Secretary Gates speaks to students at Duke University

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates speaks to ROTC Cadets from Duke University, UNC, NC State, and NC Central

In a lecture at Duke University, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates remarked upon the ever present divide that exists between the nation and those who serve in uniform, noting that only “a tiny sliver of America” continues to volunteer for military service, and that many parts of the country are woefully underrepresented, particularly urban areas like Chicago and Los Angeles.

Dr. Gates comments that “the military’s own basing and recruiting decisions have reinforced this growing concentration among certain regions and families.  With limited resources, the services will focus their recruiting efforts on candidates where they are most likely to have success – with those whose friends, classmates, and parents have already served.”

He hones in on the disparities that exist with respect to resourcing for Officer recruitment, noting that “the state of Alabama, with a population less than 5 million, has 10 Army ROTC host programs.  The Los Angeles metro area, population over 12 million, has four host ROTC programs.  The Chicago metro area, population 9 million, has 3.” The disparity is equally as great in places like New York City which, with a population of 8 million, hosts only 4 ROTC programs, one of which is open and accessible to only 5% of the total college student population.

Dr. Gates ends his lecture with a call to serve, encouraging students at Duke and other selective universities to consider joining the military and making a contribution to the national defense. Quoting from a letter John Adams wrote to his son he notes: “Public business, my son, must always be done by somebody.  It will be done by somebody or another.  If wise men decline it, others will not; if honest men refuse it, others will not.”

Here is the full transcript of his remarks:

Thank you for the invitation and that warm welcome.  It’s a relief to be back on a university campus and not have to worry about football.  The first fall I was President of Texas A&M, I had to fire a longtime football coach.  I told the media at the time that I had overthrown the governments of medium-sized countries with less controversy.

I’d be remiss in not pointing out one major connection between Duke and the military – that Mike Krzyzewski attended, played for, and later coached at West Point.  Earlier this year the Duke Basketball team came to Washington, D.C., to receive President Obama’s congratulations for the NCAA championship.  Coach K also brought them by the Pentagon to see the 9/11 memorial and meet with some of the men and women who serve in our military.  I think I can speak for everyone they saw in saying that the visit was much appreciated.

For the undergraduates here, I know you’re well-accustomed to the challenge of staying awake through long lectures.  I promise I won’t test your endurance too much today.  I’m reminded of the time when George Bernard Shaw told a famous orator he had 15 minutes to speak.  The orator protested, “How can I possibly tell them all I know in 15 minutes?”  Shaw replied, “I advise you to speak slowly”.

As a former university president, visiting a college campus carries a special meaning for me.  It was not that long ago that my days and duties were made up of things like fundraising, admissions policies, student and faculty parking, dealing with the state legislature, alumni, deans, and the faculty.  In that last case, as a number of college presidents have learned the hard way, when it comes to dealing with faculty – the tenured faculty in particular – it’s either be nice or be gone.

Some of my warmest memories of Texas A&M are of walking around the 48,000 student campus and talking to students – most of them between 18 and 24 years of age – seeing them out on their bikes, or even occasionally studying or going to class.  For nearly four years now, I have been in a job that also makes me responsible for the well-being of a larger number – in this case, a very much larger number – of young people in the same 18- to 24-year old age group.

But instead of wearing J-Crew they wear body armor.  Instead of carrying book bags they are carrying assault rifles.  And a number of them – far too many of them – will not come home to their parents.

These young men and women – all of whom joined knowing what would be asked of them – represent the tip of the spear of a military that has been at war for nearly a decade – the longest sustained combat in American history.  The Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns represent the first protracted, large-scale conflicts since our Revolutionary War fought entirely by volunteers.  Indeed, no major war in our history has been fought with a smaller percentage of this country’s citizens in uniform full-time – roughly 2.4 million active and reserve service members out of a country of over 300 million, less than one percent.

This tiny sliver of America has achieved extraordinary things under the most trying circumstances.  It is the most professional, the best educated, the most capable force this country has ever sent into battle.  Yet even as we appreciate, and sometimes marvel at, the performance of this all-volunteer force, I think it important at this time – before this audience – to recognize that this success has also come at significant cost.  Above all, the human cost, for the troops and their families.  But cultural, social, and financial costs as well in terms of the relationship between those in uniform and the wider society they have sworn to protect.

So for the next few minutes, I’d like to discuss the state of America’s all-volunteer force, reflecting on its achievements while at the same time considering the dilemmas and consequences that go with having so few fighting our wars for so long.  These are issues that must be acknowledged, and in some cases dealt with, if we are to sustain the kind of military America needs in this complex and, I believe, even more dangerous and unstable new century.

First, some brief historical context.  From America’s founding until the end of World War II, this country maintained small standing armies that would be filled out with mass conscription in the case of war.  Consider that in the late 1930s, even as World War II loomed, the U.S. Army ranked 17th in the world in size, right below Romania.  That came to an end with the Cold War, when America retained a large, permanent military by continuing to rely on the draft even in peacetime.

Back then, apart from heroism on the battlefield, the act of simply being in the military was nothing extraordinary or remarkable.  It was not considered a sign of uncommon patriotism or character.  It was just something a healthy young man was expected to do if called on, just as his father and grandfather had likely done in the two world wars.

Among those who ended up in the military in those early years of the Cold War were people like Elvis Presley and Willie Mays, movie stars, future congressmen, business executives.  The possibility of being drafted encouraged many to sign up so they could have more control over their fate.  As I can speak from experience, the reality of military service – and whether to embrace, avoid, or delay it – was something most American men at some point had to confront.

The ethos of service reinforced by the strong arm of compulsion extended to elite settings as well.  A prominent military historian once noted that of roughly 750 of his classmates in the Princeton University class of 1956, more than 400 went on to some form of military service – a group that included a future Harvard President,  governor of Delaware, and Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the New York Times.  That same year, more than 1,000 cadets were trained by Stanford University’s ROTC program.

The controversy associated with the Vietnam War and the bitterness over who avoided the draft and who did not, led to a number of major changes in our military and American society.  One of them was the end of conscription and the beginning of the All Volunteer Force under President Nixon.

Over the past four decades, after a difficult transition period during the 1970s, the all-volunteer experiment has proven to be a remarkable success.  The doubts – and there were many inside and outside the military– were largely overcome.  Indeed, the United States would not be able to sustain complex, protracted missions like Iraq and Afghanistan at such a high standard of military performance without the dedication of seasoned professionals who chose to serve – and keep on serving.  Whatever the shortcomings there have been in Iraq and Afghanistan stemmed from failures and miscalculations at the top, not those doing the fighting and leading on the ground.  It has taken every ounce of our troops’ skill, initiative and commitment to battle a cunning and adaptive enemy at the front while overcoming bureaucratic lassitude and sometimes worse at the rear.

