Sunday, October 09, 2011

Without the buzz cuts

Generally speaking I try to avoid the sorts of situations I lump under the general heading of "Support Our Troops".

Ever since my country decided that the drawbacks of having a substantial portion of its citizenry with skin in the armed-foreign-policy game exceeded the value of cheap military manpower I've watched the average U.S. citizen become about as familiar with the realities of soldiers and soldiering as a milk cow with the details of the deliberations of the Council of Trent.

But in what I have always considered a perfect slice of savage irony as those people have become less and less cognisant of what their now-professional troops are doing in their name they have developed an absurdly exaggerated veneration and adulation of those troops. And I recently ran across one of these on my "Facebook" page which pitchforked me into the question of what my country has become since it no longer requires random lots of its young people to serve in its military.

Here's a perfect example, something titled the "anxiety of a military mom" written by someone who presents herself as a military wife (I'm not saying she isn't - just that I have no way of knowing one way or the other).Her money graf sums up her attitude towards her husband's service in Afghanistan in particular and soldiers and soldiering in general;
"I for one cannot think of a better ambassador for the United States than my husband...I love knowing he’s the face of my nation on the other side of the planet. He has honor. He has valor. He’s brave. He’s an officer and a gentleman. He’s always in a freakishly good mood. Having him in Afghanistan is my small way of saying, See, world? Not all Americans are over-medicated, McDonalds-eating channel surfers with entitlement issues! We still make a few like we used to! So to this mom..."(the article is in reference to another woman who is frantic that her son wishes to join as a Marine officer) "...I say, be proud. Be ecstatic. Be blown away by your son’s determination and character. The fact is, we need more men and women like that. A lot more. A nation full. But without the buzz cuts."
I have a hard time with all the illusions summed up here, but perhaps the most perplexing to me is the notion that this woman has about how the majority of the nation feels about her husband and his comrades.
"There is a lingering perception in our society..."
she writes,
"...that the military is for those who seek a way out of a dead end life, that the only people crazy enough to enlist are those who have nowhere else to go and nothing else to do, and want to beat their chest in the process. That combined with the very real threat of death is why so many parents cringe at the idea of a child enlisting. They seek a “better life” for their sons and daughters."
Lingering perception of... In the "thank you for your service " America of 2011? Has this gal been out in public lately..?

What I would tend to agree with is that for anyone who has economic alternatives (which is to say anyone making more than $50,000 or so a year) the notion of giving a child to an expeditionary army fighting neo-colonial wars in the global hustings - which is the reality of military service circa 2011 - is not an appetizing one. The downsides of woundings, death, psychological damage and emotional distress far outweigh any possible return, given that the visible lack of an Afghan Taliban Navy or Air Force make the ridiculous canard that the enemy we're fighting in central Asia is a genuine threat to the nation.

So for a rational parent, diverting a child from a life of semi-permanent low-grade expeditionary warfare for fairly murky geopolitical objectives isn't a bug, it's a feature.Troops are dying in central Asia, true (though not many and not often) but what they are dying for is as far removed from "their country" as a Frenchman killed at Salamanca was dying for the principles of the Revolution of 1789. National interest? Geopolitical advantage? Perhaps, sure; the same reason that professional soldiers fight and die and have fought and died since Rome. But getting blown away chasing muj outside Kandahar is a very different proposition than getting shot down storming the beaches of Normandy or defending the barricades on Long Island or the ramparts of Fort McHenry. And the choice for a parent, or a spouse - to give a loved one for geopolitical advantage - is to me a hell of a lot more fraught than if the choice was one of death in defense of their home and family.

And the troops themselves understand this. They also understand that the bulk of the American public - like the poor woman quoted above - do NOT understand; "A vast majority..."(of the U.S. public) "...expressed pride in the troops and three-quarters say they thanked someone in the military. But a 45 percent plurality say neither of the post-9/11 wars has been worth the cost and only a quarter say they are following news of the wars closely. Half of the public said the wars have made little difference in their lives."

I understand that neither the military nor the U.S. government wishes to return to a draftee military. I understand the military difficulties with that concept. But when I look around me and see the vast disconnection between the public and the military forces...when I watch the public make foolish and uninformed choices based on fantasy and propaganda rather than painfully-won experience...I really wonder if we're sacrificing the public good for military expedience. I wonder if we're placing the wants of the military service over the needs of an involved and informed public.

And mind you, I'm not saying that the public needs to have a wider experience with war. I'm saying it needs to get to know what happens in armies.

