There are various mantras about the Iraq war that have become popular these days. One of them is that there is no military solution, only a political one. Another is that the surge isn’t working, sometimes modified lately to read: the surge isn’t working enough, or the surge is only working temporarily, or the surge is working militarily but not politically. And so on and so forth.
There’s no question that many proponents of these mantras are invested in the surge not working; after all, they’ve staked their political lives on that fact. Others are just following what they read in their favorite media outlet of choice. Still others no doubt have made considered judgments after weighing whatever evidence is out there; I don’t know what percentage of the whole this latter group represents, but I’m afraid it’s rather miniscule.
We in this country have a civilian, not a military, government. There’s a division of labor between the two, with the Defense Secretary and Commander in Chief ordinarily being civilians (unless, of course, the President is an ex-General such as Eisenhower; a rare exception to this rule). Most voters, of course, don’t have a military background either, since women seldom do and most men young enough to have only known the volunteer armed forces (which would be most men today) have not served.
Obviously, I’m not a proponent of the idea that only those who’ve served in the military can have an opinion on war (a variant of the “chickenhawk” argument). Nor do I think that only police can have an opinion on crime, or only doctors on health care, or any one of a zillion variations on that theme. To be responsible voters we all must come to conclusions on these and a host of other issues.
Some of those topics are complex, however, and expert opinion by those with experience in the field should have a certain weight. This is certainly true of military matters. Of course, as with all topics, it’s not difficult to find an expert on either side of an issue, and to cite the expert who agrees with the opinion you’ve already formed. That’s why so many people toe the party line; it takes quite a bit of time and effort to evaluate the often complicated technical information involved—and, of course, “a mind is a difficult thing to change.”
But we do need to take cognizance of what experts say on a topic, and the experts on war are the military. And in the main, what they say can be summarized as, “The surge is working somewhat; give it a chance. A premature withdrawl would be far worse, both for us, the military, and the Iraqis.”
Yes, they have their own agenda and their own biases. But they’re the best we have. I’ve read a great many articles and blogs written by those in the military, or with a military background (hi, Austin!), and overall I’ve been extremely impressed by their knowledge, insight, intelligence, attention to detail, and efforts to be evenhanded and fair.
I can’t say the same for most members of Congress who are pressing for withdrawal, or most discussion of the war in the press by non-military journalists, which tends to be the opposite: simplistic and nakedly partisan, often inaccurate about simple facts, and with a tendency to ignore consequences.
Some might say that those in the military know only about killing people, not the all-important winning of hearts and minds in a place such as Iraq.
The evidence points to the contrary. General Petraeus is an expert on exactly the type of war we are fighting in Iraq. It’s often said that “he wrote the book.” But what is this book of his, exactly? Take a look at the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, written to provide guidance for this new type of war we increasingly face.
No, I haven’t read Petraeus’s book myself, but I’ve heard it praised highly and I can only assume he’s attempting to follow its recommendations in Iraq—after all, they are his own recommendations. But to get an idea of the sort of things that Petraeus and the army think about nowadays, here’s a list of the book’s chapters.:
Aspects of Insurgency; Aspects of Counterinsurgency; Integrating Civilian And Military Activities; Key Counterinsurgency Participants and Their Likely Roles; Civilian and Military Integration Mechanisms; Tactical-Level Interagency Considerations; Intelligence Characteristics in Counterinsurgency; Predeployment Planning and Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield; Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Operations; counterintelligence and Counterreconnaissance; Intelligence Cells and Working Groups; Protecting Sources; Host-Nation Integration; Designing Counterinsurgency Campaigns And Operations; The Nature of Counterinsurgency Operations; Logical Lines of Operations; Targeting; Learning and Adapting; Developing Host-Nation Security Forces; Police; Leadership and Ethics; Warfighting Versus Policing; Proportionality and Discrimination; Detention and Interrogation; Sustainment; Logistic Support to Logical Lines of Operations; Employing Linguists; Establishing Rapport; Authority to Assist a Foreign Government; Authorization to Use Military Force; Rules of Engagement; Internal Armed Conflict; Airpower In Counterinsurgency; Air and Space Information Operations; High-Technology Assets; Low-Technology Assets.
I think you’ll agree that the depth and breadth of thought there compares rather favorably with that of Congress, or the average journalist (or even the above-average journalist). I think you’ll also agree this doesn’t seem to be a purely military solution, but one that emphasizes integration with the politics and the people of the country involved.
Civilians can, do, and must try to evaluate the military situation in Iraq and form an opinion, and of course military experience is not necessary to do that. But it would be hard to do it responsibly by discounting what the military experts say. And, in general, it would be easier to do it if one has some sort of military knowledge already, a context in which to place the present facts.
As a member of the Boomer generation, and one who had personal experience of the Vietnam draft years (including a boyfriend who served there in combat), I’m grateful the draft is over. I think the military’s capabilities have improved tremendously since those years, and I have no interest in going back. But the one advantage I can see that the old draft system had was that it gave most men (not women, but that’s another story) some sort of military training and knowledge.
Right now, only about 55% of eligible voters are estimated to have actually cast ballots in the 2004 Presidential election. The total number of votes cast was about 122 million, so by my calculations there are about 221 million potential voters in the US today.
How many are veterans? There are about 24.5 million veterans in the US today, and since I assume they are all of voting age that would represent about 12% of the total. Forty percent of them are age 65 and over, and so one can deduce that the majority of the vets are on the older side, and that percentages of voters who’ve served in the armed forces will decrease as time goes on.
What of Congress? According to this Boston Globe article, less than 30% of members of Congress are veterans (and here are some more details about the Congress that served from 2003 to 2005; you’ll see that most of those veterans were Vietnam-era or older). The Globe article also states that this percentage is way down from previous times—for example, in 1974 nearly 80% of Congress had served in uniform. That’s quite a difference—although it certainly didn’t lead to support of the Vietnam War in that case (some of that lack of support was the result of the perception that the military commanders had lied about the war in the late Sixities: see this).
Some of this decline in the number of veterans in Congress probably represents the greater prevalence of women there these days, and of course much is the result of the demise of the draft. But whatever the cause, the result is that far fewer members of Congress at present have military experience and knowledge of any sort, compared to the past.
Again, I must be careful to state that this does not mean they can’t have valid opinions. But it does make it easier for them to ignore the complicated facts as they are reported, and merely go with their own biases and preconceptions, which is something Congress—and most people—do quite well, anyway.
Waiting for September and Petraeus’s report, and then actually giving it a fair hearing, may be beyond the powers of Congress. And, of course, military expertise is no guarantee of lack of bias. But I, for one, would like to see members of Congress who demonstrate a higher level of analysis of and knowledge of the actual military facts being reported so far, and who are willing to withhold judgment (and hold their tongues), at least until that September day of reckoning.
I can dream, can’t I?
[ADDENDUM: Here's a piece by an ex-military man on what's happening with the surge to date.]