The Peace Of Exhaustion
If you, like me, have osteoporosis, you know that weight-bearing activities help prevent your bones from melting away. So, I’ve started taking short walks once, and even twice, a day. Retirement does that for you.
Often, I’m strolling around our neighborhood. Thus, in addition to building stronger bones, I’ve been reconnecting with a few neighbors whose kids, like ours, have grown up and moved away. Young kids, between school, Scouts, sports and their other activities are often the glue that holds suburban neighborhoods together. True, random encounters during neighborhood walks are less “sticky” than regular kids’ activities-but at least they help.
On two recent walks, at virtually the same location, I ran into a woman walking her frisky, English sheep dog puppy-thankfully on a leash. I recognized her from some long ago connection with our kids, but, of course, I couldn’t remember her name. To make matters worse, she, of course, remembered mine.
“Hi, Spencer,” she led off, restraining the lunging dog. “How are you?”
“I’m good,” I replied. “But, please forgive me. You’ll have to tell me your name.”
“Christy,” she said with a good-natured smile. “Our sons were in Scouts together. How’s Byron?” Not only my name, but my son’s to boot!
“He was in the Navy on a sub for eight years,” I replied, “and then used that job as a springboard to get a job at Google. How’s your son?”
“He’s in the Navy too,” she replied. And then, very matter of factly she added, “He works in EODU.”
“EOD . . ?”, I asked, squinting quizzically as the sun declined in the west.
“Yes,” she replied, her lips still smiling, but a shadow falling over her face, “Explosive Ordinance Disposal Unit.”
Great-the bomb squad. You know, The Hurt Locker, a movie about the EODU guys in Iraq that I had to turn off at the thirty minute mark-I couldn’t bear it.
“Lord, have mercy,” I said, “where’s he deployed?”
“Well,” she responded, “right now he’s in Florida for training.”
My mind pretty much went blank after that. I just remember thinking as I finished the walk home, “How does the woman ever sleep at night?”
Who’s Fighting All These Endless Wars For Us?
Yes, I know that Christy’s son, like all of our service members, volunteered for the military. But that begs the question: why did they volunteer?
Because they’re patriotic? No question-and God bless ’em. But is it right to be fighting endless, dubious wars halfway around the world in the interests of what threatens to descend into mere displays of chest thumping jingoism at NFL games? And how long before the patriotism well runs dry? And all that’s left is cynicism?
Or is it because Christy’s son and his buddies are adrenaline junkies? Certainly possible. Or just bored? Also possible. But maybe it’s because they need a job. Any job.
Frankly, that’s what I suspected. At least until I began doing the research. But it turns out that, at least from what I was able to glean up through about 2008, enlisted recruits were more likely to come from middle and upper class neighborhoods rather than poor ones. And since wealthier recruits are more likely to be white, the same data showed that whites are disproportionately bearing the burden in terms of fatalities and casualties.
Christy’s son fits right into that demographic.
The Army Is Too Big
The active duty strength of the U.S. military is nearly 1.5 million soldiers. Over a third of those are in the Army.
Such a gargantuan force may have made sense when we were squared off against the former Soviet Union in Germany’s Fulda Gap during the Cold War. (Unless the Europeans, as can be easily argued, should’ve been defending their own countries.) No longer. All the men, women, equipment-and expense-required to sustain a force of this size is a classic example of the truism that generals are great at planning to win the last war. But are much less capable, as they’ve amply demonstrated in the “War on Terror,” at winning the next one.
A few things can be said with confidence about our half million man Army:
- It’s a standing, professional army. And, as such, and as many of the Founding Fathers warned, they are more likely to become a law unto themselves. And a threat to the rest of us and our liberties.
- Second, the great bulk of them are doing, in effect, garrison duty. In other words, they have lots of time on their hands. Not to mention, lots of very nasty weapons. And, as the old saying has it, “Idle hands are . . . “
Although written before 9/11, this article by Tom Ricks, who’s won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of defense issues, is a thoughtful look at the growing, worrisome gap between the military and the nation that it’s called on to defend. With considerable justification, the military perceives much of our society as alien and very different, increasingly decadent and ill-disciplined.
