When, in mid-September, General David Petraeus
testified before Congress on "progress" in Iraq, he appeared in full dress uniform
with quite a stunning chestful of medals. The general is undoubtedly a tough
bird. He was shot in the chest during a training-exercise accident and later
broke his pelvis in a civilian skydiving landing, but until he went to Iraq
in 2003, he had not been to war. In the wake of his testimony, the New York
Times tried to offer
an explanation for the provenance of at least some of those intimidating medals
and ribbons – including the United Nations Medal (for participants in joint
UN operations), the National Defense Service Medal (for those serving during
a declared national emergency, including 9/11) and the Global War on Terrorism
Expeditionary Medal (for… well, you know…). Petraeus is not alone. Here, for
instance, is former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Peter Pace, a combat
Marine in Vietnam, with one dazzling
chestful of medals and
another of ribbons.
Medal and ribbon escalation has been long on the rise in the U.S. military.
Here, for instance, was General William Westmoreland, who commanded U.S. forces
in Vietnam, sporting his
chestful back in that distant era. But the strange thing is: As you continue
heading back in time, as, in fact, U.S. generals become more successful, those
ribbons and medals shrink – and not because the men weren't highly decorated
either. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who won World War II in Europe for the
Allies seems, in his period of glory, to have chosen to wear between one
rows. And General George C. Marshall, who oversaw all of World War II, after
a distinguished career in the military, can be seen in photos wearing but three
rows as well.
It's hard to believe that there isn't a correlation here – that, in fact,
there isn't also a comparison to be made. For all the world, when I saw Petraeus
on display, I thought of the full-dress look of Soviet generals, not to say
the Soviet Union's leader Leonid
Brezhnev, back in the sclerotic 1980s when, ambushed in Afghanistan, they
were on the way down. Like the USSR then, the U.S., only a few years back hailed
as the planet's New Rome, has the look of a superpower in distress – and it's
hard to believe that generals with such chests full of medals, whether in the
former USSR or the present USA, have the kind of perspective that actually leads
to winning wars – or to assessing a losing war correctly. Consider what a retired
military officer, Lieutenant Colonel William Astore, has to say on the subject.
Saving the Military from Itself
Why Medals and Metrics Mislead
By William Astore
It's time to save the military from itself. I
say this as a retired Air Force officer who served for twenty years, my last
three in a "joint" assignment, working closely with Army, Marine, and Navy officers
and enlisted men and women. As the Dean of Students at the Defense Language
Institute in Monterey, California, I saw hundreds of young troops cross the
stage, graduating with new skills in Arabic and other strategic languages. With
few exceptions, these (mostly) young men and women were highly motivated, committed
to their service and country, and ready to go to war. They had no quit in them.
But in the words of Kenny Rogers, "You've got to know when to hold 'em.
Know when to fold 'em. Know when to walk away. Know when to run." The reference
to his hit song, "The Gambler," is not facile. The Prussian military theorist
Carl von Clausewitz wrote that war, in its complexities and uncertainties,
most resembles a game of cards – let's say Texas Hold'em in honor of the
President's adopted state. Over the last four-plus years, we've shoved hundreds
of billions of dollars into the Iraqi pot, suffered sobering losses in killed-in-action/wounded-in-action,
yet we're still holding losing cards dealt from a stacked deck. Even so, the
Bush administration has recently doubled-down instead of folding, hoping to
hit an inside straight despite long odds.
Why are we spilling blood and treasure with such reckless abandon? One answer
is the military itself. Our military is a funhouse reflection of ourselves
– purpose-driven, results-oriented, can-do, never-say-die, win-at-any-cost.
Many commentators have noted that, in his recent testimony before Congress,
General David Petraeus was hardly likely to criticize his own strategy in
Iraq or, more crucially, the performance of the troops under his command.
I have no doubt, however, that his belief in the viability of his mission
reaches far deeper than that. Indeed, it surely taps into a core belief within
the military that we can – and must – prevail in any conflict. We've
been seduced by our own hype about being the world's "sole superpower," as
if nuclear and technological supremacy had made us omnipotent as well as omni-competent.
Cheating the Kobayashi Maru
But how can you win someone else's civil war?
