The Tragedy of the Military or a Tragedy of Government

As Alex noted in his post below, there have been a number of Hollywood trolls saying negative things about American Sniper. Most have not seen the film, obviously. My understanding is that Sniper is similar to Eastwood’s earlier Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Both movies were respectful of the military but not “pro-war” in any sense. (They are also both very good movies, especially Letters).

It’s also not the first film with a sniper as the protagonist. The solid film Enemy at the Gates had, as its hero, sniper Vasily Zaitsev. I don’t recall the Hollywood idiotorati complaining then. I guess Communist “mass murderers” are OK. Actually, given the affection Hollywood lefties have for people like Mao and Che, we know they’re OK with mass murderers as long as they’re communist mass murderers.

In any case, the discussion about Sniper got me thinking about this recent article from James Fallows. In it, he uses recent Hollywood movies about the military as an example of the American public’s poor thinking about military matters in general:

From Mister Roberts to South Pacific to Catch-22, from The Caine Mutiny to The Naked and the Dead to From Here to Eternity, American popular and high culture treated our last mass-mobilization war as an effort deserving deep respect and pride, but not above criticism and lampooning. The collective achievement of the military was heroic, but its members and leaders were still real people, with all the foibles of real life. A decade after that war ended, the most popular military-themed TV program was The Phil Silvers Show, about a con man in uniform named Sgt. Bilko. As Bilko, Phil Silvers was that stock American sitcom figure, the lovable blowhard—a role familiar from the time of Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners to Homer Simpson in The Simpsons today. Gomer Pyle, USMC; Hogan’s Heroes; McHale’s Navy; and even the anachronistic frontier show F Troop were sitcoms whose settings were U.S. military units and whose villains—and schemers, and stooges, and occasional idealists—were people in uniform. American culture was sufficiently at ease with the military to make fun of it, a stance now hard to imagine outside the military itself.

Let’s skip to today’s Iraq-Afghanistan era, in which everyone “supports” the troops but few know very much about them. The pop-culture references to the people fighting our ongoing wars emphasize their suffering and stoicism, or the long-term personal damage they may endure. The Hurt Locker is the clearest example, but also Lone Survivor; Restrepo; the short-lived 2005 FX series set in Iraq, Over There; and Showtime’s current series Homeland. Some emphasize high-stakes action, from the fictionalized 24 to the meant-to-be-true Zero Dark Thirty. Often they portray military and intelligence officials as brave and daring. But while cumulatively these dramas highlight the damage that open-ended warfare has done—on the battlefield and elsewhere, to warriors and civilians alike, in the short term but also through long-term blowback—they lack the comfortable closeness with the military that would allow them to question its competence as they would any other institution’s.

Fallows sees this as a window into our thinking about the military. Because so few serve now, it is exotic territory to many Americans. As a result, our politics are dominated by people supporting our troops but not thinking about them too much. He argues that foreign adventures are engaged in with little thought and with supreme confidence that our soldiers can deal with whatever problems face them. Pentagon programs and the Pentagon’s budget are regarded as sacrosanct. He points out that Solyndra has gotten massive media attention but its cost is a hundredth that of the troubled F-35’s cost overruns. He argues that our distance from the military has created a “chickenhawk nation” — a nation that supports endless numerous military engagements but has little interest in either serving directly or providing the kind of critical thought military engagement deserves. And our debacles in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria reflect this.

Too much complacency regarding our military, and too weak a tragic imagination about the consequences if the next engagement goes wrong, have been part of Americans’ willingness to wade into conflict after conflict, blithely assuming we would win. “Did we have the sense that America cared how we were doing? We did not,” Seth Moulton told me about his experience as a marine during the Iraq War. Moulton became a Marine Corps officer after graduating from Harvard in 2001, believing (as he told me) that when many classmates were heading to Wall Street it was useful to set an example of public service. He opposed the decision to invade Iraq but ended up serving four tours there out of a sense of duty to his comrades. “America was very disconnected. We were proud to serve, but we knew it was a little group of people doing the country’s work.”

Moulton told me, as did many others with Iraq-era military experience, that if more members of Congress or the business and media elite had had children in uniform, the United States would probably not have gone to war in Iraq at all.

In short, he sees America as disengaged, unwilling to see the military as an institution with shortcomings and weaknesses. And our popular culture reflects this disengagement.

