Thoughts on James Fallows’s “Chickenhawk Nation”

Colleville-sur-Mer, France (2004).
Colleville-sur-Mer, France (2004).

[President Barack] Obama gave his still-not-quite-natural-sounding callouts to the different military services represented in the crowd. (“I know we’ve got some Air Force in the house!” and so on, receiving cheers rendered as “Hooyah!” and “Oorah!” in the official White House transcript.) He told members of the military that the nation was grateful for their nonstop deployments and for the unique losses and burdens placed on them through the past dozen years of open-ended war … He said that the “9/11 generation of heroes” represented the very best in its country, and that its members constituted a military that was not only superior to all current adversaries but no less than “the finest fighting force in the history of the world” … This has become the way we assume the American military will be discussed by politicians and in the press: Overblown, limitless praise, absent the caveats or public skepticism we would apply to other American institutions, especially ones that run on taxpayer money. A somber moment to reflect on sacrifice. Then everyone except the few people in uniform getting on with their workaday concerns.1

James Fallows has written one of the most important articles of the year: “The Tragedy of the American Military.”2  You should read it now; the words below will be here when you’re finished.

In the article, Fallows discusses the crisis in civil-military relations that has been building over the last 15+ years, and argues that this state of affairs has negatively impacted the country’s ability to fight and win wars.  As I read it, the three pillars of his argument on why the United States gets lured “into endless wars it cannot win” are, in a nutshell:

  1. Chickenhawk Nation — the vast majority of Americans don’t serve in the military, and as a result, the institution is put on a pedestal and thus neither questioned nor held accountable;
  2. Chickenhawk Economy — fetish for sexy, high-speed military technology drives procurement decisions, leading to ballooning expenditures and a proliferation of pork-barrel spending;3 and,
  3. Chickenhawk Politics — Congress is supine and careerist officers are risk-averse in the face of the contracting lucre that awaits upon retirement.

While these issues have been raised and discussed previously, Fallows’s piece lands at a time when the American public seems more inured to military deployments than at any time in recent memory.

Like Fallows, I also found myself at an airport—albeit in November; and, as it happens, en route to a service at Arlington National Cemetery—when I heard a familiar voice4 discussing President Obama’s decision to deploy U.S. forces to Iraq in response to ISIS. I looked around the waiting area to see reactions to the news, but the area was full of passengers more interested in mindless diversions on their smart phones than the fate of their fellow citizens. As Fallows rightly points out, this is a foul state of affairs. It’s enough to make one wonder if maybe—just maybe—the country doesn’t deserve the sacrifices.

If more Americans served in the military, would the correlation between the total casualty figures and those responding “Wrong Decision” be greater than .0638?
If more Americans served in the military, would the correlation between the total casualty figures and those responding “Wrong Decision” be greater than .0638?

How bad was it? In a way it was worse than a defeat, because to be defeated, an army and its masters must understand the nature of the conflict they are fighting.5

“I’ll give you an example of a lesson I had to learn that still has ramifications to this day,” said Obama.  “And that is our participation in the coalition that overthrew Qaddafi in Libya.  I absolutely believed that it was the right thing to do … Had we not intervened, it’s likely that Libya would be Syria … And so there would be more death, more disruption, more destruction.  But what is also true is that I think we [and] our European partners underestimated the need to come in full force if you’re going to do this.  Then it’s the day after Qaddafi is gone, when everybody is feeling good and everybody is holding up posters saying, ‘Thank you, America.’  At that moment, there has to be a much more aggressive effort to rebuild societies that didn’t have any civic traditions … So that’s a lesson that I now apply every time I ask the question, ‘Should we intervene, militarily?  Do we have an answer [for] the day after?’”6

“For many in the government—including the President—Libya didn’t go so well,” the former senior White House aide told me.  “If Libya had been a great success, that would’ve created more momentum on the Syria debate.  And it wasn’t.”7

