Monday, December 22, 2008

Suggestion #9: Act swiftly to restore the Army, the Reserves and National Guard.

First: James Fallows, a columnist for The Atlantic whom I have long respected and cited, recently commented on a theme that I’ve oft-reiterated -- that we should shift a bit of our managerial emphasis away from obsessive professionalism and efficiency, back toward equally valuable but long neglected traits like resiliency and local self-reliance.  He mentions the same brittleness trap that I did -- just-in-time industrial practices. Moreover, alerted by a mutual fan, Fallows kindly mentioned my overlapping interest.

Second: keep an eye open for my cover story on Salon Magazine (online) tonight, about “Is the Internet Helping Us Evolve?” 

Oh, and see me Tuesday night on "The Universe" on the History Channel!

=== Save the US Army and National Readiness ===

During the election, both parties had reasons of their own to avoid mentioning one of the most scandalous results of the Iraq War -- a dramatic and disturbing plummet in U.S. military readiness.

The Republicans were, naturally, not going to draw attention to what has happened to the United States Army, which has ceased nearly all war-fighting training or large unit exercises, instead converting nearly all of its battalions into glorified urban swat teams.  When Bill Clinton left office, all of our brigades were rated fully combat ready.  Now, that number is zero -- a stunning and terrifyingly perfect reversal, almost as surprising as the fact that it has gone unmentioned, in the press..

So, why did the democrats refuse to raise such a blatant decline in readiness, during the campaign?  (I’ve been hectoring folks about this for four years.)  Possibly, it never occurred to many liberals, to examine military matters closely enough to notice what’s happened. But I don’t think it applies at the highest levels.

No, a clue is to be found in the retention of Secretary of Defense Gates.  His continuing in service under Barack Obama screams verification of something I’ve long maintained: that there was a quiet revolt of the US Officer Corps, a couple of years ago.  The forced ouster of Donald Rumsfeld from the Pentagon was only a surface manifestation that the public saw.  In effect, the Bush-Cheney clade had their hands pried off of the tiller of American defense policy, restoring adult supervision where it mattered most.

A further sign of this can be seen wherever the Navy has risen in influence -- e.g. Adm. Mike Mullen’s elevation to JCS Chairman, or retired Adm. Dennis Blair being appointed National Intelligence Director, or the appointment of former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig to be Gates’s understudy and eventual replacement at Defense.  All of this is indicative to those who pay attention, since the Navy is the one service that was least damaged and that proved most capable of resisting political pressure, across the last eight years.

I predict -- it goes beyond a mere suggestion -- that the Obama Administration will rapidly zoom in on rebuilding the Army, and military readiness in general.  Despite all our economic distractions, the incoming group of adults can see what needs to be done, and urgently.

Now comes the truly pertinent question.  As a young John F. Kennedy wrote in Why England Slept,” the most dangerous time is after your nation has awakened an point -- at the inflection curve -- is when it seems most appropriate to be wary and worried.

=== Even more important: Save the Reserves! ===

This deterioration of U.S. military readiness has an aspect that is even more worrisome. After seven years of attrition, our National Guard and reserve units are in very bad shape.  It is a problem not only of attrition and abuse, but also of design.

The men and women who signed up to train for a month each summer, and a dozen weekends a year, were always ready to serve either their communities or the nation, in an emergency -- say a natural disaster or sudden armed conflict.  What they never expected was for that word “emergency” to be so abused.  Nor to be torn away from their careers and families for several deployments stretching longer than a year.  (Note: this theme repeats a theme I posed earlier about another long suffering group, the members of the U.S. Civil Service.)

Repairing the damage that’s been done to America’s reserves will take more than time and money.  In order to restore a sense of trust, serious attention should be given to the inherent difference between two kinds of war. 

To use medical terminology, an “acute” crisis is a bona fide emergency, when the nation must call up whatever resources it can, in order to confront a surprise threat.  The events of 9/11 certainly seemed to qualify.

However, there is no such thing as a legitimate seven-year “surprise”. Over longer time scales, words like “crisis” become crutches, or even excuses for corruption.  When a serious situation shifts from acute to chronic, we have no business using up and draining reserves.

