Archive for the U.S. military manpower Category

Modern Military Atrocity: The Case of Sgt. Bales

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, U.S. military manpower, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , on March 25, 2012 by whatafteriraq

The alleged rampage of Sgt. Robert Bales in an Afghan village that ended with 17 dead Afghan civilians has caught the public attention because the acts atrributed to the 38-year-old father of two were so brutal, ghastly, and repulsive. They are a textbook case of war crimes–more specifically crimes against humanity–and are, as such reprehensible and intolerable. Whether Sgt. Bales is the perpetrator (which seems fairly well established) and whether there are special mitigating circumstances such as mental condition are properly the province of the military court that will try him, and there is no intent here to prejudge or predict the outcomes of that process. There is, however, reason to ask how such a tragedy could have occurred, at least partly to try to be sure it does not recur.

Let me begin with what may be a controversial proposition: the massacre in which Sgt. Bales allegedly engaged is probably not as unusual as some would have it. I operate on the assumption that such incidents, while not common, probably occur in most conflicts. In some cases, they become known in more or less detail–the My Lai incident in Vietnam, Wounded Knee during the western Indian wars, and the Bataan death march, for instances, are all examples, and I suspect that virtually all wars of any duration produce such incidents. This dores not condone them; it simply acknowledges that nasty things happen from time to time in war. What distinguishes the current episode is how quickly, how widely, and in what detail its has become known. The question is whether episodes like this one, including the publicity it engenders, are simply a part of modern warfare. For essentially three reasons, I think the answer is yes!

I present these factors in no particular order of importance. The first is the impact of the electronic revolution, and more specifically, the loss of private behavior that is a consequence of the electronic revolution in communications. Unlike previous periods of time, there is essentially no private behavior in public places any longer: somebody is going to see, record, and transmit accounts of any bad behavior in which essentially anyone engages–or at least anyone engaging in or contemplating untoward behavior has to assume that is the case. This realization has multiple implications for a wide variety of formerly private behaviors, but in war, it means that anything one does may well–probably will–become public. Since war is about violence often committed in highly emotional situations, one must assume that stress-caused actions, some of which are not glorious or praiseworthy, are going to be recorded somewhere by someone. That is just a fact of the modern world, and all soldiers need to be drilled very thoroughly in that reality, if they are not already. This phenomenon is neither good nor bad, although it can be both in different circumstances. But one cannot deny that it exists. In some earlier, unmediated times, the Afghan incident might have gone unreported and blame unassigned. No longer!

Second, the nature of modern warfare may make incidents like what happened in Afghanistan more likely than before. Modern war, particularly the kinds in which the United States has engaged in the past half-century, has two salient characteristics that reinforce the point. The first is that these wars are asymmetrical. This means, among other things, that the enemy does not fight under established rules of warfare. often does not wear uniforms that distinguish it from the general population and often uses youths as fighters, for instance, and this means that the American soldier entering hostile territory does not necessarily know whether he is among friends or foes. This knowledge has to be enormously stressful for the individual soldier, and probably inevitably, some will snap. The fact that most wars are in developing world countries where American forces are physically distinctive, are sometimes viewed as unwelcome intruders, and where the interests being served may be ambiguous makes dealing with these kinds of war zones even more difficult. It is frightening enough when one faces a hostile but distinguishable army; it is an additional source of difficulty when trying to attain abstract goals in a very foreign and hostile environment.

Third, an possibly most controversially, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have fairly clearly demonstrated the limits of the all-volunteer force (AVF) concept. The problem of such forces, of courses, is that they will inevitably be comparatively small and expensive, and they cannot easily be expanded except by recourse to outside contractors who are simultaneously more expensive and less reliable (certainly less controllable). the current force was not built for all-out employment over a decade of continuous employment–no military force is. Because ut cannot easily be expanded (more people won’t volunteer), the only way to handle the burden is to recycle the existing force through multiple deployments in the kinds of hostile, stressful environments described above.  Sgt. Bales, after all, was in his fourth deployment when he allegedly attacked the Afghan village, and his history is not unusual. There are physical and, we are increasingly learning, psychological limits to the amount of combat stress that humans reasonably can be expected to endure. 

These three factors are neither a full explanation of the Afghan incident nor do they offer an ecuse for its occurrence or Sgt. Bales’ alleged role. Rather, they are some of the factors that affect modern warfare and which will, almost inevitably, lead to future instances that are not dissimilar to that in Afghanistan this time. None of them is easily solvable, if they can be solved at all. The genie is out of the bottle in the electronic revolution, and it seems obvious that the only way to ensure that vivid reportage of atrocities like this one does not appear is to insure the instances don’t happen in the first place. The nature of modern war, however, virtually ensures that people will come under stress and behave badly in the future and that whatever they do will become publicly available for all to see. The overuse of an overextended military probably in turn makes the likelihood of regrettable behavior all the more probable. Until someone can devise a way to keep the chain of factors from being engaged, one can, regrettably, only expect more of the same. 

