As the Fourth of July approaches, the usual parades, picnics, and fireworks are set to commence as Old Glory is unfurled from sea to shining sea. Compared to other nations, America is a fervently patriotic country. Every year, Americans of all political persuasions come together to celebrate the birth of our nation. The focal point of every gathering and parade is the singular symbol of the nation: the flag.
What is the state of American patriotism today? As a citizen who followed the call of the flag into the military, I think Independence Day is a proper time to share some gained perspective. I signed up to serve in 2009 brimming with patriotic pride, and in 2018, after voluntarily resigning my commission in the Marines, I was honored to be invited to attend TAC’s annual foreign policy conference. Having written several articles for the magazine about military reform, I accepted an invitation to participate on a panel titled “Veterans and the Forever War: Recent Vets on Military Reform and U.S. Foreign Policy.” I considered myself a patriot in 2009 and I still do today. So what’s changed?
I came to realize over the course of my service that patriotism might sometimes mean condemning your country. Not because you hate your home, of course, but because you love it.
When I was a junior in high school, my guidance counselor suggested that I apply for a spot in Buckeye Boy’s State, an eight-day summer program sponsored by the American Legion. The program taught me the basics of how the Ohio government worked. I applied, along with a classmate who also shared a love of history and political science, and we were both accepted. That session in the summer of 2002 was held on the campus of Bowling Green University in northern Ohio. The facilitators of the course were all veterans.
Every night, after the daily routines of civics workshops, legislative sessions, and debates, the hundreds of attendees crammed into the gymnasium for a speech from a selected presenter. Most of the speakers were either veterans or Republicans from Ohio’s state legislature. The country was still ablaze with “rally around the flag” syndrome following the attacks of September 11. After some stirring quip from a speaker invoking American greatness, thousands of young men would break out into chants of “USA! USA! USA!” It seemed like the patriotic thing to do: stay with the herd, yell as loud as you could.
Returning to our senior year of high school in 2003, we were glued to the news as the Iraq war unfolded. We felt pride when we ate our “freedom fries” at local restaurants, shaming the French for not joining the coalition of the willing. We trusted our leaders: they would do what was right for our country, we reasoned. We weren’t alone: polls on the eve of the war showed public opinion overwhelmingly in favor of military action. My classmate would go on to attend West Point, while I chose the Marine route through Officer Candidate School following four years at Ohio State University. We both agreed that as young, able-bodied citizens, we owed the country something in a time of war.
The first several years in the military ran smoothly, and my conception of patriotism did not change much: stay in step, support the flag wherever she went. While in California for training in military occupational school, I had an encounter with a civilian outside a local off-base gym that at the time baffled me. I was walking to my vehicle and was trailed by another man also leaving the gym. He asked me whether I was in the Marines (our haircuts usually give us away). I said I was, yes sir. He then said, “Well welcome home.” I knew he meant well and just assumed I’d been deployed, but I was still in training to become a pilot. I calmly corrected him, saying that eventually I would deploy. My well-wisher paused for a few seconds, looking confused, then said, “Well you still stood on a wall with a gun, didn’t you?” Stunned, I just chuckled politely and kept walking. It was only near the end of my service that I came to understand what he’d meant.
I found so much that was incorrect and immoral in the military in the coming years: misaligned priorities, a lack of basic readiness, exercises reduced to Hollywood-level propaganda, the astronomical waste of taxpayer dollars with a constant desire for more, political correctness, the calculated deceit and open lies of our senior officers, and so much more that could be detailed at length. But to focus the conversation within the boundaries of patriotism and Independence Day, the thing that bothered me the most, and what turned me into a dissident, was how everything that was immoral and wrong was being done in the name of the flag, in the name of allegiance to the ideals of America.
The well-wishing civilian just mentioned is a perfect example of the moral dilemma facing patriotic Americans today. I didn’t know it when I joined in 2009, but a new epoch had begun with the global war on terrorism. No longer would the American people be part of the equation in prosecuting war. To the World War II generation, freedom had costs, freedom wasn’t free. As detailed in Andrew Bacevich’s excellent book Breach of Trust, between 1940 and 1942, the corporate tax rate went from 24 to 40 percent. And in 1940, 7 percent of Americans paid federal income taxes. By 1944, it was 64 percent.
The idea that citizenship required sacrifice was shattered forever by Vietnam. The split in our country that we still see today began during that conflict. One half of the nation’s ethos was “my country right or wrong,” while the other half was “no, not with my help.” And the truth is that they were both right and both wrong. Then, as today, our citizens are torn between allegiance to their country and their consciences.
