Opinion: Taking Stock of the Military

General Martin Dempsey, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, and Secretary of State John Kerry appear in a Senate hearing on the AUMF on March 11. Credit: C-Span

General Martin Dempsey, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, and Secretary of State John Kerry appear in a Senate hearing on the AUMF on March 11. Credit: C-Span

By Dan Gettinger

On March 11, 2015, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on President Obama’s proposed Authorization for Use of Military Force against ISIS. In the contentious three hours of the hearing, Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, and General Martin Dempsey urged lawmakers to approve the President’s AUMF as an expression of America’s intent to degrade and defeat ISIS. This AUMF, like its 2001 and 2002 predecessors against al-Qaeda and Iraq respectively, raises serious questions regarding the scope of the president’s authority to engage in military action and the legislature’s role in approving the use of force. It is, however, conspicuously absent from Atlantic columnist James Fallows’ cover story for the January/February edition of The Atlantic titled “The Tragedy of the American Military,” an appraisal of today’s military and the relationship between civilian and soldier. This is not the only critical omission in the story; Fallows also leaves out drones.

In his essay, Fallows explains that the real threats to American national security are not abroad, but at home, at the heart of our political system. According to Fallows, there is a serious gulf separating American civilians and the small, professional U.S. military, a divide that has resulted in disastrous foreign policy decisions since 9/11. “Too much complacency regarding our military, and too weak a tragic imagination about the consequences if the next engagement goes wrong, have been part of Americans’ willingness to wade into conflict after conflict, blithely assuming that we would win,” Fallows writes.

The absence of accountability and political leadership, according to Fallows, has made the strongest nation and military in the world weaker. Reckless strategic decisions like the invasion of Iraq and the spiralling cost of programs like the F-35 are the consequences of public apathy and failures of political accountability. Fallows argues that Americans form a “chickenhawk nation”: happy to endorse going to war as long as somebody else does the fighting. This fact is demonstrated by what he identifies as the failures of the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan at the hands of less well-armed opponents. If the American public were to become more engaged, then we would only send our military to fight the battles that are really necessary.


This argument might have found a natural home in responding to the Obama administration’s use of drones to conduct targeted killings of al-Qaeda-associated militants in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. If there is any counterterrorism strategy that most resonates with Fallows’s argument that the American public is disengaged from policies of war, it is the use of drones. But Fallows almost entirely ignores drones and the legal regime built to defend targeted killings. He dedicates two sentences to this subject in the 12,000+ word essay, writing that drones have “killed individuals or small groups at the price of antagonizing whole societies.” He continues with the warning that “When the [American] monopoly [on drones] ends, which is inevitable, the very openness of the United States will make it uniquely vulnerable to the cheap swarming weapons others will deploy.”

Though Fallows alludes to drone strikes, he isn’t really talking about the targeted killing campaign in this passage. Rather, he is referring to drones within the context of a broader argument, which is that the Pentagon’s preference for high-tech budget items, like the expensive F-35 fighter, could have unforeseen strategic consequences. In the case of drones, these consequences could potentially be an apocalyptic swarm of foreign-made robots on America’s borders. (Assuming that by “openness,” Fallows is referring to the geographic position occupied by the United States). Not only is it unclear how America’s “openness” makes it “uniquely vulnerable” to drones as opposed to cruise missiles, long-range bombers, clandestine operations, terrorism, or really any other form of military force, Fallows appears to be playing more to the crowd with this point than registering a legitimate strategic concern for the near future. It reflects a superficial understanding of this technology and an unfortunate tendency that appears throughout this essay to mask reductionism in the guise of strategic thinking.

There is a more significant omission in this piece when it comes to drones. At the heart of “The Tragedy” is the argument that there is a widening divide between the civilian population and the fewer than 1% of Americans who serve in the military. But if there is a defining aspect of warfare in that bridges this divide, it is the use of drones. The Predator, Reaper, and Global Hawk drones are flown largely by crew members located within the continental United States. Everyday, these pilots and sensor operators cross between worlds: the active theaters of operations over which they fly remotely and that of domestic life. “I lived a schizophrenic existence between two worlds, one as a combat pilot fighting a war halfway around the world, the other as an ordinary American citizen,” writes Matt Martin in Predator: The Remote-Control Air War over Iraq and Afghanistan.

Credit: PBS NOVA "Rise of the Drones"

Credit: PBS NOVA “Rise of the Drones”

The growth of the drone corps—by 2009, the Air Force was training more pilots for drones than for manned aircraft—has not always gone over well with the rest of the U.S. military. This sentiment became clear in 2013, when the Pentagon the abruptly cancelled plans to create a service medal for drone pilots after an outcry from veterans organizations. In January, the Daily Beast reported that “drone operators are leaving the Air Force in droves,” and the Air Force was having difficulty filling out crews. In Wired for War, Peter W. Singer suggests that drones pose a threat to the “warrior” ethos of the military. “By removing warriors completely from risk and fear, unmanned systems create the first complete break in the ancient connection that defines warriors from their soldierly values,” Singer writes. Indeed, as Professor Martin Cook notes in a 2011 lecture at Oxford University, the trend towards greater automation in drones—having one operator facilitate control of multiple vehicles, for example—goes to the heart of the evolving cultural identity of pilots. (Chris Woods considers this subject in a recent essay at the Guardian).

