On the day that U.S. citizens honored the nation’s war dead, the U.S. armed forces found themselves in a twilight zone somewhere between glory and hell.
On the one hand, the U.S. soldier has rarely ridden as high in terms of public image; no politician of stature — neither Democrat nor Republican, neither conservative nor liberal — dares to say anything negative about the conduct or integrity of those in uniform.
Even anti-war forces affirm their admiration for the professional military, blaming scandals such as torture and detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere on civilian bosses.
The military has become ”the apotheosis of all that is great and good about contemporary America,” writes Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich, a retired army colonel, in his new book, ‘The American Military: How Americans Are Seduced by War.’
On the other hand, the Army and Marines find themselves in the middle of by far their worst recruitment crisis since the military draft was ended in the waning days of the Vietnam War — so bad, in fact, that recruiters who have been told to lower basic eligibility requirements and offer unprecedented financial and other inducements for young men and women to join are still unable to fill their quotas.
”Army recruiting is in a death spiral,” retired Army Lt. Col. Charles Krohn, who was forced out of the service for publicly noting the severity of the problem as an Army spokesman, recently told right-wing Washington Post columnist Robert Novak, while his former boss, the top Army recruitment officer, told the New York Times that no relief was in sight.
On the one hand, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld and his chief ”transformation” advisers could not be more excited about the new opportunities for Washington to sustain its full-spectrum military dominance through space-warfare inventions, such as lasers and ”rods from gods” that will hurl death-dealing metal from the heavens at more than 100,000 kilometers per hour onto precise, geo-orbitally located targets far below.
On the other hand, more than two years after conquering Iraq, an occupation force of 140,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines still are unable to secure the highway that runs between the Green Zone, the center of the Iraqi government in Baghdad, and the city’s airport just 10 kilometers away against guerrilla attacks and their increasingly sophisticated improvised explosive devices.
Thirty years after its ignominious withdrawal from Vietnam, senior military officers find themselves at a kind of mid-point between their dreams of glory — achieved with stunning speed in their lightning-like, two-week dash to Baghdad in 2003 — and nagging nightmares of ultimate defeat, be it in the form of the war of attrition that kills 15 or 20 of their troops each week, or in the outbreak of a full-scale civil war in Iraq that would make their continued presence untenable.
The war of attrition is damaging enough, according to the latest polls which show a steady drop, since a brief resurgence four months ago in the wake of the January 30 Iraq elections, in public approval both for the original decision to go to war and in President George W. Bush’s handling of the war. The latter has now fallen to an all-time low of just 37 percent.
That was translated into a little-noticed vote on Capitol Hill last week that must have given the historically sensitive military officers an unhappy sense of déjà vu: With just a couple of hours’ notice, supporters of a resolution that called for Bush to submit a plan as soon as practicable to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq gathered 128 votes.
The resolution was voted down 300-128, as expected. But a solid majority of Democratic lawmakers and five Republicans, including one of the party’s most highly respected foreign-affairs experts, Iowa Representative James Leach, showed unexpected support for what Bush administration stalwarts would call a ”cut-and-run” strategy. Four months ago, a letter calling for such a plan gathered the support of only 24 Democrats.
Most senior officers recognize that Bush’s adventure in Iraq has put the military in a precarious state. Not only have retired officers, such as the former commander of the U.S. Central Command, Maj. Gen. Anthony Zinni, been the most outspoken critics of the war, but even serving officers have voiced subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle warnings about both the prospects for success in Iraq and the implications of being tied down there indefinitely.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, warned a year ago that ”there is no way to militarily lose in Iraq” and coupled that assertion with the observation that there is also now way to win militarily in Iraq. That synopsis evoked painful memories from Vietnam veterans who note bitterly that the U.S. lost the war despite the fact that its troops never lost a single battle.
It was also Myers, long criticized by his colleagues for not standing up to Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, who told Congress last month in a classified report leaked to media that the current concentration of U.S. troops and equipment in Iraq and Afghanistan limits the ability of his forces to deal with other conflicts speedily and effectively.
That also was the message a year ago from Gen. John Riggs, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran who was in charge of the Army’s modernization program until he was forced to resign shortly after he voiced his concerns to the Baltimore Sun. His previous boss, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, also was unceremoniously retired early after he warned Congress that several hundred thousand U.S. troops would be needed to occupy Iraq.
Both men clashed publicly with Rumsfeld’s notions of military ”transformation” in which the speed and lethality of the U.S. armed forces have been given a much higher priority than more mundane and labor-intensive matters like the skills and equipment needed to maintain law and order or fight insurgencies. The former may be good for conventional wars but for unconventional conflicts, such as Vietnam 30 years ago or Iraq today, technology has its limits.
The fact that they were punished for their views has sent a strong message to the top brass who, like Myers and his successor-designate, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, have accordingly avoided challenging the civilian leadership on military questions, just as their predecessors did during the Vietnam years.
To the great frustration of the middle ranks, repeated assertions by Bush and Rumsfeld that the military leadership has told them they have enough troops in Iraq are probably true. ”The military part of (the defense secretary’s office) has been politicized,” Gen. Jay Garner, the Pentagon’s original choice to run Iraq, told the Sun. ”If (officers) disagree, they are ostracized and their reputations are ruined.”
Thus, a cowed and politicized military establishment, hailed as invincible just two years ago, marches steadily on a demoralizing but all-too-familiar path.