How exactly the Wadi al-Deif battle unfolded remains murky, with different commanders giving different versions. But reports and images from the operation make two things clear: [U.S.-made TOW] antitank missiles were used, and Nusra claimed the victory. That means that the American-backed fighters could advance only by working with the Nusra Front, which the United States government lists as a terrorist group, or that they have lost the weapons to the Nusra fighters, effectively joined the group or been forced to follow its orders … Abu Kumayt, a fighter with the Syrian Revolutionaries Front who said he fought in the battle under cover … said that groups with the antitank missiles fought alongside Nusra fighters and under their command … Nusra, he said, lets groups vetted by the United States keep the appearance of independence, so that they will continue to receive American supplies … In southern Syria, rebels trained and equipped under a covert C.I.A. program retain more freedom of movement and have claimed advances recently, but insurgents familiar with the battles say most of their successes have come with the help of Nusra fighters who weaken government defenses with suicide bombings.8

We have not defeated the idea. We do not even understand the idea.9

My quibble with the Fallows piece is that it doesn’t address the core reason why the United States gets dragged into “wars it cannot win”—namely, policy.  Ultimately, the Executive Branch develops policy, establishes objectives and prosecutes military interventions.10 Yet the White House doesn’t get much mention in the article.

A concise case study may help to illustrate the primacy of policy.11

In the autumn of 1992, American households witnessed a deteriorating humanitarian crisis in Somalia on their televisions.  Despite early U.S. assistance focused on logistics, Somali warlords were able to gain control of food supplies and use them for their own economic and political purposes.  In December, President George H.W. Bush ordered a sizable U.S. military contingent (including U.S. Marines and Special Operations Forces) to the country to establish security and ensure that relief would reach the starving Somalis (Operation Restore Hope / UNOSOM I).  One of my heroes—who was also a gracious boss and mentor—the late Ambassador Robert Oakley, served as Special Envoy.  Oakley was able to broker a ceasefire between the two main warring clans, thereby establishing a more permissive operating environment in which military forces could ensure that aid flowed to the suffering civilian population.  The U.S. objective was to relieve human suffering, not to alter Somalia’s internal political dynamics.

After entering office in 1993, the Clinton Administration pushed to expand the United Nations mandate in Somalia from one of peacekeeping to one of peace enforcement, from a relief operation to nation building—all as the U.S. military presence diminished (Operation Continue Hope / UNOSOM II).  Tensions increased as one of the warlords, Mohammed Farah Aideed, bristled at the new UN mandate; militants under his control attacked and killed a number of UN peacekeepers, kicking off a cycle of violence.  By June, U.S. military forces were tasked with a manhunt for Aideed, and the steady increase in kinetic operations culminated in the “Black Hawk Down” incident involving Task Force Ranger on October 3-4, and the subsequent U.S. and UN withdrawal from the country.

The Somalia case demonstrates clearly how policy choices can dictate outcomes:

  • During Operation Restore Hope, policymakers established limited objectives that were achievable (secure aid flows and get food to starving Somalis), and they deployed the appropriate measure of resources required for the objectives.
  • During Operation Continue Hope policymakers embraced “mission creep;” they did not resource the expanded objectives appropriately—troop numbers declined by 80%—while the objectives increased in breadth and complexity; and, there was a belief that Somalia could provide a demonstration effect for the Clinton Administration’s incipient foreign policy doctrine of Democratic Enlargement, thereby increasing the stakes for U.S. prestige.12

As touched upon in “Entropy: The Defining Characteristic of Global Affairs,” the trend of U.S. foreign policy over the last 25 years has been the shift away from a stewarding of resources, prestige and the international system toward exploiting the United States’s dominant power position in efforts to change governance within sovereign states.  In this respect, the “mission creep” that took place in Somalia during Operation Continue Hope can be viewed as a precursor to recent U.S. operations in Iraq and Libya.  The hard-earned lessons of Vietnam—embodied in the Weinberger and Powell Doctrines—as well as a seasoned appreciation for the limits and unintended consequences of military force seem to be quaint memories.

And yet … maybe Fallows’s focus is fitting.  Perhaps the reason U.S. policy is so ambitious, and the resourcing so inappropriate to the objectives, is because many of those who set policy have neither served nor seen their loved ones serve?  Perhaps they don’t have enough skin in the game.

