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Tomgram: William Astore, Time to Hold Military Boots to the Fire

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here."href="http:>

On July 24th, highlighting the first Turkish air strikes against the Islamic State and news of an agreement to let the U.S. Air Force use two Turkish air bases against that movement, the New York Times reported that unnamed "American officials welcomed the [Turkish] decision... calling it a 'game changer.'" And they weren't wrong. Almost immediately, the game changed. Turkish President Recep Erdogan promptly sent planes hurtling off not against Islamic State militants but the PKK, that country's Kurdish rebels with whom his government had previously had a tenuous ceasefire. In the process, he created a whole new set of problems for Washington, including making life more difficult for Kurdish rebel troops in Syria connected to the PKK that the Obama administration was backing in the fight against the Islamic State. Erdogan's acts also ensured that chaos and conflict would spread to new areas of the Middle East. So game-changer indeed!

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The question is: Why does Washington do it time after time? Why has just about every militarized move made in the region been quite so hapless and clueless since the initial invasion of Iraq? If such actions didn't involve lives (and deaths) and one of the grimmer Islamic extremist movements on the planet, much of this would qualify as theater of the absurd or a comedy of errors. Take the so-called New Syrian Forces. That's the moniker the Obama administration gave the thousands of "moderate" Syrian fighters it wanted to train and equip to take on the Islamic State (but not the Assad regime) at a cost of $500 million. In other words, Washington was determined to have its own fighting force of non-extreme Syrians with their distinctly Syrian boots on the ground in that chaotic war zone, even if they were American-supplied. What could possibly go wrong?

So the vetting and training commenced. Many months later, in the fashion of an elephant delivering a mouse, having thoroughly investigated thousands of applicants for their moderateness, the Pentagon finally produced "Division 30," a fully vetted, fully trained first unit of, depending on what account you read, 54 or possibly 60 Syrian fighters. The cost of those few men has been estimated, per fighter, in the millions of dollars (and another 100 are now in the process of being trained). The U.S. military then deposited that tiny unit in Syria where its two leaders were promptly kidnapped by the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, which then attacked the group killing at least one of its members, capturing others, wounding a number, and sending the rest into flight. (Some of them, it seems, have never shown up again.) And here's the truly bizarre part: according to the New York Times, that attack by an al-Qaeda-linked group the U.S. has denounced and bombed in the past took American officials -- who seem to have expected the Front to embrace its force -- "by surprise and amounted to a significant intelligence failure." The real question, of course, is why anyone in the Pentagon or elsewhere in official Washington should have expected any other response from a hostile force which had already taken on CIA-trained Syrians.

The U.S. remains the greatest military power on the planet, but what does that even mean, given the last nearly 14 years of woeful performance, mishaps, defeats, disappointments, and endless war? Honestly, does the U.S. high command really have a thing to teach the rest of us, based on this sorry record? It's a question raised by TomDispatch regular and former Air Force Academy instructor William Astore. He considers just what America's future commanders are being taught in the country's three elite military academies and wonders what a crew that has taken no responsibility for years of disaster in conflict after conflict has to offer anyone and why they are generally held in such high regard in this country. Tom

Seventy Years of Military Mediocrity
The Shared Failings of America's Military Academies and Senior Officers
By William J. Astore

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Thomas Jefferson Hall, West Point's library and learning center, prominently features two quotations for cadets to mull over. In the first, Jefferson writes George Washington in 1788: "The power of making war often prevents it, and in our case would give efficacy to our desire of peace." In the second, Jefferson writes Thomas Leiper in 1815: "I hope our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power, the greater it will be."

Two centuries ago, Jefferson's points were plain and clear, and they remain so today: while this country desired peace, it had to be prepared to wage war; and yet the more it avoided resorting to raw military power, the more it would prosper.

Have America's military officers and politicians learned these lessons? Obviously not. In the twenty-first century, the U.S. unquestionably ranks number one on this planet in its preparations for waging war -- we got that message loud and clear -- but we're also number one in using that power aggressively around the globe, weakening our nation in the process, just as Jefferson warned.

Of course, the world today is a more complex and crowded place than in Jefferson's time and this country, long a regional, even an isolationist power, is now an imperial and global superpower that quite literally garrisons the planet. That said, Jefferson's lessons should still be salutary ones, especially when you consider that the U.S. military has not had a convincing victory in a major "hot" war since 1945.

There are undoubtedly many reasons for this, but I want to focus on two: what cadets at America's military academies really learn and the self-serving behavior of America's most senior military officers, many of whom are academy graduates. Familiar as they may be with those words of Jefferson, they have consistently ignored or misapplied them, facilitating our current state of endless war and national decline.

America's Military Academies: High Ideals, Cynical Graduates

America's military academies are supposed to educate and inspire leaders of strong character and impeccable integrity. They're supposed to be showcases for America's youth, shining symbols of national service. Ultimately, they're supposed to forge strong military leaders who will win America's wars (assuming those wars can't be avoided, as Jefferson might have added). So how's their main mission going?

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I taught at the Air Force Academy for six years, and I've talked to former cadets as well as fellow officers who taught at the Army's West Point and the Navy's Annapolis. Here are a few reflections on the flaws of these institutions:

1. In reality, the unstated primary mission of the three military academies is to turn raw cadets into career officers dedicated and devoted to their particular branch of service. On the other hand, service to the American people is, at best, an abstract concept. More afterthought than thought, it is certainly mentioned but hardly a value consistently instilled.

Careerism and parochialism are hardly unique to military academies. Still, as one former cadet wrote me, it's surprising to encounter them so openly in institutions dedicated to "service before self." More than a few of his peers, he added, were motivated primarily by a desire for "a stable, well-paying career." While a perfectly respectable personal goal, to be sure, it's a less than desirable one at academies theoretically dedicated to selfless, even sacrificial service.

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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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