Saving the U.S. Military From Itself
Why medals and metrics mislead
This story originally appeared in 2007.
It’s time to save the U.S. military from itself. I say this as a retired Air Force officer who served for 20 years, my last three in a “joint” assignment, working closely with Army, Marine and Navy officers and enlisted men and women.
As the Dean of Students at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, I saw hundreds of young troops cross the stage, graduating with new skills in Arabic and other strategic languages. With few exceptions, these — mostly — young men and women were highly motivated, committed to their service and country, and ready to go to war. They had no quit in them.
But in the words of Kenny Rogers, “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em. Know when to fold ’em. Know when to walk away. Know when to run.” The reference to his hit song, “The Gambler,” is not facile. The Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote that war, in its complexities and uncertainties, most resembles a game of cards — let’s say Texas Hold’em in honor of Pres. George W. Bush’s adopted state.
Over the last four-plus years, we’ve shoved hundreds of billions of dollars into the Iraqi pot, suffered sobering losses in killed-in-action/wounded-in-action, yet we’re still holding losing cards dealt from a stacked deck. Even so, the Bush administration has recently doubled-down instead of folding, hoping to hit an inside straight despite long odds.
Why are we spilling blood and treasure with such reckless abandon? One answer is the military itself. Our military is a funhouse reflection of ourselves — purpose-driven, results-oriented, can-do, never-say-die, win-at-any-cost. Many commentators have noted that, in his recent testimony before Congress, Gen. David Petraeus was hardly likely to criticize his own strategy in Iraq or, more crucially, the performance of the troops under his command. I have no doubt, however, that his belief in the viability of his mission reaches far deeper than that.
Indeed, it surely taps into a core belief within the military that we can — and must — prevail in any conflict. We’ve been seduced by our own hype about being the world’s “sole superpower,” as if nuclear and technological supremacy had made us omnipotent as well as omni-competent.
At top — Sgt. Auralie Suarez and Pvt. Brett Mansink take cover during a firefight with guerrilla forces in the Al Doura section of Baghdad on March 7, 2007. The soldiers are from Company C, 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. Sean Foley photo. Above —
Cheating the Kobayashi Maru
But how can you win someone else’s civil war? In Iraq, our military faces a classic Kobayashi Maru — a no-win situation. In the Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, Adm. James Kirk recounts how he triumphed over his own Kobayashi Maru — by cheating. He reprograms a computer simulation to allow for victory, even winning a special commendation for originality!
The U.S. military seems to think it can do the same. Its version of reprogramming is “metrics.” Show enough colored charts with seemingly hard-and-fast numbers and you can claim, if not victory, at least progress of a sort. Anti-war critics have referred to this as “cooking the books,” implying that the military is engaged in a deliberate campaign of lies. While it may be true that the first casualty of any war is truth, bald-faced lies have been the least of our problems when it comes to our armed forces.
Far more devastating has been the ability of its commanders to mislead themselves, and so, us. Even when U.S. forces can’t always “search and destroy” Iraqi insurgents and terrorists, it turns out that they can search and deploy metrics indicative of progress anyway.
But when such metrics are deployed, do they mean what our military thinks they mean? For example, Petraeus noted that this year his troops had already found and cleared more than 4,400 weapons and explosive caches, 1,700 more than in all of 2006. Is this, then, proof of better intelligence and interdiction techniques, as he claims? Or is it a sign that these caches are proliferating? Or that the insurgents are learning to disperse their weapons more effectively?
And what exactly constitutes a cache anyway? Two AK-47s and an old artillery shell? And is it possible that top-down pressure from the chain-of-command to show results has inflated this figure? In other words, is better counting — and possibly some creative accounting — behind these figures?
Here’s a metric of a different sort. Petraeus testified that Iraq has already committed $1.6 billion to the U.S. foreign military sales program, and will likely commit another $1.8 billion to FMS by year’s end. He presented this as positive news. Yet, is this not another way of saying that Iraq has $3.4 billion less to commit to desperately needed internal infrastructure repairs and improvements? Is it really the case that Iraq’s ongoing civil war is best resolved by an infusion of billions of dollars worth of U.S. military equipment?
One might be pardoned for asking. What makes our military think this way? For these and other metrics are not lies, although lies may be folded into them. Rather, they are symptomatic of a state of ongoing self-delusion as well as self-congratulation. Our military is structured to recognize and reward performance, and institutionally we believe that “true” performance must be quantifiable.
So we develop “metrics” to feed the beast. Promotion reports exhibit the Lake Wobegon Effect, where nearly every officer and NCO turns out to be above average. Commanders do their best to quantify, showcase, and elevate the accomplishments of their units, even if results are nebulous or ephemeral. The status reports Petraeus offered Congress, displayed on those giant, colorful charts during the recent hearings, are at least in part a compilation of these glowing reports.
The end result. An inherently flawed and overly optimistic vision, heavily weighted toward “progress” and ultimate success.