But in Vietnam, there was skin in the game in the form of a draft. In 2001, the military that was sent to war was an all-volunteer professional force that made up less than 1 percent of the population. And by encouraging Americans to return to the mall and Disney World, the Bush administration forever altered how the country engaged in armed conflict. The only connection the average civilian had to their nation at war was the flag and an ideal of patriotism. This is a connection that Bacevich rightly calls “heavy on symbolism and light on substance.” Nevertheless, it is a connection that has the real and deep significance of tribal association, and is thus hard to rebel against or easily cast aside.
What that civilian experienced that day was cognitive dissonance. He genuinely wanted to support the troops, the country, the flag, but all he could offer was verbal patronage. And nothing was going to stop him from showing that support—hence his bizarre statement. In hindsight I came to grasp how dangerous this situation was and still is. Many Americans do want to sacrifice and give up something, they just haven’t been required to, nor have our elected leaders asked. And even fewer want to appear unpatriotic, especially with such a small percentage of the population bearing the burden of the wars. The Swamp has taken advantage of this aversion to breaking from the herd. The only avenue for the dissenting citizen is blocked by the American flag.
America needs a new definition of patriotism. There is a time and a place to salute smartly and follow the flag. And now more than ever in this era of disillusionment and anger, our country needs to reinvigorate a sense of civic duty and willing sacrifice among our citizens. But equally important, the patriotic citizen should have the moral courage to follow his conscience to a position of dissent. If we love this country, and we should love this country, criticizing it isn’t an act of hatred or treason. It’s an act of love.
Finally, what is a good definition of complete patriotism? I think Russian dissident Aleksander Solzhenitsyn said it best:
Patriotism is an integral and persistent feeling of love for one’s homeland, with a willingness to make sacrifices for her, to share her troubles, but not to serve her unquestioningly, not to support her unjust claims, rather, to frankly assess her faults, her transgressions, and to repent for these.
Jeff Groom is a former Marine officer. He is the author of American Cobra Pilot: A Marine Remembers a Dog and Pony Show (2018). Follow him on Twitter @BigsbyGroom.
This month, the final hurdle for President Donald Trump’s transgender military ban was cleared, as a U.S. district court in Maryland lifted its injunction in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in January. The Pentagon, however, said that President Barack Obama’s policy to allow transgender service members to openly serve will remain in effect until “further guidance” is issued “in the near future.”
Proponents and opponents of these changes argue their points passionately, but from very different starting points. Those on the Left consistently push for change in the name of diversity, inclusion, and equality for service members. Anyone who makes the cut should be allowed. Those on the Right focus on the issues of readiness, lethality, and tradition. A closer examination of the war on terrorism will reveal why the Left has gone on the offensive and the Right has dug in (though on the wrong hill), attempting to hold the line against change.
The debate over social engineering in the military has only been of public interest rather recently. In 1994, Bill Clinton approved the military’s policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), which allowed gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members to serve but not in an open and transparent way.
This policy remained in effect until 2010 when Obama signed a directive ending DADT. The military came into compliance in 2011. Following these steps, the next hurdle was opening military occupational positions once only accessible to men. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta issued a directive in January 2013 to formally end the prohibition on women serving in various roles across the services, from Marine infantry and combat engineers to special forces like the Navy SEALs.
The Pentagon was given until January 2016 to comply, with the intervening years used to test and evaluate standards, performance, and the effects on readiness and lethality. In December 2015, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, in conjunction with Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, announced that all roles would be opened, overruling exceptions sought for several specialties, most notably in the Marine Corps.
Traditionally, the military as an institution has been understood to be both representative of and separate from the society it served. It is “representative” most notably in the sense that there is civilian control—government officials acting on behalf of their constituents decide when and where armed force is used as a tool for political objectives. The society is further represented in the composition of the ranks. This is manifested in the draft, the citizen-soldier military.
But the military has also been understood to be separate, with its own rules, culture, and traditions. The military’s legal system, the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), has never allowed for the liberty that’s enjoyed in American society. Service members can be charged with crimes such as misbehavior before the enemy as in the case of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, or fraternization, because social and sexual relationships between differing ranks undermines “good order and discipline.”
Even freedom of speech, the hallmark of American democracy, has its limits. Recently, several active duty Marines found themselves in hot water for engaging in blackface parodies. The point is that in the military, not all forms of personal expression are allowed and some can be subjected to punishment.
The word “tradition” is key. Traditions are ideas and norms handed down from history that, while not always easy to understand, are accepted because they’re born out of experience. Simply put, they worked. And military tradition, forged through thousands of years of blood and carnage, teaches us that the institution of the military should be a separate society with its own rules that might be at odds with the society it serves. DADT stood unchallenged for 16 years. What changed?
