Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The state of the American military


Blackwater Gunner
Originally uploaded by Woodkern.
This week the buzz seems to be less on the surge in Iraq and more on how we're going to continue. I've seen two interesting threads which, at least in my own mind, have come together. First, there's the overall condition of the American military; second there's the continuing use of contractors to provide what, in the past, were military services.

In the Washington Post, Ann Scott Tyson recently wrote about the state of the American military.
Four years after the invasion of Iraq, the high and growing demand for U.S. troops there and in Afghanistan has left ground forces in the United States short of the training, personnel and equipment that would be vital to fight a major ground conflict elsewhere, senior U.S. military and government officials acknowledge.

More troubling, the officials say, is that it will take years for the Army and Marine Corps to recover from what some officials privately have called a "death spiral," in which the ever more rapid pace of war-zone rotations has consumed 40 percent of their total gear, wearied troops and left no time to train to fight anything other than the insurgencies now at hand.

Military officials say training is limited to counterinsurgency skills, such as those needed in Baghdad, above, at the expense of training for other missions.

Military officials say training is limited to counterinsurgency skills, such as those needed in Baghdad, above, at the expense of training for other missions.

The risk to the nation is serious and deepening, senior officers warn, because the U.S. military now lacks a large strategic reserve of ground troops ready to respond quickly and decisively to potential foreign crises, whether the internal collapse of Pakistan, a conflict with Iran or an outbreak of war on the Korean Peninsula. Air and naval power can only go so far in compensating for infantry, artillery and other land forces, they said. An immediate concern is that critical Army overseas equipment stocks for use in another conflict have been depleted by the recent troop increases in Iraq, they said.

"We have a strategy right now that is outstripping the means to execute it," Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, Army chief of staff, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.
For me, it was General Schoomaker's comment that was most disconcerting: "We have a strategy right now that is outstripping the means to execute it." That ought to be a red flag, a warning flare, a scream in the middle of the night. Things are not looking good, and we are using up the future, now. This is not a balance between what Stephen Covey would call "production" and "production capability." No, we are killing the golden goose.

One possible solution is to grow the American military, and we are headed in that direction. Another possible solution is to out-source military might to the private sector, and some would suggest we are already doing that.

Jeremy Scahill has recently published a book about Blackwater USA, a North Carolina-based company that bills itself as "the most comprehensive professional military, law enforcement, security, peacekeeping, and stability operations company in the world." Scahill, whose book's subtitle is "The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army," is less enthusiastic about Blackwater's mission,
To support national and international security policies that protect those who are defenseless and provide a free voice for all with a dedication to providing ethical, efficient, and effective turnkey solutions that positively impact the lives of those still caught in desperate times
than Blackwater and many in the current presidential administration.

Dr. Michael Forbush at Bring it On! has some interesting comments where he proposes that putting civilian contractors on a military mission is not the best for America, in the long term.
It turns out that Blackwater isn’t under the military code of conduct. The company argues that private contractors shouldn’t be subject to military laws, because they are a private contracting firm. They are actually paid through the state department, and other government departments instead of the Pentagon which stands to bolster their argument. But, they act like a roving band of mercenaries with only Erik Prince to answer to.

{snip}

It turns out that Blackwater is sparing no expense to defend its right to be above the law. They claim that they don’t need to obey the military code of conduct because they are a private firm. They also claim that they shouldn’t be prosecuted in a criminal court, because they deal with military secrets that could put our troops in jeopardy. They also claim that they can not be prosecuted for any of the actions that they have taken in Iraq under the Iraqi courts, because they are Americans. In fact they seem to have an excuse for almost every possible way they that they could be held accountable for their crimes.
Yesterday, Fresh Air from WHYY and Terry Gross, had a long interview (iTunes Feed mp3) with Mr. Scahill. While one might take issue with his bias, I suggest we all need to at least consider his reporting and the questions he raises. What are the consequences of continuing to march down the path we march today?

Blackwater bills itself as a "professional military, law enforcement, security, peacekeeping, and stability operations firm who provides turnkey solutions" and as providing "the most responsive, cost-effective means of affecting the strategic balance in support of security and peace, and freedom and democracy everywhere."

In some ways, I liken Blackwater to the Coast Guard's Deepwater contractor: Contractors are concerned first and foremost with ensuring a profit. All other considerations are secondary. Open Culture suggests this is an example of where "the ideology of privatization logically ends up."

Do we want private companies which have to answer to no one to be "the most responsive, cost-effective means of affecting the strategic balance in support of security and peace, and freedom and democracy everywhere"? I'd feel much better if that critical success factor was in the hands of the American military which is kept in check by democracy, the Constitution, and more than 200 years of tradition.

How does this link back to the Washington Post article and General Schoomaker's comment? Says Open Culture,
As part of its occupation, the US government has flooded Iraq with private contractors. And while some build bridges and others help pump oil, a good number carry out military operations in America's name to make up for the shortfall in soldiers, and quite conveniently they've positioned themselves to be subject to neither military nor civilian justice systems. Moreover, they have also steadfastly refused to handover information about their activities to Congress.
Combine Blackwater's imperative to "carry out military operations in America's name to make up for the shortfall in soldiers" with the General's comment about production & capability, "We have a strategy right now that is outstripping the means to execute it," and we're in for a long ride.

Didn't I see a movie or two with this theme?

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