Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He has advocated a cautious approach against the Islamic State. (D. Myles Cullen/Defense Department via AP)
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In recent testimony before congress, military head Martin Dempsey set limits on American troops in the continuing Iraq war. They will train Iraqi forces, provide air support, and conduct special forces raids. We will not, however, send regular combat troops into battle against ISIL.
Dempsey recognizes that US ground troops will do nothing to stiffen the spines of Iraqi troops, and that American combat troops would be a boon for ISIL and al Qaeda. Those groups will depict American combat troops as another effort to humiliate and control the Islamic world; recruits and money will increase.
Dempsey undoubtedly sees a resurgent Russia as a greater priority, but there are also institutional reasons for his statement: many mid-level officers are increasingly critical of recent wars. Owing to the estrangement between the American public and their soldiers, this has gone largely unnoticed.
There is growing skepticism within the military about the judgment of politicians on matters of war -- more than those outside the military will realize. Leaders should have seen the injudiciousness of occupying and seeking to modernize landlocked Afghanistan, an undertaking bound to present daunting logistical and political problems; and of unseating a Sunni minority in Iraq, an undertaking bound to unleash sectarian hatreds and attract foreign jihadis.
General officers are not above reproach -- or self-reproach. Retired General Daniel Bolger scores his colleagues for acquiescing to a pair of conflicts that grew into open-ended nation-building projects. (See A General's Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.)
Disquiet is especially pronounced in the mid-levels of active-duty officers -- the majors and colonels, or field grades, who have spent many of the last fourteen years on deployments in protracted, costly wars. They were not stationed in theater command centers and Pentagon corridors; they were out on patrols and supply convoys. Casualties were more than statistics.
Our wars, in their estimation, have not strengthened their nation's security. Indeed, they have weakened it. Over the years, these majors and colonels have published articles in military journals presenting spirited criticism of superior officers for not objecting to the poorly thought out projects of politicians and think tanks.
Officers have also directed criticism of counterinsurgency doctrines. Once deemed a daring innovation that would revolutionize warfare and foreign policy, counterinsurgency is judged to be a false hope -- one that threatens to become an ideological foundation for interventions around the world. (See Col Gian Gentile, Wrong Turn: America's Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency.)
Col Gregory Daddis (a West Point instructor like Gentile), has written that the expectation of war has become ingrained in our culture -- to the detriment of our support for diplomacy. The public is mostly detached from military service and less than critical in approaching wars that have no real cost to them. Americans are comfortable in the myths that war is ennobling and that their military can accomplish almost anything. Daddis decries the "relentless militarization afflicting our national mental health." (See "America: Addicted to War, Afraid of Peace.")
One of the more striking pieces of polling data in recent memory comes from a 2014 Military Times survey of active-duty troops which found that only 27% of respondents thought that senior military leaders have "their best interests at heart," down sharply from a middling 53% in 2009. (See "America's military: a force adrift.")
The military is an institution governed by timeless traditions. It is not, however, above change. After the Vietnam War gravely damaged the military, mid-level officers, including Colin Powell, rebuilt their prized institution and vowed not to allow it to be sent off into ill-advised wars again. Over the last decade and a half, that generation grew old and was replaced by one whose wars (Grenada, Panama, and Gulf War One) were quick, almost costless, and successful.
In coming years, they will be replaced by today's mid-level officers whose wars are none of those things. This change will be beneficial to a country committed to globalism but led by politicians more attuned to political pressures than to military realities and composed of people who don't know any soldiers, save for an aging parent or grandparent.
2015 Brian M Downing