Andrew Bacevich Military Politics

How Awesome is ‘Awesome’? America’s Underperforming Military

The Pentagon headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The Pentagon in Washington, D.C. (Wikimedia Commons)

By Andrew Bacevich / TomDispatch

Professional sports is a cutthroat business. Succeed and the people running the show reap rich rewards. Fail to meet expectations and you get handed your walking papers. American-style war in the twenty-first century is quite a different matter.

Of course, war is not a game. The stakes on the battlefield are infinitely higher than on the playing field. When wars go wrong, “We’ll show ’em next year — just you wait!” is seldom a satisfactory response.

At least, it shouldn’t be. Yet somehow, the American people, our political establishment, and our military have all fallen into the habit of shrugging off or simply ignoring disappointing outcomes. A few years ago, a serving army officer of unusual courage published an essay — in Armed Forces Journal no less — in which he charged that “a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”

The charge stung because it was irrefutably true then and it remains so today.

As American politics has become increasingly contentious, the range of issues on which citizens agree has narrowed to the point of invisibility. For Democrats, promoting diversity has become akin to a sacred obligation. For Republicans, the very term is synonymous with political correctness run amok. Meanwhile, GOP supporters treat the Second Amendment as if it were a text Moses carried down from Mount Sinai, while Democrats blame the so-called right to bear arms for a plague of school shootings in this country.

On one point, however, an unshakable consensus prevails: the U.S. military is tops. No less august a figure than General David Petraeus described our armed forces as “the best military in the world today, by far.” Nor, in his judgment, was “this situation likely to change anytime soon.” His one-word characterization for the military establishment: “awesome.”

The claim was anything but controversial. Indeed, Petraeus was merely echoing the views of politicians, pundits, and countless other senior officers. Praising the awesomeness of that military has become twenty-first-century America’s can’t miss applause line.

As it happens, though, a yawning gap looms between that military’s agreed upon reputation here and its actual performance. That the troops are dutiful, seasoned, and hardworking is indisputably so. Once upon a time, “soldiering” was a slang term for shirking or laziness. No longer. Today, America’s troops more than earn their pay.

And whether individually or collectively, they also lead the world in expenditures. Even a decade ago, it cost more than $2 million a year to keep a G.I. in a war zone like Afghanistan. And, of course, no other military on the planet — in fact, not even the militaries of the next 11 countries combined — can match Pentagon spending from one year to the next.

Is it impolite, then, to ask if the nation is getting an adequate return on its investment in military power? Simply put, are we getting our money’s worth? And what standard should we use in answering that question?

Let me suggest using the military’s own standard.

Demanding Victory

According to the United States Army’s 2021 “Posture Statement,” for example, that service exists to “fight and win the nation’s wars.” The mission of the Air Force complements the Army’s: “to fly, fight, and win.” The Navy’s mission statement has three components, the first of which aligns neatly with that of the Army and Air Force: “winning wars.”

As for the Marine Corps, it foresees “looming battles” that “come in many forms and occur on many fronts,” each posing “a critical choice: to demand victory or accept defeat.” No one even slightly familiar with the Marines will have any doubt on which side of that formulation the Corps situates itself.

In other words, the common theme uniting these statements of institutional purpose is self-evident. The armed forces of the United States define their purpose as winning. Staving off defeat is not enough, nor is fighting to a draw, waging gallant Bataan-like last stands, or handing off wars-in-progress to pliant understudies whom American forces have tutored.

Mission accomplishment necessarily entails defeating the enemy. In General Douglas MacArthur’s famously succinct formulation, “There is no substitute for victory.” But victory, properly understood, necessarily entails more than just besting the enemy in battle. It requires achieving the political purposes for which the war is being fought.

So when it comes to winning, both operationally and politically, how well have the U.S. armed forces performed since embarking upon the Global War on Terror in the autumn of 2001? Do the results achieved, whether in the principal theaters of Afghanistan and Iraq or in lesser ones like Libya, Somalia, Syria, and West Africa qualify as “awesome”? And if not, why not?

A proposed Afghanistan War Commission now approved by Congress and awaiting President Biden’s signature could subject our military’s self-proclaimed reputation for awesomeness to critical scrutiny. That assumes, however that such a commission would forego the temptation to whitewash a conflict that even General Mark Milley, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged ended in a “strategic failure.” As a bonus, examining the conduct of America’s longest war might well serve as a proxy for assessing the military’s overall performance since 9/11.