When President Bush told Americans to head to the mall after 9/11 and carry on in good consumerist fashion, the volunteer professional military was headed in the other direction, to war, in Afghanistan and Iraq. The military was asked to defeat an idea: terrorism. The situation on the ground necessitated it to act out of character. We were there to build, train, assist, and bolster the local populace against terrorism and anarchy. In stark contrast to the total war of World War II, professional soldiers trained to shoot rifles and drop bombs were told to help rather than hurt.
Outside the lengthy debate that could be had over how insane this “strategy” was, the idea that the armed forces could do something other than kill the enemy and break his stuff fundamentally altered the public’s conception of what the military had traditionally been: a nasty force tool of last resort. If it was used to show a kinder, gentler side of America, then those traditions and norms could be changed as well. The military profession became just another occupation, a job to draw a paycheck, not especially hazardous or hard. Therefore the Left reasoned justifiably that it should show no deference to gender, sexual orientation, and sexual identity, just as in the civilian world.
The issue with the Left’s stance is that social engineering has added no quantifiable value to readiness and lethality, which is why they never argue for it that way. Every argument for change falls under the umbrella of diversity and inclusion. Taking diversity first, the Department of Defense, despite claiming to be in a continual cash crisis, operates a Military Leadership Diversity Commission. In one of their dozens of decision papers, the commission attempts to define diversity and apply it as a policy to the DoD. The commission notes that the official DoD definition of diversity as defined in 2009 is “different characteristics and attributes of individuals.” Expanding that to reflect the colloquial definition of diversity as protected races and classes, the commission paper found “no direct link between demographic representation and organizational capability.”
The method behind the madness of military indoctrination training is to take diverse groups of people and make them similar: the same uniform, the same haircut, the same chow, the same squad bay. In boot camp, differences aren’t celebrated; they are destroyed, then rebuilt as one. The identity of a service member should be first and foremost a singularity: a Marine, a sailor, a soldier. The nameplate of the diversity car reads “different perspectives make us stronger,” a true statement. But underneath the hood the message becomes “different races and genders make us stronger,” which isn’t necessarily true. Diversity Inc. is thus attempting to replace Marine, sailor, and soldier with a rainbow of identities because “diversity is our strength” or something.
When investigating the arguments of inclusion and equality, the facts don’t support readiness or lethality either. In fact, a decrease in lethality was discovered, as the Marines found when evaluating all-male versus male-female mixed infantry squads during their evaluation phase between 2013 and 2016. Liberals argue the transgender integration angle similarly to how DADT was attacked: you should be allowed to be open about who you are and who you love. But would these same proponents defend the previously mentioned Marines for wearing blackface? They are expressing themselves: who is anyone to judge them? If they demand punishment in that case, then liberals actually agree that in the military, not every form of expression should be tolerated. And indeed these Marines were punished, rightly so. Historically these proscriptions have included other forms of expression like sexuality, not because of hatred or bigotry, but because of norms and traditions that have worked. As General Jim Mattis said in 2015, “when you mix arrows, and you mix affection for one another that could be manifested sexually, I don’t care where you go (in) history, you will not find where this has worked.”
The Right’s contradiction on this subject is in their fundamental lack of engagement in the national debate over what exactly our troops are supposed to be achieving in these wars. On the one hand, they argue for military culture to be defended as is, but then on the other, they want to use this deadly tool outside of its operating range. Besides the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against al-Qaeda in 2001 and the AUMF for Iraq in 2003, there has been no congressional vote on war, against Libya, in Syria, or in Africa. Republicans who are holding fast against change are also usually hawkish on defense. Senators like the late John McCain, neoconservative Tom Cotton, and Lindsey Graham have tried to have their cake and eat it too. In the Left’s defense, if the only thing our military should be used for is peacekeeping and regional stability in foreign lands, then it follows that it doesn’t really matter who makes up the force. It can be reflective of American societal norms.
In summary, the military as an institution has moved further from America while simultaneously moving closer. With respect to declaring war and having skin in the game, the military is miles apart from America, and as that separation has widened, the military profession has been pulled closer to America’s current trends in societal norms. These trends are just another manifestation of the civil-military divide. Neither is good for the military and both need to be reversed. The only strategy for the Right is to change fighting positions. They should insist that the military be used only in the traditional way, as a force tool of last resort to kill the enemy and for national defense. Only then can the norms, rules, and traditions be defended justifiably against the Left’s offensive for change.
