The Military Today And Its Distance from Us

by Sterling C. Beard

        Lectures by guest speakers are always dicey. The quality of the talks can vary widely, but Sydney J. Freedburg’s lecture, Policy at the Sharp End: Listening to Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, was quite informative (if slightly unfocused), covering a range of topics relevant to the Army in depth.

        Freedburg started by emphasizing that if there’s one thing the armed forces of the United States do well, it’s conventional warfare. The first Gulf War ended less than two months after the aerial bombardment began. The American military rolled through Afghanistan after 9/11 like a hot knife through butter and obliterated Saddam Hussein’s forces in 2003 at a blindingly fast pace. They do it so well, in fact, that they almost became victims of crippling overspecialization.


Bands of brothers: Sydney Freedburg argues that our contemporary military is more professional, more agile, more stressed and less connected with most Americans than ever before. Click to enlarge.
The problem for the military comes after they have ceased fighting conventional forces and are forced into a peacekeeping role. As the fight is no longer a maneuvering war with a Patton sitting far away in headquarters deciding where to send units, those units become resource providers while the most important players in the game become the junior units and officers. This is a lesson we should’ve learned some time ago. Somalia in the early 1990s was a warning of how fast a humanitarian mission can deteriorate, but we then learned the wrong lesson in the Balkans, namely the idea that military operations and war could be separated. As a result, the Army has had to adapt from the bottom up whereas the shift wasn’t quite as difficult for the Marine Corps, which remembered some of the lessons taught by Vietnam.

        For example, the men in the field created an ad-hoc database system so that incoming personnel could be quickly brought up to speed on the situation on the ground, such as informants and known threats. Back home, the Army has begun to copy law enforcement training by teaching soldiers when not to shoot by inserting civilians into rifle training.

        It’s a continuous learning process. While there’s no question that the US forces have an insurmountable technological edge over their insurgent foes, they still have to win the low-level street battles that make up counter-insurgency work. This includes such things as getting information from informants and getting covert forces to direct raids. The usage of high-end military technology to achieve low-end goals has lead to a sort of “hybrid war.” Mr. Freedburg related an interview with a commander who had gotten creative in ways to meet his informant. Because simply going into the informant’s house would result in the informant’s death, the commander would use his troops to lock down an entire block and then slip into the informant’s house unnoticed. The details of Mr. Freedburg’s story were fantastic: Apparently, on top of that, the troops had to arrive in the neighborhood being led by an Abrams Main Battle Tank due to the threat of Iranian-made roadside bombs (which could easily destroy an up-armored Humvee and posed a significant threat to Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles).

        Because of this focus on the hearts and minds, the military has created a high level of discrimination when it comes to using force. Mr. Freedburg talked to an A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot who boasted about a time he provided close air support in Afghanistan under difficult circumstances. American forces were fighting against Taliban holed up in one house while the house next door was full of kids whom the Taliban intended to use as human shields. The pilot flew in, marked the correct target and destroyed it, then escorted the medivacs into and out of the area.  This is far beyond what the military used to do in the Second World War or Vietnam (when we were blowing up villages in order to save them).

        Thankfully, we now have a very experienced military to carry out this work, probably the most experienced that we’ve had since World War II. This is due mainly to the excellent reenlistment rate:soldiers are signing up for more tours of duty, even while deployed. In addition to reenlisting for practical reasons—everything earned in a war zone is tax exempt, for example—there is a real “band of brothers” effect. Rather than treat personnel as interchangeable parts, drip-feeding reinforcements as we have in the past, we rotate entire units at once, which allows for the formation of coherent teams. It binds people together, even though it does burn them out, but we need this sort of reenlistment rate. Recruitment of new enlistees is not going well and we’ve had to lower education requirements in order to meet goals, something the military is rather loathe to do (there’s a correlation between someone not finishing high school and dropping out of basic training).

        The downside is that there is now unprecedented stress on the force and as a result there are a rising number of people who are not deployable. This is due to post traumatic stress disorder, which often goes unreported—psychiatrists in the Army have no confidentiality protection, unlike the chaplaincy, and are required to report any potential problems up the chain of command. Soldiers understandably fear disdain from their comrades and worry about their careers, which further hampers diagnosis. It’s the “D” in PTSD that is problematic. Mr. Freebug also mentioned some details about PTSD: apparently some soldiers can overcome some of the stress, as there is a range of stress reactions.

        Mr. Freedburg, a self-professed life-long Democrat, did an excellent job staying away from politics while talking about the current state of the military (at the beginning of the lecture, he emphasized that he wasn’t here to pity victims, praise heroes or convict criminals, but rather to tell the audience what the professionals have to say about what it takes to implement national policy “at the sharp end”), even when the material covered could’ve easily veered into politicized territory. He briefly hit upon the racial makeup of the Army, noting that whites from the rural South and near military bases are overrepresented in the force, especially combat arms, and thus overrepresented in the casualties. Blacks, historically overrepresented in that particular branch, have fallen since 9/11 while the number of Hispanics has risen, though not proportional to the their increase as part of the overall population.

        What this all means is that the children of military personnel are enlisting. To some degree we’re seeing the first inklings of a hereditary military class, but he isn’t sure that this is good for the country. While a more professional military class is good from a policy implementation perspective, as the children are more familiar with the military and less likely to make huge mistakes, it further separates the military from the average American. People learn about the wars we’re engaged in through the media and offhand remarks. As a result, Americans have the same sort of incorrect perceptions about the military that they did twenty years ago about sex. To that end, he called for basic education in the art of war and stated that closing this knowledge gap was the purpose of the lecture.

        However, Mr. Freedburg put forth no ideas on how to implement such education, a lost chance especially since the College recently discontinued the War and Peace minor, something that would seem to be an ideal vehicle for that education. Furthermore, what would such education contain? Knowledge of basic maneuvers and the history of warfare, such as famous battles like Waterloo, Gettysburg or the Battle of the Bulge? Or perhaps what’s needed is a curriculum with a more intense focus on the current state of the military and its battles, including schooling in counter-insurgency tactics and analysis of ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan?

        Mr. Freedburg’s idea isn’t a bad one: if more people were educated in the ways of warfare, they might have been less inclined to listen to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in 2007 when she told General Petraeus that his report on progress in Iraq required “a willing suspension of disbelief.” That and people would at least take anything coming from commentators lacking a military background with a grain of salt.

        Overall, the lecture provided an interesting look at the United States Army as it stands today and how it has evolved to handle the latest conflicts. The only problem with the talk was that Freedburg avoided suggesting any solutions to the problems he noted, leaving a large hole in an otherwise enjoyable talk. However, he was able to stay remarkably apolitical and informative on what could’ve been a highly partisan topic and for that he is to be commended.