There are, of course, limits to the number of issues that Fallows can reasonably address in his appraisal of the state of today’s military. Between American military spending, the Iraq War decision, careerism within the military, the F-35 morass, the A-10 controversy, the military industrial complex, and the tendency to lionize members of the military, there isn’t much more room for drones in “The Tragedy.” It is curious, however, that an essay on the civil-military divide fails to consider the members of the military for whom the transition between war and peace is measured not in days or hours but in minutes. Given the amount of ink that Fallows dedicates to weighing the differences in the ways that the military is represented in pop culture, perhaps he might do well to survey the air time given to evolving character of war in popular media.

The position of the drone pilot has captured the public imagination and spurred a national conversation over the technologies of war during the past 13 years. With American forces withdrawing from Afghanistan, the missions of many parts of the military are in flux, given that it is unlikely that the U.S. will engage in another long-term ground war in the near future. For drones, the future is less uncertain. As General “Hawk” Carlisle, the commander of Air Combat Command, told reporters last November, “The demand [for intelligence] has never gone down, ever. It just continues to grow.” While drones are likely to remain an asset essential to collecting intelligence, the role that human service members will play in operating these machines is undefined. This evolving role is due in part to the fact that the technology is continually maturing. Some aspects of operating drones simply do not require humans or are tasks for which humans are poorly suited. These tasks include flying the drone while it is in transit or analyzing the massive amounts of intelligence collected by drones.

The Distributed Common Ground System is the heart of where Air Force intelligence is analyzed and processed, including imagery from drones. Credit: USAF

The Distributed Common Ground System is the heart of where Air Force intelligence is analyzed and processed, including imagery from drones. Credit: USAF

The technology and the nation are both at a critical point in time, one that requires a national conversation regarding the connections between emerging technologies, political objectives, and the use of force. In some online communities, this dialogue is already taking place. At Defense One, for example, Patrick Tucker reports on the role that do-it-yourself drones are playing in the civil war in Ukraine, and at War on the Rocks blog, Paul Scharre explains how the role of the human warfighter might evolve with the introduction of autonomous weapons. Fallows may be right to demand accountability for the F-35. Although the troubled fighter program has seen a slight drop in costs, a recent Pentagon report predicted that it will be years before the F-35 is fully operational. But the Joint Strike Fighter program started way back in 1996, and one year away from turning 20, its relevance to defense acquisition should be viewed in terms of the next generation of platforms that the Pentagon plans on investing in. (The Beyond Offset series at War on the Rocks, a collaboration with the Center for a New American Security, offers many resources on this topic). With defense spending as a portion of the federal budget at its lowest level since the Korean War, Fallows would do well to think ahead to the future warfighting technologies and the effect that these developments will have on the military’s force structure and capabilities.

Drone pilots and emerging technologies aren’t the only subjects conspicuously absent from “The Tragedy.” In recent years, uniformed members of the military and veterans have taken to the Internet in a host of popular blogs and podcasts—Small Wars Journal, CIMSEC, The Bridge, Task and Purpose to name a few—most of which are concerned with discussing national security policies and the culture of the military. Fallows ignores this community, however, instead endorsing the sentiments of military historian William Lind who, in an April 2014 article, writes that “Not a military voice is heard calling for thoughtful substantive change.” This view is quickly dispelled by all but the briefest of surveys of these online communities where topics such as the offset strategy, sequestration, force structure and deployments, platform acquisition, ethics, and professionalism are discussed. Traditional service publications like the Navy’s Proceedings and the Army’s Parameters are likewise forums for members of the military to comment on some of the national security issues of today. Fallows and Lind risk further distancing themselves from these voices and from the conversations that, while absent from “The Tragedy,” are critical to the national dialogue on the state of today’s military. “[T]his growing stream of solutionless exit-route bitterness is becoming too much a staple in corners of dialogue on the military,” writes a frustrated Lt. Matthew Hipple in a response to Fallows at the U.S. Naval Institute blog.

Fallows’s oversights do not mean that there is no military-civil divide or that this divide is irrelevant, nor should one take the exclusion of drone pilots as a dismissal of the very real tensions that exist at the heart of his essay. For soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, the grating disconnection between the relatively unencumbered lives of American civilians and the harrowing experience of war is as poignant as it undoubtedly was for most veterans of war stretching back to Odysseus. In the epilogue of The Outpost, the story of Combat Outpost Keating in northeastern Afghanistan, Jake Tapper explains that his motivation for writing the book was to convey “what it is that our troops go through, why they go through it, and their experience has been like in Afghanistan”. Fallows, however, distances himself from Afghanistan, declaring it a failure and writing that the dollars spent on this conflict “might as well have been burned”. Instead of seriously considering the strategic consequences of this conflict or examining even the most basic national security challenges facing the United States today, Fallows goes for the standard litany of easy targets like the Iraq War decision and F-35. While “The Tragedy” contains a compelling argument for greater engagement by the American public with the policies surrounding the use of force, by not engaging with some of the key issues, there is little in the essay that enhances the reader’s comprehension of the impression that these nearly 14 years of war have made on the U.S. military, the American public, or on the strategic environment facing policy makers today.

The open-ended conclusion of “The Tragedy” is a not-so-subtle suggestion that Fallows, like many before him, is speaking less to any specific issue of national security than to the essential relationship between civilian and soldier. The conversation on this relationship between the public and the military is multi-faceted and complicated. It ranges from the debates over the Authorization for Use of Military Force to hiring practices that discriminate against veterans, two issues that are also absent in “The Tragedy.” The situation of drone pilots also plays a role in understanding how remote participation in warfare adds a new dimension to that relationship. It is therefore of utmost importance that any comprehensive appraisal of the issue not exclude the voices, conversations, and technologies that are shaping the military today and that will play a role in how the United States decides to use force in the future.

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