A key factor in this success is experience.  Consider that, according to one study, in 1969 less than 20 percent of enlisted Army soldiers had more than four years of service.  Today, it is more than 50 percent.  Going back to compulsory service, in addition to being politically impossible, is highly impractical given the kinds of technical skills, experience, and attributes needed to be successful on the battlefield in the 21st century.  For that reason, reinstituting the draft is overwhelmingly opposed by the military’s leadership.

Nonetheless, we should not ignore the broader, long-term consequences of waging these protracted military campaigns employing – and re-employing – such a small portion of our society in the effort.

First, as a result of the multiple deployments and hardships associated with Afghanistan and Iraq, large swaths of the military – especially our ground combat forces and their families– are under extraordinary stress.  The all volunteer force conceived in the 1970s was designed to train, prepare, and deploy for a major – and quick – conventional conflict – either against the Soviet Union on the plains of Central Europe or a contingency such as the first gulf war against Iraq in 1991.  In that instance – and I remember it well as I was Deputy National Security Advisor at the time – more than half a million U.S. troops were deployed, fought, and mostly returned home within one year.

By contrast, the recent post-9/11 campaigns have required prolonged, persistent combat and support from across the military.    Since the invasion of Iraq, more than 1 million soldiers and Marines have been deployed into the fight.  The Navy has put nearly 100,000 sailors on the ground while maintaining its sea commitments around the globe.   And the Air Force, by one count, has been at war since 1991, when it first began enforcing the no-fly zone over Iraq.

U.S. troops and their families have held up remarkably well given the demands and pressures placed on them.  With the exception of the Army during the worst stretch of the Iraq war, when it fell short of recruiting targets and some measures of quality declined, all the services have consistently met their active recruiting and retention goals.  In some cases the highest propensity to re-enlist is found in units that are in the fight. When I visited Camp Lejeune last year – a Marine Corps base about 150 miles from Durham – an officer told me about one unit whose assignment was switched from Japan to Afghanistan.  As a result, about 100 Marines who were planning to get out of the military decided to sign up again so they could deploy with their buddies.

The camaraderie and commitment is real.  But so is the strain.  On troops, and especially on their families.  I know – I hear it directly during my trips to Army and Marine bases across this country, where spouses and children have had their resilience tested by the long and frequent absences of a father, mother, husband or wife.

There are a number of consequences that stem from the pressure repeated deployments – especially when a service member returns home sometimes permanently changed by their experience.  These consequences include more anxiety and disruption inflicted on children, increased domestic strife and a corresponding rising divorce rate, which in the case of Army enlisted has nearly doubled since the wars began.  And, most tragically, a growing number of suicides.

While we often speak generally of a force under stress, in reality, it is certain parts of the military that have borne the brunt of repeat deployments and exposure to fire – above all, junior and mid-level officers and sergeants in ground combat and support specialties.  These young men and women have seen the complex, grueling, maddening face of asymmetric war in the 21st century up close.  They’ve lost friends and comrades.  Some are struggling psychologically with what they’ve seen, and heard and felt on the battlefield.  And yet they keep coming back.

This cadre of young regular and non-commissioned officers represents the most battle-tested, innovative and impressive generation of military leaders this country has produced in a long time.  These are the people we need to retain and lead the armed forces in the future.  But no matter how patriotic, how devoted they are, at some point they will want to have the semblance of a normal life – getting married, starting a family, going to college or grad school, seeing their children grow up – that they have justly earned.

Measures such as growing the size of the Army and Marines, increasing what is called “dwell time” at home, drawing down in Iraq, and beginning a gradual transition next year in Afghanistan should reduce this stress over time.  Properly funded support programs to help troops and families under duress – the kind championed by our First Lady – can also make a difference.   But in reality, the demands on a good part of our military will continue for years to come.  And, it begs the question:  How long can these brave and broad young shoulders carry the burden that we – as a military, as a government, as a society – continue to place on them?

There is also a question – and it is an uncomfortable and politically fraught question – of the growing financial costs associated with an all volunteer force.  Just over the past decade – fueled by increasing health costs, pay raises, and wartime recruiting and retention bonuses – the amount the military spends on personnel and benefits has nearly doubled:  From roughly $90 billion in 2001 to just over $170 billion this year out of a $534 billion defense budget.  The health care component has grown even faster, from $19 billion a decade ago to more than $50 billion this year, a portion of that total going to working-age retirees whose premiums and co-pays have not increased in some 15 years.

To be clear, we must spare no expense to compensate or care for those who have served and suffered on the battlefield.  That is our sacred obligation.  But given the enormous fiscal pressures facing the country, there is no avoiding the challenge this government, indeed this country faces, to come up with an equitable and sustainable system of military pay and benefits that reflects the realities of this century.  A system generous enough to recruit and retain the people we need and to do right by those who’ve served – but not one that puts the Department of Defense on the same path as other industrial age organizations that sank under the weight of their personnel costs.

The political resistance to confronting these costs is understandable, given the American people’s gratitude towards their countrymen who have chosen to serve.  This nation has come a long way from the late 1960s and early 1970s, when too many returning Vietnam veterans were met with sullen indifference or worse – especially in cosmopolitan or academic enclaves.  Today, in airports all over the country, troops returning or leaving for Afghanistan or Iraq receive standing ovations from other passengers.  Welcome home parades, letters and care-packages, free meals, drinks, and sports tickets – all heartfelt signs of appreciation large and small that bridge the political divide.  Veterans of our wars are also welcomed to campuses all across America as they return to school.

It is also true, however, that whatever their fond sentiments for men and women in uniform, for most Americans the war remains an abstraction.  A distant and unpleasant series of news items that does not affect them personally.  Even after 9/11, in the absence of a draft, for a growing number of Americans, service in the military, no matter how laudable, has become something for other people to do.  In fact, with each passing decade fewer and fewer Americans know someone with military experience in their family or social circle.  According to one study, in 1988 about 40 percent of 18 year olds had a veteran parent.  By 2000 the share had dropped to 18 percent, and is projected to fall below 10 percent in the future

In broad demographic terms, the Armed Forces continue to be largely representative of the country as a whole – drawing predominantly from America’s working and middle classes.  There are disparities when it comes to the racial composition of certain specialties and ranks, especially the most senior officers.  But in all, the fears expressed when the all volunteer force was first instituted – that the only people left willing to serve would be the poorest, the worst educated, the least able to get any other job – simply did not come to pass.  As I alluded to earlier, that group would be hard pressed to make it into a force that, on average, is the most educated in history.  Where virtually all new enlistees have a high school diploma or equivalent – about 15 percent more than their civilian peers – and nearly all officers have bachelors’ degrees, many have Masters, and a surprising number, like General David Petraeus, have PhDs.  At the same time, an ever growing portion of America’s 17 to 24 year olds – about75% – is simply ineligible or unavailable to serve for a variety of reasons – above all health and weight requirements in an age of spiraling childhood obesity.