Now, with the advent of the War on Terror, it’s almost impossible to imagine that the gap between our military and civilian worlds has done anything less than grow to a yawning chasm. While we party-hearty on the home front, soldiers, during interminable deployment cycles, get their legs blown off.
While lengthy, you should read the Ricks article for yourself. Among other things, it points out that military’s top brass has, increasingly, disregarded the historic taboo on inserting themselves in the political realm. Which, heretofore, has been the exclusive province of our elected, civilian leadership.
Further, relative to the population at large, the military is also much bigger than it used to be. In 1933, it numbered about 240,000-a mere one-sixth its current size (the U.S. population has only doubled in the same interval.)
In the past, the military shrank dramatically at the conclusion of a conflict. For example, within two years after the end of World War II, total U.S. armed forces went from over 12 million to about 1.5 million, a cut of nearly 90%. In contrast, when our last “major conflict” ended, the Cold War, the force only shrank by about 35% from 2.1 to its current 1.5 million.
Again, unlike in the past, when the military was seen as a temporary interruption of “real” life, our all volunteer force nows looks upon the profession as a career. Many of them have families to support. Like employees of any other large organization, how will they take to “downsizing”-should it come to that? Talk about having a tiger by the tail.
You think an uprising of disgruntled, “laid off” soldiers couldn’t happen here? Think again. It already has. And not that long ago.
In 1932, during the depths of the Depression, a “Bonus Army” of over 43,000 veterans descended on Washington demanding immediate payment of a “bonus” from service in World War I. Technically, the money wasn’t due until 1945. The reliably ham-handed President Hoover refused the demand. When the vets ignored orders to disperse, Hoover called in the troops and the protesters’ “Hooverville” shanty town was burned to the ground. Two marchers were killed in a clash with infantry, cavalry, and tanks.
Not long ago, I chanced to sit next to the furniture magnate, Jake Jabs, at the Capital Conference, a wonky policy confab for the hoi polloi on international affairs in Washington, D.C. It won’t surprise you that I managed to steer the conversation toward the subject of our endless wars and the size of the military.
“The Army has all these men and equipment,” I began, “often lying around doing nothing. You know,” I continued, “how business owners hate to see idle equipment. Why would it be any different for the military and our politicians? To me, it must be a constant temptation to put it to use. And what do you use it for? Fighting wars.”
“You’ve probably got something there,” Jake replied, who, for all his zoo animals and “ah shucks” mannerisms, is smart like a fox. “I sure do everything I can to keep my trucks out on the road.”
What makes us think it’s any different for our enormous, professional and standing army?
The Army Is Too Small
The great majority of the fighting that is now being done in the War on Terror is being shouldered by special forces, elite units that total about 70,000 soldiers, a mere sliver of the Army’s overall force of 1.5 million. According to a recent Time Magazine story, at any given moment, about 8,000 of these troops are deployed in 143 countries, or nearly three-quarters of the world’s nations.
While in the past these units were a supplement to conventional forces, that’s no longer the case. In small, specialize teams, Washington tells us that these soldiers are doing tasks that sound innocuous: “nation building,” “training” foreign troops to defend their own nations, winning “hearts and minds” through diplomacy. (By the way, how did that “Hearts and Minds” thing work out in Vietnam?)
The reality, according to former Navy SEAL and now Virginia Congressman, Scott Taylor, is very different. “They’re not ‘trainers’ and ‘advisors.’ That’s bullshit. They’re constantly engaged in kill-or-capture raids against known terrorists. They’re combat boots on the ground, everyone of them.”