Because without that we have become a nation in awe of our own military. Poll after poll reaffirms that the U.S. armed services are the best respected institution in the nation - ahead of the Presidency, ahead of the Congress, ahead of agencies great and small. Not having any real experience or understanding we loves us some GIs and tend to credit them with intelligence, diligence, and moral standing above any of the civilian institutions in our country.

Which, as any GI could tell you, is nonsense.

Soldiers are generally fitter than most people, somewhat better organized, and with a less-complicated world to understand. But no private who has spent hours standing around some worthless patch of dirt doing fuck-all only to be told that the original point of the clusterfuck was mistaken will continue in the mistaken belief that soldiers know better than civilians what should be done and how to do it. No one better than an enlisted troop - especially a draftee troop, who has no vested interest in making the Army look good - knows the meaning of the terms "SNAFU", "SUSFU", and "TARFU". No one can spend more than a couple of days in the service without experiencing some appalling clusterfuck and then hearing it described in the post paper as a brilliant success.The draftees of the French Army in Napoleon's day had a saying: "Pour se trouver comme un Bulletin"...meaning that there was fibbing and untruth and then there was the Big Lie as expressed in the official Army Bulletins. When you lied "like a Bulletin" you were really bringing the bullshit.

A democracy needs a middle course; neither adulation nor contempt for its military forces. Right now we're all in on the former. That's not sensible and it's not healthy; it encourages a militaristic way of thinking, and, if pursued to its logical endpoint, will eventually encourage both people and soldiers to contemplate praetorian treason.

And behind the larger, public, difficulties are the small individual tragedies typified by the sort of person who will read the "military mom's" account and really believe that patriotism, love, and hope will overcome the brutal effect of sending young men to fight in foreign rebellions and civil wars.Thirty years ago she would probably have seen three generations of young men go off to fight in straighter wars in simpler times and return different men with wounds both external and internal that would often twist them for the remainder of their lives.

Today she writes only what she knows. And while I understand it is her truth, as a soldier I also understand that behind that truth lies another, sterner, iron-shod truth, the truth of the heart of war. And that for many another woman - and perhaps even the writer herself, as the effects of her husband's deployments work their way inward over the years - the collision between her truth and the Truth of War is likely to become fragments that will tear into their lives like mortar shrapnel.

I wish that my country could gain the wisdom to understand this without having to bind itself into forced soldiering, the stupefyingly blunt instrument of a military draft. But it does not appear to and does not seem to wish to.

I do not love the idea of a draft, of forcing citizens to serve the state. I do not wish to give my son or daughter to one. But I do not love what I see as the lack of a draft having done to my nation, and my people. I do not like what I see of my nation when a woman whose husband is overseas enforcing the national will on an unwilling foreign land can say that her nation should be proud and ecstatic to be a nation full of soldiers.A democracy should go to war sternly, reluctantly. It should be proud and ecstatic to see its sons and daughters inventors, steelwrights, poets, and athletes. It should see its soldiers as it does its weaponry; necessary instruments of policy, good for destruction that is valuable only in that it preserves or returns the peace needed for those peaceful professions to thrive.

It should glory in its power for creation and should give its young people over to soldiering with reluctance and regret, with the stern resolve not to "support the troops" but to return them to the benefits of peace as quickly as it can.

And if a draft is needed for us to find that resolve within ourselves then by all means let us return there, and soon.


rangeragainstwar said...

I'm an hybrid. I was a volunteer in a draft Army .There is no good way to run a war-none. Whatever the cause or the case the entire system is corrupt and it all rolls downhill.
It doesn't matter how you get to the screwing- the point is you're gonna get screwed, and you're lucky to come home unscathed.
The 1st thing i internalized in my training was that the army will get u killed and not bat an eye.It requires sacrifice, and we gotta love that.
But the draft helps to short circuit the effect since the effect is spread over a larger leach field.

FDChief said...

jim: I'm with you re: the 1st Rule of War ("If You're Not A General Officer War Will Fuck You Up"). And Rule #2, as well ("War, especially prolonged war, will corrupt civil government and society").

But my thoughts on drafts are something like yours as well; the effect is to spread the poison out and dilute it. It gets the public to respond more quickly, too, before the toxin builds up to lethal levels. Or at least, that's the idea.

One thing I think the U.S. Army has either forgotten or is deliberately ignoring is that a draft is actually good for the Army as well. It forces the "professionals" - the lifer NCOs and the graduates of the officer training schools, especially WooPoo, to remember that they're not fucking Roman legionaries but serving what's supposed to be a democracy. Keeps heads a little less swelled.