Having said that, the nearly four decades of all-volunteer force has reinforced a series of demographic, cultural, and institutional shifts affecting who is most likely to serve and from where.  Studies have shown that one of the biggest factors in propensity to join the military is growing up near those who have or are serving.  In this country, that propensity to serve is most pronounced in the South and Mountain West, and in rural areas and small towns nationwide – a propensity that well exceeds these communities’ portion of the population as a whole.  Concurrently, the percentage of the force from the Northeast, West Coast, and major cities continues to decline.  I am also struck by how many young troops I meet grew up in military families, and by the large number of our senior officers whose children are in uniform – including the recent commander of all U.S. Forces in Iraq whose son was seriously wounded early in the war.

The military’s own basing and recruiting decisions have reinforced this growing concentration among certain regions and families.  With limited resources, the services will focus their recruiting efforts on candidates where they are most likely to have success – with those whose friends, classmates, and parents have already served.  In addition, global basing changes in recent years have moved a significant percentage of the Army to posts in just five states:  Texas, Washington, Georgia, Kentucky, and here in North Carolina.  For otherwise rational environmental and budgetary reasons, many military facilities in the northeast and west coast have been shut down, leaving a void of relationships and understanding of the armed forces in their wake.

This trend also affects the recruiting and educating of new officers.  The state of Alabama, with a population less than 5 million, has 10 Army ROTC host programs.  The Los Angeles metro area, population over 12 million, has four host ROTC programs.  The Chicago metro area, population 9 million, has 3.  It makes sense to focus on places where space is ample and inexpensive, where candidates are most inclined sign up and pursue a career in uniform.  But there is a risk over time of developing a cadre of military leaders that politically, culturally, and geographically have less and less in common with the people they have sworn to defend.

I’d like to close by speaking about another narrow sliver of our population, those attending and graduating from our nation’s most selective and academically demanding universities, such as Duke.  In short, students like you.  Over the past generation many commentators have lamented the absence of ROTC from the Ivy League and other selective universities.  Institutions that used to send hundreds of graduates into the armed forces, but now struggle to commission a handful of officers every year.  University faculty and administrators banned ROTC from many elite campuses during the Vietnam War and continued to bar the military based on the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy – with Duke being a notable and admirable exception with your three host programs.  I am encouraged that several other comparable universities – with the urging of some of their most prominent alumni, including the President of the United States – are at least re-considering their position on military recruiting and officer training – a situation that has been neither good for the academy or the country.

But a return of ROTC back to some of these campuses will not do much good without the willingness of our nation’s most gifted students to step forward.  Men and women such as you.

One does not need to look too hard to find Duke exemplars of selflessness and sacrifice.  Consider the story of Jonathan Kuniholm, currently a Duke graduate student in biomedical engineering, who lost part of his arm as Marine reservist in Iraq.  Now he is putting his experience and expertise to work designing new prosthetics – work that will help other amputees in and out of uniform.

There is Eric Greitens, class of 1996, Rhodes Scholar, Navy Seal.  After narrowly missing injury himself during a mission in Iraq, he came back home and founded the nonprofit “The Mission Continues” to help wounded troops and veterans continue serving in some capacity.

And last year, when it came time to reshape and reform the half-trillion dollar enterprise known as the Department of Defense, the person whose counsel I relied on to make the toughest budget decisions was Lieutenant General Emo Gardner,  career Marine Corps aviator, Duke class of 1973.

No doubt, when it comes to military service, one can’t hide from the downsides:  The frustration of grappling with a huge, and frequently obtuse bureaucracy.  Frequent moves to places that aren’t exactly tourist destinations or cultural hubs.  Separation from loved ones.  The fatigue, loneliness and fear on a distant dusty outpost thousands of miles from home.  And then there is the danger and the risk.

Next to the sidewalk between your chapel and the divinity school there is an unobtrusive stone wall.  For decades the only names on it were your alumni killed in World War II.  Last October 54 names were added to the wall for those Duke men and women who died in the wars since then, including two who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq.

Matthew Lynch, class of 2001, champion swimmer, following in his father’s footsteps as a United States Marine.

And, James Regan, class of 2002, son of an investment banker who turned down offers from a financial services firm and a law firm to join the army rangers.

But beyond the hardship and heartbreak – and they are real – there is another side to military service.  That is the opportunity to be given extraordinary responsibility at a young age – not just for lives of your troops, but for missions and decisions that may change the course of history.  In addition to being in the fight, our young military leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan, have to one degree or another found themselves dealing with development, governance, agriculture, and diplomacy.  They’ve done all this at an age when many of their peers are reading spreadsheets and making photocopies.  And that is why, I should add, they are often in such high demand with future employers and go on to do great things – in scholarship, in government, in business – in every walk of life.

So I would encourage you and all young Americans, especially those at the most selective universities who may not have considered the military, to do so.  To go outside your comfort zone and take a risk in every sense of the word.  To expand what you thought you were capable of doing when it comes to leadership, responsibility, agility, selflessness, and above all, courage.

For those for whom military service is neither possible or the right thing for whatever reason, please consider how you can give back to the country that has given us all so much.  Think about what you can do to earn your freedom – freedom paid for by those whose names are on that Duke wall and in veterans’ cemeteries across this country and across the world.

I would leave you with one of my favorite quotes from John Adams.  In a letter that he sent to his son, he wrote, “Public business, my son, must always be done by somebody.  It will be done by somebody or another.  If wise men decline it, others will not; if honest men refuse it, others will not.”

Will the wise and honest here at Duke come help us do the public business of America?  Because, if America’s best and brightest young people will not step forward, who then can we count on to protect and sustain the greatness of this country in the 21st century?

Thank you.

Photo: defense.gov

Posted on 30 September, 2010

Sen. Scott Brown comments on ROTC at Harvard

Noting Harvard President Drew Faust’s decision to continue to bar ROTC from its campus in the Boston Globe article “Brown blasts Harvard president for barring ROTC because of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,” Massachusetts Republican Senator Scott Brown said in a statement “Harvard President Faust has been lobbying on Capitol Hill in support of the DREAM Act, which would grant legal status to illegal immigrants attending college. Harvard has its priorities upside down.” He continued, “they should embrace young people who want to serve their country, rather than promoting a plan that provides amnesty to students who are in this country illegally.”

Operation Hollywood: Tinseltown’s recent wave of films on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

In the last three years, Hollywood, along with independent film companies and some documentarians, have begun producing films related to the wars against terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. The fact that the conversation has started is a vast improvement from the early years when all that was available were short news segments from embedded reporters and insurgency propaganda.  In the following selection of films, the viewpoints range from the soldier’s view and the families they left behind to the political woes of elected officials trying to manage the conflicts and the public opinions back home. Are they getting the story right? You decide.