Do any of these factors exonerate Sgt. Robert Bales. That is a judgment for others to make based on the real evidence in this trial. What it does suggest, however, is that Sgt. Bales or whoever killed those 17 innocent civilians was subject to forces that he or they probably did not recognize or understand and that, moreover, this is not the last time it will happen.

A New Peace Dividend?

Posted in Global War on Terror, Iraq War, U.S. defense budget, U.S. military manpower, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy, War on Terror with tags , , , , on May 1, 2010 by whatafteriraq

One of the clear lessons political lessons (if there are any) of the “great recession” from which the country is slowly emerging is that the United States cannot afford everything, since unbridled spending in the absence of additional public revenues (taxes) means a burgeoning deficit that will be handed down to future generations. No one seems to find this prospect of kicking the fiscal can rhetorically acceptable, yet nobody seems to offer any serious plans for changing the ways and objects on which public money is spent.

Most of the proposals are laughably irresponsible and insincere. The Republicans want to lower taxes (at least they want to restore the Bush tax cuts for the very wealthy), on the empirically shaky ground that doing so will stimulate private investment, which will produce jobs, which will produce more income because the incomes from these jobs can be taxed. The underlying premise is John Kennedy’s multiplier effect, which any honest economist will tell you only works in very special circumstances, such as pent-up needs to buy and consume, which clearly is not the case today. Trickle-down economics is a fiscally responsible approach to deficit spending only for the extremely cynical or intellectually impaired. When asked where spending can be cut, Republicans rally behind John McCain and eliminating earmarks. Never mind that these account for about $10 billion annually or that a great deal of these are sponsored by fellow Republicans (my former senator, Richard Shelby of Alabama, is probably King Pork).

Democrats don’t do much better. They correctly identified health care as the future’s budget buster, but ladeled enough extraneous spending into the health care bill to dilute its salutary effects. Thet also correctly identify current budget trends as ruinous, yet they have little to say about what to do about them. Entitlements are the burgeoning villain, but who is seriously willing to propose building Al Gore’s “lock box”around the social security fund or moving back the eligibility time frame for seniors? Not anyone standing for reelection.

This space is normally devoted to foreign and security topics, so what is a discussion of the current economic woes doing here? The answer is that national security spending run amok has been and continues to be one of the prime drivers of the deficits that are accumulating. Politicians on both sides have ruled subjecting defense spending to scrutiny to help reduce deficits is off-limits. My point here is that defense spending cuts must be part of any serious effort to return to something like national solvency. It may not endear me to many colleagues to say this, but anyone who tells you different is either lying or delusional. Or both. To set the ship of state right, we simply must have a new peace dividend.

Three examples of uncritical defense spending (“spend whatever is necessary regardless of the consequences”) stand out. The most obvious are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. No one truly knows–of if they do, will not admit–what these adventures have cost us to date, but it is certainly at least $2 trillion (a VERY conservative estimate), and it is almost certainly costing in the range of$500 billion a year to continue these efforts. Regardless of what one thinks of the geopolitical merits of either adventure, can anyone argue that even the most extravagantly positive outcome will come close to justifying this level of expenditure? Withdraw from both places and see how much you save.

There are two other smaller but not insignificant examples. One is the global war on terror (GWOT). No one, to my knowledge, has systematically cost accounted how much U.S. treasure has gone into this effort, but it is a lot (close to a trillion?). Usama bin Laden must be laughing up his sleeve at how he is undermining the American economy on the cheap in this “war.” Would it not be feasible instead to try something else to defuse the threat, liking leaving Afghanistan and Iraq (thereby undermining the argument we are there as imperialists) and retreat from our blanket endorsement of Israel (particularly in their relations with the Palestinians)? I’m not sure how much this these acts would reduce the threat and thus our expenses, but I am sure it would have a measurable impact.

The third example is the All-Volunteer Force (AVF), America’s professional armed force. The AVF has been in existence now for nearly four decades, and it has virtues. The military likes it, because it produces a highly motivated force (everybody who is there wants to be), and the pay is better. The politicians like it, because it removes the possibility that any of their constituents might be forced into involuntary service (drafted) and sent into combat in places they would almost certainly not tolerate their own sons and daughters being sent (Iraq and Afghanistan).

The AVF is also pernicious. For one thing, it is very expensive, since it must compete economically for the services of its members, and it is small, since only a limited number of people will volunteer under any circumstances. This latter dynamic means it must be augmented by using very expensive civilian contractors or by using socially expensive reserves. Moreover, the AVF may be too easy to use, since those contemplating employing American forces do not have to ask themselves the question, “will the American public buy into the prospect of their children being sent off to fight and die in (fill in the blank)?”

The defense budget cannot take all the hits necessary to recreate fiscal responsibility, but looking at the three areas raised could at least contribute. There is, for instance, no question that a substantial tax increase is necessary to right the ship of state, but proposing that requires a level of political courage not abundantly evident today. A new peace dividend is not the panacea, but it is a beginning. Let’s put defense spending  back on the chopping block!

