Last time, we pondered the ghost at the banquet. A scandal that few seem able or willing to discuss. The plummeting combat readiness of the United States Army, Marines and Reserves. Their steeply declining ability -- trapped and worn down in a faraway desert -- to meet any military challenge that might suddenly confront the nation, in dangerous times. (Or return to Part 1 of this series.)
So relentless and systematic has been the Bush Administration’s demolition of U.S. military readiness that one might even give in to temptation and imagine this along the lines of a lurid thriller novel, wherein this destructive process did not arise out of dogmatism and blithering incompetence, but something else. Something even more odious and deliberate.
But let’s not give into that temptation here. There’s too much on our plate that is blatant and irrefutable. So we’ll concentrate, this time, on fundamentals. Like how any sensible leadership ought to use armed force in dangerous times.
What follows may seem cynical and hard-headed to some liberals, while striking a neoconservative as idealistic. In fact, it is neither. Alas, these points may be too subtle for dogmatists of either left or right to grasp. So, once again, I’ll be talking to the harried middle.
Those who believe that pragmatism and idealism can -- and should -- coincide in a complex world.
* Does anybody remember -- “last resort”?
Almost any member of the U.S. Officer Corps, serving or retired, will recite a nostrum about how often he or she has prayed not to go to war. For the diplomats and politicians -- (and yes, covert operatives) -- to find alternative solutions to any given problem or crisis, short of using brute military force.
Yes, the services have a principal task, to make themselves ready for every conceivable variety of conflict. Indeed, that readiness is viewed as the ultimate deterrent to war. But, in the George Marshall tradition, it is deemed rash and immature to rush violent action -- if for no other reason, because wars are always costly and messy, and seldom go according to plan.
Go ask an officer... any military officer... and see if they use the phrase ”last resort.”
(Those that have gone according to plan -- e.g. the Balkans intervention and the Afghanistan campaign, succeeded because they hewed closely to what was ironically called the “Powell Doctrine” -- a policy of applying overwhelming force with surgical precision, maintaining clear goals, coordination with local allies, and a plan for the aftermath, along with close teamwork between diplomats, warriors, politicians and a well-informed people... a doctrine that, was diametrically and weirdly betrayed during the tenure of Secretary of State Colin Powell.)
So, what ever happened to “last resort?” When all but one of the leading Republican presidential candidates declare that they would rush to use torture, dispatch bombers, and trade away civil liberties, faster and more harshly than the others, should not even a cynic or practitioner of realpolitik pause and wonder? When they all speak of a “permanent state of emergency,” shouldn’t even rational conservatives ask a simple question:
“What kind of a decent, mature or prudent person speaks of torture and war without, at minimum, applying those two words? Last resort?”
Such is the madness that our professionals must deal with, today. Especially in the military, where the resort to war has been treated with cavalier carelessness by meddlesome politicians, to a degree that beggars our memory of Vietnam.
Which brings us to a subtle but important point about the use (or misuse) of America’s varied armed forces.
* Wars of Emergency vs Wars of Policy: Either way, we’re betrayed
Elsewhere I distinguish between two kinds of foreign intervention. Those that are like “emergency room” operations and others that more resemble “elective surgery.”
Our rush into Iraq was initially justified entirely on the first of these models, stoked by an appeal to fear and imminent danger. But when weapons of mass destruction and Iraqi terror links proved chimerical, the administration’s rhetoric flipped like a switch to the other genre of justification. That we should pour all available resources into a utopian exercise in nation building, planting democracy in the rockiest of ground, as a matter of (ill-considered, hubristic, impractical and profoundly immature) national policy.
Forgive the parenthetical remark. Because, for just a moment, we need to put aside whether a particular “elective policy endeavor” is sensible and well-planned, or venial and moronic. However good or bad a policy-based act of power projection may be, there would appear to be several basic “don’ts” when it comes to a political war -- or an intervention that’s “elective surgery.”
1) Don’t send in the reserves. They are -- by law, tradition, and common sense, reserved for the protection of our communities and homeland. Brief use of the National Guard overseas, in bona fide emergencies? Sure. But it is rash -- bordering on criminal -- for the Commander in Chief to use citizen militia as tools of optional foreign policy.
Whether or not a President’s policy is sensible, if he cannot achieve the nation’s policy aims with the field army at his command, he should ask for a bigger field army.
(Note to Congress. Try focusing on the Guard. Push a bill limiting their overseas stints to six months, then dare a filibuster! Even Red Staters will rouse and start wondering.)
2) In “elective surgery” wars, you might use elite, fast-reaction troops, sparingly, committing them for a brief time, perhaps for their ability to shock and overwhelm. Only then, the elite shock troops -- e.g. airborne and Marines -- should be withdrawn again, to concentrate on readiness for either an emergency or some more important policy endeavor.
Retraining such units for extended constabulary duty is beyond stupid. It is a pure waste.
3) Even regular Army divisions should not be spent wantonly on policy-based conflict. The old nostrum of being prepared to win two major regional wars at once may be obsolete. But the underlying wisdom is not. Those who assure us otherwise bear the steepest burden of proof.
4) Whether a projection of force is an emergency operation or an elective enforcement of national policy -- truthful evaluation of short and long term costs is essential. If the nation must sacrifice its warriors, its treasury, its international goodwill and peace of mind, then we should be called upon to mobilize, as our ancestors did, rich and poor, to willingly pay whatever must be paid. If convinced, millions would step up to enlist. And the rich would, as in times past, come forward to offer billions.
That neither thing has happened -- that our forces are being ground down while American youths and moguls hold back -- demonstrates how little enthusiasm either of these vital sectors have for the policy itself.
5) Finally, do not break faith with the troops. Using extraordinary measures and coercion to maintain an army in the field is not consistent with an elective, policy-based intervention. These extraordinary measures include “stop loss” retention of servicemembers who are finishing their enlistments, or keeping men and women stationed in hellish places for more than a year without a break. Such measures constitute a creeping and dishonest form of conscription, or impressment.
Again, if it is an “emergency” -- and the neocons keep saying so -- then stop treating this as elective surgery. As a political program of nation-building that should be funded and staffed by peacetime means. Choose one justification or the other!
If this is a policy-war, then achieve your goals efficiently, without theft, crony-deals, deficit spending, torture, stop-loss betrayals, and ruined readiness.
But if it is a true emergency, then have the guts to step up and do what Lincoln did. What Wilson and Roosevelt did.
Ask us to give up butter for guns, till it’s over.
Ask for volunteers.
Ask for a draft.
--Next: Let The Excuses Roll!
or return to Part 1 of this series