Life isn’t fair: that’s a lesson my dad learned growing up during the Great Depression and working hard in the Civilian Conservation Corps and local factories in the 1930s. He also learned it during World War II, when he was drafted and eventually assigned to an armored headquarters company at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. In fact, before World War II, my dad tried to enlist in the Navy, only to discover he was too short to make the grade (he was just under 64″, the Navy minimum, and recruiters were picky before Pearl Harbor). A half-inch or so probably saved my dad’s life. After that experience, my dad vowed he wouldn’t volunteer for war; he’d wait until he was drafted, which he was in 1942 by the Army.
My dad was on track to be a surgical technician for the 7th Armored Division; he would have gone overseas and faced combat. But another soldier on the dental technician track talked my dad into switching positions with him. My dad agreed, only to learn a dental technician was limited to a corporal technician’s rating, whereas a surgical tech could become a sergeant with higher pay. My dad was also “excess” on the table of organization when he finished training, so he was reassigned from the 7th Armored to the 15th Armored Group.
My dad had to transfer and got less pay, but he got lucky: his new unit didn’t go overseas, whereas the 7th Armored did. A guy he knew, Danny Costellani, was transferred from medical battalion to armored infantry while in France and was killed in action. My dad knew this could have been him.
I’ve been watching the Winter Olympics on TV, and the color commentators for NBC are typically athletes who’ve earned gold medals in the past, like Tara Lipinski in figure skating or Bode Miller in skiing. Why is it, then, when NBC and other networks seek expert “color” commentary on America’s wars, they turn to retired generals like David Petraeus, who’ve won nothing?
I’m not dissing Petraeus here. He himself admitted his “gains” in Iraq as well as Afghanistan were both “fragile and reversible.” And so they proved. The U.S. fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and lost thousands of troops and trillions of dollars for gains that truly were ephemeral. Despite this disastrous and tragic reality, Petraeus remains the sage on the stage, the go-to guy for analysis of our never-ending wars on PBS, Fox News, and elsewhere.
Over the past several days, Russia and Israel have lost fighter jets over Syria. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to those countries. When jets attack people on the ground, those people tend to fire back (if they have weapons at hand), and sometimes they even hit their targets.
What is interesting is the Russian and Israeli reaction, which was in essence identical: immediate escalation. More air attacks. More bombs. All justified as “reprisal” raids that are couched in terms of self-defense.
The mentality goes something like this: How dare you little people on the ground have the temerity to fire back at us and actually hit our planes? For that you must be punished with more air attacks and more bombs until you stop firing at and hitting our planes.
The new Congressional budget boosts military spending in a big way. Last night’s PBS News report documented how military spending is projected to increase by $160 billion over two years, but that doesn’t include “overseas contingency funding” for wars, which is another $160 billion over two years. Meanwhile, spending for the opioid crisis, which is killing roughly 60,000 Americans a year (more Americans than were killed in the Vietnam War), is set at a paltry $6 billion ($25 billion was requested).
One thing is certain: Ike was right about the undue influence of the military-industrial-Congressional complex.
The military talks about needing all these scores of billions to “rebuild.” And, sure, there are ships that need to be refitted, planes in need of repairs, equipment that needs to be restocked, and veterans who need to be cared for. But a massive increase in military and war spending, perhaps as high as $320 billion over two years, is a recipe for excessive waste and even more disastrous military adventurism.
Even if you’re a supporter of big military budgets, this massive boost in military spending is bad news. Why? It doesn’t force the military to think. To set priorities. To define limits. To be creative.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the expression, “Spending money like drunken sailors on shore leave.” Our military has been drunk with money since 9/11. Is it really wise to give those “sailors” an enormous boost in the loose change they’re carrying, trusting them to spend it wisely?
William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools and blogs at Bracing Views. He can be reached at email@example.com. Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.
News that President Trump favors a military parade in Washington D.C., perhaps to coincide with Veterans Day in November, has drawn criticism, and rightly so. The president has a juvenile fascination with parades and other forms of pomp and circumstance, but more than anything I’m guessing he relishes the thought of posing as “The Leader,” reviewing and saluting “his” troops and generals as they pass in review. If only “Cadet Bone Spurs,” the telling nickname that Tammy Duckworth has pegged him with, could don a military uniform for the occasion — his fantasy would be complete.
The idea of a military parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, complete with tanks and jets (and maybe some big missiles and bombs too?), sounds radical. But is it really that different from other militarized celebrations that America has been witnessing and applauding since 9/11?
Consider this year’s Super Bowl. It was played in a domed stadium, yet there was the obligatory military flyover (featuring A-10 attack planes, which the Air Force ironically wants to get rid of). Fifteen Medal of Honor recipients were celebrated on the field, with one (a Marine) performing the coin toss for the game. A video link showed U.S. troops watching from overseas. In past years, troops featured were usually in combat zones like Iraq and Afghanistan. This year the troops were in South Korea, perhaps because NBC wanted a link to the forthcoming Olympic games, hopefully not because the Trump administration is foreshadowing a “bloody nose” strike against North Korea that would turn that region into a combat zone.
One of the joys of blogging is hearing from insightful readers. Today, I’d like to share two notes that highlight vitally important issues within the military – and that touch on larger problems within American society.
The first note comes from a senior noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Navy. This NCO highlights the tendency for “green” (new) officers to want to prove themselves as “warfighters,” instead of doing the hard work of learning their jobs, which entails listening to their NCOs with a measure of humility while working together as a team. It further highlights the arrogance of some officers who are full of themselves after graduating from military academies, where they are often told to “take charge” because they are “the very best.”
Here’s the note:
As a Chief Hull Technician, I ran the damage control and repair shop. My shop was responsible for hull, piping, water, sewage repairs and damage control equipment on our ship. The officer in charge of “R” Division is always a first assignment for new ensigns reporting to their first ship. I was a senior enlisted with 16 years in the Navy, working for a 22 year old (ensign) with either 4 years at the academy or nine weeks of OCS (officer commissioning school) and a year of SWO (surface warfare) school. All the new officers want to be war fighters. None want to know the nuts and bolts of actually running the ship. During my tour I had 3 (Naval) academy and one OCS ensign. The ensigns from the (Naval) academy were horrible. Not just bad officers, but lousy people. I understand the cluelessness of a 22 year old, but the desire to achieve with no regard for the people who will make you great was appalling. They did not realize their crew would make them great. They thought they were so brilliant, they could do it on their own. My job was to save them from themselves. My Chief Engineer would get mad at me when they made asses of themselves. My OCS ensign was a good officer. He wasn’t full of the Naval Academy education… Breaking traditions is hard in the military. The fact we have presidents with no military leadership is contributing to letting the Generals run wild. Instead of realizing the civilians control the military, not the other way. I would have fired or (forced) early retirements of all flag officers who supported the Iraq war. Who needs people around who give bad advice?
This senior NCO makes an excellent point at the end of his letter. Why not fire or early retire generals and admirals who offer bad advice? But rarely in the military is any senior officer held to account for offering bad advice. As LTC Paul Yingling noted in 2007, a private who loses a rifle is punished far more severely than a general who loses a war. Citing Yingling, military historian Thomas E. Ricks noted in an article at The Atlantic in 2012 that “In the wars of the past decade, hundreds of Army generals were deployed to the field, and the available evidence indicates that not one was relieved by the military brass for combat ineffectiveness.”