Veteran’s Day and the All-Volunteer Force

Posted in Afghanistan War, Military Reform, U.S. military manpower, US Domestic Politics with tags , , , , on November 12, 2009 by whatafteriraq

The United States has not forced the involuntary service of any of its citizens into the U.S. military since 1972, when it suspended the Selective Service system’s conscription of young Americans to fight in the enormously unpopular war in Vietnam. Since the beginning of 1973, the U.S. military has instead been based in the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) concept, meaning it is composed entirely of service members who volunteer for that duty.

As America’s veterans were being feted yesterday, there were inevitable comparisons between those forces who fought America’s historic wars and contemporary warriors. The patriotic remembrances of veterans in particular was quite complimentary, suggesting that today’s military is every bit as good as that which fought, for instance, World War II or Korea.

It is, however, a different force. The U.S. armed forces of the past were true citizen forces drawn from and requiring the support of all Americans; the AVF is not that kind of force at all, with both positive and negative implications.

Joseph L. Galloway, one of the true deans of American military reportage best known for his role in the Ia Drang Valley in 1965 and as co-author of the book “We were Soldiers Once…and Young,” captured the difference strikingly in his column marking yesterday’s Veteran’s Day observation: “Military service today,” he observes, “is reserved for the few who volunteer, unlike the days of big wars and conscription or the draft….Today in this nation of 300 million, fewer than 1 million wear the uniform, and with their families, bear all the burden and sacrifice of protecting and defending the rest of us who give little thought to those who pay the price of our freedom.”

This latter part of the statement forms the heart of what should be the legitimate question about the AVF in the present and future: does its existence free us of the need critically to consider the consequences of military activity because we know we will be personally unaffected by those consequences? Joe Galloway does not believe so, stating flatly, “It isn’t right and it certainly isn’t what those bold revolutionaries who ripped a continent out of the hands of a king at the risk of their own lives and property intended for the nation they created.” 

The AVF is, despite those reservations some (the present author included) have about it, not going away. Some people, especially within the professional military, like the force much better than the conscript-based force it succeeded 36 years ago. The quality of soldiers is better and their morale is higher (since they want to be there doing what they are doing), and there are far fewer disciplinary and other problems among AVF members (the tragedy at Ft. Hood last week, of course, reminds us problems are not non-existent). The AVF has performed at high levels in the eyes of its members and most observers, and professional soldiers, sailors, and airmen all blanch at the prospect of having to go back and to deal with a rank and file full of reluctant conscripts.

Having said that, the concept is not above criticism. One is that an AVF will inevitably be a smaller force than a conscript force, because less people will volunteer than can be compelled to serve. This means that it can only be used in situations where its upward manpower limits are not strained intolerably or succeeded, as has happened over the past decade. From a strictly numerical perspective, a conscript force would have been much better for Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, if some problem requiring large-scale American military involvement were to break out today with the force already tied down, the only way the U.S. could respond would either be by activating much larger parts of the reserves or by reinstituting the draft. Neither are happy political choices.

The AVF is also very expensive, in at least three ways. First, volunteer soldiers must be paid much more competitively than conscripts, since the AVF competes with society at large for their services. Second, one response to the limits on size of the AVF has been to contract out functions previously performed by members of the armed forces to civilian contractors. Such contracts are both expensive and raise lots of other problems such as accountability and contractor conduct. Third, the strains produced by having to overuse a small AVF include a myriad of post-service physical and psychological injuries and debilities only the tip of the iceberg of which are now apparent. To this point, all these costs have been reasonably cheerfully borne by a populace consoled by the fact that the AVF keeps the wolf of potential service away from most of our doors.

Will this continue to work in the future? The price of the AVF is going to be tougher to justify in the future, and continuing this basis for military manpower will mean the U.S. will be constrained in what it can do in the world in rhe future. That may or may not be a bad thing, but it is a question rarely raised in AVF terms.

The deeper and more troubling question is whether it should be continued. Veterans’ Day reminds us that military commitment and sacrifice has historically been a national burden, not one borne by those we hire to perform our duty for us (we have, of course, also done that, as in the provision for draftees to hire replacements on the Union side of the Civil War). Philosophically, the danger is that we become so disconnected from the military obligation that we forget that sacrifice is a national, not a minority, responsibility. I do not want to saddle the military with an unruly force, but I would like a force that is more representative of us all and which cannot be activated without a conscious recognition that we and those we all hold dear may be very personally affected.

As President Obama wrestles with the question of whether or not to send more troops to Afghanistan, I wish one of the factors he had to consider was how he would explain his decision to the American families whose sons and daughters would be drafted into the military to implement those decisions, especially since some would pay the highest sacrifice. Until 1973, all presidents faced that concern; wouldn’t it be better if they still had to?