And it brings a slow but steady stream of guys in who are good at soldiering but who never would have thought of going in if they hadn't been drafted - the "Audie Murphy" type guys. They're good for the service, too (tho' ol' Audie is a textbook case in Rule #1).'s good in that draftees don't give a flippin' fuck about the Army Way or keeping the caissons rolling along. If their officer or sergeant is going to do something stupid they have no career to worry about when they call him out as a stupid motherfucker. THAT's good for the Army, too; helps us think outside the box. You can't do too many Hamburger Hills with draftees - they'll start shooting you in the back because you're more dangerous to them than the enemy.

Like I said in the post; I REALLY don't like the idea of compelling free citizens to fight. But the more I see of the attitude of the post-draft United States towards war, armies, and soldiers, the less I like it. Not sure if it IS because we don't have a draft, but it sure seems coincidental that it is almost perfectly aligned with the return of the small "professional" army...

Ael said...


You are going about this backwards.

A large standing army causes much grief. After all, if you are paying for it, you might as well use it. Furthermore, you need to justify it, and then the self-licking begins.

Roll back military expenditures to a world typical 2-3% of GDP and it will dry up the wellspring of military adventurism.

FDChief said...

Ael: No, no...I'm not arguing for or against the SIZE of the military.

Just how we get it.

A draft can be set to whatever level of manpower you want. It just needs to be equitable; no Civil War buyouts or Vietnam-era deferments. You get called, you go, you go home. Period.

And you can do this with a 10 million man Army or a 500,000-man Army. You just get a smaller total slice of the population with the latter.

I agree that an overall cut in military expenditures is sensible; just like we were talking about over at MilPub - the threat environment just ain't there. There's no real need for a lot of the DoD cash, especially in the form of procurement, that we're spending.

But I'm arguing for a entirely different breed of cat. It's about HOW we get our troopies, not how many. We just think of it as a sort of mass manpower arrangement because that's how it's been done in the past.

rangeragainstwar said...

Your pics for this essay are great
-two soldiers carrying a wounded comrade and they're going towards a vehicle that is cooking and full of explosives plus fuel-REAL DUMB.
-the tank on the dike is instructive. I guess with today's army i can now say dyke. This is illustrative of dumbness b/c the tank cdr ignored a simple concept called sheer factor. Any farmer knows not to do this with a tractor let alone a tank. I know the troops were going balls to the wall and wouldn't stop to think- hell we don't need to use physics we got us a tank.!!Also my impression is that they all make a lucrative target.
OK -here's where bg jumps me and tells me that it's only a photo.

rangeragainstwar said...

We had a SF senior nco from tallahassee drown when his mrap fell into a river exactly as did this mb1 almost did. They were luckier.
I sure met a lot of sharp draftees and reserve officers doing their 2 year gig. The 2 year O's were the result of the draft b/c they elected not to be EM. Our system was set up this way for almost 200 years.

Lisa said...

Just read a post @ the milblog The Sandbox, "Five and Ten", and it so echoes this fallow idea.

The man says he was an analyst on Wall St. on 9-11-01, and his NG unit was called up. He was in 5 years and is now doing contract work. He expressed his sorrow at the loss of many good men, and could not make a cogent argument for the why of it, but fell back on the cry that he wishes more Americans showed their patriotism today.

I wrote, "And how would that bring your dead friends back or make them or you feel any better about things?"

Of course, he's a contractor now, and making beaucoups bucks. I guess it's like working on Wall Street. He feels a little bad, but not too bad to stop feeding.

FDChief said...

jim, Lisa; Your comments have got me thinking about another aspect of this turn from forcing a bigger group of Americans into the service. I want to post about that next.

jim: I cannot tell you how many times I saw stuff like this; dumb shit that happened either because somebody wasn't paying attention OR because some other damn body ordered him or her to do something that they should have known was going to fail. No different from the dumb shit some supervisor is telling some kid in a warehouse to do...but we've developed this popular legend that soldiers are all 11 feet tall with the brains of an Einstein...

Lisa: Your contract guy sounds like a very messed up boy, indeed.

Ael said...

Sorry Chief, I was not clear.

You are describing an attitude problem with society and prescribing a state of enforced servitude on an unlucky few to fix it.

Basically a hostage taking recommendation: "straighten up and fly right, or your kids will get it!"

My suggestion was that there was no need to resort to such an evil thing (even if it is intended to combat another evil thing).

If you can shrink the size of the monster, it can't (and won't) be such a problem.

FDChief said...

Ael: A little monster is still a monster. And little armed monsters tend to get about all sorts of nasty business because they are so small that their adventures are completely out of mind of the supposed-sovereign People in a democracy. That's one big reason why we got into all those nasty little imperial adventures in places like China and Central America back in the day.

