Let me put it in a nutshell -- I'm a supporter of national armies, I'm not a pacifist, even if I have objections to the war in Iraq or aspects of the war in Afghanistan and the drones program on moral grounds. I think we live in a dangerous world with really awful and nasty enemies that we didn't create by warring against them or their proxies, who are really evil all on their own. I'm not so sure the surge was a great idea, and we pretty much lost the war in Afghanistan, which I find awful, as I do know something about this region, and I think it will definitely go downhill into worse security and more instability and poverty for the people of Eurasia and South Asia.
But while we can argue about whether this or that war makes sense, or this or that way of pursuing the war, or whether "special wars" (clandestine and even illegal intelligence operations) have to take the place of massive armies marching in the night and people dying in the mud, there has to be a discussion about what I see is a looming moral problem.
Why is the military so messed up? We've had a military that has *created* and *not saved us from* harm by giving us Manning, Snowden, McCrystal, Petraeus, Bales, and Carey -- to mention just some of the most lurid, most destructive figures who have been through our armed forces and have objectively wound up hurting their own countries tremendously.
Why is that? Why did this happen?
So let me go through my thinking on this:
I know it's Christmas, but I really couldn't take it more -- the lastest "returning soldier surprise" story was the straw that broke the camel's back for me.
I know for some it's tantamount to treason to question these heart-wretching but usually kitschy stories that appear practically every day, especially in mass media and local newspapers, but I do. I really find them reprehensible. I always have. They've always irritated, then angered me. (They irritate me as much as the sly and manipulative "Support Our Troops" meme which witless Dem operatives purveyed in lieu of a real peace movement -- hey, be against wars if you want, but at least have the decency not to pretend that you are "for" soldiers as if they are like union employees just "doing a job."
So I'm grateful to this blog post by former NSA analyst and now professor at the Navy College John Schindler today for sharpening my thinking on this.
Here's why all those stories about soldiers surprising their little kids in their elementary schools with an unexpected early return home, or soldiers appearing suddenly at their mom's birthday party, or soldiers suddenly showing up to propose marriage, or soldiers suddenly appearing at their brother's workplace -- why none of them work for me.
That is, sure, they're nice, and no doubt the people in the stories really appreciate them and are awfully glad to have their loved ones home surprising them like this.
But their institutionalization as a meme, as a staple of culture, as a news diet, as a kind of justification of everything -- that just doesn't work.
And here's why -- first, two big reasons -- and then the rests of the reasons why I find the military just so screwed up these days and think it should change:
1) Because they didn't HAVE to go to these wars. They are in a voluntary army. They were not conscripted. Especially women could CHOOSE to stay home with a NEWBORN BABY, for example, good Lord, no war is worth leaving a nursing baby for when you don't have to! A newly-married husband doesn't have to join the army, either, he can stay home with his new wife. A father of two elementary school kids really does have choices and doesn't need to ensure that they grow up without him and risk turning into little felons or drug abusers.
And so on. They chose to go overseas to fight in a war, then they should accept that this will mean hardship and even possibly deprivation and grief for their families and loved ones. That's why their sudden showings and media-saturated surprises just don't add up. The poignancy part, I mean. The drama. There was no need, because you didn't really have to go.
Why not do the hard job of staying home and taking care of your responsibilities and getting a good education and a good job on your own? Then maybe you'd have something to bring to -- instead of taking from -- the armed services.
2) Because the armed forces have engaged in a massive public relations program for years which amounts to this: join the army, learn a trade, get an education for free, and get a job when you get out. This seems really attractive to a lot of people. But it's hugely misleading. They paint a picture as if you have to go through a bit of a rugged boot camp, sure, but then you are taught all these interesting skills useful in the private sector. Yes, you have to go overseas, but you'll either be on a ship somewhere, or you'll be in Germany, or maybe South Korea, or maybe merely just sitting in Texas. or maybe you'll go to Afghanistan, but not very long, and in any event, even if you do, you don't have a huge chance of being killed. Then college-- paid for -- and that great job! With that great resume-booster provided free by Uncle Sam.