In Iraq, our military faces a classic Kobayashi
Maru – a no-win situation. In the Star Trek movie, The Wrath
of Khan, Admiral Kirk recounts how he triumphed over his own Kobayashi
Maru – by cheating. He reprograms a computer simulation to allow for victory,
even winning a special commendation for originality!
The U.S. military seems to think it can do the same. Its version of reprogramming
is "metrics": Show enough colored charts with seemingly hard-and-fast numbers
and you can claim, if not victory, at least progress of a sort. Antiwar critics
have referred to this as "cooking the books," implying that the military is
engaged in a deliberate campaign of lies. While it may be true that the first
casualty of any war is truth, bald-faced lies have been the least of our problems
when it comes to our armed forces. Far more devastating has been the ability
of its commanders to mislead themselves, and so, us. Even when U.S. forces can't
always "search and destroy" Iraqi insurgents and terrorists, it turns out that
they can search and deploy metrics indicative of progress anyway.
But when such metrics are deployed, do they mean what our military thinks
they mean? For example, General Petraeus noted that this year his troops had
already found and cleared more than 4,400 weapons and explosive caches, 1,700
more than in all of 2006. Is this, then, proof of better intelligence and
interdiction techniques, as he claims? Or is it a sign that these caches are
proliferating? Or that the insurgents are learning to disperse their weapons
more effectively? And what exactly constitutes a cache anyway? Two
AK-47s and an old artillery shell? And is it possible that top-down pressure
from the chain-of-command to show results has inflated this figure? In other
words, is better counting (and possibly some creative accounting) behind these
Here's a metric of a different sort. General Petraeus testified that Iraq
has already committed $1.6 billion to the U.S. foreign military sales (FMS)
program, and will likely commit another $1.8 billion to FMS by year's end.
He presented this as positive news. Yet, is this not another way of saying
that Iraq has $3.4 billion less to commit to desperately needed internal
infrastructure repairs and improvements? Is it really the case that Iraq's
ongoing civil war is best resolved by an infusion of billions of dollars worth
of U.S. military equipment?
Lies, Damned Lies, and Metrics
One might be pardoned for asking: What makes
our military think this way? For these and other metrics are not lies (although
lies may be folded into them); rather, they are symptomatic of a state of ongoing
self-delusion as well as self-congratulation. Our military is structured to
recognize and reward performance, and institutionally we believe that "true"
performance must be quantifiable. So we develop (invent is often a better
word) "metrics" to feed the beast. Promotion ("fitness") reports exhibit the
Lake Wobegon Effect,
where nearly every officer and NCO turns out to be above average. Commanders
do their best to quantify, showcase, and elevate the accomplishments of their
units, even if results are nebulous or ephemeral. The status reports Petraeus
offered Congress, displayed on those giant, colorful charts during the recent
hearings, are at least in part a compilation of these glowing reports. The end
result: an inherently flawed and overly optimistic vision, heavily weighted
toward "progress" and ultimate success.
While this may, in part, be a military version of the grade-inflation endemic
in our schools and culture, there are other signs that it is now rampant.
Medals and ribbons, for instance, have proliferated to such an extent that
few have any real meaning. Officers openly sneer about "PCS medals," almost
pro forma awards received after a "permanent change in station" –
that is, a new assignment, no matter how peaceable. Many medals shout "been
there," rather than "done that." Some awards and decorations today are tied
more to the military rank of the recipient than to objective measures of merit.
Indeed, ribbons have proliferated like nuclear missiles during the Cold War.
I counted nine rows on Petraeus' left breast during his Congressional hearings.
If they were a valid metric across time, he would be roughly thrice as capable
and valorous as George C. Marshall, perhaps America's greatest soldier-statesman,
who somehow ran and won a world war while wearing only three rows of ribbons.
By no means do I intend to disparage General Petraeus or his record. In
wearing a uniform festooned with medals, ribbons, badges, and tabs, he's the
norm among U.S. military commanders. Yet those medals and militaria that our
commanders wear are a kind of evidence. Our military, they indicate, is so
busy patting itself on the back that its medal-bestowing has come to resemble
those Little League tournaments where every kid gets a trophy, win or lose.
We're so busy celebrating how great we are that we're failing to face reality.
