Rolling Stan

President Barack Obama meets with General Stanley McChrystal aboard Air Force One.

I’ve refrained from commenting on the McChrystal piece in Rolling Stone, mostly because I think the entire affair is somewhat overwrought, but also because I see both sides as being wrong in a way.

Most importantly, of course, is the need to preserve a proper respect for the Office of the President and the civilians who control the military, but it remains to be seen whether that can occur even if the kind of banter thrown around by General McChrystal’s staff remained off-the-record. People say stupid things, but usually they remain unknown. That’s really where McChrystal and Duncan Boothby went wrong. MacArthur he ain’t, but neither is he some kind of modern-day Eisenhower.

Then again, can you show this kind of disrespect for your civilian leadership and still effectively prosecute the war? I don’t know (though it seems doubtful), and apparently President Obama thinks not – hence the abrupt end to McChrystal’s command and his replacement by General David Petraeus, who seems a rather inspired choice in lieu of General James Mattis. It ensures that some form of COIN will remain the dominant strategy, but also allows for a significant shakeup in staff (and paves the way for someone else to take over for Petraeus relatively soon). Still, another summer with yet another commander could even jeopardize the entire effort in Afghanistan.

If you care to look, though, there were signs of McChrystal’s casual attitude towards civil-military relations. Tom Scocca has pointed out an excellent, if subtle example, McChrystal’s use of the ACU in formal contexts (and actual military types, let me know if this is wildly off the mark). It may be emblematic of his other flaws:

McChrystal is dressed down to the level of the troops, to distance himself from the commander in chief. He is a warrior, doing things civilians don’t understand.

It’s not a fake pose. The Rolling Stone piece describes how McChrystal goes out on “dozens of nighttime raids” himself, going bravely into danger with the men he commands.

But it’s the wrong pose to take. America is nearly 40 years into a bad and corrupting arrangement, in which ordinary citizens—including me—don’t have to be responsible for fighting wars, and Congress doesn’t have to be responsible for starting wars, and the military is a professional caste apart. McChrystal is a product of this era of eroding authority. Nobody knows more than the Army knows about the Army’s business.

Bidding farewell to Stan McChrystal is probably the right thing to do here. And hopefully this culture of disrespect hasn’t extended itself too deeply yet.

Boot Camp or Fat Camp?

The current debate raging across the internet’s tubes is whether America’s obesity epidemic poses a threat to national security. A mysterious “group of retired officers” commissioned and released the report, which says:

9 million young adults, or 27 percent of all Americans ages 17 to 24, are too fat to join the military. The retired officers were on Capitol Hill advocating for passage of a wide-ranging nutrition bill that aims to make the nation’s school lunches healthier.

Daniel Engber analyzes the numerical claims made in the study, and explains how their numbers are entirely misleading:

The Pentagon’s director of accessions, Curtis Gilroy, presented the same numbers to the House Armed Services Committee last March. He said that 35 percent of potential recruits are disqualified for medical reasons, with obesity being a major factor. Another 18 percent have drug or alcohol problems, 5 percent have criminal records, 6 percent have too many children; and 9 percent score in the prohibitive category V on the Armed Forces Aptitude Test.

It’s true that if you add those numbers, you’ll get something close to 75 percent. But that assumes no two of the above-listed groups are overlapping.


In the new report, the retired generals focus on just one sector of the pie chart—the 9 million young adults who are too heavy for military service. This number comes from the Census Bureau, and once again seems to discount the possibility that some fat people might be too stupid, morally corrupt, drug-addled or burdened by family to enlist in the armed forces anyway. As such, it’s a distortion of the facts to imply that every one of them might be in uniform, were it not for their excess weight.

While obesity may be the most obvious cause for rejection, the Army maintains a litany of potential disqualifications; aside from the usual asthma and heart conditions, ingrown toenails (if infected) and extra digits are also cause for rejection. The Army’s medical guidelines are no less than 148 pages long.

What the survey fails to consider is that some fat people have ingrown toenails, and some asthmatics also have weight problems. While it would be premature to declare obesity no problem for the military, it’s much less of a problem than it’s cracked up to be. With all branches currently exceeding recruitment goals, both in quantity and quality, there are presumably more important problems to worry about (not to mention that obesity rates might be leveling off).

Personally, I’m 6′ 8″ (just at the cusp of qualifying), weigh 330, and have ADHD and asthma. Three disqualifications right there, though Theodore Roosevelt is a good role model to emulate – the man beat his asthma, after all. But I’m disqualified from serving, much as I’ve been pondering the idea, as are vast swathes of the country.

Starbuck would like your thoughts – got any?

