The Army's Empire Skeptics | The Nation


The Army's Empire Skeptics

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Indeed, virtually ignored by pundits and others is the fact that in recent years the Army has been hemorrhaging junior officers. "The simple fact is that coming into 2002, the Army was short thousands of captains," says Mark Lewis, a former Army Ranger now with a federally funded think tank. This is the type of thing that should give proponents of empire pause, as Lewis notes that captains are "the most pivotal" of all officers. "They're the commanders closest to the troops in garrison, training and combat. Yet the number of captains leaving the Army doubled from 1995 to 2001. Even in the face of the struggling economy of 2001, when unemployment skyrocketed and 2.4 million Americans lost their jobs, the attrition rate did not slow by even 1 percent."

Research support provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation

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Jason Vest
Jason Vest writes on national security affairs for The Nation.

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Why the flight of talented, innovative young minds from the ranks? According to a number of recent studies, the personnel system--built around social Darwinism and continuously remodeled along corporate business lines--has created a situation in which officers are encouraged to spend less time with soldiers and more time playing the advancement game, and that the time spent soldiering isn't "quality time." A 1999 General Accounting Office investigation found that many Army training exercises are fatally flawed. A more recent Army study found that "junior officers are seldom given opportunities to be innovative in planning training; to make decisions; or to fail, learn, and try again." A 2002 RAND study found that in the past decade, field training opportunities for new officers had dropped by almost 50 percent.

And how is the Army addressing this? Recently, the service announced that it would simply start promoting young lieutenants to captain faster. Not only does this put already insufficiently seasoned officers in situations where they can find themselves way over their heads, but, says Maj. Donald Vandergriff, author of last year's critical personnel and doctrinal study The Path to Victory, it essentially amounts to "bribing people to stay, buying their loyalty, patriotism and moral strength to go in harm's way, based on the dehumanizing assumption that our officers and NCOs are mindless, undifferentiated, replaceable cogs in a machine."

There are those who make the argument that in an era of targets laser-painted by elite forces, technological advance compensates for less-than-optimal human elements. But at a time when some of the most crucial postwar military functions--infrastructure rehabilitation, military police, civil affairs, to name but a few--are almost exclusively the province not of active-duty but of part-time Reserve and National Guard units, training and experience count for a lot. As far as effective occupation-style rebuilding is concerned, officers who have been assigned to the Balkans are skeptical about what might come in Iraq, based on their experiences in Bosnia and Kosovo.

"The preoccupation with force protection kept us more apart from the natives, as well as keeping us from being truly effective in terms of addressing problems that I thought we were there to deal with," says one officer of his Balkans rotation. "I can't imagine it will be any different in Iraq." This view is echoed by a high-ranking British officer who did a tour with NATO in Sarajevo. "All the US written orders and briefings I got treated the whole of Bosnia as bandit country," he says, "with the end result being, the GIs on the ground treated it like the Wild West with Indians behind every bush; their weapons were always at the ready, even when they talked to the natives, which was a very antagonistic stance.

"If anything," the officer continues, "the locals in areas under US control viewed the GIs as imperial occupiers, whereas in other areas, under Dutch or Canadian control, they saw them more as helpers who just happened to be heavily armed. Although the US pumped loads of dosh in, it was at the top end, and the native in his bombed-out shack saw his local GIs only as they roared past in their four-vehicle convoys. I'll let you decide what that says about winning hearts and minds, and the state of training. Maybe you can smart-bomb someone out of a job. But technology and force only go so far in introducing ideas and keeping order."

But then, in the US military of today, the human factor seems subordinated to the technological. In early 2002 Military Review, an official publication of the Army's Command and General Staff College, published an article critical of the mountain-warfare training program, and noted in some detail the "dos and don'ts" of high-altitude warfare. In last March's Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan, it seemed as if the Army had embraced the article's don'ts, sending ill-equipped, improperly trained troops up a mountain where, far from choking the enemy into submission, the Taliban/Al Qaeda were able to reinforce and subsequently disappear.

In theory, Anaconda was supposed to be something of a showcase not only for the regular infantry but for the miracle of modern technology as applied to combat, with an array of sensitive surveillance platforms to pinpoint the enemy and then precision-bomb him out into the open, if not out of existence. However, a recent study by the Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute discovered that more than half of enemy positions went undetected by the high-tech eyes in the sky. How could this happen? "The earth's surface remains an extremely complex environment with an abundance of natural and man-made cover and concealment" that--surprise!--can escape or counter all manner of high-tech detection.

As for precision-guided munitions (PGMs), the report notes that even after enemy positions were visually discovered, the "wonder weapons" used were far from magic bullets. "Where the Taliban presented exposed or massed targets in the open, PGMs were extremely lethal," the study says. "Where fighting positions were properly prepared, however, they were much harder to destroy--even with modern PGMs." In fact, "al Qaeda positions survived repeated aerial attack by US PGMs," including one position that fought for a week despite five direct hits from aerial PGMs.

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