According to a recent CNN/ORC poll, Americans have once again contracted war fever. For the first time a majority (53 percent) of the public wants to send ground troops to battle ISIS. Coming on the heels of three horrific ISIS-linked terrorist attacks—the Russian jetliner, the November attacks in Paris, and the San Bernardino spree killing—this is not entirely surprising. People are understandably fed up with Islamic crazies killing innocent people.
I’m sick of it too, though less eager to send ground troops. Not that we have any good options.
Our policy thus far has been “no boots on the ground,” or at least that’s what the White House has told us. “No boots” isn’t entirely true—just like everything else this lying president says. There are indeed some boots on the ground in the Middle East stamped “made in the USA” on their soles but for the most part we’ve chosen to fight ISIS from the sky.
Our airpower strategy has not rolled back ISIS, for a number of reasons, the first of which is that it telegraphs to the enemy that we are irresolute in our mission. We can’t stomach casualties and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the grand poohbah of ISIS, know this. Why should he despair? Second, airpower alone doesn’t win wars. No piece of territory is truly secure until the infantry marches in and plants the flag. Our Air Force is, of course, supporting ground troops but they happen to be Iraqi and our Iraqi allies have proven themselves to lack “combat effectiveness”—which is a nice way of saying that they suck hind teet.
The time has long since passed to decide whether we should go big or go home. I don’t like either option and for that I am glad I’m not the commander-in-chief. I’d rather not make such a weighty decision. Unfortunately, the guy who is charged with such decisions—with congressional approval of course—seems indecisive. He has condemned us to another few years of farting around with neither a cohesive strategy nor a vision of victory.
If the latest poll is any indicator, the American people, by a bare majority, have embraced “going big” and rejected “going home.” At least that’s what their fickle opinion is this week. Next week might be different and if troops remain in Iraq and Syria for any extended period of time public opinion will inevitably turn south. Americans only like war when it’s quick and easy. When soldiers start coming home in body bags we’ll blame our leaders for giving us the war we asked for.
I believe that most of that 53 percent of Americans who want to send our young people back to the sandbox labor under the mistaken belief that our military is a well-oiled machine that will make mincemeat out of ISIS. I would warn these people that our military is actually pretty ragged—under-funded, undertrained, and sorely lacking in the morale department. Most importantly, it’s been wussified—forced by politicians and general officers to become the “kindler gentler military” Stephanie Gutmann warned of fifteen years ago in her seminal book by the same name. If you haven’t read it, you need to.
Slashed military budgets have shrunken our armed forces. The US Army is now the smallest it’s been since before World War II and the US Navy the smallest since before World War I. We’re still asking this skeleton crew to keep the sea lanes open and to hold down the fort in Korea, something we didn’t ask of them in our pre-superpower era.
Morale continues its descent into the abyss. In 2014, the Military Times commissioned a survey of 2,300 military members to gage their satisfaction with military life—with bleak results. Only 56 percent of troops agreed with the statement “Overall my quality of life is good,” compared to 91 percent who said the same thing in 2009. Seventy percent of troops agreed with the statement that “quality of life will decline in coming years.” Only 27 percent said that officers in senior leadership positions had the rank-and-file’s best interest at heart—a clear indicator that careerism is having a corrosive effect on the military. As journalist Hope Hodge Seck wrote in the Military Times: “Today’s service members say they feel underpaid, under-equipped and under-appreciated, the survey data show.”
“Underpaid” is something of an understatement. Annual pay raises, which were once almost guaranteed to be at least two percent, are now sometimes as low as one percent. The last time pay raises exceeded two percent was in 2010, when the troops’ salaries were bumped up 3.4 percent. Since then, the pay raises have been 1.4 percent (2011), 1.6 percent (2012), 1.7 percent, (2013) one percent (2014), and one percent (2015). The pay raise taking effect this New Year’s Day is a mere 1.3 percent.
Perhaps the most terrifying trend in today’s military is the diminution of the warrior spirit. This “wussification” of the US military has probably been underway for decades but it shifted into hyperdrive after the ascendency of Barack Obama. His campaign to get women into combat arms positions—even elite units—without lowering standards was exposed as a farce at the very same press conference at which it was unveiled. As General Martin Dempsey famously pronounced in January 2013, “Importantly, though, if we do decide that a particular standard is so high that a woman couldn’t make it, the burden is now on the service to come back and explain to the secretary, why is it that high? Does it really have to be that high?” But don’t worry, standards won’t be lowered—and you’re sexist if you say otherwise.
The wussification of the Army is nearing its end stage. Consider the US Army Drill Sergeant School in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, where noncommissioned officers go to learn how to train raw recruits. It prides itself on its New Army ethos—which means that there’s a lot less butt-chewing and apparently, according to one drill sergeant quoted in an article by journalist Jeff Wilkinson, no more “smoking” the privates. For non-veterans, “smoking” is when the drill sergeant makes the privates engage in all sorts of physically demanding exercises—pushups for sure, but also alligator walking, walrus crawling, T-bones, flutter kicks, and leg lifts. “We don’t smoke people anymore,” said Drill Sergeant Danielle Brooks. “But sometimes you have to give them a little extra TLC.” I wish this were The Onion but it isn’t. The drill sergeant really thinks it’s her job to deliver tender loving care. She might as well wear a button that says “free hugs.”
This is not your father’s Army. It isn’t even the Army I joined in 1999. My drill sergeants relished “smoking” the privates. I recall one particularly hard drill sergeant who I’m quite certain would not graduate from today’s Drill Sergeant School on account of his old-fashioned approach to training. Whether the privates were getting enough TLC was not his top concern.
I’m sure that wussification proponents would argue that “smoking” the privates does little to improve their training. I disagree. “Smoking” the privates instills mental toughness and, at very least, gets them into shape. Many young people joining the military today are neither mentally tough nor physically fit so someone must furnish them with these commodities. I’ll use myself as an example—I lost forty pounds in basic training and gained a lot of self confidence. That would not have happened if Danielle Brooks had been my drill sergeant.
Before we go sending the bloom of our youth to fight crazy dudes on a mission from Allah, it might be prudent to ask ourselves if we have truly prepared them. Are we going to send a chubby teenager, who, through no fault of his own, never did so much as a pushup in basic training, off to battle ISIS? What if that teenager isn’t properly equipped and his morale is in the gutter because he can’t pay his bills? I say no. It wouldn’t be fair to that teenager to expect him to engage in real combat where he’s likely to have his feelings hurt with no one around to give him a hug.
We’ve neglected our armed forces for a long time and we can’t now expect that they will perform as they did in generations past. Let’s hit the brakes on the rush to send ground troops to the Middle East.