Friday, May 16, 2008

Fighting the Last or the Next War

May 13 found Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in Colorado speaking to a gathering of the conservative Heritage Foundation. Two points in his discourse caught my eye.

He expressed concern over what he saw as a tendency for “next-war-ism” – defined as “a propensity…to be in favor of what might be needed in a future conflict” rather than acquiring what is needed by those fighting “the war we’re in.”

The other point was the need to balance the existential risk of damaging the institutional structures of the Army and Marine Corps by actually “overextending” the ground forces with the need to “win” in Iraq.

His first point brings to mind the post-Vietnam army that wanted to forget everything it had so painfully learned and endured from 12 years of fighting a nationalistic insurgency – with nothing to show for it other than dead and wounded soldiers in the tens of thousands and expenditures in the tens of billions. Moreover, the crucial cornerstone on which the entire structure of civil-military relations in a democracy rests – integrity – had been nearly shattered by the deceptions of those less interested in truth than in power.

There is at work here a counterpoint to the usual charge laid at the feet of the generals and admirals that they always prepare to fight the last war. Here the Defense Secretary warns against trying to leave the current war before it is over so as to be ready for the kind of war one wants to have. But the usual error may be true more for those who won the last war. If so, then the logic of the Secretary’s statement is that the United States is on the verge of losing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On the second point of Gates’ speech, to this day no one in the Pentagon or in the administration has stepped forward and said that the ground forces are actually overextended. The reality that no one is facing is that the generation fighting these wars is going to lose from its ranks significant numbers of productive workers because of repeated and prolonged exposure to combat.

The problem is, in my view, that the concern about the institutional structure is too late. The damage is there and is growing in both the Army and Marine Corps -- specifically within the noncommissioned officer and the mid- level (captain to lieutenant colonel) commissioned grades who keep the entire organization ticking. Adding 90,000 more soldiers simply means more will be affected unless and until the United States ends its occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan and turns to unconditional diplomacy to resolve outstanding issues with Iran


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