I think a few points are in order. First, on the popular culture front: the reason we aren’t getting military comedies anymore is because modern Hollywood sucks at comedy. Most movies have to be “serious” except for big action movies. It used to be that when people wanted to criticize the military, the did it with either gentle affection (Mister Roberts) or biting satire (MASH). Now they do it with over-serious highly politicized movies that no one watches.

Second, there is a big difference between reverence for “the military” as an institution and reverence for the people who are in it. The latter deserve nothing but respect; the former less so. There have been many people critical of military decisions, military contracting, military spending and military engagements. Defenders of aggressive foreign policy have taken to cowering behind our soldiers, equating any criticism of military policy as criticism of the people serving. That’s garbage and Fallows doesn’t really pick that apart as he should.

Third, the military get inordinate respect in our society because they earn it. No matter what the conflict, they have undertaken it without complaint and done as good a job as can be done, even when faced with impossible tasks. Their behavior in even the most awful theaters has been exemplary. And, as Fallows notes, you can’t help but be impressed when you meet soldiers. I haven’t met one who wasn’t respectful, hard-working, smart and dedicated. The only problem I’ve ever had is that they look so good in their uniforms, they make me feel spectacularly underdressed.

Reverence for soldiers, if not necessarily the entire military industrial complex, is a good thing. It’s a great thing, actually. A few years ago, I read my way through the entirety of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It is a great, if extremely long, read. And it’s an important read because I believe the Roman Empire is the nearest historical parallel to the United States.

Three things I learned reading Gibbon:

1) If anyone tells you that the Roman Empire fell for Reason X, they are probably full of it. I’ve heard the Rome fell because of going off the gold standard, because of too many foreign adventures or because of the decline of morality. None of these hold up when you read Gibbon. In fact, the decline of Rome began almost exactly at the same time they abandoned paganism for Christianity and stopped conquering people.

2) In fact, Gibbon partially blames Christianity for the fall of Rome. He believe that the Romans became too focused on the afterlife and not focused enough on real life.

3) I think Gibbon overreaches a bit on Christianity but he does get to the fundamental truth: Rome fell because the Romans stopped defending it. Their military might had decayed, their Emperors had become incompetent and their defense of Rome consisted mainly of trying to bribe their way out of it.

In the Notebooks of Lazarus Long, Robert Heinlein says:

No state has an inherent right to survive through conscript troops and in the long run, no state ever has. Roman matrons used to say to their sons: “Come back with your shield, or on it.” Later on, this custom declined. So did Rome.

God knows our nation isn’t perfect. But a world with America is a giant improvement over a world without it. The survival of our nation depends on our willingness to defend it and the skill and courage of those who choose to defend it. We had better have respect for those who stand between us and the ash heap of history.

But as I noted above, there’s a difference between respecting the people and respecting the institution. Even movies that respect the soldiers can be and often are critical of the military and our political leadership. Eastwood’s Flags of our Fathers, for example, makes a point about the politicization of the soldiers who raised the flag at Iwo Jima. Other recent films, like Blackhawk Down, Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker have focued laserlike on our soldiers and the difficulties they face but either left the politics aside or criticized them in a very subtle way.

In short, Americans understand what a lot of pundits like Fallows don’t: it is possible to revere our soldiers and loathe the men who blithely send them into harm’s way with no clear objective of what they’re supposed to accomplish. Majorities of Americans now oppose open-ended foreign engagements like Syria. Still more want our engagements to come with a clear game plan and objective. Obama’s push to get into Syria was deeply unpopular. But if we’d gone in, the American people would have had no less respect for the men and women going into battle.

And that gets me to the main point. I think Fallows identifies a lot of problems with our military. He’s right that the F-35, a massively overbudget program designed to replace the cheaper and devastatingly effective A-10, is a scandal. He’s right that we are too willing to send the military into situations they aren’t suited for. We’ve gone from a conventional wisdom that the military can’t do anything to a conventional wisdom that they can do everything. Hell, we even sent them to fight Ebola last year and I’m pretty sure bullets don’t work on a virus.

Here’s where I think he misses the mark: this is not unique to the military. It’s more pronounced because the military is the biggest government program and the most visible. It’s more pronounced because we have a combination of neocons and liberal interventionists who have decided that the only “serious” approach to foreign policy involves bombing people.