This "learn a skill, get a job" stuff is very deep-seated, and you find all sorts of people drawing on it, mainly in the lower classes,the poor, or the clueless middle class that is turning into lower class due to recessions and lay-offs. You even hear people tell themselves that they have "no choice" but to go "get a job" in the army because there are "no jobs" elsewhere.
I personally find this bullshit, as those who want to work can get jobs -- they just might not be jobs with free education and exotic travel and missions to go with them.
3) It's my firm conviction that the reason we have so many people having psychotic breaks in the armed forces, and going crazy and killing civilians, or coming home and committing suicide, or suffering from PTSD and substance abuse, is because of the massive disconnect between the advertisements, and the shill about "learn a trade, get a job" and the reality which is -- be trained in something that might help our mission of killing people, kill then, then go home and resume your normal life.
We're unable to create a valid and efficient killing machine when necessary, and what we have instead is an army of job trainees who seem shocked and surprise that their internships and apprenticeships have IEDs in them.
I think this goes up the chain, and the sense of "you are special, we trained you, and now you're fabulous" sets up a situation where you feel you can have affairs, get drunk, be abusive, not do your duty, all because it's about you, and not anything else.
I really think the army has to step back from how they do this recruitment, how they set up expectations, and change the message and the perception managements. And I'm confident if they do, they will get better people and better outcomes. But this will require a wrenching re-evaluation and changes of policy.
They tried "the few, the proud, the Marines" to emphasize how they really needed good, intelligent, skillful, rare people, and not dumbasses who take drugs and can't hold a job - but then they forgot that there's still the other three branches of armed service to fill -- and they needed more than just a "few". Somehow, the pumping up of egos involved in getting "the few, the proud" led us not to Navy SEALS killing bin Ladn, or whatever our "gold standard" is for selfless, unsung heroics of good people doing their duty, but has led us to generals who behave outrageously and subject their nation to indelible humiliation and denigration.
I live next door to a National Guard depot and I see the kinds of people there, and my son has various friends who have "deployed," as they describe it. How can I describe this? Well, the very word explains the mindset. These are people who either barely graduated from school, are from poor or immigrant families, who don't have a lot of prospects, who for various reasons of background needed the security of having everything organized for them. They don't say, "I'm going into the army to serve my country, it's my duty." They don't say "We have a mission to fulfill, these terrorists need to be shown who's boss" or "if we don't stop the creeping menace of Islamism, our own freedoms will be in jeopardy," they say "I'm in training"and "I'm being deployed" in the same tone of voice as people describe being sent for training and then a job in another state if they decide to work or IBM or Accenture.
They've absorbed the recruitment message and they embody it -- and it's a problematic message because we all know that they won't get a job with this "training" after they return and we're lucky if they even manage to fight the war they're plopped into. Instead of getting jobs and going on with their lives, they have an excellent chance of coming back with substance abuse problems, PTSD, and emotional problems that if anything, prevent them from ever becoming productive members of society.
4) I'm not a pacifist, and I don't have a problem with people deciding to serve in the army for whatever reason; indeed, our national security depends on it. Neither of my grandfathers served in World War II, I have no idea why, but apparently their ages were such that they were a bit too old and had large families to support and worked in factories. My father served in the Korean War. His father had died in an accident and he had his mother and disabled sister to support. They rented out the top floor of their house and lived downstairs, he went to high school and worked nights at Wendt's, a dairy, as a soda jerk. He lied about his age to get into the army at 17 even before graduation but he always said he was "performing his duty for his country" and always understood it as the just cause of fighting Communism even if he was in fact a kid who needed skills and a job.
He got them. He also got the GI bill and then graduated with a degree in engineering. The people who didn't die in a war like the Korean War continued as walking advertisements -- join the army, learn a skill, get a free education, get a job. It worked -- at least, better than it works now. My father was good with languages, he passed a proficiency test and was sent to Russian school and worked as a linguist for the Army Air Corps (predecessor of the Air Force) in intelligence. He flew up in planes and listened to Soviet pilots chattering and swearing and reported on what they were saying. He left the army with varicose veins from all the marching and sitting in cramped airplanes and jumping out of them now and then, and then went into civilian life to work as a ceramic engineer until his death. He always spoke of the army as a duty, not a career enhancement, and as something that had a lot of suffering and unpleasantness in it.
