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Blame the Troops?

An assistant secretary of Defense locates the real military crisis in a lack of trust in civilian authority.

Senate Armed Services Committee Confirmation
Mara Karlin, nominee to be assistant secretary of Defense for strategy, plans, and capabilities, testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing on July 13, 2021. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

The Inheritance: America’s Military After Two Decades of War, by Mara E. Karlin (Brookings Institution Press: December 2021), 320 pages.

After two decades of inconclusive "forever wars" promoting democracy and gender equality in the burning sands of Iraq and the tribal highlands of Afghanistan, the U.S. military faces complex and difficult questions of historical memory and political accountability that may shape or warp its attitudes and approaches to war as it shifts to great-power competition.

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This is the point of departure for Mara Karlin’s new book, The Inheritance. Karlin’s central theme throughout the book is that the political class who decided to send troops to fight and die in wars of choice bears too much of the blame for those wars' tragic consequences. She contends that what the U.S. military should be doing is looking inward to discern what role it played in the ultimate failure of political visions imposed on remote and hostile lands.

Karlin begins by considering the psychic dissonance in the military that comes from having a well-deserved reputation both at home and abroad as the most lethal and successful fighting force in human history while simultaneously not being able to deliver any sustainable victories for the sweeping and often expanding political objectives set forth by civilian leaders since 2001. As one military officer reportedly told Karlin in an interview, “after 12 years of nonstop deployments, I’d like to be part of a war we won. I’d like to get a win in.” She does not dwell on the political reasons and moral consequences of the frustrations and traumas among those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. She merely observes that the troops perceived the mission as being both abstruse and aimless.

The disappointment and disillusionment this has produced in veterans and active-duty military can hardly be underestimated. Suicides among veterans and active-duty military have outpaced combat deaths by more than four times since the initial invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The stress and trauma of being in combat situations, the length and frequency of deployments, and the difficulties in transitioning back into civilian life have all likely contributed to this grim statistic. The compounding factor unique to these conflicts has been the Sisyphean nature of the task for which the troops were expected to struggle and sacrifice.

But this is not the most important point for Karlin, who glosses over the moral consequences of the wars with an implicit shrug: “confusion over purpose and an ambient sense of futility are, perhaps, inherent in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism conflicts.” What concerns her more is the “disproportionate blame for strategic missteps placed at the feet of civilian policymakers,” which she describes as part of a "stab in the back narrative" uncritically assimilated from one generation of warfighters to the next. As an example, she disapprovingly recounts hearing cadets at an unnamed military academy attributing responsibility for the Iraq War to Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Douglas Feith—all prominent and persistent advocates of the initial invasion of Iraq.

After a cursory acknowledgement that America’s political class does indeed bear some responsibility for the decisions to invade and occupy two countries within months of each other, Karlin admonishes the military that “civilian leadership is an enduring reality… so engaging it productively—even amid dysfunctional and potentially catastrophic decisions—remains critical.” 

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To be sure, this dramatic erosion of civilian credibility within the military represents a serious crisis in civil-military relations. For Karlin, the primary responsibility lies not with a political class that has lost the confidence and trust of the military it sent to fight and die in remote lands for poorly articulated political objectives. It lies rather with what Karlin believes to be well-established academic theories of civil-military relations to which she objects, and that lead to a “lack of meaningful civilian control of the military.” 

Karlin digresses here from discussing the wars that followed 9/11 and returns to the 1990s to focus on Colin Powell’s criteria for going to war and Samuel Huntington’s theory of civil-military relations. Powell’s early conservative approach to making the decision to use force and send troops into harm’s way, she argues, places political leaders considering going to war “into the untenable position of binary all-or-nothing military campaigns rather than nuanced ones appropriately scaled to a particular conflict and its unique political context.” She adds that Powell’s insistence that the use of force be connected in some way with a clear objective “dismisses that such objectives often evolve during conflict.” There is no serious reflection on whether this provides any guardrails against mission creep or excessive use of force.

She also does not consider whether the core value of the so-called "Powell Doctrine" really comes from the questions it poses before war is entered, including whether vital national interests have really been threatened, the risks and consequences of using force, and if all other tools and elements of national power have been first exhausted before waging war.

Her criticism of the Huntington model of civil-military relations follows similar lines of argument. She objects not simply to the "division of labor" model that Huntington proposed but to the very concept of "best military advice," which she argues “implies that it should be questioned” and contains within it an “insinuation of superiority.” There are valid criticisms to be made of the Huntington model, including its maximal view of military autonomy and idealization of the so-called "military mind," but here Karlin instead focuses her criticism on what she believes to be further restrictions on the decisions by political leaders on the use of force.

The rest of the book dwells on the cultural and bureaucratic changes in the military that developed during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Karlin expresses concern about transparency and accountability in the U.S. military, especially at the highest levels. She makes her best criticisms and most useful observations here about how the wars have impacted how military services operate and organize themselves, including the Marines’ shift away from being an amphibious force to acting as a “second land army” and the Navy’s tendency to focus on size and quantity versus quality and mobility—both of which have drastic and immediate implications for geopolitical competition with China. She expresses poignant concerns about the selection and promotion of officers, which she describes as a “mysterious process that involves balancing the organizational interests of many diverse players with heavy doses of rumor, gossip, personal ambition, and politics.” She rightly notes further that “no single military leader was removed for their operational handling of the post 9/11 wars.” 

It is nonetheless telling about Karlin’s priorities that she leaves these criticisms for the latter half of the book and does not develop them as fully as her concerns over a “stab in the back” narrative amongst younger servicemembers, academic debates about civil-military-relations theories, or what she considers to be “exceedingly narrow criteria for using military force.” Her arguments are further overshadowed by what amounts to a tacit apologia throughout the book for the political establishment that engaged and persisted in these wars in the first place. In this way, The Inheritance is a missed opportunity to provide a more in-depth examination of bureaucratic pathologies and operational failures that have haunted the military since 9/11.

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