I temporarily lose my ability to speak and write freely in about two weeks, so I am using what time I have left to stir up as much controversy as possible. Over Twitter two days ago and in my World Politics Review column yesterday, I broached a subject that might anger some of my fellow veterans.
When we talk about what we owe veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, we immediately begin to talk about entitlements. The intellectual space devoted to veterans issues, in fact, is almost entirely filled by advocates. (Our research program at CNAS, I am happy to note, is exceptional in this regard.) But as much as I respect organizations like Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and Veterans of Foreign Wars -- I am a member, in fact, of both -- we rarely take a step back and ask the hard philosophical questions about service and entitlements.
The fact is that the military that has fought in Iraq and Afghanistan is not a military of conscripts like the ones that fought in our nation's previous wars. Each man and woman who has served in Iraq has volunteered and signed a labor contract to provide a service in exchange for compensation. Compensation is not the only thing that motivates servicemen, of course -- far from it -- but the terms of the initial contract are clear.
We Americans, I argue, need to decide whether or not military service is truly a service or whether, in the era of the all-volunteer force, it is a profession like many others in the federal government. Our decades-long inability to decide between these two poles has lead to an ambiguous situation in which we have lifted up our professional military onto a ridiculous praetorian pedestal. The example I always use is that of the uniformed military serviceman in peak physical condition being allowed to board an airplane before a mother with two small children. Every veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan that I meet thinks this is ridiculous. But those kinds of no-cost perks are delivered along with a lot of very real and costly veterans benefits -- such as the new G.I. Bill -- given at a time when the rest of the country is making tremendous sacrifices. I write:
If the military is a service, then we can and should expect those who serve to do so humbly and for little reward, in exchange for the grateful thanks of their nation. We might provide compensatory benefits on the back end for the families of those killed and for those wounded or injured while serving. If the military is a profession, by contrast, then we should expect those who choose this profession to provide a contractually obligated service in exchange for pay and benefits.
Either way, the policy implications are the same. If veterans of a professional all-volunteer force have simply provided services to the public in exchange for compensation, then we veterans deserve the same benefits provided to other public servants -- no more, no less. If the military, by contrast, is a truly selfless service, than veterans should be among the first in these times of austerity to lead by example and accept fewer public benefits. At the very least, we should be helping that mother with kids onto the airplane ahead of us.
Anyway, read the whole thing. What I don't want to see is my fellow veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan become like the baby boomers -- spoiled and entitled, unwilling to either give up benefits or accept new taxes, and putting our own selfish desires over those of the greater good. That's not what I want my military service to be about.
Speaking of World Politics Review, subscribe here. My column ends next week, but if you've enjoyed my column, you'll likely be really excited to see who my replacement is.
P.S. Steve Walt wrote a post on Tuesday asking why no one was talking about Afghanistan. It's a question worth asking, and absent any real guidance from the campaign, I spent last week's WPR column trying to imagine what a Romney Administration's Afghanistan policy would look like.
I have been abroad for the past five weeks and just got back two nights ago. I have currently worked my way through two weeks of emails and have another three to go, so if you have tried to get in touch over the past month, have some patience with me. I was working a bit while I was abroad, as anyone who watched me in debates on France24 knows, and I want to provide some links to my columns for World Politics Review so that you can reach beyond the paywall. (Now having said that, I encourage you all to actually buy a subscription to WPR. It's not terribly expensive, and -- my column aside -- the content is both fresh and informed.)
1 August 2012: "Fallout from Libya Precedent Felt in Syria Debate"
25 July 2012: "State, USAID Must Learn From Afghanistan Errors"
18 July 2012: "U.S.-Israel Military Ties Face Long-Term Strains"
4 July 2012: "No Crisis in Wartime U.S. Civil-Military Relations"
27 June 2012: "America's Dysfunctional Decade in Afghanistan"
In one area, however, the current conflict is anomalous. We have retained nearly all our generals (and admirals) throughout the fight. Only a single brigadier general has been relieved for the performance of duty in a combat zone. Historically speaking, that is a curious fact.The Bateman is a walking encyclopedia of military history (and former USMA History professor), so Charlie is inclined to listen.