The commission would necessarily pursue multiple avenues of inquiry. Among them should be: the oversight offered by senior civilian officials; the quality of leadership provided by commanders in the field; and the adequacy of the military’s training, doctrine, and equipment. It should also assess the “fighting spirit” of the troops and the complex question of whether there were ever enough “boots on the ground” to accomplish the mission. And the commission would be remiss if it did not take into account the capacity, skills, and determination of the enemy as well.

But there is another matter that the commission will be obliged to address head-on: the quality of American generalship throughout this longest-ever U.S. war. Unless the commission agenda includes that issue, it will fall short. The essential question is obvious: Did the three- and four-star officers who presided over the Afghanistan War in the Pentagon, at U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), and in Kabul possess the “right stuff”? Or rather than contributing to a favorable resolution of the war, did they themselves constitute a significant part of the problem?

These are not questions that the senior ranks of the officer corps are eager to pursue. As with those who reach the top in any hierarchical institution, generals and admirals are disinclined to see anything fundamentally amiss with a system that has elevated them to positions of authority. From their perspective, that system works just fine and should be perpetuated — no outside tampering required. Much like tenured faculty at a college or university, senior officers are intent on preserving the prerogatives they already enjoy. As a consequence, they will unite in resisting any demands for reform that may jeopardize those very prerogatives.

A Necessary Purge

President Biden habitually concludes formal presentations by petitioning God to “protect our troops.” While not doubting his sincerity in praying for divine intervention, Biden might give the Lord a hand by employing his own authority as commander-in-chief to set the table for a post-Afghanistan military-reform effort. In that regard, a first step should entail removing anyone inclined to obstruct change or (more likely) incapable of recognizing the need to alter a system that has worked so well for them.

On that score, Dwight D. Eisenhower offers Biden an example of how to proceed. When Ike became president in 1953, he was intent on implementing major changes in U.S. defense priorities. As a preliminary step, he purged the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which then included his West Point classmate General Omar Bradley, replacing them with officers he expected to be more sympathetic to what came to be known as his “New Look.” (Eisenhower badly misjudged his ability to get the Army, his own former service, to cooperate, but that’s a story for another day.)

A similar purge is needed now. Commander-in-chief Biden should remove certain active-duty senior officers from their posts without further ado. General Mark Milley, the discredited chair of the Joint Chiefs, would be an obvious example. General Kenneth McKenzie, who oversaw the embarrassing conclusion of the Afghanistan War as head of Central Command, is another. Requiring both of those prominent officers to retire would signal that unsatisfactory performance does indeed have consequences, a principle from which neither the private who loses a rifle nor the four stars who lose wars should be exempt.

However, when it comes to a third figure, our political moment would create complications that didn’t exist when Ike was president. When he decided which generals and admirals to fire and whom to hire in their place, Eisenhower didn’t have to worry about identity politics. Top commanders were of a single skin tone in 1950s America. Today, however, any chief executive who ignores identity-related issues does so at their peril, laying themselves open to the charge of bigotry.

Which brings us to the case of retired four-star general Lloyd Austin, former Iraq War and CENTCOM commander. As a freshly minted civilian, Austin presides as the first Black defense secretary, a notable distinction given that senior Pentagon officials have tended to be white or male (and usually both).  And while, by all reports, General Austin is an upright citizen and decent human being, it’s become increasingly clear that he lacks qualities the nation needs when critically examining this country’s less-than-awesome military performance, which should be the order of the day.  Whatever suit he may wear to the office, he remains a general — and that is a problem.  

Austin also lacks imagination, drive, and charisma. Nor is he a creative thinker. Rather than an agent of change, he’s a cheerleader for the status quo — or perhaps more accurately, for a status quo defined by a Pentagon budget that never stops rising.

speech Austin made earlier this month at the Reagan Library illustrates the point. While he threw the expected bouquets to the troops, praising their “optimism, and pragmatism, and patriotism” and “can-do attitude,” he devoted the preponderance of his remarks to touting Pentagon plans for dealing with “an increasingly assertive and autocratic China.” The overarching theme of Austin’s address centered on confrontation. “We made the Department’s largest-ever budget request for research, development, testing, and evaluation,” he boasted. “And we’re investing in new capabilities that will make us more lethal from greater distances, and more capable of operating stealthy and unmanned platforms, and more resilient under the seas and in space and in cyberspace.”

