An expert's point of view on a current event.

A New Challenge for Our Military: Honest Introspection

It's time to hold the generals accountable for Afghanistan and Iraq.

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

We have lost more than lives in our wars in the Middle East, more than money, more than precious elements of our national reputation. We have also lost our ability to judge our actions or their consequences with a critical eye.

Yes, certainly there has been national debate about whether we should have been involved in those wars, one that has belatedly delivered the message to our political leadership that it is time to bring our troops home. But about one crucial array of issues concerning our involvement we have been stunningly silent: the competence of our military leaders, the effectiveness of the strategies they have employed, and the very structure and character of our military itself.

Clearly, recent headlines have underscored the difficulty we have had achieving our overall objectives in both Afghanistan and Iraq — after a decade of massive costs in lives and resources — and raised serious questions about discipline, morale, and the consequences of our actions, both intended and otherwise. And while our political leadership must ultimately be held responsible, it is fair and indeed urgently important to ask to what degree our top military commanders should also be held accountable.

Perhaps our silence is understandable — to a degree. It was a national scandal how badly our troops were treated in the wake of the Vietnam War. They had sacrificed greatly and served with honor, and it was wrong to take them to task as a group for the misjudgments of those who directed their actions or for a few bad soldiers who committed some terrible misdeeds. In subsequent years, political leaders like Ronald Reagan won great national approval for embracing those troops and trying to redress the wrongs done to them and their reputation.

But as with many policies of the Reagan era — such as deregulatory fervor, contempt for "big government," jingoism, and the tax-cutting siren song of supply-side economics — we have taken them too far in the decades since, pushing them to extremes few in either political party dare challenge. We pumped up the volume of patriotic posturing with the sap and testosterone cocktail of country songs and NFL game-opening flyovers and shots of troops rooting for their teams from distant bases. We made any serious discussion of cutting defense budgets virtually impossible, equating it with defeat and a desire to weaken America. The 9/11 attacks and the emotions they stirred only compounded these impulses, fueling an insecurity-driven national mania for massive international displays of our fortitude and resources.

We gave our military virtually everything it asked for. No part of the U.S. government illustrates the excesses of bloated big-government spending more extravagantly than the Defense Department, which, with upwards of $650 billion in spending this fiscal year, a huge 96 percent increase over the last decade, now sucks up the biggest non-entitlement portion of our federal budget. Yet, in the wars we have just been through, we are left with a troubling track record.

In Iraq, let’s stipulate that we shouldn’t have been there in the first place and attribute that gross misstep to our elected political leaders. But once asked to act, our military brass closely collaborated with their political bosses on a "shock and awe" approach that was costly, absolutely devastating to many innocents among the Iraqi people, and, in the end, as effective at achieving our goals as advertised. Indeed, it was years into the war before it was finally acknowledged that we needed to change course with "the surge."

When our AfPak military strategy also proved to be frustratingly ineffective, they dialed up a surge there too — despite the many and profound differences between the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan as in Iraq, our actions, despite efforts to win public support, have also produced profound alienation, at least in part due to a backlash against a steady number of incidents of what the military calls "collateral damage." Such incidents inevitably occur in warfare, but given our political debate, even apologizing for these mistakes — acknowledging them as errors — has been made to seem a sign of weakness. From Abu Ghraib to the burning of the Qurans in Afghanistan, from urinating on corpses to the murder of civilians, there have been multiple such incidents — yet there is little appetite to ask why so many have occurred or whether some aspect of our military or the way it is being run is contributing to their frequency.

It was the military that opted to make these two wars the first in U.S. history in which the majority of people we had on the ground were private contractors — with all the errors, abuses, and problems that have been associated with some of those contractors. It was the military that made the spending recommendations resulting in the costliest wars in U.S. history — even though both will end very unsatisfactorily. In Iraq, we are likely to end up with a fragmented country under the rule of a strongman and subject to Iranian influence. In Afghanistan, we are likely to turn the country over to either a corrupt, incompetent current government or the very Taliban we entered the country to flush out.

We have done great damage to al Qaeda since 9/11, thus achieving one of our principal objectives. But through our missteps, we have inflamed new terrorist organizations and worsened key relationships in the region, and it would be impossible to say that the Middle East today is more stable or less of a threat to U.S. interests than it was before we started spending the trillions of dollars we have poured into our conflicts there. Politicians like President George W. Bush and his top advisors deserve much — even most — of the blame for this, but so too do military leaders who have set the budgets. By any measure, they have been denied little; indeed, this generation of Americans and several to come have and will sacrifice greatly to pay for these wars. But given the results, the missteps, and the associated tragedies, wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect a fair accounting, an open, candid, and nonpartisan debate about what went wrong and how we can do better?

Toward the end of these wars, it became clear that a different formula for U.S. engagement with our terrorist enemies could be quite effective. Credit Barack Obama’s administration and the military top brass for finally coming around to the recognition that a more surgical, stealthy approach — special forces, plus drones, plus intelligence and covert activities — could better help us achieve key objectives. But why was this not advanced sooner? If it was, who rejected it? Shouldn’t we better understand why for so long we focused on costly, less-than-effective overkill? Indeed, while one cannot help but celebrate the heroism of those who took out Osama bin Laden, it would be fair to ask why it took a decade to find him, especially given that in the end it turned out he was virtually hiding in plain sight.

We need to have enough confidence in ourselves and our system to know that asking questions about why our system has not worked as we might have hoped is a sign of strength, not of weakness, of genuine patriotism, not the opposite. The scars of Vietnam have healed, but in their place we are creating, through our unwillingness to have the full and open discussion of both our strengths and our weaknesses on the battlefield, new ones.

As a country, America has made a decision over the past several decades to devote the greatest part of our discretionary budget to national defense, to outspending all the world’s major militaries added together. This should raise perhaps the biggest question of all — about our priorities. Historians will look back and conclude that we bet on raw power to maintain and extend our global leadership, consistently choosing force over investments in our people, schools, infrastructure, or research. Our military leaders and their sponsors in the defense industry have been complicit in helping us arrive at this decision, reducing our risk of foreign attack perhaps but also increasing the likelihood we succumb, as other great powers have, to a combination of overreach and fear of losing what we have gained.

As these two wars come to a close, the period of healing in the region and the repatriation of our troops and the reintegration of them into society must be accompanied by one of introspection and a different kind of courage. Let’s do our duty to ourselves and show our military that we respect it enough to know that it can stand up to the scrutiny it deserves.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf