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From Mister Roberts to South Pacific to Catch , from The Caine Mutiny to The Naked and the Dead to From Here to Eternity , American popular and high culture treated our last mass-mobilization war as an effort deserving deep respect and pride, but not above criticism and lampooning. The collective achievement of the military was heroic, but its members and leaders were still real people, with all the foibles of real life.

A decade after that war ended, the most popular military-themed TV program was The Phil Silvers Show , about a con man in uniform named Sgt. American culture was sufficiently at ease with the military to make fun of it, a stance now hard to imagine outside the military itself. As I point out whenever discussing this topic, I was eligible for the draft at the time, was one of those protesting the war, and at age 20 legally but intentionally failed my draft medical exam.

What we think of as the classic run of Vietnam films did not begin until the end of the s, with The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now. Bilko model, again suggesting a culture close enough to its military to put up with, and enjoy, jokes about it. The pop-culture references to the people fighting our ongoing wars emphasize their suffering and stoicism, or the long-term personal damage they may endure. Some emphasize high-stakes action, from the fictionalized 24 to the meant-to-be-true Zero Dark Thirty. Often they portray military and intelligence officials as brave and daring.

Last year, the writer Rebecca Frankel published War Dogs , a study of the dog-and-handler teams that had played a large part in the U. Part of the reason she chose the topic, she told me, was that dogs were one of the few common points of reference between the military and the larger public. But … dogs! For two decades after World War II, the standing force remained so large, and the Depression-era birth cohorts were so small, that most Americans had a direct military connection.

Among older Baby Boomers, those born before , at least three-quarters have had an immediate family member—sibling, parent, spouse, child—who served in uniform. Of Americans born since , the Millennials, about one in three is closely related to anyone with military experience. Interactive graphic: The first map above in green shows per-capita military enlistments from to , grouped by 3-digit zip code. The second in red shows the home towns of deceased soldiers from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Enlistment rates vary widely—in , only 0.

Virgin Islands prefix had an enlistment rate of 0. When it comes to lives lost, U. Map design and development: Frankie Dintino. If I were writing such a history now, I would call it Chickenhawk Nation , based on the derisive term for those eager to go to war, as long as someone else is going. It would be the story of a country willing to do anything for its military except take it seriously.

As a result, what happens to all institutions that escape serious external scrutiny and engagement has happened to our military. Outsiders treat it both too reverently and too cavalierly, as if regarding its members as heroes makes up for committing them to unending, unwinnable missions and denying them anything like the political mindshare we give to other major public undertakings, from medical care to public education to environmental rules.

The tone and level of public debate on those issues is hardly encouraging. But for democracies, messy debates are less damaging in the long run than letting important functions run on autopilot, as our military essentially does now.

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A chickenhawk nation is more likely to keep going to war, and to keep losing, than one that wrestles with long-term questions of effectiveness. Americans admire the military as they do no other institution.


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Through the past two decades, respect for the courts, the schools, the press, Congress, organized religion, Big Business, and virtually every other institution in modern life has plummeted. The one exception is the military. About one-third had comparable confidence in the medical system, and only 7 percent in Congress. Moulton became a Marine Corps officer after graduating from Harvard in , believing as he told me that when many classmates were heading to Wall Street it was useful to set an example of public service.

He opposed the decision to invade Iraq but ended up serving four tours there out of a sense of duty to his comrades. Moulton told me, as did many others with Iraq-era military experience, that if more members of Congress or the business and media elite had had children in uniform, the United States would probably not have gone to war in Iraq at all.

Because he felt strongly enough about that failure of elite accountability, Moulton decided while in Iraq to get involved in politics after he left the military.

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What Moulton described was desire for a kind of accountability. It is striking how rare accountability has been for our modern wars.

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Hillary Clinton paid a price for her vote to authorize the Iraq War, since that is what gave the barely known Barack Obama an opening to run against her in George W. But those two are the exceptions. For our generals, our politicians, and most of our citizenry, there is almost no accountability or personal consequence for military failure. This is a dangerous development—and one whose dangers multiply the longer it persists. O urs is the best-equipped fighting force in history, and it is incomparably the most expensive.

Observations of a Retired Veteran by Henry C. Tinsley

Yet repeatedly this force has been defeated by less modern, worse-equipped, barely funded foes. Or it has won skirmishes and battles only to lose or get bogged down in a larger war. Bilmes, of the Harvard Kennedy School, recently estimated that the total cost could be three to four times that much. Recall that while Congress was considering whether to authorize the Iraq War, the head of the White House economic council, Lawrence B. Yet from a strategic perspective, to say nothing of the human cost, most of these dollars might as well have been burned.

But they brought no lasting stability to, nor advance of U. When ISIS troops overran much of Iraq last year, the forces that laid down their weapons and fled before them were members of the same Iraqi national army that U. The last war that ended up in circumstances remotely resembling what prewar planning would have considered a victory was the brief Gulf War of After the Vietnam War, the press and the public went too far in blaming the military for what was a top-to-bottom failure of strategy and execution.

But the military itself recognized its own failings, and a whole generation of reformers looked to understand and change the culture. In , a military-intelligence veteran named Richard A. Gabriel published, with Paul L. Three years later, a broadside called Self-Destruction: The Disintegration and Decay of the United States Army During the Vietnam Era , by a military officer writing under the pen name Cincinnatus later revealed to be a lieutenant colonel serving in the reserves as a military chaplain, Cecil B.

Currey , linked problems in Vietnam to the ethical and intellectual shortcomings of the career military. The book was hotly debated—but not dismissed. Today, you hear judgments like that frequently from within the military and occasionally from politicians—but only in private. William S. He wrote recently:.

Grant saved the Union; McClellan seemed almost to sabotage it—and he was only one of the Union generals Lincoln had to move out of the way.

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Something similar was true in wars through Vietnam. Some leaders were good; others were bad. Partly it is because legislators and even presidents recognize the sizable risks and limited payoffs of taking on the career military. When recent presidents have relieved officers of command, they have usually done so over allegations of sexual or financial misconduct, or other issues of personal discipline.

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These include the cases of the two famous four-star generals who resigned rather than waiting for President Obama to dismiss them: Stanley A. The exception proving the rule occurred a dozen years ago, when a senior civilian official directly challenged a four-star general on his military competence. In that case, the general was right and the politicians were wrong. Some of this PR shift is anthropological. And whether or not this was a conscious plan, the military gets a substantial PR boost from the modern practice of placing officers in mid-career assignments at think tanks, on congressional staffs, and in graduate programs across the country.

Most cultures esteem the scholar-warrior, and these programs expose usually skeptical American elites to people like the young Colin Powell, who as a lieutenant colonel in his mids was a White House fellow after serving in Vietnam, and David Petraeus, who got his Ph. Bush and Barack Obama and whose mid-career academic stint was at Harvard Business School , told me recently.

Fewer and fewer people know anyone in the military. Citizens notice when crime is going up, or school quality is going down, or the water is unsafe to drink, or when other public functions are not working as they should. Not enough citizens are made to notice when things go wrong, or right, with the military. The country thinks too rarely, and too highly, of the 1 percent under fire in our name. This distance also means that we spend too much money on the military and we spend it stupidly, thereby shortchanging many of the functions that make the most difference to the welfare of the troops and their success in combat.

We buy weapons that have less to do with battlefield realities than with our unending faith that advanced technology will ensure victory, and with the economic interests and political influence of contractors.


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  • Scales, in this issue. In an America connected to its military, such questions of strategy and implementation would be at least as familiar as, say, the problems with the Common Core education standards. Those technological breakthroughs that do make their way to the battlefield may prove to be strategic liabilities in the long run. During the years in which the United States has enjoyed a near-monopoly on weaponized drones, for example, they have killed individuals or small groups at the price of antagonizing whole societies.

    When the monopoly ends, which is inevitable, the very openness of the United States will make it uniquely vulnerable to the cheap, swarming weapons others will deploy. The cost of defense, meanwhile, goes up and up and up, with little political resistance and barely any public discussion.