The Hurt Locker (2009)

As delighted as I am for Kathryn Bigelow to be the first female to win best director, it is a shame that with so few movies about Iraq, (and still so many misconceptions among the American people) the one that caught so many people’s attention, got so much wrong.

The cavalier and nonchalant actions of EOD technician SFC James displays none of the characteristics of teamwork and esprit de corps of which the US military is prided today. Also, the convoys consisting of one HMMWV rolling out of Victory Base Complex (Baghdad), or the rogue senior NCO sneaking off base, were far from realistic. The consensus from the vet community is that the CGI was good, but the portrayal in this film was embarrassing.

Brothers (2009)

This film, a remake of a Swedish film of the same name, follows a U.S. Marine captain, his wife and two daughters from pre-deployment preps to his assumed funeral, and ultimately to his return from being a POW in the hands of Afghan warlords. His post-traumatic stress becomes uncontrollable when he suspects his ex-con brother has been having an affair with his wife. This film is sure to stir up emotions through the sometimes-graphic displays of post-combat stress on the Marine officer and his family.

The Lucky Ones (2008)

The Lucky Ones follows three Army soldiers, who through coincidence and cancelled flights, end up renting a car together during their mid-tour leave from Iraq.  Both the young male and female soldiers were wounded in battle and all had other battles to confront when they get home.  This film reminds us that no matter our origins, education level, or years of service, veterans have a way of easily creating bonds and being faithful friends during the thick and thin.

Lions for Lambs (2007)

This film blends together a disaffected high schooler receiving advice from his mentor teacher, a US senator with aims for higher office and the probing veteran reporter that nags him, and two deployed soldiers in Afghanistan. I believe the iconic scene in the film is when the two soldiers are completely surrounded by Taliban fighters. It is winter, in the mountains, and one of the men has been wounded. Rather than try escaping on his own, leaving his comrade behind, the battle buddy stays with his wounded friend, a move tantamount to death for them both. This heroic action illustrates the true ethos of never leave a fallen soldier behind.

The Green Zone (2010)

Some may assume that a soldier’s job in combat is to follow and execute orders from above. But what happens when things just don’t add up? This feature film follows Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller during the early months of post-invasion Iraq. Through personal curiosity and determination, Miller discovers that the faulty WMD intel was just a political ploy for invasion.  This film shows the lengths politicians may go to win the public relations battle and the how it effects the service member on the ground.

Lioness (2008)

Many Americans may not be aware that official policy prohibits women from joining MOS (military occupational specialties) that require direct ground combat.  Soon after the conflict and insurgency began in Iraq, it became apparent that women would in fact be needed to help search female Iraqis and conduct other tasks that would be considered taboo for the men.  Lioness is a documentary about the small group of female Army support soldiers who served alongside U.S. Marines in some of the bloodiest counterinsurgency battles in post- invasion Iraq.  The film primarily focuses on their reflections and coping once they redeployed.

The Messenger (2009)

In a directorial debut by Oren Moverman, The Messenger gives a completely new look at conflict as this film follows a captain and staff sergeant who have been assigned to the Army’s Casualty Notification service. Just recently returned from his own Iraq deployment, SSG Montgomery struggles to heal from his own battle wounds while transitioning to his new mission of notifying families of the fallen.

Restrepo (2010)

This documentary follows a U.S. Army platoon in the dangerous Korengal Valley of Afghanistan during their yearlong deployment.  Their remote fire base, Restrepo, was named after their fallen platoon medic.  In ninety minutes, audiences will experience the death of a team member, firefights, and the sleep disorders that these young soldiers have to juggle while patrolling the mountains of a country where the enemy is not always clearly apparent.

Western Front (2010)

Writer and director Zachary Iscol fought in Al Anbar, Iraq in 2004 with the U.S. Marine Corps.  Years later he returns to find a different situation, though the experience resurfaces many old memories.  This honest film ends up revealing the nature of war from all sides.

Baker Boys: Inside the Surge (2009)

This documentary follows the final ninety days of a 15-month deployment in Iraq of Baker Company, First Battalion, Fifteenth Infantry Regiment.  A part of the famed 3rd Infantry Division, the deployment, a part of the surge of 2007, was the third round in Iraq for many of the soldiers.  Through four 60-minute episodes, we get an insight into what COIN looks like on the ground and the imprinted scars of battle that appear once back in garrison.

Warrior Champions: From Baghdad to Beijing (2009)

In Warrior Champions, we learn the inspiring stories of four severely wounded Iraq veterans who have truly made lemonade from lemons.  In as little as a year after losing limbs in battle, these athletes trained and competed for slots in the 2008 Paralympic Games.  These four heroes quickly became the symbols of hope and determination for the myriad new patients that arrived at Walter Reed Army Medial Center.

The Tillman Story (2010)

The Tillman Story tells the truth, which was concealed for many years, of the life and death of professional football player turned Army ranger Pat Tillman.  Through dedication and an insatiable appetite for the answers, Dannie Tillman collected evidence and questioned top officials to get the real story leading to the fall of her son.  Pat’s story is ultimately about patriotism and honor- the traits that were not present when top officials used his death as a public relations ploy.

Posted: 27 Aug 2010.

A Month Later, DADT Survey Participation Lags

On August 12th, the Navy Times, which has been closely covering the DADT survey sent out to 400,000 service members last month, reported that only a quarter of the troops returned the survey in advance of the August 15th deadline, leading Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to issue a statement pleading with troops, “If you have not yet responded, please participate. Your response will help us assess the impact of a change in the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ law”.  In light of the low response level for such a seemingly controversial and time-sensitive issue, it begs the question, why are troops not responding to a survey that could help smooth or derail the path towards DADT reform?

One factor is simple and straightforward: time. Simply, people are busy, and a long and relatively repetitive survey that requires them to think back to their past experiences with gay service members does not fit easily into a busy schedule.  It is quite easy, for someone who does not have strong feelings on this issue, to consciously choose to leave the “voting” up to others.

That leads to the other main reason that comes to my mind: passion.  Policy makers assumed that because they are required by their constituents to have a passionate view on DADT, that everyone has a passionate view on the issue.  The truth is that many Americans have no clear view on this issue, and service members are no different.  One can feel that being gay is wrong, but still be respectful enough of our founding principles to accept an unpleasant (to them) reality.

Much of the debate so far has revolved around the impact of gays on unit cohesion under high stress, enclosed environments or combat situations, where unit cohesion is of great importance. In those cases, much like the decision to add women to submarines, caution is warranted, so long as it does not serve to obstruct progress. It is understandable that service members in those settings might have a strong opinion on this issue.  But many service members don’t serve in those types of situations. They may be shore side administrative staff, vehicle maintenance crew, or, like myself, a public affairs specialist. These issues just don’t have the same affect on mission readiness for them, which I believe has contributed to the surprisingly low level of participation on a survey that has been impossible to avoid about during the last month.