Let us be clear here: Not a single general, not a brigadier, a major general, a lieutenant general or a full general, nor any naval officers of the same grades, has suffered any serious adverse consequences for failure upon the field of battle since World War II. At worst, as was the case with Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, some might merely have not been promoted. Others, such as Gen. William Westmoreland, were promoted to chief of staff of the Army after failing to win year after year in Vietnam. So what is the difference and how have things changed over time since the end of World War II?Bateman reviews the historical circumstances of the US Civil War, WWI, and WWII to suggest that the political costs associated with firing generals goes along way toward explaining how many may come to face the music and be fired. And while FDR (and George C. Marshall) famously relieved vast swaths of general officers, subsequent presidents would instead take their cue from Harry Truman and the searing price he paid for firing Douglas MacArthur.
Since the end of World War II, the U.S. has engaged in three sustained conflicts. Korea lasted 36 months of active combat; Vietnam, if measured only from the summer of 1965, was 96 months long; and we have been fighting the war on terrorism since October 2001, 78 months as I write this — a total of 210 months, nearly twice as long as the three earlier wars [US Civil War, WWI, WWII]. In all three of those first three wars, we sacked dozens upon dozens of generals, probably more than 100. We also won all three of those fights. Since then, we have removed from combat only eight of the hundreds upon hundreds, perhaps as many as a thousand, of generals involved. We fought the Korean War to a draw, we lost the Vietnam War, and we are in a toss-up right now. There is obviously correlation, but is there causation in effect, as well? In other words, is one the result of the other? Even in part? Or are there too many other variables in play for the correlation to be relevant?
Since that time, two truisms seem to have been in place with regard to the political calculations that go into presidential decisions regarding the relief of generals.
The first seems to be that a succession of presidents believed they did not have sufficient personal expertise to override their military subordinates and demand the relief of a nonperforming or underperforming commander in combat....At best, the presidents who fall under this heading may shuffle an officer aside, although they also might promote them up and out of the way, as happened with Westmoreland and others. Call this the “professionalization effect.”Charlie has before that one of the biggest legacies from these current wars is this a profound fissure in civil-military relations. The Bateman likely agrees. Finding a way to review, reward, and punish the combat performance of general officers is critical to "battlefield" success. Though that might require civilians who are more interested in winning wars than winning elections.
The second apparent truth is that at least some presidents believed that the political costs the electorate (and the opposition party) would impose on them or their party for the relief of a combatant general would be excessive....In this situation, the president is more likely to endorse a course of action that promotes the offending general out of the combat theater, as happened repeatedly under Johnson.
So, if President George W. Bush starts to prepare—or actually issues the order—for an attack [on Iran], what should the generals do? Disobey? Rally resistance from within? Resign in protest? Retire quietly? Or salute and execute the mission?Like most who have written on this subject, Charlie is understandably torn. Civilian control of the military is one of the cornerstones of Anglo-American democracy (to the point that when we discuss reform or training of foreign militaries we forget that for many their biggest fears are coups, not invasions). But what do you do when the civilians seem to be auditioning for Dr. Strangelove? (You can't fight in here! This is the War Room!)
They should arrange to be called before congressional committees and to be asked awkward questions, which would elicit their critical replies. At the final hour, they should threaten to retire or resign en masse and, if that didn't work, they should follow through. (Even if they quietly retired, the fact that three or four or six or eight generals did so at once would have some impact.)This strikes Charlie as reasonable given the extraordinary circumstances. But in her more ornery moods, she wants to push Kaplan one further: if the Merkwürdigeliebe civilians are hell-bent on invasion, why shouldn't the Generals stand strong and wait to be fired? No constitutional violations (on either side), and the civilians get to put their money where their mouth is. Obviously this is a near impossibility, but so is three or four or six generals "retiring."