While this may, in part, be a military version of the grade-inflation endemic in our schools and culture, there are other signs that it is now rampant. Medals and ribbons, for instance, have proliferated to such an extent that few have any real meaning. Officers openly sneer about “PCS medals,” almost pro forma awards received after a “permanent change in station” — that is, a new assignment, no matter how peaceable.
Many medals shout “been there,” rather than “done that.” Some awards and decorations today are tied more to the military rank of the recipient than to objective measures of merit. Indeed, ribbons have proliferated like nuclear missiles during the Cold War. I counted nine rows on Petraeus’ left breast during his Congressional hearings.
If they were a valid metric across time, he would be roughly thrice as capable and valorous as George C. Marshall, perhaps America’s greatest soldier-statesman, who somehow ran and won a world war while wearing only three rows of ribbons.
By no means do I intend to disparage Petraeus or his record. In wearing a uniform festooned with medals, ribbons, badges, and tabs, he’s the norm among U.S. military commanders. Yet those medals and militaria that our commanders wear are a kind of evidence. Our military, they indicate, is so busy patting itself on the back that its medal-bestowing has come to resemble those Little League tournaments where every kid gets a trophy, win or lose.
We’re so busy celebrating how great we are that we’re failing to face reality. Not all problems can be solved by applying more elbow grease and shouting “Hooah.”
Our military will continue to showcase the metrics of success in Iraq because the system itself is built on them. By nature as well as training, our military is composed of action-oriented problem solvers. This is a great strength, but also a potentially fatal flaw. It makes it unlikely indeed that military commanders will recognize how “bugging out and calling it even” — the jaded advice of Private Hudson in Aliens — can, at times, be the height of military wisdom.
We magnet-ribbon people who sport “support our troops” on our SUVs need to learn that “support” sometimes means pulling the troops out, even when some of them are kicking and screaming to stay.
Generals and train wrecks
In a country founded on civilian control of the military, it’s disturbing indeed that, as a New York Times/CBS poll indicated recently, Americans trust their generals three times as much as they do Congress and 13 times as much as they do the president. As unjust as the “General Betray Us” tag may have been in that Moveon.org ad, many other Americans, including most of Congress — and, above all, the President himself — seem to be chanting “General Please Save Us.” Both chants are misguided, but the second is the more dangerous.
As French prime minister Georges Clemenceau famously noted a century ago, “War is too important to be left to generals” — a fact illustrated recently by a serving Army officer. In “A Failure in Generalship,” which appeared in Armed Forces Journal in May 2007, Lt. Col. Paul Yingling argues that, prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, our generals “refused to prepare the Army to fight unconventional wars” and thereafter failed to “provide Congress and the public with an accurate assessment of the conflict in Iraq.”
Put bluntly, he accuses them of dereliction of duty. Bewailing a lack of accountability for such failures in the military itself, Yingling memorably concludes that “a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”
When it comes to Iraq, we seem to suffer from a baffling case of collective amnesia. Think back to the spring of 2004. A friend of mine was then serving in the Green Zone with the Coalition Provisional Authority, run by presidential appointee L. Paul Bremer III. Prior to the official handing over of “sovereignty” to the Iraqis in June of that year, he wrote me that the CPA staff “accepted as given” widespread “corruption, private militias, insecurity, and coming civil war.”
The “scariest” part, he added, “is that we’re supporting a regime which is seen as completely illegitimate by the people it’s supposed to rule in the name of democracy. Even the Iraqis who welcomed us after Saddam have lost patience with us and are pursuing other routes to power and national control.” The whole operation, he concluded, “is a train wreck waiting to happen, and the administration simply refused to acknowledge it, much less do anything about it.”
And for overseeing this train wreck, the Bush administration in December 2004 awarded Bremer with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Yingling’s recent cri de coeur and my friend’s pessimistic, yet accurate, prediction highlight the crime we’re committing against today’s all-volunteer military. For I believe Petraeus was right to salute our troops as a new “greatest generation.” After all, our last one, the veterans of World War II, contained a large percentage of more-or-less reluctant draftees.
Today’s troops may not have had in mind repeated 15-month deployments to Iraq when they raised their right hands to take the oath, but they still resolutely put themselves in harm’s way. They deserve our respect and gratitude — but, even more, they deserve our attention.
To paraphrase John F. Kennedy. Ask not what your military can do for you, but ask what you can do for your military. In this case, “support our troops” should mean supporting the idea of pulling them out of a morale-sucking morass. The president won’t act, so Congress must. Chaos may — or may not — ensue in Iraq after our troops withdraw, but buying time for more colorful benchmarks to be met, for more impressive metrics to be produced, is unconscionable when we know it will entail thousands of additional American casualties and hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars.
These are the metrics that matter — blood and treasure. But what should matter even more to our country than body bags and billions is trust — the emotional and spiritual ties that bind our troops to ourselves. Those ties, currently being stretched in Iraq, must not be allowed to snap. For if they do, we’ll be left with hollowed — instead of hallowed — legions.