Nowhere in Austin’s presentation or his undisguised eagerness for a Cold War-style confrontation with China was there any mention of the Afghanistan War, which had ended just weeks before. That the less-than-awesome U.S. military performance there — 20 years of exertions ending in defeat — might have some relevance to any forthcoming competition with China did not seemingly occur to the defense secretary.

Austin’s patently obvious eagerness to move on — to put this country’s disastrous “forever wars” in the Pentagon’s rearview mirror — no doubt coincides with the preferences of the active-duty senior officers he presides over at the Pentagon. He clearly shares their eagerness to forget.

As if to affirm that the Pentagon is done with Afghanistan once and for all, Austin soon after decided to hold no U.S. military personnel accountable for a disastrous August 29th drone strike in Kabul that killed 10 noncombatants, including seven children. In fact, since 9/11, the United States had killed thousands of civilians in several theaters of operations, with the media either in the dark or, until very recently, largely indifferent. This incident, however, provoked a rare storm of attention and seemingly cried out for disciplinary action of some sort.

But Austin was having none of it. As John Kirby, his press spokesperson, put it, “What we saw here was a breakdown in process, and execution in procedural events, not the result of negligence, not the result of misconduct, not the result of poor leadership.” Blame the process and the procedures but give the responsible commanders a pass.

That decision describes Lloyd Austin’s approach to leading the Defense Department. Whether the problem is a lack of daring or a lack of gumption, he won’t be rocking any boats.

Will the U.S. military under his leadership recover its long-lost awesomeness?  My guess is no.  In the meantime, don’t expect his increasingly beleaguered boss in the White House to notice or, for that matter, care. With a load of other problems on his desk, he’s counting on the Lord to prevent his generals from subjecting the troops and civilians elsewhere on the planet to further abuse.

Copyright 2021 Andrew Bacevich

15 comments

  1. The article summarizes very well the rolling disaster known as militarism in this Country. The military budget is the favored vehicle of theft by the thieves who run the Country (otherwise known as the 1%) because that vehicle comes ready-made with opaqueness because, shshsh!, you know, “National Security”. The war crimes committed by the military will continue, together with all the other undesirable and criminal conduct the thefts entail (the revolving door for the generals and other officials associated with the military and intelligence (so-called) agencies unless the corrupt legalized bribery electoral/political system is destroyed and replaced by democracy. I am not optimistic.

  2. Whew. So, Murder Inc, the lying, cheating, cost-overrunning, peverse military, from top to bottom, is to be parsed and somehow put into “well prepared” and “competent”? This is what makes these articles very surreal. Oh, so, let’s compare Italian Mafia with the Mexican Cartel? Or, one billionaire felon with another billionaire felon?

    This is theater, and it is absurd, really. So, do we look at Russia’s war machine, or China’s in the context of the USA Empire, the most dangerous “thing” on planet earth.

    It is a self-fulfilling game — paying 600 billion $ a year? 800 billion $? Cut it in half? Money for Israel? Oh, the USA, but the DoD, DARPA, NSA, all the spy agencies tied to militarism, and surveillance, and, sure, let’s look at how USA DoD/Uniformed Mercenary Services perform?

    Naughty writing, here. So much of a waste of digital space.

  3. Who cares if the U.S. military is any good? The worse they are, the better, consider that their job is to maintain & expand the U.S. empire. I respect Andrew Bacevich as a military person, but this is a very wrong-headed essay in what is supposed to be a progressive website.

  4. The fact that polls show that the military is the most trusted institution in the United States says it all about how informed most Americans are about their country and its foreign policy. The fact that the country’s military has not won a war since World War II is highly revealing. Once again one need only follow the money and see militari$m bloody trail with the likes of Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics, General Electric, Honeywell etc. These are the big profiteers of war laughing all the way to the bank while Americans live in the delusion that this oversized unaccountable behemoth known so rightly as the military industrial complex trudges on to the destruction of the planet and conceivably could through ignorance and sheer stupidity end up annihilating all life on planet earth. War and all its instruments of death need to be consigned to the dustbin of history if there is to be any hope of human survival. Cooperation or annihilation those are our choices, we will see soon enough whether there is any wisdom left in the leadership of this country and I am not confidant that we have the moral integrity in any of our leaders.

