Wednesday, November 28, 2012

CIA 1, Army 0

Two very much related stories appeared in Sunday's paper, one entitled “Soldiers worried about Army future” and the other “Obama's choice of CIA director to signal course”. What makes them “very much related”, you ask? Well, it's simply that the CIA has, of late, taken on a military role that rivals that of the special operations forces, the Army's included, and also takes a big chunk out of the Air Force mission. Time was when the Air Force would strike first (remember "shock and awe"?), then the Marines would go in to soften things up, then the Army would come in like a human wave, and once things were settled down a bit the special ops guys would fan out into the jungle (desert, whatever) to start fighting insurgents and guerrillas on their own terms. Problem is, while this model was still supposedly alive and well the regular Army was gradually reduced to doing, much of the time, things they were never trained to do – things like “nation building” (which can include everything from supervising elections to building schools to supplying food, water and medical supplies to conducting focus groups to – for all I know – changing diapers). In other words, in many parts of the world where we are occupiers, the Army has been turned into a bunch of social workers – not that the work is not important or useful, but you don't need combat-trained people in fatigues to do it. And at the same time, the CIA has its own army, made up largely of mercenaries (AKA “contractors”) to do the really important stuff – not just security but also special ops-type stuff, which makes me wonder, do we even need the uniformed special ops guys anymore? (And – does this have something to do with Petraeus' downfall?)

See, the gradual evolution (or devolution, depending on one's point of view) of the U.S. military model, or “vision”, has been away from set-piece battles (the last of which, arguably, occurred in Europe and North Africa during World War II) and toward relatively autonomous, small-unit operations requiring a significantly different kind of training. This made perfect sense, given that the nature of the enemy had changed; we were no longer facing armies, but small groups of rebels/insurgents/guerrillas who knew the terrain (both in the literal and cultural sense), and who were, in most respects, indistinguishable from the general populace (because, in fact, they were the general populace – at least some of the time). And it's not as if we'd never fought other people on their own turf before; consider Germany in the last days of World War II. (The atomic bomb kept us from having to fight the Japanese on their home turf – which, in fact, probably saved more Japanese lives than were lost in the bombings. But I digress.) But again, it was the old model with armies in uniform, weapons that looked like weapons (vs. IEDs, e.g.), and, yes, “rules of war”. (Both sides used gas in World War I. Neither side used it in World War II. That's right – the Nazis did not choose to regress to gas warfare. This is never pointed out, of course. They also treated our POWs much better than the Japanese did; there will never be a “Hogan's Heroes” about a Japanese prison camp.)

What we are faced with now is summed up in the article as follows: “Soldiers who were trained to fight tank battles shifted to a style of combat that emphasized politics, cultural awareness, and protecting the local population from insurgent attacks.” In other words, changing diapers (figuratively speaking, at least). This began in Vietnam (remember "hearts and minds"?) but has really come to a head in the post-9/11 world. Actually, I would say that the transition, on our side, was prefigured in the war in the Pacific, but it came to a head in Vietnam, where we went over there expecting to fight a nice clean, crisp, European-style war and wound up nostril-deep in swamps and jungles. That took some getting used to, and in fact we never got used to it. The lean little monkey-like creatures who lived there, and who ran around without having to carry 50-pound packs, finally managed to get rid of us... and you can say what you want about “politics”, but, in my opinion, we lost largely because we didn't know how to fight that kind of war, and refused to learn. You'd think carpet bombing, Agent Orange, and Napalm would have done the trick, right? Good old American know-how. And yet, mysteriously, we had to leave and the communists and the “Cong” got to stay. They had home field advantage, certainly – but then so did Germany, and they wound up buried in ashes.

I think the difference may have to do with styles of warfare – and the fact that we can win when we're fighting a war our way, as long as the other side is also fighting the war our way. But if they choose some radically alternative method, and are on their home turf besides, we're at a decided disadvantage and are likely to lose (as in Vietnam) or be stalemated (as in Korea, Iraq, and Afghanistan). I'll take this one step further – I think we might well have wound up stalemated in Japan, and forced to sign a treaty rather than their having to unconditionally surrender, if it hadn't been for the A-bomb. This can never be proven, but subsequent events do provide plenty of room for speculation. Land wars in Asia just don't seem to be our forte, and no amount of training or “readiness” can make them so. I guess we could pretend to fight the way they do (that's one thing special ops forces are supposed to be able to do), but I'm not sure how far that would go. I think you really have to have their mindset – their brains – for it to work. (To cite an extreme case – do we have any defense against suicide bombers? Not really – and one reason is that we simply don't understand them. Since we don't “get” what it would take for someone to do that, we have a hard time coming up with any answers – defensive or otherwise. Knowing “the mind of the enemy” is always Job One, and if that is unknowable, everything else can fall by the wayside.)

