Who is the man that is going to lead America’s military?
I admit I don’t.
I don’t know Joe, but I do know that the news media is merely pretending that it knows Joe. What’s more, because the usual suspects all say that they know Joe and he’s fantastic, Joe’s unveiling turned into one of those glorious bipartisan lovefests, the kind of event that punctuates how America can be at war in a dozen countries and yet in Washington the cherry blossoms are blooming and the smell of azaleas fills the air.
“Joe” is General Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., Commandant of the Marine Corps and Obama’s nominee to be the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He’s only been the top officer of the Corps since October and before that he was commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan for 18 months. Joe’s parachuting in and out of assignments isn’t particularly unusual nor is his rise meteoric: he joined the Marines in 1977 and has been commander of this and that, including the lead Marine Corps regiment that invaded Iraq in 2003. And he is no stranger to Washington – before he went to Kabul to implement America’s non-withdrawal-withdrawal from a country we’ve been warring in and with for 14 years, he was the Marine Corps’ number two back here.
The Marine Corps’ official website says General Dunford is nicknamed “Fightin’ Joe,” but then, that’s what the Marines do. “Known for his ability to maneuver between the disparate roles of battlefield commander and military strategist with a deft political touch,” the New York Times says. And I think, It’s one thing to say he’s commanded from battalion to coalition force, but military strategist? Based on what?
You don’t probably know — because why should you? — but the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the highest ranking military officer and the principal military adviser to the President. It’s not exactly as if — unless you are in the business — you could name who the current Chairman is nor what his claim to fame or achievements might be. So when the Times promiscuously uses the term military strategist to describe Joe’s skills, America probably doesn’t notice.
“He’s one of our military’s most highly regarded strategic thinkers,” Obama said of Joe yesterday. Ignoring hundreds of years of military literature arguing about what strategy and strategic thinking even is, I think Obama is merely stringing words together. Does Joe have some idea of how to end our perpetual warring? Does Joe have a military vision of the future that looks any different than the present? Does Joe even have an opinion, one that he’ll share with this President (and the next) that says: Well, Mr. President, we can do that but can you tell me how it gets us to an end game, some end game? He has the right to say, even the obligation, but does Joe have the brains or the cojones? I don’t know Joe, but I do know what it takes to make four stars and fight on this particularly battlefield. And in the last two years of a presidency where who will be the next president could be decided by how quiet Afghanistan and Iraq can be kept, I imagine Joe was chosen for some particularly calming and deft skills.
That doesn’t make him a strategist. It isn’t Joe’s fault, nor is it his doing, but if there’s one thing that’s clear about United States since 9/11, it is that it seems to be perfect happy to war without any strategy at all. Oh there’s policy (and even there, that’s stretching things) and there’s doctrine, and there are capabilities, international compromises, inter-service rivalries, power bases, differences of opinion, political considerations, even a wily enemy. But strategy?
What Joe did in Afghanistan as commander was implement an always shifting Obama administration desire to get out but also not lose, to either lose Afghanistan or lose face. It’s a tricky coalition for the military because they don’t want to have to admit that all that treasure and blood meant nothing, so the dance that has followed has been a bunch of different policies – out by the end of 2014, out by the end of 2017, no combat troops at all, 9,000 residual as trainers, 1,000 forever after we’re “out,” just training and no combat, and then finally our solve-all policy of secret combat by special operations and CIA and proxies and contractors. There’s no strategy there, and even when the President introduced Joe, he misspoke:
Under his steady hand, we’ve achieved key milestones, including the transition to Afghan responsibility for security, historic Afghan elections, and the drawdown of U.S. forces — setting the stage for our combat mission there.
I think he meant “ending our combat mission there.” LOL.
So Joe’s a manager, a politician, a savvy Washington operator, otherwise he wouldn’t have gotten the job. He implemented administration policy, and did so with the political hat-trick of earning the support of Congress on both sides of the aisle. But what war has Joe or any other fightin’ General won since 9/11? The military record is win all the battles and lose all the wars.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite articulations of strategy, one that I read when I was in the military almost 40 years ago. The only things that’s changed, is that unlike World War II, Korea, or Vietnam, the “nation” doesn’t have to face any “wartime sacrifices” right now. And so we can ignore who Joe is and what role he might play. I want to root for Joe, for some straight-talking no nonsense articulation. But I don’t know that Joe has anything to say and I feel handcuffs of ass-backwards militarism that I would even think that a military man is going to be wiser than our civilian leaders. Only Joe knows.
The first and most fundamental question to be asked of any prospective war or other military action is: “What is it about?” ... What specific national interests and policy objectives are to be served ...?
The second question for strategists concerns not the decision to go to war, but the proper methods of fighting the war once it starts. Assuming that a nation at war has some rational objectives, the next question is: “Is the national military strategy tailored to meet the national political objectives?” What this question suggests is that there be a close correlation between the political ends of war and the military means employed to achieve those ends.
A third and most difficult question that strategists must ask is: “What are the limits of military power?” This one more than any other sticks in the craw—especially in the craw of us Americans whose major national sin is grandiosity, and even more of American military officers whose professional creed is best expressed in two words: “Can do.” Yet there are many things that armed forces, no matter how powerful, cannot do.
Question number four is simply: “What are the alternatives?” What are the alternatives to war? What are the alternative campaign strategies, especially if the preferred one fails? How is the war to be terminated gracefully if the odds against victory become too high?
My fifth question is: “How strong is the home front?” Does public opinion support the war and the military strategy employed to fight it? What are the attitudes of influential elites both inside and outside the government in office? How much stress can civilian society endure under the pressures of the wartime sacrifices demanded? Is the war morally acceptable? Can it plausibly be explained as a “just war?”
It also brings me to the sixth and final question for strategists, which is a paraphrase of Mahan’s warning already noted. “Does today’s strategy overlook points of difference and exaggerate points of likeness between past and present?” Has concern over past successes and failures developed into a neurotic fixation that blinds the strategist to changed circumstances requiring new and different responses?
And one final warning to those of you who are on the threshold of your careers as strategic planners. After all your plans have been perfected, all avenues explored, all contingencies thought through, then ask yourself one final question: “What have I overlooked?” Then say your prayers and go to sleep—with the certain knowledge that tomorrow too will bring its share of nasty surprises.
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[Images courtesy of the White House and the Department of Defense.]