And you'll note that our little monster is a very busy little bastard these days and the U.S. public - when it's not cheering about the killings of some brown people - could give two shits.

The good of a republic requires lots of "evil" things. We're forced to serve on juries. We're forced to pay monies to various governments. A big part of this is that the people who set up our republic realized that people being people will avoid doing things they should do and HAVE to do if they want to keep their liberties.

You'll note that they didn't force us to vote and as a result we're currently governed by the fraction - typically less than half, more typically WAY less than half - that does vote.

IMO we're paying for that, and in much the same way we're paying for reducing our connection with the military services to a small, self-selecting group.

In a republic the military is SUPPOSED to be "the nation in arms". Republics that turn to paid professionals often soon discover that those professionals are more loyal to their profession and each other than to the nation. Republics that turn to small professional militaries often find - as we have seen over the past two decades - that the temptation to use those militaries in ways that are costly or at best not beneficial to the citizenry is irresistable.

So I would consider a draft "evil" in the same way I consider jury service and taxation "evil"; an imposition that provides a vastly greater benefit to the nation than it imposes on the citizen.

rangeragainstwar said...

A good example is the foreign legion after Algeria.

FDChief said...

jim: Or the Marines in the Caribbean and Latin America in the Twenties and Thirties. The USMC pretty much ran Haiti and much of Honduras and Nicaragua during the "banana wars" period, and the people of the U.S. (when they bothered to notice) were all for it.

What it did to the places occupied we're STILL paying for. Soldiers generally make pretty shitty rulers.

I agree with Ael that forcing people into military service is bad. If I saw another way to make the U.S. public pay more attention to what their military is doing, I'd be all over it. But I don't. I'm getting to the point where I think that a draft is a nasty medicine we need to help get "better"...

Ael said...

I am unconvinced that a draft will change things for the better. Go look at the list of conscript armies.

Do you see a trend towards responsible democracy or a lack of military thugs? Me neither.

Now go look at a list of countries with the military budget as a percent of GDP.

It looks to me like shrinking the monster makes it behave a lot better (at least on average).

rangeragainstwar said...

I was thinkin' of the lost dreams of yester year and my mind went to ESL and BSEP.
I can't remember that we had these in the draft army b/c the standards were much higher-other than the 100k experiment.

FDChief said...

Ael: "It looks to me like shrinking the monster makes it behave a lot better (at least on average)."

OK, prove it to me.

We had a small professional army between 1800 and 1861; we invaded Mexico, fought with the British, and exterminated the original owners of the joint.

We had a small professional army between 1866 and 1917; we invaded Cuba, the PI, points inbetween, colonized the Philippines, fought in China, and the USMC did some filibustering in the Caribbean.

We had a small professional Army in the Twenties and Thirties and fought Banana Wars much of the time as well as occupying Haiti.

The big draftee army of the Fifties through the Seventies gets the Vietnam can tied to its tail, though the draftees were pretty much instrumental in halting that shindig. It also gets the credit for Lebanon, the DomRep, and Korea.

We've had a small professional army since 1972. It's been involved in Grenada, Lebanon, Panama, the Gulf Wars, and now two invasions and occupations in central Asia.

So...I don't quite "get it". We've had a "big draftee army" for the three big wars, one middle sized one (Korea), and two expeditionary adventure. All the rest of our foreign fiddling has been with a relatively small ground force.

Again, I don't see the connection between size of the force and the use, or lack of use, of it. If anything, the small volunteer force seems to be ideal for politicians who want to get the U.S. involved in piddly overseas adventures that don't have much value to Joe and Mary Lunchpail Americans (and also seem to have often resulted in unsatisfactory results).

The draftee force, OTOH, has successfully prosecuted three majors wars, and forced the conclusion of two others; Korea fairly successfully, Vietnam less so - but Vietnam was never "winnable" anyway under any reasonable circumstances.

FDChief said...

The other point I'm trying to make is that I'm NOT saying that conscription = democracy.

I'm saying that ending conscription in THIS democracy seems to have had some ill effects on the use of military force and the understanding/concern of same amongst the citizenry.

I do not think that returning to conscription will reverse our slide into oligarchy, merely re-introduce some citizen skin into the foreign-military-policy game. When you or your kids stand a change of becoming high-velocity-projectile-interceptors I suspect that more than a fucking quarter of the nation would start paying attention to news about the places they stood to get killed in.

That's all. No golden elixir of democracy, just a sharp slap in the face of a complacent citizenry.