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‘An era of defeat’ for the best soldiers in the world?

January 15, 2015 at 6:35 PM EDT
Journalist James Fallows says it's time to examine why the best funded, best trained and most professional military in the world hasn't achieved lasting victory in the post-9/11 era. He joins chief foreign correspondent Margaret Warner to discuss his provocative critique in The Atlantic magazine, and how the public should be more connected to American armed conflict.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to a critique of America’s war-fighting apparatus that’s making waves in defense circles and beyond.

Journalist and author James Fallows raises hard questions about this country’s defense establishment in a cover story “The Atlantic” magazine titled “Why Do the Best Soldiers in the World Keep Losing?: The Tragic Decline of the American Military.”

Fallows’ thesis? That it’s time to examine why the best-funded, trained and most professional military in the world hasn’t achieved lasting victories over insurgent forces in the post-9/11 era.

We will have more on the reaction to his piece.

But, first, we hear from Fallows himself. He spoke a few days ago with our Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: Jim Fallows, thank you for having us.

JAMES FALLOWS, The Atlantic : Thank you, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you contend in this article that, after 13 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which we overthrew Saddam Hussein and the Taliban and drove most of the al-Qaida remnants at least underground, that we essentially lost those wars?

JAMES FALLOWS: I’m saying that if you looked at this era from a strictly military strategic point of view, you would say there is one clear victory the United States had, which was killing Osama bin Laden.

But by having this last 12 or 13 years of open-ended war in Iraq and the surrounding countries, I argue that, from almost any perspective, that is of use of money, loss of life, taking of life, strategic changes in America’s image and reputation around the world, erosion of American values, this has been an era of defeat, rather than victory.

MARGARET WARNER: But critics like former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Jim Jeffrey argues that, by any classic definition, military definition of winning a war, which he said is forcing the other side to cease operations and basically gaining control of territory, that the United States has won most of these engagements.

JAMES FALLOWS: There’s another classic military saying, winning battles, losing wars.

There was a North Vietnamese commander who was interviewed. And some American said, well, you never beat us on the battlefield. And he says, that’s true, but it’s irrelevant. We won in the long road. I think the same is true over the last dozen years.

The article is not at all meant to imply that in engagement by engagement, U.S. troops are anything less than competent, brave, heroic, enduring losses and all the rest. But as a strategic question of how we apply our will around the world and this military that’s so much larger than anybody else’s around the world, I argue that it’s been ineffective and often counterproductive.

MARGARET WARNER: You apportion a lot of blame, military leadership, some political leadership, but you also say it’s rooted in something that’s happened to the American public and culture. And you sum it up with this phrase, chicken hawk nation.

JAMES FALLOWS: I used that word knowing that it would be provocative.

This was a term that was popular when the Iraq war was being debated, that people were eager to go to war, as long as somebody else was going. I argue that if — when historians look at this era in our — of our America, they will say something similar was true of the country as a whole.

We are always at war. We spend twice as large a share of our GDP on the military as the world does in general. It’s the longest sustained period of open-ended combat in our nation’s history. And yet the country as a whole is barely affected. We have halftime ceremonies honoring the heroes. We let them get onto commercial airlines earlier, but we don’t think seriously about what they’re doing, the missions we’re asking them to undertake.

And, as a result, in my view, we have embarked on a series of unwinnable wars. We call people heroes and then send them to do things they can’t do.

MARGARET WARNER: So you say that this adulation almost that the American public feels for the military is dangerous.

JAMES FALLOWS: I’m saying that it’s unnatural, in addition to being dangerous.

When I was a kid in the ’50s and ’60s and then older in the ’70s, American pop culture reflected a country familiar enough with its military to make fun of it at times. You had shows like “Gomer Pyle,” or “Hogan’s Heroes,” or “”McHale’s Navy.”

You had works of art like “South Pacific” or novels like “Catch 22” and even movies like “MASH,” respected the importance of the military and the important things it did that were heroic in the large scale, like World War II, but it was still made of real people with their real foibles.

But we — now we have started to have this artificially reverent view of the military that’s also distant and disengaged.

MARGARET WARNER: And rooted in the end of the draft.

JAMES FALLOWS: Yes.

And remember even the fact that, right now, if you take all the people who served in Iraq or Afghanistan at any point in the last 13 years, they are three-quarters of 1 percent of the American public. And so it’s a country at war, but a public that’s not at war. And I think that’s just distorting in the long run.

MARGARET WARNER: Going into Iraq, that wasn’t being driven by the Pentagon, was it? Wasn’t that the political leadership, President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary Rumsfeld?

JAMES FALLOWS: No, I agree, and that the Pentagon has generally been a sort of anti-war force in councils of deliberation over the last generation-plus.

But before the Iraq war, most of the people I was interviewing inside the Pentagon thought this is going to be a big mess, because proper planning wasn’t being done. So I’m not saying at all that the military is driving this open-ended extension.

MARGARET WARNER: The Pentagon says, we’re here to present the options to carry out whatever policy the president decides he wants to pursue.

JAMES FALLOWS: Yes. I think…

MARGARET WARNER: Can the public really even be a player in that?

JAMES FALLOWS: There are issues of military accountability.

And I think there should be more — more accountability for commanders and tactics and strategies that worked well and poorly in the last dozen years. It’s also true that our elected civilian leadership, both Presidents George W. Bush and President Obama, have enjoyed the convenience of being able to do a lot of this by executive order, and having the public and the Congress not involved.

But the public is ultimately responsible. So I’m trying to stick a prod in the public to say, this matters more than our public deportment would suggests it matters.

MARGARET WARNER: So what is the fix?

JAMES FALLOWS: I thought this was very interesting that Admiral Mullen, he said, as a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, it’s become too easy to go to war. It’s not me saying it. It’s Admiral Mullen saying this. He would like more trip wires that make the public conscious.

MARGARET WARNER: Is he talking about a return to the draft? Are you talking about that?

JAMES FALLOWS: I think Admiral Mullen knows, as I do and almost everybody does, that realistically a return of the draft is not going to happen.

I think what Admiral Mullen is saying is there needs to be some way that people are more connected, whether it’s having greater reliance on the Reserves, so that people who didn’t expect to be in combat suddenly are called. The specific answer is not clear, but the general goal is.

MARGARET WARNER: You also suggest some sort of national commission to look at the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts and why we have such trouble dealing with insurgent conflicts. Would any study, though, stop any president who is determined to reengage?

JAMES FALLOWS: To answer that question directly, no, of course. There are limits to what studies can do.

But there have been times in modern history where these big presidential commissions have made a difference. The 9/11 Commission had some effect. And I think something that would formally get attention on what has gone right and wrong in this past dozen years of the long wars, so we will have some way of assessing, should we do this again?

The institutional process for deciding again whether we’re going to go to war one more time needs to be more robust than it is now.

MARGARET WARNER: Jim Sciutto, thank you.

JAMES FALLOWS: Thank you, Margaret

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