Monday will mark the 50th anniversary of that muggy October morning I scrambled off a bus and stepped onto a set of yellow footprints at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, S.C.
The Marine Corps I joined as a rather naive 18-year-old was not much different from the Marine Corps that had fought in World War II and Korea, and in 1965 was gearing up for a larger role in Vietnam. We used much the same equipment and employed many of the same tactics as our predecessors. And we had many of the same goals: to fight and win the nation’s wars.
Over the last 50 years, I have watched not only the Marine Corps but all of the United States military establishment go through a number of changes, some bad, some good. In the past 20 years, though, I have seen some dramatic shifts in how the military is used by its civilian commanders, none of which bode well for our military or our national security.
That the civilian leadership of our country controls the military is a unique and essential element of our form of government. But when that civilian leadership, whether Democrat or Republican, fails to put national security ahead of political agendas, the military becomes just another bureaucracy whose primary goal is to support the party in power, not to do what is best for the nation.
That is exactly what is happening now.
While President Barack Obama spends much of his political capital on feel-good issues such as climate change (or is it global warming; I get confused), he tends to dance around serious foreign policy issues that require apolitical military expertise, or he uses the military to advance his own political agenda.
Obama is intent on cutting back America’s military to its smallest numbers since before World War II at a time when threats from Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and the Islamic State are worsening.
Obama, like Bill Clinton before him, thinks he can deal with these vexing foreign policy issues either by talking earnestly with those who present problems (Russia, China and Iran), or keeping them at a distance (North Korea and the Islamic State) and hope they go away.
He appears to be doing just enough to avoid catastrophe before he leaves office so if things go really wrong he can pass the blame to his successor, much as he has done with George W. Bush.
His campaign against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq is much like Clinton’s in Kosovo — half-hearted and fought solely from the air. But unlike the war in Kosovo, where air power was a major factor, the air war against the Islamic State seems to be having little impact on its territorial gains or ability to recruit.
Obama’s rush to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan before those governments and their militaries were fully prepared to take on the difficult job of securing their countries created vacuums into which the Islamic State and the Taliban, respectively, stepped with little resistance.
In recent weeks, the city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan fell to the Taliban while Afghan forces scattered, much as Iraqi forces did in their country when Islamic State fighters took Mosul and several other key cities.
Recent stories in The New York Times and other publications indicate that not only are the ranks of the Islamic State growing, but the impact of the bombing campaign against it is marginal at best. In addition, U.S. military commanders responsible for the campaign against the Islamic State have been providing Congress with unrealistically rosy assessments of this war on the cheap.
Not all the military has been co-opted by the administration, but certainly many of its leaders have been because it is politically expedient to do so.
One general with the apparent courage of his convictions is stepping down as a result of his frustrations dealing with the Obama administration over the Islamic State. According to news reports, retired Marine Corps Major Gen. John R. Allen, who had been the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL (Islamic State in the Levant), will be leaving in early November because of White House efforts to micromanage of the war, which has resulted in horrible macro-mismanagement.
Allen is something of an exception, however. There have been too few general officers willing to stand up and tell the president, whether Democrat or Republican, that he is wrong.
President George H.W. Bush embarked on a so-called “humanitarian mission” in Somalia that was without an effective strategy or end goal. Despite military misgivings from the start, whatever it was we were doing in Somalia plodded along without form or substance until it eventually turned into a disaster after it slopped over into Clinton’s presidency.
That was at a time following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union when the military was once again being downsized because there was an unrealistic belief in the Clinton White House that all the world’s problems had been solved. The military was told to focus on something that was referred to at that time as OOTW — “Operations Other Than War.”
But even as threats from nontraditional military forces ratcheted up, Clinton failed to fully comprehend them or heed the advice of his military commanders.
Clinton had several opportunities to kill Osama bin Laden prior to 9/11 when it became apparent that al-Qaida was becoming an instrument of international terror. According to Steve Coll in his book “Ghost Wars,” Clinton refused to pull the trigger on bin Laden on several occasions because of fear of collateral damage and how his death might look to the rest of the world.
Leaving aside the issue of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (see The New York Times of Oct. 14, 2014, for proof that they were there, despite the prevailing myth that they were not) the invasion of Iraq in 2003 under President George W. Bush’s watch was a flawed enterprise from the start, thanks in no small part to the chutzpah of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Rumsfeld dismissed warnings from then-Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki that the U.S. would need more than 300,000 troops to defeat Iraqi forces and keep the peace. Rumsfeld, in his infinite wisdom, convinced Bush to do it with less than half that number and instead sent in 145,000.
Not only was the force too small, it did not have the right mix of troops. It was combat heavy and reconstruction light.
While the Iraqi military was defeated rather quickly, once the troops got to Baghdad, there was no plan in place to rebuild the government or country.
Then Bush and Rumsfeld made an even more disastrous decision; they decided to fire the entire Iraqi military despite the strenuous objections of U.S. military commanders who had already begun to work with their just-defeated foes to help provide security for a transitional government.
One unnamed CIA agent, upon hearing that news, is reported to have said: “That’s another 350,000 Iraqis you’ve (angered) and they’ve got guns.”
It was the beginning of the insurgency that to a certain extent continues to this day.
Since the Vietnam War, presidents have been reluctant to allow the military to do what it does best: fight and win the nation’s wars.
America’s military is now in an awkward position when it is sent to confront an enemy — it is expected to win without taking too many casualties or causing too many casualties, or making the people we are fighting too angry with us.
The unfortunate result is that we now are a nation whose military has been emasculated by political correctness and political partisanship. And as a nation we are poorer and more at risk because of it.
Ron Martz is a Marine Corps veteran (1965-68) and former educator who spent more than 20 years as a military affairs correspondent. He is a Northeast Georgia resident whose commentaries will appear frequently on Viewpoint.