But other programs have similar problems. As I noted a few weeks ago, California is about to throw $100 billion at a semi-high-speed-rail system. That’s one of dozens if not hundreds of massive bloated expensive infrastructure programs around the country. Bridges are being replaced at a hundred times the cost and in five times the construction time they were originally built. Subway lines and rail lines are being built at a cost of hundreds of millions per mile. And yet, what do we hear? Nothing but platitudes about how we need to build infrastructure and create jobs.

Public schools spend insane amounts of money and achieve mediocre results. Head Start is a gigantic babysitting program that even our government has concluded has no measurable effect on children. Yet education is sacrosanct. When Bush tried to cut programs that everyone agreed were wasteful, redundant and ineffective, he was pilloried because some of those programs were educational .. wasteful, redundant and ineffective but educational.

My own agency, NASA, has frequently had massive cost overruns (and, like the Pentagon, protects its big programs by spreading them out in multiple Congressional districts). Farm subsidies always wind up costing more than projected. It’s only recently that our massive vile War on Drugs and the two million people we’ve jailed has come under criticism.

In short, Fallows is identifying a symptom, not a disease. That military budgets are bloated, that programs like the F-35 are massively over-budget, that we keep sending our military into theaters where they have no clear mission is a symptom. The disease is a government that is dysfunctional, that cowtows to both special and general interests, that is driven by crack-brained pundits and egghead analysts, that never takes one step back to say, “should we really be doing this?”

You want to cure the symptoms? Cure the disease. Government agencies bloat. That is what they do. They secure their positions, they spread out their tendrils, they get powerful interests on their side and they defend themselves. And our leaders find new things for them to do. Government agencies aren’t programs; they are organisms.

Our federal government has 15 different departments. What they should do is put them in a 15-year cycle. Each year of the cycle, one department is completely torn down and replaced with a new department (or abolished, if we don’t think it’s necessary. I’m look at you, Commerce.) So in year T-2, you decide what agencies you need in the new Department and what functions it should have. In year T-1, you decide where the federal employees should go, which ones should be let go and what facilities need to be repurposed or sold. Then in Year zero, you transition to the new department.

I know a lot of people are saying, “why don’t you just do all the departments at once?” But ending or reorganizing a federal department is a massive undertaking. A 15-year cycle means that a lot of federal employees can be pushed into early retirement if necessary; it allows some institutional knowledge to be built and preserved; it allows time for the massive undertaking that reorganizing a department would be; it allows the organizations to accumulate bureaucratic cruft to make the effort worth it. I’m not even convinced you could do one a year. Some, like the Department of Defense, would need to be done over several years. A 20-year cycle might be better.

But the point is that the problems in Washington — including those in DoD — are a result of creating massive permanent untouchable institutions in Washington. Sunsetting those institutions or subjecting them to periodic reorganization would do lot more good than “demystifying” the military.

Post Scriptum: I didn’t have a place for this, but did want to note it. Part of the purpose of Fallows piece is to flog the work he did with Gary Hart’s commission on military reform. I’m not sure how Hart came to be regarded as a genius on these things. He was pushing himself as a military reformer in the 1980’s but his ideas were terrible. They mainly consisted of railing against new-fangled technologies like chobham armor and fly-by-wire fighters. He thought they would be unreliable and that we should be mass-producing older “more reliable” weapons systems. This point of view had some respect from old generals who thought it was done better in the old days, but not much respect among anyone else. And history has proven him wrong.

I remember this because my dad, the Air Force colonel, was going through the War College at the time and I was his research assistant. He showed me an Air Force Magazine article that hilariously took apart Hart’s criticisms. I hope I can find it one day and share it with you. It was so awesome I still remember it thirty years later.

One example: Hart criticized modern armor because it used aluminum, which he said was inflammable. Powdered aluminum is inflammable, but the aluminum alloys used in our armored vehicles was not and is not. The writer imagined a general discussing how to build tanks of inflammable materials without letting the soldiers catch on. They pondered building tanks out of wood or highway flares before settling on aluminum alloys.

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  1. Seattle Outcast

    Usually when people stop defending something, it’s because it isn’t worth defending any longer in their assessment. If we stay on the track of the leftists, we will soon be at that point.

    While my own military service flavored with a distasteful command chains of alcoholics, brown nosers, and Major trying to stay out of prison after stealing USAF equipment for resale, I’m assured that most people had a better experience.

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  2. AlexInCT

    If we stay on the track of the leftists, we will soon be at that point.

    I thought that we already were at that point according to the evidence….

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