Washington is getting Trump’s martial parade after all. Today the capital will see fighter jet flyovers, marching Marines, and a pair of Abrams tanks squatting like mastiffs on the National Mall. It will surely be politicized and cost millions. But this “Salute to Service” has a far bigger problem: what the hell are we celebrating?
Certainly not victory in the GWOT (Global War on Terrorism). For all the unquestioned valor and dedication of our servicemen, our military is 0 – 2 in wars against ill-equipped insurgents since 9/11. Toss in the crusade to kill Qaddafi and we’re 0 – 3 above the tactical level. The jury is still out on Syria.
America has spent nearly $6 trillion in the war on terror. The cost to the countries we broke is incalculable. Afghanistan and Libya will continue their civil wars for years, if not decades. Iraq could easily join them again.
Okay, so how about celebrating the force itself? Today’s tributes, honestly, will come off as empty as any Starbucks salute. Since 9/11, we have lost nearly 7,000 men and women in combat and have returned at least 350,000 mentally and physically damaged veterans to their communities. Yet the VA remains a work in progress, at best.
The All-Volunteer Force is struggling. The Army failed to meet its recruiting goal last year, for the first time since 2005. The Marine Corps is throwing up to $280,000 at pilots to keep them from fleeing to the airlines. The Army’s Training and Doctrine Command admits that our current micro-managed operations are eroding the decision-making abilities of junior leaders. Those in uniform are only too aware that “special trust and confidence” and “mission command” are empty pronouncements. And they also know that most Americans have no skin in the game.
The gear is in worse shape than the guys. The F-18s overheard today will presumably be fully mission capable but most Super Hornets aren’t—the result of unanticipated operating hours spent chasing ghosts in the Greater Middle East. The United States could use more F-22s in the air than MRAPs, absurdly, in the hands of American policemen. The U.S. Navy may be too small to check the Chinese—and its ships keep running into things.
True, we haven’t had a major attack on “the homeland,” but one can’t help suspecting that there were cheaper ways to get that result.
So taken it all in, there seems little to really celebrate by way of the military. For Washington, though, there have been some wins. The machine churns on. Eisenhower, that Cassandra, has been dead for fifty years and the Soviet Union packed up shop almost three decades ago but the military industrial complex hasn’t missed a beat. Tyson’s Corner is booming, the defense budget climbs steadily upwards, and the revolving door is in rude good health. It turns out there is at least one industry where trickle down economics works.
Best of all, there’s no accountability. No one has to pull a Profumo and atone. The architects of the Iraq War don’t even have to stop talking. You can see them around DC on a weekly basis, if you know where to look. Paul Wolfowitz gets slapped on the back by journalists at charity dinners. Max Boot descends from the Council on Foreign Relations, the high church of the foreign policy establishment, when he has a new book to hawk. John Bolton even gets a final round in the arena, blowing up accords and agitating for war, though his days in this administration may finally be numbered.
The generals get it best of all. Vince Lombardi had it backwards. Winning isn’t everything —it isn’t even anything. You can find David Petraeus on stage these days, bragging about his cycling mileage and joking about his private equity sinecure. H. R. McMaster has a think tank perch, where the fabled victor of Tal Afar can decry American war-weariness while doing his best to find us new wars. Those further down the food chain, with only a star or two in their shadow boxes, can at least pick up a second career hawking weapons and services for Raytheon, Boeing, or one of the many other payers of McLean mortgages.
So enjoy the celebration. Most TAC readers, myself included, will be at more prosaic parades, far from Versailles on the Potomac. For those in D.C., go and enjoy the event if you can stomach it. One hopes that today’s crowd will include a few from that great sardonic breed of GWOT veteran—skinny Vonnegut completists who eschew the de rigueur vet beard—wearing one of the decade’s better black jokes: the “We Were Winning When I Left” t-shirt. Talk to those guys instead of just thanking them for their service.
Gil Barndollar is the Military Fellow-in-Residence at the Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship. He served as a U.S. Marine infantry officer from 2009 to 2016, deploying to Afghanistan twice.