I was not invited to complete the survey, though I read a copy of it in July, but I do feel very strongly that DADT needs to be reformed. The survey itself was an imperfect creation, clearly created by a committee. Yet, given the issue and the stakes, the survey did a very passable job of allowing the respondent to come to their own conclusions, and not be led along a certain ideological path.  The one serious concern I have is the line of questioning that asked respondents to share their opinions on how others in their unit felt about gays.  In court, this would be thrown out in a second, and with good reason.  If I was, say, a raging homophobe, it would be in my best interest to claim that my entire unit was disgusted by the presence of a gay service member.  Or I could state the opposite if I personally had no issues with gay soldiers.  The survey would have been best presented by focusing solely on the direct knowledge and beliefs of the respondent.

As a Navy reservist, I did submit comments through the voluntary website created for all service members and their families to share their thoughts., which has notably received 67,000 short responses.  While I echoed the most mainstream arguments about civil and human rights, I focused my comments on a point that has received little mention in the media coverage: what happens when a civilian joins or serves alongside a military where gays don’t “exist”.   As a reservist, I have a civilian life.  In that civilian life, I encounter gay men and women on a daily basis.  Growing up in urban coastal cities, I grew up around gay men and women, and saw friends come out as they discovered their true proclivities.  To me, while it differed from my own experiences and preferences, it was a normal part of my life.

We talk of the shock service members will face if gays are suddenly able to be open about their sexuality (which I doubt will be as severe as critics predict; they overestimate human ability to hide one’s true nature from one’s closest acquaintances. My personal belief is that every gay service member has unit members who know or think they know the truth), but what about the shock currently faced by the millions of men and women who straddle the civilian and military worlds, and who know that there are second-class citizens on one side of that divide?  It is extraordinarily difficult for me to accept that putting on a uniform makes gays suddenly disappear from the world.

Ultimately it is in the best interests of the nation and of the military to allow gays to serve openly in the military, without threat of disgrace or need for disguise.  And I believe that the low response rate to the survey, which I read as indicating a lower level of passion about this issue than otherwise assumed, only reinforces the argument that the repeal of DADT will have a minimal negative impact on general unit cohesion and readiness, and that the majority of the men and women in uniform already understand that, despite their personal beliefs about homosexuality.

This is an exciting time for the future of equality in the armed forces – women and minorities are putting on one, two, three and even four stars; women will soon begin serving on a trial basis on SSBNs; the Navy continues to beat Army in football (no, that’s not equality, that’s just a happy fact); and we may soon take the next big step toward creating a military that mirrors civil society in its equal treatment of all citizens.

Posted on 15 Aug 2010

Photo: af.mil

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Needs of the Nation: ROTC at Columbia University and the Quadrennial Defense Review, Part II

Part I: Capabilities and Capacity introduced Columbia University in New York City as the ideal partner for ROTC to produce officers with the capabilities and capacity called for in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). Needs of the Nation is quilted entirely from QDR text to provide a contextual basis for the partnership, while the links match QDR-identified needs to Columbia sources to further illustrate the investment potential of Columbia ROTC for the nation:

The Secretary has directed that investments be increased in certain capabilities that have been in consistently high demand and have proven to be key enablers of tactical and operational success. (pp 20-21) The Department will work to ensure that all its educational institutions are resourced and staffed with the right mix of civilian and military experts who can help prepare the next generation of leaders. (p 54)

America’s men and women in uniform constitute the Department’s most important resource. (QDR p 49) Our recruiting efforts are long term investments that can yield generational gains. (p 51)  Prevailing in today’s wars while working to prevent future conflict depends on the Department’s ability to create and sustain an all-volunteer force that is trained and resourced to succeed in the wide range of missions we ask them to execute. (p 49) The Department must continue developing innovative programs to attract qualified young men and women into the Armed Forces. (p xii)

Many of our authorities and structures assume a neat divide between defense, diplomacy, and development that simply does not exist. (p 74) A series of powerful cross-cutting trends, made more complex by the ongoing economic crisis, threatens to complicate international relations and make the exercise of U.S. statecraft more difficult. The rising demand for resources, rapid urbanization of littoral regions, the effects of climate change, the emergence of new strains of disease, and profound cultural and demographic tensions in several regions are just some of the trends whose complex interplay may spark or exacerbate future conflicts. (p 7) Although many efforts to protect the United States are led by other federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, the role of the Department of Defense in defending the nation against direct attack and in providing support to civil authorities, potentially in response to a very significant or even catastrophic event, has steadily gained prominence. (p 18) Perhaps more than ever before, the United States requires joint military forces able to function and succeed across a wide geographic and operational spectrum. Moreover, military forces must be capable of working effectively with a range of civilian and international partners. (p 7)

Our enemies are adaptive and will develop systems and tactics that exploit our vulnerabilities. (pp 20-21) The Department will continue to work to ensure that America’s cadre of commissioned and noncommissioned officers are prepared for the full range of complex missions that the future security environment will likely demand. Too often, a focus on weapons acquisition programs and overall force structure crowd out needed attention concerning how the Military Departments generate, train, and sustain their leaders. As part of our commitment to ensure that tomorrow’s leaders are prepared for the difficult missions they will be asked to execute, DoD will place special emphasis on stability operations, counterinsurgency, and building partner capacity skill sets in its professional military education and career development policies. (p 54)

Examples of DoD efforts in this area include: Building expertise in foreign language, regional, and cultural skills. We will continue our emphasis on enhancing these skills in general purpose force officers during pre-accession training. Given the inherent link between language and cultural expertise and mission success, this area requires continued focus. (p 54) Operating in partnership with host nation security forces and among local populations puts a premium on foreign language skills and regional and cultural knowledge. Today’s operating environment demands a much greater degree of language and regional expertise requiring years, not weeks, of training and education, as well as a greater understanding of the factors that drive social change. (p 30)

Preventing conflict, stabilizing crises, and building security sector capacity are essential elements of America’s national security approach. (p 75) Stability operations, largescale counterinsurgency, and counterterrorism operations are not niche challenges or the responsibility of a single Military Department, but rather require a portfolio of capabilities as well as sufficient capacity from across America’s Armed Forces and other departments and agencies. Nor are these types of operations a transitory or anomalous phenomenon in the security landscape. (pp 20-21)