So with that as background, what are soldiers worried about these days? (And note that some of them are so worried they are committing suicide – in record numbers.) “Some officers worry that the service is reverting to a more comfortable, rigid and predictable past.” Translation – go back to the old models, scenarios, and “war games” that have been outdated for decades. But hey, at least it's familiar... it's understandable... and it's “American”, rather than the “dirty fighting” that we encounter so often in third-world pestholes. So – no clear, future-oriented sense of direction. But hasn't the experience of the Middle East over the past ten years provided a new model? Apparently not. And why is this? Simply that we've been fighting (or not fighting) unwinnable wars over there – not only unwinnable in the strategic sense but unwinnable because that was the plan all along. (This is me talking now – and I've made the argument more than once on this site, so won't elaborate on it again at this time. But I suspect that a gradually-increasing sense of this is taking place within the military – along with all the resentment and frustration one would expect. In this sense, it's a psychological recapitulation of Vietnam, except that Vietnam was not designed to be unwinnable, it just turned out that way.) So a sense of futility and absurdity develops, and when soldiers, who feel these things on a deep level even if they are unable to articulate them, look to the future, all they can see is more of what we have now – at best. No clear mission, no victories, no “exit criteria”, no nothing – just go somewhere, make loud noises and kill things, and go home (if you're lucky). How is anyone supposed to tie this to patriotism, home, family, human values? Heaven knows, they try hard enough – but the attempts are in themselves absurd, and speak more of desperation than of discovering any real links. Soldiers can mouth all the words they like about “fighting [halfway around the world] to preserve our freedoms” but deep down I suspect they know it's a hoax. 

And then there is the very real, human nature-type question, who to blame? Vietnam boiled down to LBJ and “the best and the brightest”, with JFK getting off scot-free. Iraq and Afghanistan are, of course, all about “terrorism”, which the other side calls “defense of the homeland”. OK – those are two world views not readily reconciled. But is “terrorism” to blame? All it is is a word that someone in Washington made up and then defined in order to serve their own ends. Or is it the people who think terrorism can be defeated? Or, more likely, the people who say terrorism can be defeated, even though they know full well it can't? Or, also likely, the people who use terrorism as an excuse for pursuing other agendas – things like power, money, “immanentizing the eschaton”, etc. (OK – for that last, you can start by checking out It refers, in this case, to Evangelicals and Christian Zionists trying to accelerate the End Times by fulfilling Biblical prophesies (mostly from Revelations) using (and abusing) our military, national wealth, politicians, personal freedoms, and reputation on the world stage. Do I have to say any more about how well this has worked out so far?)

It's actually fortunate (for the power elite) that so much of the military is drawn from the working (or non-working) classes, since they tend to be more fatalistic and less questioning of authority or events. “Shit happens” is their watchword... and they seldom sit down and analyze precisely where that shit that happens comes from. If they did, we might have a real proletarian revolution on our hands – you know, the kind Obama was supposedly leading before he actually became president and developed a new respect for perpetual war.

But back to the Army for a moment. The article also refers to “a Pentagon defense [read “war”] strategy that emphasizes air and naval power over ground forces.” Well – maybe, but how many Navy guys are wandering around Afghanistan in boots and fatigues carrying a rifle? And as to the Air Force – don't all of those drones belong to the CIA? I mean, honestly – when I look at our recent and current conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa I see more of a CIA “footprint” than all of the military services combined. This is, in fact, the elephant in the NCO club, but it's apparently too big for anyone to actually see. The Army is quickly being rendered obsolete – not by the other branches as much as by the so-called “intelligence” agencies. They can blame it on the other services if they like, but that's just about age-old rivalries, not reality. 

