designed to kill.  It’s a foreign policy based on a readiness — a willingness — perhaps even an eagerness — to kill.

For U.S. foreign policy, our national security state has reached one clear conclusion: the sword is mightier (and far more profitable) than the pen. Sorry, Thomas Jefferson.

Update (3/19/15): Greg Laxer makes an excellent point in the comments about how many weapons the U.S. gives away to foreign countries, i.e. bought and paid for by the American taxpayer.  Incredibly, much of this weaponry gets “lost” and is often diverted to American enemies.  The latest story out of Yemen speaks to half a billion dollars worth of weaponry getting “lost.”  Here’s the story, written by Craig Whitlock and courtesy of the Washington Post:

The Pentagon is unable to account for more than $500 million in U.S. military aid given to Yemen, amid fears that the weaponry, aircraft and equipment is at risk of being seized by Iranian-backed rebels or al-Qaeda, according to U.S. officials.With Yemen in turmoil and its government splintering, the Defense Department has lost its ability to monitor the whereabouts of small arms, ammunition, night-vision goggles, patrol boats, vehicles and other supplies donated by the United States. The situation has grown worse since the United States closed its embassy in Sanaa, the capital, last month and withdrew many of its military advisers.

In recent weeks, members of Congress have held closed-door meetings with U.S. military officials to press for an accounting of the arms and equipment. Pentagon officials have said that they have little information to go on and that there is little they can do at this point to prevent the weapons and gear from falling into the wrong hands.

“We have to assume it’s completely compromised and gone,” said a legislative aide on Capitol Hill who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

U.S. military officials declined to comment for the record. A defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon, said there was no hard evidence that U.S. arms or equipment had been looted or confiscated. But the official acknowledged that the Pentagon had lost track of the items.

“Even in the best-case scenario in an unstable country, we never have 100 percent accountability,” the defense official said.

Yemen’s government was toppled in January by Shiite Houthi rebels who receive support from Iran and have strongly criticized U.S. drone strikes in Yemen. The Houthis have taken over many Yemeni military bases in the northern part of the country, including some in Sanaa that were home to U.S.-trained counterterrorism units. Other bases have been overrun by fighters from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

As a result, the Defense Department has halted shipments to Yemen of about $125 million in military hardware that were scheduled for delivery this year, including unarmed ScanEagle drones, other types of aircraft and Jeeps. That equipment will be donated instead to other countries in the Middle East and Africa, the defense official said.

Although the loss of weapons and equipment already delivered to Yemen would be embarrassing, U.S. officials said it would be unlikely to alter the military balance of power there. Yemen is estimated to have the second-highest gun ownership rate in the world, ranking behind only the United States, and its bazaars are well stocked with heavy weaponry. Moreover, the U.S. government restricted its lethal aid to small firearms and ammunition, brushing aside Yemeni requests for fighter jets and tanks.

In Yemen and elsewhere, the Obama administration has pursued a strategy of training and equipping foreign militaries to quell insurgencies and defeat networks affiliated with al-Qaeda. That strategy has helped to avert the deployment of large numbers of U.S. forces, but it has also met with repeated challenges.

Washington spent $25 billion to re-create and arm Iraq’s security forces after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, only to see the Iraqi army easily defeated last year by a ragtag collection of Islamic State fighters who took control of large parts of the country. Just last year, President Obama touted Yemen as a successful example of his approach to combating terrorism.

“The administration really wanted to stick with this narrative that Yemen was different from Iraq, that we were going to do it with fewer people, that we were going to do it on the cheap,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “They were trying to do with a minimalist approach because it needed to fit with this narrative . . .that we’re not going to have a repeat of Iraq.”

Washington has supplied more than $500 million in military aid to Yemen since 2007 under an array of Defense Department and State Department programs. The Pentagon and CIA have provided additional assistance through classified programs, making it difficult to know exactly how much Yemen has received in total.

U.S. government officials say al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen poses a more direct threat to the U.S. homeland than any other terrorist group. To counter it, the Obama administration has relied on a combination of proxy forces and drone strikes launched from bases outside the country.

As part of that strategy, the U.S. military has concentrated on building an elite Yemeni special-operations force within the Republican Guard, training counterterrorism units in the Interior Ministry and upgrading Yemen’s rudimentary air force.

Making progress has been difficult. In 2011, the Obama administration suspended counterterrorism aid and withdrew its military advisers after then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh cracked down against Arab Spring demonstrators. The program resumed the next year when Saleh was replaced by his vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, in a deal brokered by Washington.

In a 2013 report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the primary unclassified counterterrorism program in Yemen lacked oversight and that the Pentagon had been unable to assess whether it was doing any good.

Among other problems, GAO auditors found that Humvees donated to the Yemeni Interior Ministry sat idle or broken because the Defense Ministry refused to share spare parts. The two ministries also squabbled over the use of Huey II helicopters supplied by Washington, according to the report.