5) I've come to the idea of supporting conscription not because of the notion John Schindler mentions of saying "if the elites had their own sons serve, they'd have less wars or be more cautious about getting into wars." I don't think that's a proven hypothesis. After all, the Queen of England had her relatives serving in Afghanistan and that didn't make the UK decide they shouldn't get involved in either Iraq or Afghanistan.
I think it's more like this, however: before, armed service was a path to success -- it meant you could run for political office or advance in a company because you were believed to be merited and trustworthy. But after Vietnam, that ceased. And with the last two wars, it didn't work, even with very decent people deploying; they didn't go run for Congress. I remember meeting a recent new member of Congress at the Foreign Policy Institute who had actually served in the army and it was a total shock -- no Congress people do nowadays. And that's because it's not viewed as a career path -- oh, except for my son's friends who five minutes ago were hanging around Union looking to score weed and playing with iPhones and dropping out of school, and now are supposedly trained enough and smart enough to fight a war. They are getting training, and free education, and they'll get a job, right? But they could barely graduate or get a GED in the NYC high school system, which is an abomination...
So my thinking about conscription works like this: if you had conscription, then you'd get lots more people, smart people, people without illusions that they will "get a job" from serving in the army, people who "get it" about what an army really is for, people who can realize that there's a job to do, a hard and unpleasant and risky job, before they return to civilian life which they would have made for themselves *without the armed forces*.
6) I don't have illusions about the draft. I lived through the Vietnam era, don't forget. I remember that my classmates brothers were drafted, and some of them got killed and it was very sad. Of course, if you were rich and connected, you could get out of the draft, or you could just guard a swimming pool in Texas (a famous example always discussed in that era in our town based on some guy who supposedly really did that). You didn't have to be rich and famous, either, because of the concept of draft deferment if you were in college, or if you had a teaching job. That was how my uncle avoided the draft -- first going to college, then teaching elementary school. I don't think he particularly enjoyed teaching, which was hard and low-paid, but I think he preferred that to going to Vietnam and having a chance of getting killed.
Remember they fixed THAT problem of too many deferments by starting a lottery. And that was really scary. Suddenly, our music teacher and band leader could get drafted. Our neighbours could get drafted. And did. And then some got killed. Of course there was a fair amount of opposition to the war; I went to my first anti-war demonstration when I was 14. But by and large, in small towns outside the big cities, people did their duty. That's how they understood it. They hoped for the best. I worked in the US Post Office with a lot of veterans and disabled veterans, because they got points awarded on the civil service exam for the USPS so that they'd have jobs, and these were serious people who served their country and did their duty.
But "Vietnam vet" in a lot of cases came to mean people who were crazy, drug-abusers, off the grid, bikers, whatever. This idea of "learn a trade, get a job," fell away...
7) Not that many people were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan by contrast with other wars. But they were maimed and killed more in real time on the air on instant media and social media and it therefore loomed larger perhaps. And they did in fact get killed in increasing numbers -- numbers that flew in the fact of that "the few, the proud" propaganda and the "learn a trade, get a job" shill.
I remember trying to raise this issue with Richard Holbrooke. In the little neighbourhood where I spend my Thanksgivings, three men out of five who deployed together were killed, leaving widows and children. That sure wasn't worth it, because we lost.
8) Our armed forces are really, really hurting. And I don't think that's because they are "stretched thin" in "two long wars". That is, sure, they take their toll. World War II was "only" six years and the Korean War was "only" three years -- but more people died in them than in these wars. I actually think the "set and setting" problem of the Army recruiment propaganda and the kinds of people they wind up attracting with that misleading promise of "skills and jobs" are central to the problem. The army reflects the problem of society in the family, education, the work place, but itself is serving as an incubator worsening them.