Of course, making war on most of the world is a big job for 8,000 troops. Or even 70,000. Regardless of how good they are. One result is an endless war for them. Sargent Major Chris Faris, who was profiled in the Time article, was a member of the Delta Force. He was home for a total of 89 days between 2002 and 2011. Before yet another 6 month deployment, his 18 year old daughter asked him if he remembered the last birthday he was home for. “No,” Faris answered. “I was 10,” she said. Before walking out of the room.
Not surprisingly, endless war is taking its toll on the nation’s toughest soldiers. In 2017, 11 special operators were killed in four countries. That’s the most deaths that have occurred in that many countries since the Special Operations Command was established in 1987. Despite comprising less than 5% of the total military, they are now suffering virtually all combat casualties.
The disfunction attendant on this non-stop war has led the Pentagon to create a task force to address family crises, alcohol abuse, and suicide. There is an open investigation into the murder of a Green Beret by two Navy SEALs and and the killing of civilians in Somalia by special operators.
Michael Repass, a retired general who formerly commanded special forces in Europe, says it best: “Our special operators aren’t just frayed at the edges,” because of their constant deployments, “they’re ripped apart at the damned seams. We’ve burned through this force.”
To make matters worse, the tactics of choice for special operators, drone strikes and covert night raids, have probably inadvertently killed thousands of civilians across several countries, according to Andrea Pasow with Human Rights Watch. How that magnitude of collateral damage has anything to do with making this country safer, rather than simply enraging our opponents and spurring terrorist recruitment, is a mystery to me.
Am I suggesting that the solution to these pervasive issues is to expand the force of special operators? Absolutely not. Rather, we should dramatically shrink the scope of the wars we’re fighting.
Unfortunately, our politicians haven’t had their bellyful of war yet. Instead, according to Time, the latest brain storm is to shift the “training” function of foreign militaries to conventional U.S. forces by creating “Security Force Assistance Brigades.” And how long, one wonders, before these brigades, like their special forces brethren before them, morph into “combat boots on the ground?”
Come Home, America
My son-in-law served two tours in Iraq with the Marines. When I saw him recently, I told him about Christy’s son with the bomb squad.
“Yeah,” he responded, “we had those units with us once in a while. But they could never keep up with the demand when I was there. One time, I heard that a unit’s commanding officer got impatient for the bomb disposal team to show up. So, he ordered one of his regular guys to go over and pick up a suspicious object and move it out of the way. The guy,” he continued, “took about 10 steps and vanished in a cloud of black smoke. The officer,” my son-in-law concluded, “was dismissed.”
Google tells me that it’s 5,966 miles from New York City to Iraq. The bulk of that distance is over the Atlantic Ocean. The distance from Los Angeles to Beijing over the Pacific Ocean is even greater: 6,248 miles.
While our current crop of politicians seem to be ignorant of the significance of these elemental facts of geography, our Founding Fathers weren’t. In The Federalist Papers: No. 41, James Madison wrote,
“Being rendered by her insular situation and her maritime resources impregnable to the armies of her neighbors, the rulers of Great Britain have never been able, by real or artificial dangers, to cheat the public into an extensive peace [military] establishment. The distance of the United States from the powerful nations of the world gives them the same happy advantage.”
Correct me if I missed something, but last I heard the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are still there. And, like 18th century Great Britain, America’s vast, watery moats are dominated by our unrivaled naval power. We’re impregnable to a seaborne invasion.
So why do we maintain an army of 1.5 million and spend more on the military than the next 8 nations of the world-combined?
Is it to protect our southern border? Obviously not. The invasion of illegals continues apace, the Wall remains unbuilt, and our D.C. elites, of all political stripes, have repeatedly demonstrated they couldn’t care less. In fact, they cheer it on.
So we use our vast military power to invade and “manage” the rest of the world. As if poking hornets’ nests in 143 countries is “management.” When, in reality, it can’t be anything other than a costly exercise in the futility of making more people mad at us.
And when will it end? Who knows. But perhaps what’s in store for us is not real peace. But a twilight peace of exhaustion.