A senior U.S. military official who has served extensively in Yemen said that local forces embraced their training and were proficient at using U.S. firearms and gear but that their commanders, for political reasons, were reluctant to order raids against al-Qaeda.

“They could fight with it and were fairly competent, but we couldn’t get them engaged” in combat, the military official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with a reporter.

All the U.S.-trained Yemeni units were commanded or overseen by close relatives of Saleh, the former president. Most were gradually removed or reassigned after Saleh was forced out in 2012. But U.S. officials acknowledged that some of the units have maintained their allegiance to Saleh and his family.

According to an investigative report released by a U.N. panel last month, the former president’s son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, looted an arsenal of weapons from the Republican Guard after he was dismissed as commander of the elite unit two years ago. The weapons were transferred to a private military base outside Sanaa that is controlled by the Saleh family, the U.N. panel found.

It is unclear whether items donated by the U.S. government were stolen, although Yemeni documents cited by the U.N. investigators alleged that the stash included thousands of M-16 rifles, which are manufactured in the United States.

The list of pilfered equipment also included dozens of Humvees, Ford vehicles and Glock pistols, all of which have been supplied in the past to Yemen by the U.S. government. Ahmed Saleh denied the looting allegations during an August 2014 meeting with the U.N. panel, according to the report.

Many U.S. and Yemeni officials have accused the Salehs of conspiring with the Houthis to bring down the government in Sanaa. At Washington’s urging, the United Nations imposed financial and travel sanctions in November against the former president, along with two Houthi leaders, as punishment for destabilizing Yemen.

Ali Abdullah Saleh has dismissed the accusations; last month, he told The Washington Post that he spends most of his time these days reading and recovering from wounds he suffered during a bombing attack on the presidential palace in 2011.

There are clear signals that Saleh and his family are angling for a formal return to power. On Friday, hundreds of people staged a rally in Sanaa to call for presidential elections and for Ahmed Saleh to run.

Although the U.S. Embassy in the capital closed last month, a handful of U.S. military advisers have remained in the southern part of the country at Yemeni bases controlled by commanders that are friendly to the United States.

 Craig Whitlock covers the Pentagon and national security. He has reported for The Washington Post since 1998.

 

Special Forces: America’s Jesuits

A Triple Stack of Special Ops with Flag -- Hooah!
A Triple Stack of Special Ops with Flag — Hooah! (Photo Credit: SOCOM)

W.J. Astore

Nick Turse has a revealing new piece at TomDispatch.com on the rise of Special Forces and SOCOM (Special Ops Command) within the U.S. military.  (For a telling critique of America’s excess of enthusiasm for Special Forces, see last year’s article here by Dan White for The Contrary Perspective.)

What are we to make of U.S. Special Forces being involved, in one way or another, in the affairs of 150 countries in the world over the last three years?  And, as Turse points out, just 66 days into Fiscal Year 2015, U.S. Special Forces have already made their presence known in 105 countries, a presence that seems never to wane.

One historical analogy that occurs to me (which I’ve used before) is the rise of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, within an embattled Catholic Church during the Reformation.  A besieged Church needed true believers to take the fight to heretical Protestants who were bent on the Church’s destruction.  So along came Ignatius Loyola and his church militant of Jesuit priests, sworn to believe that black was white if the Holy Church deemed it so.  Considered an elite within the Church, the Jesuits took the fight to the Protestants during the Catholic Counter Reformation in Europe and across the world.  Jesuits were everywhere, from China in the Old World to nearly everywhere in the New World, crusading for the Church and against the incursions of Protestantism and its various sects.

So, how does the 16th century shed light on the 21st?  America’s Vatican is obviously the Pentagon.  Its primary methods are wars and weapons sales and military training.  Its Loyola was until recently Admiral William McRaven, head of SOCOM.  And its Jesuit priests are America’s Special Ops troops, true believers who are committed to defending the faith of America.

In the aftermath of 9/11, in a rare outburst of honesty, George W. Bush said America was on a crusade across the world.  You might say against “protestants” and other heretics to the American way of life.  And who are our crusaders?  Who is being sent virtually everywhere (remember those 150 countries in three years?) on various “missions”?

Like it or not, America’s Special Forces are our lead missionaries, our Jesuits, our church militant.

The new head of SOCOM, General Joseph Votel III, West Point grad and Army Ranger, put it plainly back in August that America is witnessing “a golden age for special operations.”  What a telling phrase.  And indeed it’s getting increasingly difficult to recall “golden ages” in America’s past that weren’t linked to the military.

But that’s no accident when the national church is the Pentagon and its Special Ops troops are acclaimed as so many missionary heroes.

Welcome to your new golden age, America.