(Which would be like running up repeated deficits in good times, leaving nothing to spend during economic hardship. And who would do that?)

The key point: if it seems that some long term situation or commitment will require a larger Army, we should go ahead and build it!

This especially applies to all non-emergency wars of national policy, no matter how well-justified they may be. (The medical equivalent is elective surgery.)  Unlike many others, I believe that such wars can be justified -- under a stiff burden of proof.  But they should never again be driven by a trumped-up sense of crisis.

The Obama Administration should make clear that it understands this distinction, even if its predecessors didn’t.  The brave and dedicated men and women of the reserves need to be assured they’ll never again be treated this way.

--Continue to Suggestion #10 Enhance our nation's (and civilization's) overall resilience


Stefan Jones said...

I had better luck with this URL for Fallow's article:

daveawayfromhome said...

"...the United States Army, which has ceased nearly all war-fighting training or large unit exercises, instead converting nearly all of its battalions into glorified urban swat teams."

Are you sure that wasnt the goal of the Team Bush along? The paranoid in me says that had he not had utter control of the military taken away from him, we may have found that urban-trained military used domestically to "keep the peace".

David Brin said...

Reminder... spread the word about my Salon piece!

And about The Universe Tuesday night.


daveaway from home... Of COURSE I suspect it was his purpose. Hence, an irony. Liberal Obama will bust his gut to rebuild the military asap.

Mattias said...

For what future mission should you rebuild your army?

To me it seems like the planet would be better served with less military spending. Which obviously means reducing the US military since it has taken the lead in the global arms race. Perhaps this would be a good opportunity to establish arms control treaties, rather than rebuilding a superpower army?

Craig's Comments from MN said...

Good post. Adult supervision is needed in almost every aspect of the Bush Administration. But Obama will not be able to fix everything at once - unfortunately. It took a long time to screw up the military and it will take time to repair. The economy is still first on the agenda because until that is working well, nothing else can proceed with the investments needed. I don't think you can help the economy much by investing in the military (unless you're buying more tanks, etc.)

brhimberger said...

To me it seems like the planet would be better served with less military spending.

The purpose of an overwhelming US military is to prevent the rise of similar great-power militaries.

Ilithi Dragon said...

Read the article, Dr. Brin (very good, as usual), and will try to remember to catch the History Channel tonight, if I don't get distracted by holiday prep.

I've been meaning to ask you, though, about your comments that the U.S. military performed a quiet revolt against BushCo. I would really like some more information on this, and if you could point me in the right direction (or to the article or essay of yours on the subject I missed, if one such exists), I would really appreciate it.

light: I was hoping for an easy one, but, c'mon, that's just ridiculous...

Doug S. said...

Nuclear weapons make great-power militaries, of the kind seen in World War 1, obsolete. No amount of tanks, battleships, and airplanes matter when you and your enemy can destroy each other by launching enough ballistic missiles.

Modern war is guerrilla war - and you can fight it by turning your army into "glorified urban swat teams" or by allowing them to use scorched earth tactics, as in the Second Boer War.

David Brin said...

Doug, think. We are using division-sized swat teams BECAUSE we let ourselves get stuck in an attrition quagmire.

The previous 4 war-lets - Balkans, Iraq1, Afghanistan and Iraq2 all required a military vastly more capable than the one we've got.

Folks, compare historical eras when there was a "pax" imperium to keep order, vs when there wasn't. For all their faults, pax eras allowed more people to advance while being mostly left alone. Pax Americana was the best of them all -- for all its faults.

Seeming militarily invincible is part of that and well worthwhile. In fact the biggest evidence I have for the "manchurian" nature of Bush & Cheney is the way they have systematically wrecked our alliances, our military and our world popularity...

The last of which SUDDENLY veered back! Upon Obama's election. SHowing how much the world really wants us back. They know the alternative to our pax is war and ruin. That is, until we get down to negotiating a sane and diverse and unoppressive world order that truly does prevent tyranny, forever.

Doug S. said...

I think we're missing each other's points. I'm claiming that, today, there exist two kinds of wars, and only two kinds:

1) Wars that involve mass slaughter of civilians
2) Attrition quagmires.

