Does the military deserve bashing?


Since the United States withdrew its military forces from Iraq,
and as it reduces its military role in Afghanistan,
there has been a spate of articles in the media basically accusing the military
of having “lost” these wars,
and suggesting that better generalship and overall military performance
might have resulted in
a more satisfactory (at least in the mind of the person making these criticisms) result.
Two prominent people with experience either in the military or covering the military
who have made such criticisms are
Andrew J. Bacevich,
a retired Army armor colonel who found a post-retirement job
teaching international relations and history at Boston University, and
Thomas E. (Tom) Ricks,
the long-time military correspondent for the Washington Post.

For samples of their criticisms, see
‘Good Guys’ Make Bad Generals”,
a review in The American Conservative by Andrew J. Bacevich of a book by Ricks, The Generals: American Military Command From World War II to Today,
“Can the military learn from its mistakes?”,
an op-ed published on October 25 2013 in the Washington Post by Thomas E. Ricks.

But before accusing the military of “failing”, one must ask
“Was the military given, by its political leadership,
a task capable of being solved by military means?”
As a not so fanciful analogy,
a hammer certainly will fail to sew a dress or paint a work of art,
but then that was not what the hammer was designed to do.
In precisely the same fashion,
the American military was tasked by past generations of American political leaders
with defeating other militaries, which it has done with reasonable success
(the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War,
the War between the States, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II,
the Korean, Vietnamese, and first Iraq War),
but in only one of these, World War II,
did its task extend to providing a chrysalis for the creation of
a new political system in a defeated enemy,
and that was an exceptional case in that the other side, Germany and Japan,
had fairly clearly started the war and as a result the Allies fought a total war
which resulted in their military-age manpower pool being fairly totally depleted
in the course of a very grueling and casualty-laden conflict.
There were few men capable of conducting a resistance left in Germany, at least,
and the Japanese had seen enough of a threat to their civilian population at Hiroshima and Nagasaki
that they had little stomach for further provoking the Americans.
So World War II offers little relevance to our current situation vis-à-vis the Muslim world,
those idiotic comparisons to a somewhat mythical Nazi post-war resistance
offered by Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld notwithstanding.

So the questions are:
“What task was the military given?” and
“Was that or those tasks capable, by even the most capable military,
of being accomplished?”

Let’s see what Bacevich viewed as the task.
The third paragraph of his article “ ‘Good Guys’ Make Bad Generals” is in its entirety
(but the emphasis is added by me):
Forays ending in something other than victory—i.e.,
conclusive operational success yielding desired political outcomes
have been both more numerous and of greater moment.
The Cold War provided the occasion for one costly draw (Korea)
and one humiliating defeat (Vietnam).
The post-Cold War era has included one outright failure,
the embarrassing if quickly mythologized Somalia intervention,
along with two wars of middling size, long duration, and ambiguous outcome.
Whatever verdict historians ultimately render regarding Iraq and Afghanistan,
they are unlikely to classify them as roaring successes.
Indeed, mounting evidence suggests that these two badly managed wars
may have rung down the curtain on the so-called American Century,
with the self-described “world’s only superpower” now facing irreversible decline.
To which I can only respond,
“Come now, Colonel Bacevich.
Where in the military school system did they ever teach that
military power could achieve ‘desired political outcomes’ ?”
Political outcomes are determined either by the indigenous people of a country
or by an occupying army (e.g., the Red Army in post-war Eastern Europe, 1945-89).
The success rate of imposing “political outcomes” by military means is rather low.

Further, what political consensus is there in the United States
for the American military to impose ‘desired political outcomes’ on other countries?
The war with Afghanistan was sold to the American people as,
first, retaliation for 9/11, and
second, as being necessary to prevent a repeat of that terrorist attack on the U.S.
But that second rationale, while it is certainly firmly in the minds of, say, the Washington Post editorial board,
has neither a strong grip in reality nor in the minds of the broader American public.
For several reasons,
the broad American support for imposing some particular political system
on an Afghanistan population that has a militarily potent faction
strongly opposing that political solution
seems lacking.
Support for continuing American military involvement in Afghanistan
runs around 30 per cent these days.

My conclusion, for what it is worth,
is that the task, emphasized in red above,
was neither one supported by a majority of the people in America
nor one that the U.S. military could achieve,
even if it had popular support in America.

Now let us turn to the op-ed by Ricks.
In a notable part, he states as “unanswered question about how our military performed in recent years”
Some fundamental disagreements between U.S. military leaders
and their civilian overseers were never addressed,
such as the number of troops required to occupy Iraq.
This undercut the formulation of a coherent strategy.
Can we educate our future military leaders
to better articulate their strategic concerns?
If not, expect more quarreling and confusion on issues such as
what — if anything — to do about Syria.
To which my response is
"Jesus Christ, you son of a bitch.
Do you not recall how General Eric Shinseki was treated
when he publicly raised precisely this concern?
How much more public can you get then testimony at a congressional hearing?
And how much more clear can he get, when he is publicly contradicting
the strongly held view of his boss, the then-secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld
and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz.
Precisely who, among your fellow media people,
spoke up at the time in support of Shinseki?
And how much further can he go without major public "intellectuals",
such as Eliot Cohen, all but accusing him of insubordination?”
Let us recall that at that time Eliot Cohen's book, Supreme Command,
with its claim that civilian masters were really smarter than their military subordinates,
was all the rage in the punditocracy.

Finally, let me briefly point out that the prediction was made back in 2004
that America would fail in Afghanistan,
irrespective of its generalship.
See Chapter Two of Michael Scheuer’s Imperial Hubris.