Accordingly, the U.S. Armed Forces will continue to require capabilities to create a secure environment in fragile states in support of local authorities and, if necessary, to support civil authorities in providing essential government services, restoring emergency infrastructure, and supplying humanitarian relief. (pp 20-21) The Department recognizes that in order to ensure that enhancements developed among security forces are sustained, the supporting institutions in partner nations must also function effectively. This ministerial training mission is being conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan today by military officers, contractors, and members of the Department’s Civilian Expeditionary Workforce. (p 30) Ineffective governance can create areas that terrorists and insurgents can exploit. Circumstances are ripe for violent ideologies to spread among a population when governments struggle to provide basic services, justice and security, or the conditions for economic opportunity. Civil affairs forces address these threats by serving as the vanguard of DoD’s support to U.S. government efforts to assist partner governments in the fields of rule of law, economic stability, governance, public health and welfare, infrastructure, and public education and information. Because of their linguistic and cultural skills, civil affairs personnel often serve as liaisons to reduce friction between our military forces and the civilian population. (p 17) Efforts that use smaller numbers of U.S. forces and emphasize host-nation leadership are generally preferable to large-scale counterinsurgency campaigns. (p 28)

DoD is also growing its cadre of cyber experts to protect and defend its information networks and is investing in and developing the latest technologies to enable our forces to operate in cyberspace under a wide range of conditions, including in contested and degraded environments. (p 38)

The wars we are fighting today and assessments of the future security environment together demand that the United States retain and enhance a whole-of-government capability to succeed in large-scale counterinsurgency, stability, and counterterrorism operations in environments ranging from densely populated urban areas and mega-cities, to remote mountains, deserts, jungles, and littoral regions. In some cases, it may be in the U.S. interest to help strengthen weak states, including those facing homegrown insurgencies and transnational terrorist and criminal networks or those that have been weakened by humanitarian disasters. Moreover, there are few cases in which the U.S. Armed Forces would engage in sustained largescale combat operations without the associated need to assist in the transition to just and stable governance. (pp 20-21)

In addition to ongoing conflicts, the United States faces a complex and uncertain security landscape in which the pace of change continues to accelerate. Not since the fall of the Soviet Union or the end of World War II has the international terrain been affected by such far reaching and consequential shifts. The rise of new powers, the growing influence of non-state actors, the spread of weapons of mass destruction and other destructive enabling technologies, and a series of enduring and emerging trends pose profound challenges to international order. (p 5)

The challenges facing the United States are immense, but so are the opportunities. (p 97) As noted above, in this dynamic security environment U.S. forces must continue to adapt. America’s Armed Forces have a long history of devising creative solutions to new challenges and this spirit of innovation will be essential as we further evolve and rebalance the force in the years to come. (p 47)

———–

In conclusion, the Secretary of Defense has made clear: in the complex and evolving security environment, America needs to produce military leaders able to adapt on a full spectrum. Columbia hosts other innovative cross-cutting programs, such as the Earth Institute, that rely upon the special reach and multi-dimensional resources of a global flagship university in a world city. ROTC at Columbia is a rare opportunity to create a partnership that rises to the needs of the nation with an evolutionary officer program that draws upon everything Columbia University in New York City has to offer.

* See Part I: Capabilities and Capacity.

Posted on 14 Aug 2010

Photo: defense.gov/qdr

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A Response To Nicholas Kristof; We are still at war, let’s fight together.

The one of the Military's Provincial Reconstruction Teams at work building a school in Afghanistan

The one of the U.S. Military's Provincial Reconstruction Teams at work building a school in Afghanistan

In a recent editorial for the N.Y. Times Nicholas Kristof plays upon his fiddle a familiar tune; building schools is better for peace than firing missiles.  In the abstract this theme is undoubtedly true.  Collectively we know that education is the key to a better, safer world.  It is not a question of whether building schools is better for peace then firing missiles, the question is actually whether building schools is better for peace in Afghanistan.

Kristof cites a recent report from the Congressional Research Service that states that the war in Afghanistan will cost more than any other war in our nation’s history aside from WWII.  He also cites the recently leaked military documents, which incidentally and sadly may cost both American and Afghan lives, for support that the military strategy is a “mess.” Additionally, according to Kristof, for the cost of one soldier “we could start to build about 20 schools there.” And, interestingly, Kristof states that education has been far better at neutralizing extremism than military power.

Mr. Kristof is not wrong for believing that education is critical and must be an integral part of our strategy for success in Afghanistan.  The problem with his point of view is that he does not accurately depict the brutal reality facing both the Afghan population and the U.S. military.  Kristof should consider a more narrow focus on those actual realities including the fact that many schools have no doubt survived the Taliban due to military provided security.

Surely Kristof has met women like Aisha, an Afghan woman who had her nose and ears cut off by the Taliban? And for what egregious offense did Aisha receive this punishment? Because she attempted to escape the abuse of family members.   Will these members of the Taliban enroll in school? And will this happen before or after they read their autographed copies of Three Cups of Tea? How long will the education plan take to affect a burqa wearing suicide bomber such as the one on June 11, 2010 who killed two civilians and wounded another 16?

Perhaps the worst part of Kristof’s view of Afghanistan is his rather uninformed depiction of America’s fighting men and women.  Many members of the media with experience embedded with NATO forces would tell you that today’s soldier is a true “renaissance man,” or woman.  The primary skill set of most soldiers is focused on warfighting, but our nation’s current mission has required much more.  Soldiers are taking out the enemy while at the same time providing humanitarian relief, meeting with town and tribal councils, and directing civil reconstruction projects.  It is up to the Afghanistan people to use this blanket of security and stability to form political gains and reconciliation.  The military cannot do this for them, but neither can simply building schools.

Kristof actually gives no evidence in support of his claims. In what situation analogous to Afghanistan, is it true that education has neutralized extremism better than military power? Our nation, despite the economy, is generally business as usual and this makes it easy for us to forget that we are at war.  We are at war with two enemies; one who killed thousands of Americans, lest we forget, and the other who gave those murderers safe haven.  Because the average American civilian has gone back to business as usual, does not mean the enemy has.

Even a cursory glance will leave you empty handed in finding a comparable situation where education has been successful as a unilateral strategy while leaving military assistance on the shelf.  We need only look to Umar Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who attempted to blow up a U.S. passenger plane on Christmas Day 2009.  The 23 year old came from a privileged background and studied at a boarding school prior to his enrollment at University College London.  What aboutKhalid Sheik Mohammed whose time at studying engineering in North Carolina “almost certainly helped propel him on his path to become a terrorist” according to the CIA.  Or the fact that we know that most of the 9/11 hijackers came from middle class and educated backgrounds.  It seems that it is not a lack of education that is our problem.

When the evil of fascism and racist extremism gripped our world during World War II, should the Allies have redirected our D-Day budget to the building of schools on the cost of France?  Was there a shortage of schools throughout Europe that allowed ignorance to rule the day?  Education is a wonderful and helpful tool to enriching lives and changing attitudes, but when a certain evil of this world rises up we must meet it with our intelligence, our material, and when appropriate our military.