Jeff Groom is a former Marine officer. He is the author of American Cobra Pilot: A Marine Remembers a Dog and Pony Show (2018). Follow him on Twitter @BigsbyGroom.
President Trump’s recent decisions to withdraw from Syria and negotiate a withdrawal from Afghanistan have reignited a long running debate over our military’s presence across the globe.
With thousands of American lives lost, many more wounded or maimed, and public coffers drained of $5.6 trillion, the weary public and their president have openly asked: is it worth the cost? Recently, too, CNN reported on a lesser known cost of war borne directly by the troops: suicide. 2018 marked a 10-year high for the Navy and Marine Corps, with 68 Navy and 57 Marine deaths confirmed as suicides.
The latest annual survey of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) members found that, when asked in 2018, 43 percent reported having had suicidal thoughts since joining the military, compared to 31 percent in 2014. Overall, 77 percent said they do not think the military is doing enough to address the problem. Suicide rates for veterans increased 25.9 percent from 2005 to 2015, dipped slightly between 2015 and 2016, and now are rising again. Tragically, more than 6,000 veterans have killed themselves every year since 2008.
This trend has proven baffling to Marine officials despite the availability of “extensive mental health programs.” And there’s something even more confusing: “many of the cases are young Marines who have not deployed overseas and have not been in combat—a situation that has been seen in other branches of the military as well.”
In September 2018, the VA released a report also acknowledging these patterns and declaring that the agency “must help reduce veterans’ risk for suicide before they reach a crisis.” This policy, it said, would be accomplished through an “expansion of treatment and prevention services and a continued focus on innovative crisis intervention services.”
But what is causing these trends and will these policies actually work?
Historically suicide has been regarded as taboo in America, a deeply shameful and disgraceful act. The same could be said of suicide in the military. More recently, as our wars have dragged on, both America’s view of its warriors and the military’s view of itself have changed, with an emphasis on eliminating the stigma attached to suicide in the hope that troubled individuals will come forward before it is too late. Yet most public discussions of this issue take for granted that in some way, combat stress is to blame for suicidal ideation.
Now that the data is telling us otherwise, how do we drill down on the root causes?
In his masterpiece of literary investigation The Gulag Archipelago, Russian dissident Aleksander Solzhenitsyn left no facet of zek (prisoner) psychology untouched. With respect to suicide in the camps, Solzhenitsyn claimed that the prisoners had the will to “not perish from the disaster! It had to be survived.” This will was the “root cause of the astounding rarity of camp suicides.” The inmates were “condemned to a misshapen existence, to waste away from starvation, to exhaustion from labor—they did not put an end to themselves!” Solzhenitsyn concluded, “This meant some kind of invincible feeling was alive inside them. Some powerful idea. This was their feeling of universal innocence.”
These observations lend themselves to viewing suicide as a disease of the spirit, not of the mind or body. And diseases of the spirit are impossible to quantify; they can only be qualified. The feelings of pain, despair, isolation, heartbreak, and depression can’t be reduced to Excel charts or attendance rosters for prevention classes. But in today’s military, the love of easy and empirical solutions presents the same trap that doomed the American effort in Vietnam: not everything that counts can be counted. As Marine Captain Grazier said in a 2103 essay on suicide for The Marine Corps Gazette, “Any action must be judged by its results. If the results are bad, the action is wrong.” Likewise can we judge a policy by its effectiveness. If a policy aimed at reducing suicide has no impact or the trends worsen, objectively one can say the policy is ineffective or not designed correctly.
What matters to the military? The decision to join acknowledges and accepts that suffering will be involved: privation, danger, fatigue, and physical and mental exertion. Voluntary military service is about putting something on the altar of national sacrifice: time, relationships, physical and mental health, and, if required, limbs and lives, all offered for sanctification. Semper Fi! So why then are military members’ spirits broken? Not because of what they have experienced, but because of what they haven’t experienced. Something deeper is missing: the feeling of being connected to a larger organism. To American society, the bee is more important than the hive, but to the voluntary service member, the hive is more important than the bee.
The timespan and elusive strategic objectives of America’s wars—and to a lesser degree, its social engineering—have fractured the tribal cohesion of the military, commonly called espirit de corps. The civil-military divide has reduced the relationship between the public and their protectors to blind patronage. The American people, who have not been taxed, drafted, or even consulted through Congress concerning the conduct of war, want their heroes to be comfortable—comfortable in a physical, material way. Former secretary of defense Chuck Hagel perfectly summarized this policy during the government shutdown of October 2013 when he ordered back to work furloughed Department of Defense civilians whose “responsibilities contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities, and readiness of service members.” This was at a time when less than half of Marine aircraft could fly. Military leadership basically told the troops that while they can’t provide working equipment, be happy because counselors are always on hand to take your calls.
