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Tomgram: Danny Sjursen, America's Wars and the "More" Strategy

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Here's a footnote to America's present wars that's worth pondering for a few moments. The U.S. Air Force is running out of ordinary bombs, smart bombs, and in some cases missiles. No kidding. The air war over Syria and Iraq that began in August 2014 and is now two-and-a-half years old has eaten through America's supply of bombs. The usual crew of weapons makers evidently can't produce such munitions fast enough to keep up, so the U.S. military is, for instance, cutting into its stockpiles of smart bombs in Asia to send some to the Middle East and Africa simply to keep pace with demand -- and, according to recent reports, it may nonetheless be failing to do so. Consider this a longer term problem since, in the era of Donald Trump, the generals are increasingly running their own wars, which, if the daily drumbeat of news about them is accurate, are only ramping up further.

Everywhere you look, from Yemen to Iraq, Syria to Somalia, the American military is growing more assertive as civilian casualties rise and constraints of any sort, whether on special operations raids, drone strikes, or the use of the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal, fall away. Only last week, for instance, came news that Trump's generals plan to put recommendations on his desk soon to turn the tide in America's longest war, the largely forgotten one in Afghanistan, which the U.S. military now refers to as a "stalemate." (Who cares that, on the ground, the Taliban has in recent months seemed increasingly ascendant and the U.S.-trained, U.S.-supplied, and U.S.-backed Afghan military increasingly battered?) Those recommendations -- so claims acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations Theresa Whalen -- will help the U.S "move beyond the stalemate." This will evidently be done by sending 3,000 to 5,000 more U.S. troops there to train the Afghan military. Yes, you read that right. Almost 16 years after the invasion and "liberation" of Afghanistan in 2001, the solution to the never-ending war there is to send in a few thousand more U.S. military personnel to work with a force filled with "ghost soldiers," into which this country has already reportedly poured $71 billion and which has suffered both staggering casualties and startling desertion rates in recent years. Just off the top of your head, tell me how you think that's likely to go. And oh yes, once those troops are there, one thing that will certainly be needed: more bombs and missiles to support their activities.

All of this is part of what TomDispatch regular Army Major Danny Sjursen, author of Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge, refers to today as the U.S. military's "more" strategy. With the generals ascendant in the Trumpian universe and all those stars twinkling in Washington's firmament, "more" is distinctly in the saddle. Whether in Afghanistan or in Syria and Iraq, where that massive air campaign against the Islamic State is now well into its third year, it has lent a significant hand to the rubblization of major cities across both of those countries. (In Syria, the Russian and Syrian air forces have offered a similarly helping hand in the process, as has ISIS with its suicide vehicles and booby-trapped buildings.) As a result, while the Islamic State is not yet defeated, the region is now in genuine chaos, overrun by millions of uprooted refugees from countries increasingly in ruins and in disarray. In other words, what started as a "war" against al-Qaeda, a modest-sized group of fanatics largely located in Afghanistan (with scattered cells of followers elsewhere), has now become a catastrophe stretching from Afghanistan to the former state of Libya in North Africa and beyond. As ever, the American solution to this crisis, as Sjursen points out, is: more! Tom

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The Hazards of Military Worship
Everyone Loves the Troops and Their Generals, But History Indicates That Military Advice Isn't All It's Cracked Up to Be
By Danny Sjursen

More, more, more.

I was guilty of it myself. Commanding a small cavalry troop of about 85 soldiers in southwest Kandahar Province back in 2011, I certainly wanted and requested more: more troopers, more Special Forces advisers, more Afghan police, more air support, more supplies, more money, more... everything. Like so many others in Afghanistan back then, I wanted whatever resources would protect the guys in my unit and fend off the insurgent threat. No one, of course, asked me if the U.S. military should even be there, nor did I presume to raise the question. I was, after all, just a captain dug into a tough fight in a dangerous district.

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It's funny, though, people sometimes ask me now, "What's really going on in Afghanistan?" They ask the same question about Iraq, where I led a unit back in 2006-2007. I mean, the implication is: If you served over there, unlike those (liberal!) pundits and politicians who regularly mouth off on the subject, who would know better? But I've learned over the years that what they don't want to hear is my real answer to such questions, so I rarely bother to tell them that historians, analysts, and thoughtful critics, even ones who haven't been within thousands of miles of our war zones, probably understand the "big picture" better than most soldiers.

That's the dirty little secret of America's wars: despite the omniscient claims of some veterans, most soldiers see their version of war as if gazing through a straw at 30,000 feet. Combat and dedication to your unit and mission naturally steer you toward such tunnel vision. And here's the sad thing that no one wants to admit: that mantra applies as strongly to generals as to sergeants (and if you don't believe that, just check out our wars of the last 15 years). So it's worrisome when president after president defers to and all too often hides behind the supposed wisdom of active and retired three- and four-star flag officers.

Don't get me wrong, some of these guys can be impressive. No one is perfect, but former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey was a gem with genuine scholarly and combat bona fides. But consider him and a few others the exceptions that prove the rule. Which is why civilian control of the military, and of the policymaking process that goes with military action, is not just a constitutional imperative but desirable for thoroughly practical reasons. Which, in turn, is why the makeup of the current administration -- with an unprecedented number of generals in key positions -- raises some serious questions.

And yet the problem is so much bigger than that. Somehow -- and this should be truly unnerving -- Americans have gotten to a place where, it seems, they trust only soldiers. In June 2016, for instance, a Gallup poll found that 73% of Americans had "quite a lot" of confidence in the military, versus 36% for the presidency and 6% for Congress. Such disparities ought to inspire distress about the direction of our public institutions, but rarely do.

Where the nation puts its money both reflects this reality and aggravates it. Consider that in this fiscal year military spending exceeded $600 billion, or 12 times the State Department's budget. Worse still, the new president's proposed budget would cut State by more than one-third -- despite former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates's quip that there are already more members of military bands than Foreign Service officers.

The Myth of (Infallible) Military Judgment

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By now, it's part of American lore that, facing a thorny problem or potential conflict abroad, a president should throw some stars at it. If only generals were indeed pixie dust. Historically speaking, though, since World War II, calling on the generals has often resulted in abject failure. There's plenty of evidence of that in the last 15 years of, at best, inconclusive war in the Greater Middle East, but first, let's take a brief tour of military advice from the previous century's crises.

MacArthur in Korea

In October 1950, just months after the Korean War began, President Harry Truman met General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the coalition forces in Korea, on Wake Island. There, MacArthur assured the president of two things: that the Chinese would not intervene in the war and that the fighting would be over by Christmas. A month later, hundreds of thousands of Chinese "volunteers" streamed across the Yalu River into northern Korea, sending MacArthur's troops into headlong retreat. Wrong once, the general promptly called for a massive U.S. troop escalation and the bombing of China, perhaps even nuclear attacks on that country. Truman recoiled, fired the general, and opened negotiations, all while avoiding nuclear war. And what happened to the twice-wrong MacArthur? In April 1951, with the war still underway -- an armistice wouldn't finally come until July 1953 -- he received a record-breaking 19-mile-long ticker-tape parade through New York City in which 3,249 tons of paper rained down on him.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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