    1. Jeremiah, I agree with your observation that the fact that the majority of people still trust the military is proof positive of their ignorance. I do have one quibble with your comment, which is that it suggests that success on the battlefield may be considered a good measure of the “worth” of the military or the “correctness” of U.S. foreign policy. That is certainly not the case. I celebrate every loss suffered by the U.S.’s illegal and immoral wars. I am glad we lost in Vietnam. We had no right to be in that Country. The same goes for every war fought by this Country since WWII. None of them were justified either legally or morally. Nor were they fought in the interests of the people of this Country. They were fought solely for the dual purposes of furthering the U.S. goal of world domination (“Empire”) and for the benefit of the thieves allowed by the U.S. (those “qualified” as significant contributors of campaign cash) to loot the invaded countries. After three quarters of a century of this fraud, the majority of people are still clueless about the fact that their Country is committing mass murder and mass destruction of entire countries in their names. Success of the U.S. military is the last thing we should hope for.

      1. @Jim+Thomas
        I fully agree, except that it’s not just ignorance, it’s also a very bad attitude toward the rest of the world, including the environment.

    2. USA had little to do w WWI or II—the USSR defeated both the Nazis and Japan…USA only entered after Germany defeated. USA surrendered to Japan after USSR defeated Japan’s military in Asia and occupied Northen Jpanese islands

    3. @Jeremiah

      I totally agree with your comments, and would add this:

      Even more than telling everything we need to know about Americans’ knowledge, the fact that they trust the military above all other U.S. institutions tells you all you need to know about Americans’ attitudes. There is no excuse for this attitude regardless of being misinformed and uninformed.

  5. We’re Number One! USA! USA! USA! Yes sir, General, “there’s no substitute for victory.” And real Amerikkkans love a winner, on playing fields and killing fields.

    Or so we have been instructed, in some such sick and insane way. From earliest age of socialization, performance standards are placed upon us to adapt to pathological lying of how human ‘civilization,’ built upon conquest and cruelty, strives to reach its highest ‘ethic’ of success in the monumental failure of care and compassion that is Pax Americana, pox upon the world. Truly awesome is the dehumanization which coldly measures how well the machinery of mass murder is performing.

  6. Armies are evidence of human stupidity run amok. We cannot work out problems amicably so we kill people. Yeah right. A wonderful solution and one that endears others to us for our diplomacy. Having the bigger club just makes you a bigger beast.

    Why we never opened an Office for Peace, and staffed it heavily and funded it accordingly is beyond me, but I think it has to do with money. If countries fail to do what we say we send in the military to make them pay. It is as simple as that. Read : Confessions of an Economic Hitman and wake up to the reality that America is a Beast.

    1. @Edward William Case
      Civilization requires war. By definition, civilization means a group of people living in urban conditions. People living so densely cannot live on their own resources, so they have to steal the resources of others. Hence, war. Derrick Jensen has written quite well about this. Not that hunter-gatherers don’t fight at all, but that’s nothing compared to what we know as war, even pre-industrial war.

  7. A purge might be required, especially given the warning that a 2024 split in the military over the victory of a Democrat is possible – at least according to 3 ex-generals. The real question is what faction of the military, as represented by real officers, is capable of doing this? Or would it be a cartoon revolt of a tiny fragment? On a side note, ‘soldiering’ doesn’t mean lazy, it actually means tough and enduring. As in ‘they soldiered on.’

  8. Even mid-level pro-USA New York CIA Times, covers this bullshit —

    The New York Times reveals the U.S. military’s air wars have been plagued by bad intelligence, imprecise targeting and a lack of accountability for thousands of civilian deaths, many of them children. The two-part series by reporter Azmat Khan is based on a trove of internal Pentagon documents, as well as on-the-ground reporting from dozens of airstrike sites and interviews with scores of survivors. “What you have is a scale of civilian death and injury that is vastly different than what they claim,” says Khan, who spent five years on the investigation.

    Friendly fire, sisters and brothers. Napalm, Whskey Pete, Depleated Uranium, plasma blasts, sound blasts, the entire mess, including conventional bombs on clinics, into power facilities, on libraries, bridges, sewage treatment plants, water delivery systems, food crop poisoning, come one, this is the USA’s playbook. Plague infested bugs on Korea? Viral pathogens?

    Oh, better technology, man, the entire Five Eyes, AUKUS, Nato, Thugs Incorporated. Precision weapons for precision death, with a whole lot of collateral killing, and those drone jockeys, and double -and- triple taps. As long as those pricks in the Blue Angels do flyovers at the Army-Navy game, and the Golden Knights parachute into the Super Bowl, well, it’s worth the 30 Trillion $ and all the casualties of war.

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