#1 usually occurs when the power of a tyrant is threatened by a would-be popular uprising.
#2 usually occurs when the a government is faced with an insurrection but, for whatever reason, isn't going to emulate Rome and just kill everybody who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"Army vs. army" battles just don't matter, given today's technology. Why? Because no army can invade a country that has nuclear ICBMs. We don't need to fight another World War II, or even another Korean War. Any conflict involving the U.S. (or Russia, or China) that can't be prevented by, or at least ended with, a nuclear deterrent could only be another "attrition quagmire", as you put it.

The vast majority of 20th century wars were guerrilla wars!

Chris G. said...

This sentence sounds like it would be interesting if it made sense:

As a young John F. Kennedy wrote in Why England Slept,” the most dangerous time is after your nation has awakened an point -- at the inflection curve -- is when it seems most appropriate to be wary and worried.


newscaper said...

So, Dr. Brin...

How's that prediction about Obama rapidly moving to rebuild the US military going with his call for a 10% *reduction* in spending?

Regarding "Seeming militarily invincible is part of that and well worthwhile."...

Deterrence is as much about your potential adversaries' perception of your will to fight as it is about the objective facts of the toys.

Speaking of objective facts, it was WJC who let the military decline to the point it could not field an Iraq I-type conventional invasion of the same scale any more.

As to more purely logistical evaluations of 'readiness' (and yes, there *has* been a lot of wear and tear)... the upside is that the US Army and Marines are by far the most combat experienced troops (and organizations) on earth.

With your crack about the 'swat teams' you are mis-portraying an organizational *strength* -- adaptability (which was as big an advantage for us in WWII as logistics) as a weakness.

Finally, I'll add that most of the liberal criticisms of of Bush's conduct on hawkish grounds are opportunistic and phony -- I submit that some of his problematic half-measures wrt the military and their employ & support, were motivated by concern about the domestic left-wing opposition -- the same people who pretended to talk tough now.

Who would have been screaming bloody murder if he'd spent even more $$ on the military? the Left.

A more specific example: liberal bashing of Rumsfeld's timid approach to the early looting in Baghdad. WHo would have been screaming 'war crimes' if he'd ordered our troops to stop it by shooting looters in the streets? yes, the Left.

Finally, Obama's continued backtracking on Iraq (vis a vis his campaign promises) in all but name is both infuriating and comforting. I suppose things are a little different now that his rep is on the line, instead of just bitching from the peanut gallery. The idea that he is just showing 'adaptability to the current facts' is nonsense, as the basic logic of the situation has been true and apparent all along.

Frankly his notion of enhancing our standing with our allies by *abandoning* one is absurd if not clinically nuts.

P.S. before you start making any 'wingnut' stereotypical assumptions about me, I have degrees in mechanical engineering and computer science, am an evolution-affirming agnostic (functionally atheist), have lot of 'extra' courses under my belt in history and physics, and am a former capital-L libertarian.

I also happen to be a fan of your fiction.

TCB said...

David, recent headlines suggest you've called Obama's attitude toward the military accurately, and I think you're right about the "why."

It's worth considering the whole behavioral arc of the Bush/Cheney rule. They did not stop at stealing two elections (Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004, details available for those who want to know). They engineered illegal wars and created both legal precedent and physical plant for rounding up many thousands of dissidents. Then, enmeshed in two slow-bleed wars, they began a drumbeat for a third (against Iran). At that point, had it gone forward, some among us believed massive protests would have given them the excuse to declare martial law. We civilians would not have had the power to stop them, and the Democrats in Congress had showed no taste for resistance. The courts, too, were largely in their pockets. And they sure didn't grow a conscience all of a sudden.

Why, then, did they seem to lose their nerve? It wasn't consistent with their behavior up to that point at all. I am convinced you are correct: only an officer corps putting its collective foot down adequately explains why these rapacious men would turn from the brink. If there was any other firewall left against a Bush dictatorship in America, I don't know of it.

And President Obama is saying some things that must be music to the ears of the officer corps:

"To relieve the strain on our forces, my budget increases the number of our soldiers and Marines... And to keep our sacred trust with those who serve, we will raise their pay, and give our veterans the expanded health care and benefits that they have earned."