Chelsea Manning is a classic example. She was smart, actually had computer and analytical skills largely self-taught on "the Internet", but was an EDP, to use the cops' lingo, an "emotionally disturbed person" who flopped around not knowing what to do, with an alcoholic and abusive dad or something, with identity issues, who felt the army would not only give her "a good education and a good job" where the regular economy hadn't, but would also "pull her together". It didn't. The rest is history.
Edward Snowden is another good example. We never learn how this high-school drop-out, also with an absentee dad, who seemed to also have good self-taught Internet-learned skills, felt he had to go in the army -- where he promptly broke both legs, instead of "learning a skill and getting a good job". Even so, he migrated toward related national security work, but questions remain: how clueless do you have to be to break not one, but two legs in basic training? Maybe you're "an indoor cat" who shouldn't have joined and no one should have let you? Or how negligent do the armed services have to be? We don't know. But Ed was not "good people" for the real job of the army, which is serving your country and fighting a war, not getting an all-expense paid training and job placement program.
And there are more, and higher-level fuck-ups -- but first, a personal story.
8) My own son went and joined the Marines but didn't finish the process and now is ineligible for service. I wasn't thrilled with the idea, but he was of age, and it was his decision and I thought (I'm not immune to the propaganda, either), he might "learn a trade and get a good job" where these things had failed in civilian life.
He went through various physical and written exams, briefing sessions, interviews, etc. and was getting ready to ship out to Parris Island. But then due to a confluence of various circumstances in his own life and the draw-down being announced, there were delays and then he began to get cold on the idea. For one, the recruiting officer began to tell him that he really should stay in college, then go in the Marines, it would only be better for him to go into higher-level training. Also, I won an electric motorcycle at TechCrunch Disrupt with the express pitch that I hoped it would be something that would keep him out of the Marines because I didn't want him to be sent to Afghanistan and be one of the last people to become disabled or die there (and I guess fate rewarded us there...Man proposes, God disposes...)
I had reasons to believe this would be the case that he would die, or worse, become disabled. Naturally he had more of a chance of becoming disabled in a motorcycle accident, and sadly that's exactly what happened.
But even as he used that argument to persuade me that Afghanistan was going to be "safe," I could see that for this kid, even my own son whose father was jailed in a Soviet psychiatric hospital because he refused to go in the army when Czechoslovakia was being invaded, there was only the haziest notion of the war in Afghanistan, despite all my work in human rights and the UN and discussing the issues at home, and only the foggiest concept of any mission or duty. To country, to society, let alone to vulnerable people overseas whose country was overrun with thugs.
But there was much, much more prevelant in his thinking was that he was going to "get training" and "get a good job". The Cisco network training which his high school provided -- which he didn't finish -- didn't grab him. But somehow, the army -- which would amount to the same thing only with the chance to get up early in the morning, eat grub, run around like hell and then have a chance to die -- was going to do it.
In real life, in the civilian sector, prospects for somebody with less than a year in college, which he didn't like, were not great -- he worked variously many hours a week for low pay as an insurance salesman, a cell phone salesman, an electricity salesman, a computer repairman and it was all going nowhere. Occupy sent a very powerful message even to this family that definitely opposed Occupy and its Marxist politics: if you load up on college debt, you may not be abe to pay it back for years and you may not get a good job. The army looked attractive in those circumstances, when your prospects were years more of selling insurance and going to school nights. It's too bad they were winding down the wars, eh? Everywhere the message went out to stop recruiting so heavily and now they can afford to pick better people.
Recruiting officers tell kids now -- hey, go back to school. Hey, you have that drug charge or that robbery charge? Well, we can still let you in, but now we're going to look for people with cleaner records. You didn't do very well on the test because you didn't pay attention and barely graduated from high school? Well, we're going to find people who are better than you now. But that isn't what they did for the last ten years, and it shows.
9) The people at the top in the military have let us down appallingly. I am still trying to understand this. How could this happen? Some years ago I was interviewed by Rolling Stone and appeared in a story there about Second Life and I know exactly what they do with you: they make fun of you. Deliberately. I knew that going into it. That's what they do if you aren't a rock star, duh! I can't imagine being so stupid as to hang out with their reporters and drink and tell them stories. You'd have to be ignorant or so vain that they could play on your vanity. So much for McChrystal, who I thought was a lot smarter.