Mr. Kristof says that his “hunch” is that CARE is doing more to bring peace to Afghanistan than Mr. Obama’s surge of troops.  But what are the statistics on stability in the areas where these schools are located? Are attacks by the Taliban and Al Qaeda down in those areas?  If there was a decline in violence was it in the absence of security? This blanket transformation of areas within Afghanistan must have surely led to a wholesale emigration of Afghans to these areas, and how are these schools coping with the surge?

I must wonder whether Kristof is aware of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) working to improve the lives of the Afghan population every day.  There are an almost 30 PRTs established by 18 national governments operating in Afghanistan.   PRTs are commanded by a military officer, usually a Lieutenant Colonel or equivalent and typically include representatives from the Departments of State, Agriculture, Justice, and Defense, as well as the United States Agency for International Development.  The PRT in the Zabul region of Afghanistan completed more than 65 projects over the course of a ten month period from 2009-2010.  These projects totaled more than $40 million and addressed medical education, road reconstruction, and quality of life issues.  In the Helmand province the PRT reopened 40 schools since December 2008 and actually built four of the schools.  Additionally, as of January 2010 pupil enrollment in the Helmand province increased 34% among females and figures showed a total enrollment of 83,995 students.    All totaled there are 103 schools open in Helmand, and in 2007 there were only 47.  The gains and accomplishments by PRTs are the result of years of work to reach out to the Afghan population.  As far back as 2004 military civil affairs soldiers from PRT Tarin Kowt worked as the “connection between U.S. Forces in Afghanistan and the people.” This early PRT worked to provide supplies and funds for agriculture, education, and construction.  The sacrifice and work of the American soldier to provide solid and sustainable improvement to the education and economic situation of the Afghan people must not be ignored.  Moreover, I have a hunch that these soldiers are doing quite good at bringing peace to Afghanistan.

My humble advice to Mr. Kristof would be to spend a week with our nation’s soldiers.  Speak with their commanders, speak with the grunts.  Focus less on the words of the elite in Washington and whilst you roll up your sleeves looking at the schools built by Greg Mortenson, roll up your sleeves and look at the work done by the U.S. military.  When you finish please write an op-ed describing what you saw, and this time around I would bet you will have a more balanced and realistic depiction of the military’s role in Afghanistan.  A needed depiction of our countrymen’s struggle to provide assistance.  The women and men of the military are not aliens from another galaxy or robots constructed by the government.  They are people just like you, from places like Yamhill, Oregon, and they are in Afghanistan doing the best they can, in a bad situation, because their President asked them to.

Posted on 3 Aug 2010

Photo: nato.int

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Float like a starfish, sting like a spider

Army Starfish Program

“The Army’s Starfish Program” seeks to promote decentralization as yet another tool to counter decentralized and networked threats.

The day someone becomes CEO of a large corporation, it is classic to warn them about the dangers of hierarchy by saying “yesterday was the last day that anyone will tell you what is actually going on in the company”.  Conventional thinking is that the military is even more hierarchical.  In reality, however, it is impressive how the Army is at the cutting edge of non-hierarchical thinking.

A good example comes from an article in POLITICO about the book “The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations”.

The title is based on the contrasting biology of spiders, which die when their heads are chopped off, and starfish, which can multiply when any given piece is severed — a trait the book’s authors posit is shared by decentralized entities ranging from Alcoholics Anonymous to Al Qaeda to Wikipedia.
“This book is about what happens when there’s no one in charge,” write the authors of “The Starfish and the Spider,” Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom. “It’s about what happens when there’s no hierarchy. You’d think there would be disorder, even chaos. But in many arenas, a lack of traditional leadership is giving rise to powerful groups that are turning industry and society upside down.”
What caught my eye about the article was that Brafman was asked about his political ideology, but declined to discuss that because “he is doing consulting work with the U.S. Army trying to help it “become more starfish-like.”

A New York Times article describes another way the military is exploring non-hierarchical thinking, by working with Greg Mortenson, author of “Three Cups of Tea“.  Word of Mortenson’s book spread among military wives, including one who sent the book to her husband, LTC Christopher Kolenda.  Kolenda read about Mortenson’s private initiative that built more than 130 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, mostly for girls, and he and Mortenson began cooperating.  Soon, Deborah Mullen and Holly Petraeus were urging their husbands to read the book.

As Colonel Kolenda tells it, Mr. Mortenson and his Afghan partner on the ground, Wakil Karimi, became the American high command’s primary conduits for reaching out to elders outside the “Kabul bubble”.
The military has found ways to avoid being like the CEO who doesn’t know what is going on.  But they have been careful to ensure that flattening the hierarchy of collecting information doesn’t compromise the hierarchy of command.  Gen. David Petraeus stressed this theme in an April 2009 talk at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
“You have to be careful   . . .   it is great to flatten [the organization] for information, but there does need to be a hierarchy when it comes to people pushing recommendations up, pushing policy decisions up . . . you can’t shove aside a subordinate organization and just take it over.
He also described the importance of taking initiative, citing a sign he saw at an outpost:
In the absence of guidance or orders, figure out what they should have been and execute aggressively!”
When I first met Petraeus in 2006 at an MIT ROTC event, he told me how impressed he was with some of the ROTC graduates who had served with him.  He described how he would give out his card to those who particularly impressed him, urging them to email him if they had something interesting to tell him.  What is even more impressive than this flattening of the information hierarchy is the way he does so, conveying the impression that he has 5 different ideas as to what is important, and making people feel comfortable bouncing a 6th off him, even if they think he’ll disagree.
It is impressive how the military is learning to have a flat information hierarchy, and doing so without compromising the hierarchy of command.  Boxer Muhammad Ali might sum it up as “float like a starfish, sting like a spider”.

This sophisticated understanding of information flows is a real asset, and it will not be surprising if many in the next generation of CEOs are chosen from people who have absorbed these lessons.  Many will have learned the lessons best in the military.  The United States may become more like Israel, where prospective employers care as much about what you did in the military as what you did in university.