Not all problems can be solved by applying more elbow grease and shouting
Our military will continue to showcase the metrics of success in Iraq because
the system itself is built on them. By nature as well as training, our military
is composed of action-oriented problem solvers. This is a great strength,
but also a potentially fatal flaw. It makes it unlikely indeed that military
commanders will recognize how "bugging out and calling it even" – the jaded
advice of Private Hudson in Aliens – can, at times, be the height
of military wisdom. We magnet-ribbon people who sport "support our troops"
on our SUVs need to learn that "support" sometimes means pulling the troops
out, even when some of them are kicking and screaming to stay.
Generals and Train Wrecks
In a country founded on civilian control of the
military, it's disturbing indeed that, as a New
York Times/CBS poll indicated recently, Americans trust their generals
three times as much as Congress and 13 times as much as the President. As unjust
as the "General Betray Us" tag may have been in that Moveon.org ad, many other
Americans, including most of Congress – and, above all, the President himself
– seem to be chanting "General Please Save Us." Both chants are misguided, but
the second is the more dangerous.
As French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau famously noted a century ago,
"War is too important to be left to generals" – a fact illustrated recently
by a serving Army officer. In "A
Failure in Generalship," which appeared in Armed Forces Journal
in May, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling argues that, prior to the invasion
of Iraq in 2003, our generals "refused to prepare the Army to fight unconventional
wars" and thereafter failed to "provide Congress and the public with an accurate
assessment of the conflict in Iraq." Put bluntly, he accuses them of dereliction
of duty. Bewailing a lack of accountability for such failures in the military
itself, Yingling memorably concludes that "a private who loses a rifle suffers
far greater consequences than a general who loses a war."
When it comes to Iraq, we seem to suffer from a baffling case of collective
amnesia. Think back to the spring of 2004. A friend of mine was then serving
in the Green Zone with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), run by presidential
appointee L. Paul Bremer III. Prior to the official handing over of "sovereignty"
to the Iraqis in June of that year, he wrote me that the CPA staff "accepted
as given" widespread "corruption, private militias, insecurity, and coming
civil war." The "scariest" part, he added, "is that we're supporting a regime
which is seen as completely illegitimate by the people it's supposed to rule
in the name of democracy…. Even the Iraqis who welcomed us after Saddam have
lost patience with us and are pursuing other routes to power and national
control." The whole operation, he concluded, "is a train wreck waiting to
happen, and the administration simply refused to acknowledge it, much less
do anything about it." And for overseeing this train wreck, the Bush administration
in December 2004 rewarded Bremer with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Saving the New 'Greatest Generation'
Yingling's recent cri de coeur and my
friend's pessimistic, yet accurate, prediction highlight the crime we're committing
against today's all-volunteer military. For I believe General Petraeus was right
to salute our troops as a new "greatest generation." After all, our last one,
the veterans of World War II (currently celebrated in Ken Burns' documentary
series), contained a large percentage of more-or-less reluctant draftees. Today's
troops may not have had in mind repeated 15-month deployments to Iraq when they
raised their right hands to take the oath, but they still resolutely put themselves
in harm's way. They deserve our respect and gratitude – but, even more, they
deserve our attention.
To paraphrase John F. Kennedy: Ask not what your military can do for you,
but ask what you can do for your military. In this case, "support our troops"
should mean supporting the idea of pulling them out of a morale-sucking morass.
The President won't act, so Congress must. Chaos may – or may not – ensue
in Iraq after our troops withdraw, but buying time for more colorful benchmarks
to be met, for more impressive metrics to be produced, is unconscionable when
we know it will entail thousands of additional American casualties and hundreds
of billions of taxpayer dollars. These are the metrics that matter – blood
and treasure. But what should matter even more to our country than body bags
and billions is trust – the emotional and spiritual ties that bind
our troops to ourselves. Those ties, currently being stretched in Iraq, must
not be allowed to snap. For if they do, we'll be left with hollowed – instead
of hallowed – legions.
William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), earned a doctorate
in modern history from the University of Oxford in 1996. He has taught military
cadets at the Air Force Academy, officers at the Naval Postgraduate School,
and now teaches at the Pennsylvania College of Technology. His books and articles,
focusing primarily on military history, include Hindenburg:
Icon of German Militarism (Potomac Press, 2005). He can be reached at email@example.com.
Copyright 2007 William Astore