It’s an appealing explanation, and it reminds me of a day during the first battle for Fallujah when my father received a copy of The Washington Post with a photo of a wounded Marine on the front page. When he read the caption, my father saw that the bloody Marine was part of a unit in which he himself had served as a Scout Sniper platoon commander during his younger years. Upon seeing the photo, the war took on a new immediacy and intensity.  I don’t believe I’ll ever forget his reaction.

Citizens should feel the costs of war.  The heartbreak and sense of emptiness that comes with loss should not be confined to the few families who constitute what is becoming a warrior class.

Rather than the hollow “supporting of the troops” that Fallows describes in his piece, here are some humble suggestions for honoring their sacred sacrifice: actively participate in the American Experiment; engage in substantive political debates; exercise your right to vote; treat people with dignity; use your gifts to improve our cracked and imperfect nation in the way you best see fit.  Be a citizen.

Further Reading:

Entropy: The Defining Characteristic of Global Affairs | June 2014

The Reckoning | January 2014

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1 James Fallows, “The Tragedy of the American Military,” The Atlantic, January/February 2015.

2 I found the choice of imagery for the magazine cover and article striking: toy soldiers.

3 A few things. First, I distinctly remember Air Force officers “joking” about the F-22 Raptor as the “solution” to the War on Terror while working in the Pentagon about a decade ago. Second, remember Future Combat Systems (“One Team-The Army/Defense/Industry”) and the videos shown to demonstrate its next-gen capabilities? Third, on this issue of fetishizing technology, LTG H.R. McMaster’s “Cracks in the Foundation: Defense Transformation and the Underlying Assumption of Dominant Knowledge in Future War” is an excellent read. Finally, in Fallows’s article he tees up the adoption of drones (a technological solution) as potentially running counter to long-term strategic interests. While I agree with the thrust of his argument, the use of drones should be weighed against the potential human costs that would be incurred should Special Operations Forces be relied upon to execute the missions drones currently undertake, and whether / how those costs would impact national support for the enterprise. Maybe that balancing act gets one to a self-evident answer about U.S. drone policy; maybe it doesn’t.

4 That of MG (Ret) Spider Marks.

5 James Meek, “Worse Than a Defeat,” London Review of Books, 18 December 2014.

6 Thomas L. Friedman, “Obama on the World,” New York Times, 8 August 2014.

7 Evan Osnos, “In the Land of the Possible: Samantha Power Has the President’s Ear. To What End?The New Yorker, 22 December 2014.

8 Anne Barnard, “As Syria’s Revolution Sputters, a Chaotic Stalemate,” New York Times, 27 December 2014.

9 MG Michael Nagata, Commander, SOCCENT, as quoted in Eric Schmitt, “In Battle to Defang ISIS, U.S. Targets Its Psychology,” New York Times, 28 December 2014.

10 Fallows covered this turf in his reporting for The Atlantic a decade ago, so my quibble is not a knock on the author.

11 There are a number of excellent resources on the U.S. operations in Somalia. I have compiled this snapshot from U.S. Army, The United States Army in Somalia: 1992 – 1994.

12 For an overview of this policy, see Anthony Lake, “From Containment to Enlargement,” speech delivered at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), 21 September 1993.

5 replies on “Thoughts on James Fallows’s “Chickenhawk Nation””

  1. Mike, thanks for first directing our attention to Fallow’s article. I may have recommended a number of books to you in past that look at WWII. If not, I recommend them with the thought “those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it”:

    A Call to Arms: Mobilizing America for World War II. Maury Klein. The picture on the cover tells one part of the story: the 5,000th B-17 to come off the assembly line. I doubt seriously that this country could again duplicate the magnitude of effort needed to properly mobilize. The other part of the story is the political and business bullshit that went on which led me to conclude that not much as changed since the 1940’s

    The three book series by Rick Atkinson ( The Army at Dawn, The Day of Battle, and The Guns at Last Light ) focusing on the WWII in Europe and again, a number of comments that Fallows makes about civilian and more especially military leadership echo loudly.

    It seems that not much has changed except the cost of of what we do. (See ) for a CRS analysis of the cost of our wars since the revolution.

    And the real sadness of what is happening today: I don’t see any way of finding a new path forward.


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