Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Remember those who fight and die

On Wednesday evening President Barack Obama presented his plan to address the growing strength of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).   The President was under considerable pressure to do something about ISIL.  Public opinion polling following the beheadings of two Americans by ISIL indicated growing public support for action.  Congressional leaders appear to support the effort.

An additional 475 military personnel will join over 1100 personnel already in Iraq.  If the past is any indicator that number will grow.  Navy F/A-18 and Air Force F-15 and F-16 aircrews have conducted 154 missions against ISIL thus far.  U.S. special-forces are deployed with Iraqi and Kurdish forces to provide intelligence, coordination, and targeting assistance according to press reports. 
There is a great divide between the men and women serving in our military and those who make decisions about placing them in harm’s way.  The President met with congressional leaders on Tuesday to seek their support for his actions against ISIL.  Neither the President nor the congressional leaders are veterans.

The percentage of veterans in Congress has declined over the last several decades from as high as 77% to about 20% today.  It is difficult to verify but it is probably safe to say that very few members of Congress have children serving in the military.  

Only one half of one percent of the population serves in the military.  War seems sterile, far away, and really has had little impact on the daily lives of Americans since the all-volunteer force was implemented in 1973.  Even the cost of war is taken off the books and shoveled onto the debt for future generations to pay.   

The disconnect from the true costs of war is almost palpable from our leaders, media, and general public.  With no personal skin in the game is it easier for the public to call out for action?  Do our leaders more readily take up arms because they perceive no personal, economic, or political consequence?    

Many will say our troops volunteered and assumed the risk.   Yes, that is true.  But they deserve and expect that their lives will not be placed at risk arbitrarily and capriciously.   They deserve clear goals and objectives.  They deserve rules of engagement that do not place them at risk unnecessarily.  They deserve equipment of the type they need when they need it.  They deserve an operational tempo that will not wear them thin in mind and body and destroy their families. Most of all they deserve a President and Congressional leaders who take time to empathize with them and their families before engaging them in hostility. 
When the inevitable mistakes happen and unintended consequences result in the wounding, killing, and capture of our troops in this third excursion to Iraq will our leaders be able to honestly say that the risk was so great and the plan to address it so correct that it was worth risking the life of your son, daughter, husband, or wife?  Would they risk their own child?

Take a moment and imagine that your child or grandchild has joined the Armed Forces and called you this morning to tell you they are deploying to Iraq.  Are you convinced, based on the President’s speech, that the risk is so great to America, the plan proposed so likely to succeed, and the personal risk to your child or grandchild so mitigated that you are willing to potentially have that child return an amputee or in a body bag.  That is the stark reality for many families.   But they don’t get to make the decisions.


  1. “Americans and Their Military, Drifting Apart,” by KARL W. EIKENBERRY and DAVID M. KENNEDY, an OpEd in the NY Times in 2013 is well worth reading. Lieutenant General Karl W. Eikenberry, former military commander and ambassador in Afghanistan wrote of his concern that the detachment of the military from the general population, technology, and expanding missions were creating an opportunity for “a maximally powerful force operating with a minimum of citizen engagement and comprehension.” The authors write, “The modern force presents presidents with a moral hazard, making it easier for them to resort to arms with little concern for the economic consequences or political accountability. Meanwhile, Americans are happy to thank the volunteer soldiers who make it possible for them not to serve, and deem it is somehow unpatriotic to call their armed forces to task when things go awry.” Several recommendations are made to 1) implement a draft lottery for a portion of the force, 2) replace the War Powers Act with a mandate for Congressional consultation, 3) a real time tax on operations rather than borrowing that would put general public skin in the game. Full article at http://tinyurl.com/pq5own3

    “Most members of Congress have little direct military experience,” BY DREW DESILVER, Pew Research Center provides an excellent historical analysis of veterans in Congress. Full article at http://tinyurl.com/l4rjzgb

    “The Last Lion,” by Paul Reid and William Manchester is an excellent biography of Winston Churchill, though hefty at over 1200 pages. He truly held the line for the rest of the world against Nazism. When Churchill made his famous quote about so many owing so much to so few he referred to the Battle of Britain when a few thousand fighter pilots defended Britain from the German Luftwaffe’s blitzkrieg attack. Over the course of a year in 1940-41 sixteen British cities were bombed repeatedly, over 40,000 civilians killed, and one million homes destroyed. The Royal Air Force lost nearly 1000 fighter planes and nearly half its pilots defending the island. Britain withstood the onslaught and paved the way for the Allied counterattack on Germany in 1942.

    Want to understand in detail why the confusion over ISIL or ISIS or Islamic State? See “ISIS or ISIL? The debate over what to call Iraq’s terror group,” by Ishaan Tharoor in the Washington Post at http://tinyurl.com/nqmlkzg

    I worry that the media fails to advance lines of questioning that say, “is this worth it” because they too are isolated from and uninformed about the military. The media has become a part of the political establishment as it grovels for access to press officers, socializes with those they are supposed to confront, and sends their children and grandchildren alongside the political elite to such posh institutions as Sidwell Friends. I recently wrote a letter to the principal of that elite school where presidents and vice presidents send their children alongside the media elite to ask what percentage of graduates enlist in the military or attend military academies. No response was received.

  2. This blog post appeared in the SW Florida News-Press on 9/13/14 and can be viewed at http://www.news-press.com/story/opinion/contributors/2014/09/12/remember-fight-die/15540785/

  3. After reading several email and Facebook comments I want to clarify something in the “Remember those who fight and die” blog post.

    The point is not that the president or any other specific elected leader be a veteran. Our republic was founded on the principle of civilian control of the military. Military experience is not required to be an effective leader in time of war. Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt were excellent leaders in the two greatest wars of our history and neither was a veteran. Lyndon Johnson was a terrible leader in war and he was a veteran.

    The point is that in a meeting of the nation’s political leadership (Obama, Boehner, Reid, Pelosi, and McConnell) to discuss and approve a major military engagement not one of them is a veteran. We know that the congress has less than 20% veteran members.

    It is not necessary to be a veteran to have an opinion on war in general or this specific engagement. But complex decision-making benefits from diverse experience – particularly when the decision at hand is one of such great complexity, risk, and impact and the implementing organization has unique culture and highly technical capabilities. One would hope that a fireman would be on the building committee for a new town fire house.

    The concern is not so much the strategy suffering from lack of veterans in elected positions. The Pentagon can provide much of that. Serving four years in any service is going to provide an understanding of military jargon and culture, but it is not necessarily going to make the veteran a thoughtful strategist or effective leader.

    The concern is a lack of empathy for the sacrifice of our military personnel and their families when the nation considers engaging in major conflicts. Political and media elites have no skin in the game. They do not serve and their children do not serve generally. Those who have served, particularly in combat, can bring a unique and essential perspective that should be represented at the table when questions of war are addressed. It is the growing isolation of the military from the general population and the associated disconnect that we should worry about.

    This quote from the Eikenberry article is relevant: “The modern force presents presidents with a moral hazard, making it easier for them to resort to arms with little concern for the economic consequences or political accountability. Meanwhile, Americans are happy to thank the volunteer soldiers who make it possible for them not to serve, and deem it is somehow unpatriotic to call their armed forces to task when things go awry.”


Comments to blog postings are encouraged, but all comments will be reviewed by the moderator before posting to ensure that they are relevant and respectful. Hence, there will be a delay in the appearance of your comment. Thank you