Petraeus -- what the hell? You have this exemplary career, you have this incredibly important duty to perform with many people depending on you and your country's safety and reputation at stake, and you screw it up by letting this manipulative biographer get you into an affair and then expose you to scandal? What? How vain and stupid do you have to be?
Bales. You sound like a person who had lots of problems before you deployed that you thought the army would fix for you. Either your vanity and belief you could do what you couldn't led you to back-to-back deployments, or somebody in charge of deployment had the poor judgement to deploy you (what, they ran out of job-seekers and stupid drug users in New York City?) But all in all, the set and setting seems to have contributed to the appalling massacre of innocent Afghan civilians you should have been taking the utmost care to protect. Didn't you have any sense of duty?
And Carey. Gosh, I could almost understand the back stories of Manning and the others, maybe it's just human nature. But my God, what an asshole. Getting drunk with the Russians?! With known operatives serving as honey pots from the GRU? While you are responsible for nuclear weapons?! What are you fucking stupid? Or is it so vain that you think you can do no wrong? I'm just BAFFLED.
So you can see that I find a theme here -- vanity. Telling little darlings they are wonderful. Special. Only the few, the proud. That they will advance their lovely careers. That they will turn from losers into productive members of society because they will "get trained and get a job". It reminds me of all the Yuppie moms in the playground with their endless ego-boosting of their toddlers, and their endless, inexhaustive ability to empathize with the wants and needs of their little monsters instead of setting limits and insisting on good behaviour.
"Use your indoor voice, Tommy" or "We don't throw sand, Janie" or "what do you need, apple juice? A graham cracker? a Samsung tablet?" instead of getting a "No, stop that, or we're leaving" or "no, snack-time is at 4 pm, it's not time yet."
You know what I mean?
And all of this is horribly, horribly wrong. We need to change all this, radically. From top to bottom. it isn't even so much about changing to a draft versus voluntary -- it's about THIS. It's about GETTING RID of the idea that the army is here to serve YOU, instead of you SERVING THE ARMY. It's about finding people who could get a job in civilian life, but choose to do this other, harder thing because they love their country. It's about setting up the expectations right, and weeding out the EDPs better. It's about saying "You're not going to get anything out of this, and might lose your leg." It's about ending the "heroics" of the "surprise dad" and that brave soul learning to walk on artificial limbs who had the misfortune to have a "training accident" while he was in his "job program". It's about creating fighting men and women who fight like they're going to win, who get that war is sacrifice, not self-aggrandizement.
It's a hard and tricky thing. On the one hand, you want to instill a sense of mission, of responsibility, of America's role in the world. On the other hand, you don't want this:
Ms. [REDACTED] states that Maj Gen Carey was visibly agitated about the long delay at Zurich, he appeared drunk and, in the public area, talked loudly about the importance of his position as commander of the only operational nuclear force in the world and that he saves the world from war every day.
“I am not trying to bring down the NSA, I am working to improve the NSA,” he said. “I am still working for the NSA right now. They are the only ones who don’t realize it.”
“That whole question — who elected you? — inverts the model,” he said. “They elected me. The overseers.”
He named the chairmen of the Senate and House intelligence committees.
“Dianne Feinstein elected me when she asked softball questions” in committee hearings, he said. “Mike Rogers elected me when he kept these programs hidden. . . . The FISA court elected me when they decided to legislate from the bench on things that were far beyond the mandate of what that court was ever intended to do. The system failed comprehensively, and each level of oversight, each level of responsibility that should have addressed this, abdicated their responsibility.”
And so on. You get the idea.
People who have a sense of a purpose higher than themselves before which they become humble, not arrogant.
It used to be religious upbringing accomplished this, or perhaps life on a family farm. Then maybe school or civic clubs could provide it. Nothing provides it anymore.
There's just the Internet.
I'm not an expert and I don't know how this can be accomplished. But not only experts should get to decide these things. All citizens get a say in their votes and in their freedom of expression.