Posted on 2 Aug 2010

Photo: army.mil

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Military Regulations Shouldn’t Stop at the Golden Arches’ Front Door

Recently I wrote on the U.S. military’s experimentation with “non-traditional” exercise plans in order to stem the tide of rising obesity within the ranks.  However, many have suggested that changes in fitness programs are only half the battle, and that what the military sorely needs is to stop supplying soldiers with nutritionally deficient meal options.
Most people are well aware that the military is an excellent option for those looking to serve their country and learn leadership in a demanding and structured environment.  Most people are unaware that the military is also the obvious option for those looking to serve their bodies with high calorie and fat laden meal choices.
Take for example, the variety of meal options available to members of the U.S. Army and Air Force.  The Army & Air Force Exchange Service or AAFES, an agency of the Department of Defense, operates the Post Exchange or PX which carries department store type goods and merchandise for soldiers and airmen.  AAFES has signed franchise contracts with such meal providers as A&W Restaurants, Burger King, McDonalds, Cinnabon, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut just to name a few.   Fort Hood, Texas is one of our nation’s largest military posts, and it’s “Mega Food Court,” boasts the following; Charley’s Steakery, Captain D’s, Burger King, and Baskin Robbins.   If a soldier can’t make his way to the Mega Food Court there are several Burger King and Charley’s Steakery locations throughout the post.  There’s also an Einstein Bagel located at Fort Hood for those soldiers who would like to keep their caloric meal intake for one meal to below 700 calories.  This type of disparity in menu options is seemingly uniform throughout the military.  The main PX at Fort Stewart, GA offers its own Cinnabon, as well as a Robin Hood, Anthony’s Pizza, Taco John’s, and Charley’s Steakery.  In other locations on post soldiers can dine at a Godfather’s Pizza, Popeye’s, or Burger King.
What alternatives to soldiers have? Well there is the dependable dining facility.  Army regulations mandate that these facilities “apply nutrition principles” and “provide both healthy choices and highly acceptable food items” for each meal.  Specifically, the facilities must include choices from each food group from the USDA Food Guide Pyramid, and the caloric value of each menu item must be posted in order to promote healthy food choices.
Military members could choose these healthier options instead of the junk food prevalent on military posts and bases worldwide, but they often choose not too for a few reasons.  For one, dining facilities are open only at traditional meal times; breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and even then only for ninety minutes.  Due to work and other responsibilities many soldiers are inevitably going to miss these times.  Second, most soldiers did not grow up eating food in a dining facility type atmosphere and would rather sit in the restaurant style setting they are accustomed to versus the “head-count”  and predetermined meal setting from basic training.  Military life is regimented and soldiers will often opt for any break from the routine.
The military can solve this problem by continuing its commitment to nutrition in dining facilities, and at the same contracting with companies that provide meal options that do not devastate waist lines.  Compare the caloric content and meals offered by Burger King, McDonalds, and Charley’s Steakery with offerings from Panera Bread, Jason’s Deli, Au Bon Pain, and Chipotle.   Are these companies not willing to operate on military installations, or are we not asking them?
These changes must occur if the military is going to deal with its growing obesity problem.  Soldiers may complain about the loss of fatty food, but the military should treat this issue no different than any other dealing with health and safety.  The military, and to a larger extent the Department of Defense, regulates every detail of a soldiers life and this should include the vendors allowed to operate in the soldier’s “neighborhood.”
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Petraeus takes command and the dust settles, now what was McChrystal thinking?

We may never know what drove Gen. Stanley McChrystal to say the things he did to Rolling Stone.  But now that the dust has settled we should closely analyze McChrystal’s misstep for hints or suggestions as to what he was really trying to tell us.
By now everyone knows that McChrystal made the fatal mistake of criticizing the civilian chain of command, and for that President Obama accepted his resignation.  McChrystal clearly erred in sharing that he felt that the President was intimidated by his own generals and implying that the Vice-President didn’t have a handle on the Afghan war, and he undoubtedly knows this.  But were his comments regarding senior civilians not in his chain of command meant as a warning?
Military officers are taught from day one to place the care of the men and women under their command first.  McChrystal’s comments hint of man who personally felt that the civilian apparatus was too broken to adequate address the task at hand.  McChrystal is a smart man, and one who spent his career under the radar.  In this highly unorthodox move he broadcast his frustration publicly and openly. Only the General really knows why, but it is not outside the realm of possibility that he chose to make a statement that things are not going quite right in Afghanistan.  Perhaps he felt his strategy did not receive adequate support at home, or that even the best military and civilian minds are struggling to frame a policy to fit the conditions.
There is no real evidence to support the idea that McChrystal purposely ended his career.  Some have even suggested that he and his staff didn’t realize the comments were on the record.
But because it looks increasingly likely that these comments were on the record, and because of his commitment and sacrifice for the country, I don’t think it is a waste to continue the conversation as to why his career ended the way it did.
Posted on 29 Jul 2010

Photo: army.mil
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Wikileaks leak an opportunity for frank discussion

President Obama is justified in brushing aside the classified war documents posted on Wikileaks as less than a revelation for the nation’s political discussion, while also deploring their boon to the enemy and the increased danger to our soldiers and allies. Most experts who have reviewed the documents agree with the President.

The trove of classified war documents, however, is impossible-to-ignore authoritative evidence. But of what? The implications are open to interpretation, and eager opponents of the Afghanistan mission are already spinning the data to press their case for hasty American and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. For much the same reason that Afghanistan’s opponents tout the leak as game-changing, Wikileaks has given President Obama the opportunity to hold a long-overdue frank discussion with the American people about Afghanistan and the War on Terror.

The President, like his predecessor, has opted to deflect the most disturbing parts of the Afghanistan mission from the American people. Doing so perhaps has protected the mission from reaching a tipping point of popular opposition, but it has also undermined popular understanding of the war and its stakes. As a result, as some war veterans have commented sarcastically, the military has been at war since 9/11, while the country has been at the mall.

In the long run for a long war, an inadequate understanding of the war by the American people cannot sustain the level of national commitment we need to succeed. The media is already reporting growing discontent with Obama’s Afghanistan “Surge”, despite that the execution stage of the President’s strategy has barely begun. It’s time for President Obama to put away the platitudes he inherited from President Bush. Instead, Obama should hold a Melian dialogue with the American people to explain the war’s harsh realities and complexity according to his context as our nation’s leader, so we can deliberately weigh the alternatives as he must. Now that the secrets are in the open, the President can fully make the case that the War on Terror deserves our dogged determination for the foreseeable future because of, not despite, the grim struggle.

A favorite quote of mine from Esquire writer Tom Junod explains the challenge of sustaining America’s will to win at war and the essence of the Wikileaks affair:

The moral certainty that makes war possible is certain only to unleash moral havoc, and moral havoc becomes something the nation has to rise above. We can neither win a war nor save the national soul if all we seek is to remain unsullied–pristine. Anyway, we are well beyond that now. The question is not, and has never been, whether we can fight a war without perpetrating outrages of our own. The question is whether the rightness of the American cause is sufficient not only to justify war but to withstand war’s inevitable outrages. The question is whether–if the cause is right–we are strong enough to make it remain right in the foggy moral battleground of war.

President Bush allowed his narrative of the War on Terror to be drowned out. The Wikileaks leak has given President Obama the opportunity to convince the American people our cause in Afghanistan is still right and we are strong enough to make it remain right in the foggy moral battleground of war.

Posted on 28 Jul 2010

Photo: wikicommons