Martin Dyckman: We don't give our troops the leadership and weapons they deserve

Never have Americans professed more respect for our troops. It’s as if we can’t thank them enough for their service.

When they travel in uniform the airlines board them first. Strangers pick up their restaurant tabs. On his way from basic to advanced training four years ago, my youngest son was in the Dallas airport when an elderly lady pressed a $50 bill into his palm. He took it, contrary to policy, rather than hurt her feelings.

Indeed, public opinion exalts the military above every other profession. In the most recent Pew Research Center poll, 18 months ago, 78 percent agreed that our service men and women contribute “a lot” to society. That was down only slightly from the 84 percent sampled in 2009, when casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan were still reported daily.

Teachers came next, at 72 percent, followed by doctors, scientists and engineers, the only other professions to enjoy the high regard of a majority. (Journalists? Lawyers? Business executives? Don’t ask.)

But some self-examination is overdue.

Is it simply gratitude that accounts for our professed love for the troops?

Or is guilt a large part of it?

If not, it should be.

Afghanistan and Iraq are the first of our major wars – and we still have boots on the ground in both places – fought entirely by “volunteers.”

I put that word in quotations because it’s doubtful that very many anticipated so many successive deployments when they signed up in the regulars or the reserves.

Sgt. First Class Ramon Morris of Fort Hood, Texas, was in his fifth deployment when he was killed in Afghanistan last month.

That meant he had already served more time in a combat zone than any American did between Pearl Harbor and V-J Day.

Abolishing the draft applied altogether the wrong lesson from Vietnam. It made it too easy to not choose our wars wisely, too convenient to send the same people into harm’s way over and over again, and too simple to rationalize that “they’re volunteers” as an excuse for denying them the proper weapons and leadership that they deserve. The sluggishness in replacing vulnerable Humvees with mine-resistant vehicles was just one inexcusable example of wasting their lives and limbs.

And we – you and I, the citizens our troops serve, have allowed this to happen.

The Atlantic magazine’s current cover story, “Why do the Best Soldiers in the World Keep Losing?’ poses deeply disturbing questions that every politician – and every citizen – needs to confront.

James Fallows, the primary author, argues that among “our generals, our politicians, and most of our citizenry, there is almost no accountability or personal consequence for military failure.” This, he says is “a dangerous development – and one whose dangers multiply the longer it persists.”

What he concedes to be “the best-equipped fighting force in history…better-trained, motivated and disciplined than during the draft-army years,” has repeatedly been either defeated by nominally inferior forces or has won skirmishes and battles “only to lose or get bogged down in a larger war.” In 13 years of continuous combat, the only “clear strategic success” was the killing of Osama bin Laden. The Iraqi troops who abandoned much of their country to ISIS last year had been equipped and trained by our military for five years. Now we are training them again, and it is inevitable that more of our trainers will be maimed or killed.

Part of the problem is a command structure that demands conformity and compliance as the price of promotion. We don’t sack generals any longer unless they sass the president or get caught with their pants down. Talented junior officers have nowhere else to go when they’re up against inept leaders; there’s no switching between branches and there are few opportunities outside the military except to go to work for defense contractors – which is exactly what we shouldn’t want them to do.

Most of our combat soldiers – special forces excepted – are still armed with rifles that jam easily compared with the far simpler, but more effective, AK-47 that is our enemies’ weapon of choice. On the other hand, we have spent nearly $400-billion so far on a new “joint strike fighter,” the F-35, that is still too unreliable for combat. It would be useful, perhaps, in an air war with Russia or China, but nearly worthless in supporting troops in combat against the Taliban, ISIS, and other foes who arm themselves with improvised roadside bombs.

If the F-35 is a historic boondoggle, it is also a classic triumph for what has been called “political engineering” – the practice of designing a weapons system with parts to be built in nearly every congressional district. The B-2 bomber, for example, was spread among 383 of the 435.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, a military hero before he became president, warned in his farewell address against “the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

He was right, but we didn’t care. Will we ever?

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives near Waynesville, North Carolina. Column courtesy of Context Floria.

Martin Dyckman



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