More on Clausewitz

Patrick Porter takes on Admiral Mullen’s classification of Kandahar as the enemy “center of gravity” in anticipation of the upcoming offensive there:

Is Kandahar the centre?  Does the Taliban even have a centre that we can meaningfully disrupt within time? The critical condition for most violent insurgencies is external and usually international support. If that applies to this case, the Taliban’s centre may not be its sway in Kandahar, but its relationship with Pakistan, both the state and powerbrokers within it.

This isn’t the first time a major operation has been launched to strike at an enemy “center of gravity.” In fact, it happened fairly recently, and as I then pointed out, the military’s insistence on a) clinging to the term and b) if applicable, attacking that center of gravity is just irresponsible.

But more generally, this seems to be a movement lacking any important centers of gravity. That’s the whole problem with counterinsurgency; there’s no decisive point at which to apply pressure. It’s trying to tighten your grip on a handful of sand. Obviously I’m not saying give up the ghost, but I am suggesting that perhaps the whole concept of a large offensive whilst fighting an insurgency is an anachronism.

Kandahar probably is where we need to be, but if we’re doing so for these Clausewitzian theories… then we’re just missing the point.

With Open Arms

Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

I’ve meant to talk about it sooner, but it wasn’t until I saw some particularly egregious arguments that I was spurred to action. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell absolutely needs to be repealed. First announced at the State of the Union address, Defense Secretary Bob Gates and JCS Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen continued to call for it at a press conference later that week. Admiral Mullen’s comments – declaring the current policy as detrimental to the military’s integrity – are particularly noteworthy:

No matter how I look at this issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens. For me, it comes down to integrity — theirs as individuals and ours as an institution. I also believe that the great young men and women of our military can and would accommodate such a change. I never underestimate their ability to adapt.

We would also do well to remember that this is not an issue for the military leadership to decide [emphasis mine].

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The Liberal from Lufkin

Charlie Wilson died today. From my limited knowledge (basically a book and a film), I’ve developed a deep admiration for the man. To some extent his death is part of the passing of an era, for better or for worse. But this country will surely miss him. Bob Gates writes a fitting farewell. We’re still picking up the pieces, as Charlie always wanted.

I had the unforgettable experience of knowing Congressman Wilson when I was at CIA and he was working tirelessly on behalf of the Afghan resistance fighting the Soviets.  As the world now knows, his efforts and exploits helped repel an invader, liberate a people, and bring the Cold War to a close.  After the Soviets left, Charlie kept fighting for the Afghan people and warned against abandoning that traumatized country to its fate — a warning we should have heeded then, and should remember today.

America has lost an extraordinary patriot whose life showed, once more, that one brave and determined person can alter the course of history.

Amen, Mr. Secretary. Good-Time Charlie, we hardly knew you.

The End of COIN?

Maj. General Rick Nash tries his hand at camel riding during a visit to the Sa’adoun tribe confederation land.

Last month, the zenpundit (Mark Safranski) came up with a startling idea: “The Post-COIN Era is Here.” The idea, while revelatory, is definitely worth consideration. The modern timescale for adopting and conceiving new doctrine has shrunk from the decades it used to take to only a few short years – both a blessing and a curse. On the plus side is the ability to shift rapidly from a failed strategy to one which stands a chance of succeeding, saving time and lives that would otherwise be wasted. At the same time, an untested new idea runs the risk of failing, in perhaps even more spectacular fashion.

It was fairly clear, then, that something would have to give way after the abyss into which Iraq plunged the first few years after invasion. Safranski lays down three main reasons for the initial adoption of COIN:

1) The  ”Big Army, fire the artillery, fly B-52’s and Search & Destroy=counterinsurgency” approach proved to be tactically and strategically bankrupt in Iraq. It failed in Mesopotamia as it failed in the Mekong Delta under Westmoreland – except worse and faster. Period.

2) The loudest other alternative to COIN at the time, the antiwar demand, mostly from Leftwing extremists, of immediately bugging-out of Iraq, damn the consequences, was not politically palatable even for moderately liberal Democrats, to say nothing of Republicans.

3) The 2006 election results were a political earthquake that forced the Bush administration to change policy in Iraq for its’ own sheer political survival. COIN was accepted only because it represented a life preserver for the Bush administration.

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The 2010 QDR is Here

The  DoD’s Quadrennial Defense Review is out, and its prognosis for America’s military future is quite interesting indeed. Overall funding levels have remained virtually identical; all Gates requested was a 2% increase, about $159.3 billion. Specific increases are called for in the areas of rotary-wing assets, manned and unmanned aircraft, and special forces assets.

For the most part, the strategy remains the same: using a mix of diplomatic, intelligence, and military solutions, keep America safe. Be ready to operate abroad. And be flexible: the military needs the capability to adapt to conventional war, COIN, stabilization, and any other kind of mission that might come up. Below are some key points from the topsheet.

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