In the 1970s, following a miserable end to a miserable war and departure from Saigon, drug use rose, and discipline fell in the US military. Only Ronald Reagan’s crackerjack Secretary of Defense Cap Weinberger and National Security Advisor Colin Powell punched up morale, began to change things. We are suddenly there again. We need to preempt the slide.
Yes, that will be hard. First, Biden – and Obama before him – considered the military a “petri dish,” little social experiment into which ideas are gingerly injected, indifferent to their effect on warfighting, warfighters, and readiness to win wars, which is why we have a military.
Broadly, the idea is to bend readiness – an idea few politicians understand – to politics, which makes progressive politicians feel better and aims to make the US military softer, kinder, more akin to civilian sensitivities, sensibilities, and subtle social muddles, warfighting aside.
That would be fine in times when no one cares, when foreign threats, dealing death, defending honor, protecting borders, deflecting mortars, preserving cohesion, mission completion, life-or-death decisions are secondary. We might afford not being ready – if nothing to be ready for.
Only that is not now. We face more threats from more quarters, more danger with less time to react and recognition of their approach than any time since pre-World War II. We have official adversaries, like China, Iran, Russia, Taliban-led Afghanistan again.
We have unofficial adversaries, operating like ghost groups, terrorist non-state actors, state-sponsored hackers, human and drug traffickers, border busters, those posing as allies but not.
We have internal adversaries – as all democracies do – and must be vigilant to find and disable them. These adversaries aim to poison minds, infiltrate institutions, dislodge and confuse public trust and education, create disunity using technology, cryptology, and basic guile.
So, the point: We do not live in a time when readiness is secondary, can be suppressed, forgotten, coopted, or let slide. Undermining readiness is consequential – which is why adversaries are pleased to see us distracted. They think we are losing our will to win.
For reference, the unforgivable tragedy of leaving Americans and allies behind in Afghanistan looms large but is not alone. Look at recent history, a slide in military morale over a decade.
What have we seen? We failed to get Bin Laden under Clinton, had the shot. Bush’s team dragged America into Iraq, like it or not. But demoralization is more than miscalculation.
In the Navy, the “Fat Leonard” scandal was the “worst national security breach … since the Cold War,” infecting command, confidence, and readiness. Bribery, graft, lack of accountability, loss of classified documents put us in peril.
In contracting, the “Littoral Combat Ship” slipped as mission creeps sought security on the cheap, an exemplar of how not to build what you do not need for a cost you cannot afford. On personnel, we saw “loss of confidence” in SEAL Team 7’s leaders, fired following drug abuse; criminal actions by MARSOC Marines and SEALs in the Melgar case; SEAL Team 10’s cocaine use; and a raft of situations, command errors to Academy cheating, driving “back to basics.”
Digging deeper, a recent survey revealed “broad consensus across interviewees on numerous cultural and structural issues that impact the morale and readiness of the Navy’s surface force,” including “insufficient focus on warfighting skills … over-sensitivity and responsiveness to modern media culture.”
One observation: “… every unit in the Navy is up to speed on their diversity training … cannot say the same of their ship handling,” adding “we care more about whether we have enough diversity officers than if we’ll survive a fight with the Chinese navy.” That has some sting.
The other services suffer similar strains. Crashes and tactical errors continue to increase, tracking distracted, misguided, poorly prioritized, and social over practical training.
In the Army, leadership is more interested in social planning than withdrawal planning, “Critical Race Theory” than critical readiness gaps, allowing lapses in truth, as soldiers smuggle cocaine, West Point cheating resurfaces, force protection, sexual harassment, and other indicia of poor discipline abound. Nor is the Air Force beyond critique, a raft of their own scandals.
Now, topping off this sloppy slide toward the 1970s, we just witnessed dishonor, disgrace, indifference in our face – from Biden’s top national security leaders, a self-satisfied “victory lap” for a catastrophic failure – with cascading human and strategic implications – in Afghanistan.
Yes, we can get beyond this moment, re-set bearings, reestablish readiness, discipline, and morale, but we better get to it – now. Civilian and military leaders must see our enemies want us distracted, not focused on what matters. And what matters, in deterrence and war, is winning.