And what about those budget cuts (which have yet to kick in, you'll notice)? Well, as I've said before, if you took our “defense” budget and reduced it to just what is actually needed for defense, as opposed to war, you could probably cut out about 80% or so. As it is, these “draconian” cuts are more or less the equivalent of one less mocha latte per week for the average metrosexual – painful yes, but hardly fatal. (And wasn't it clever, by the way, of Congress to hold “defense” hostage when they were designing the “fiscal cliff”? They picked the one thing that they knew would never actually be cut – at least not by enough to make any difference. This tactic is called (in government circles) “gold watching it”.)

Here's another quote from the article: “(T)he Army has not been able to articulate a clear mission that will enable it to hold on to its shrinking share of the Pentagon budget.” Well... actually, “articulating a mission” is not the Army's job, but the job of its civilian overseers – you know, guys like the secretary of the army, the secretary of defense, and the president. Expecting the Army to articulate its own mission gets things precisely backwards. Oh, I'm sure plenty of senior leaders in the Army would just love to get a chance to articulate their mission – but it might not have a whole lot to do with the best interests of the country as a whole. (I'm envisioning things like “nuke every Islamic city in the world” -- you know, level-headed stuff like that. Senior Army officers are smart, but their elevators don't ever go quite to the top floor – as witness Gen. Petraeus. And besides, if we'd wanted a country where the military was in charge, we would have designed it that way.)

Plus, you have to understand that pitting the services against one another is a game politicians play. They already know how much in the way of resources is going to each service, and which major programs are going to be supported, but they just enjoy the spectacle. And yes, it's all terribly wasteful – but since when has anyone in Washington been concerned with that?

So – while the Army dithers, and wrings its hands, and feels like a wallflower – what's going on a few miles up the Potomac, at CIA HQ? There, all is groovy and smurfy, thanks to a virtually unlimited, and top secret, budget... and the advantage of being above the law at all times and in all places (a privilege the Army might envy now and then, but seldom gets to enjoy). And yet, they seem to have things to deal with as well – and I'm not talking about the precipitous departure of Gen. Petraeus, who was only the most recent to cross over that great divide between the military and the “intel” community – which is like being promoted from field hand to butler in the Old South.

What's on the CIA's mind, according to the article, is – will they get to keep their new favorite toy, namely armed drones? Gone are the days of secret codes, trench coats, and messages hidden under park benches; now the CIA has major firepower, and no intention of giving it up. The article refers to “the agency's pronounced shift toward paramilitary operations” -- the question being, will that trend continue or be reversed somehow? (And if so, by whom? Oh, right, the president. You know – that same guy who knew absolutely nothing about Benghazi and Petraeus, and had to catch up by watching CNN?) Yes, apparently there is some concern that the CIA has become another branch of the military, albeit not in the same chain of command (or any other, for that matter). It's one thing to have an agency that knows everything about everyone – we went through that with the FBI in Hoover's day – but to have one that, in addition, has its own army and its own high-tech weaponry.... why, that's... that's... almost like the places we've always fought against! Who can forget the way the Gestapo rode roughshod over the German military... or the way the KGB intimidated the Russian military? The article cites Petraeus as having “sought to cement the agency's ties with the military...”. Well, right -- “cement” is also another word for “dominate”. And by the way, guess who the CIA recruits for its private army? By and large, veterans of the uniformed special ops forces. Yes, the “best and the brightest” (and probably the most merciless) from the military are being skimmed off the top, offered sky-high pay and the chance to see the world and meet (i.e. kill) people. Who could resist?

The final paragraph of the article quotes an Obama advisor: “Should the agency be looking to be the principal player in a global drone war versus its more traditional role as the principal collector and analyst of foreign intelligence?” Well – I think that question's already been answered. While the Army sits all alone and feeling blue, the CIA moves in and takes the best people and the best missions. I'm sure they'll continue to collect intelligence – but only enough to support their own military operations. And the Army will be left alone to do nation building, social and humanitarian work, and to continue being a lab for social experimentation. (We wouldn't want to give those guys guns and trust them with an actual mission, would we?) Sounds like “win-win” all around.


Iohannes said...

Very interesting to consider the developments and whether they will be a loss or a benefit. If the rise of the Cia and others precurses a shift from an inefficient enormous military to a small but extremely efficient national force, then all the better. I, however, would only desire them for defense as I always do.

Dave Witter said...

I don't think there's any question that the elite small-force model is more efficient and effective in the current environment. What I worry about is the accountability aspect -- the CIA can keep things secret, the Army not so readily.