By keeping the military comfortable, in an ironic way, our society removes their sacrifice from the altar. While there is no doubt that multiple combat deployments can and have had negative effects on veterans’ health, the flip side is solidarity with fellow soldiers. The depth of this forged relationship is difficult to fathom. In The German Soldier in World War II, studies of German units found that even though soldiers were granted standard leave periods to return to the Fatherland for R&R, they overwhelmingly preferred to stay with their units and endure death and destruction. If any one of those soldiers could have been asked why, his answer would not have been quantifiable. While no one wants war to better bond with their comrades, there must be efforts to clear the decks so that the balkanization of American society does not infiltrate the Armed Forces. Identity politics seeping into the military culture will only hurt the ethos of unity and sacrifice.
Of course, military suicide can be put into better perspective when placed in a broader context. Rates of suicide in the military are still lower than in American society. According to the CDC, between 1996 and 2016, every state except Nevada saw an increase in suicide rates. In 2017, the toll stood at 47,000.
An interesting explanation for these trends was examined in The Righteous Mind by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Haidt examines the evolutionary origins of our moral inclinations. Allegiance to a tribe and following rules is in our DNA and cannot be turned off; its software comes loaded from birth. Haidt draws attention to the fact that after remaining stable for decades, suicide rates began to climb following the liberating cultural revolution of the 1960s. He concludes that “when societies lose their grip on individuals, allowing them to do as they please, the result is often a decrease in happiness and an increase in suicide.”
Military service members, while perhaps not fully understanding their own evolutionary idealism, enlist to escape a society where it’s every man for himself. Human beings instinctively need to be part of a tribe. There is something mysteriously satisfying about offering yourself for the greater good of others. An experience in the military followed by a life deficient in community, solidarity, and shared suffering is, well, depressing.
Suicide is a complex issue and no analysis can completely cover the wide range of reasons for despair. The epidemic is a wider cultural problem; the military trends in the same direction as the society from which it is drawn. The suicide rate in America, for example, is escalating among poor, white men, particularly those between the ages of 45 and 64. These are counted among the growing “deaths of despair,” which also includes drug overdoses and liver disease.
And while “extensive mental health programs” can effectively talk someone off the ledge, they can only treat symptoms, not the underlying disease. The correct approach is to address the readiness crisis and spending priorities in the military. Without deployments, being ready for combat is the next best thing. Congress and military leadership have gone all in on the bankrupt idea that comfort and happiness equals morale and morale correlates to readiness. In fact, they got it backward. Providing the resources and time to effectively accomplish the mission is what lifts the spirits of the troops.
While we know that preventing suicide in our military community is not an exact science, focusing on the real needs of the soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine is the best place to start.
Jeff Groom is a former Marine officer. He is the author of American Cobra Pilot: A Marine Remembers a Dog and Pony Show (2018). Follow him on Twitter @BigsbyGroom.
After returning to Ohio after nine years away in the Marines, I found myself with a weekend of free time. So I decided to check out an event I had frequented as a young man: a gun show.
Sometimes called gun and knife shows, I was introduced to them by my grandfather in the early 2000s in a small Ohio town called Circleville. It was at that show that I purchased a Russian-made surplus Mosin-Nagant M44 carbine battle rifle for only $100 out the door. Complete with a folding bayonet and the Soviet hammer and sickle stamped on the barrel, the rifle was in unused condition (but made in 1946) and coated from steel butt plate to front sight in an oil-based rust preventative product called cosmoline. Cosmoline is sticky and has the consistency of wax, so for several hours with rags and gun oil I happily toiled to shine it up and ready it for the first firing. I still love shooting it. Every shot of Russian surplus 7.62x54R ammunition produces a 12-inch flame and sounds like a mini-cannon going off.
Despite the recent media focus on gun control and gun violence, gun shows—which number about 5,000 annually—have been in the sights of Congress for closure for quite some time. Between 2001 and 2013 seven unsuccessful attempts were made to close what is known as the “gun show loophole.” Federal law requires background checks for businesses who hold a Federal Firearm License (FFL) to sell firearms. However, per the 1986 Firearms Owners Protection Act, private sellers are defined as those who don’t generate their primary income through gun sales. These transactions do not require a federal background check (though 11 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws requiring a background check for all sales, including private ones). A gun can be transferred through trade, by barter, or cash, all common sights at the shows.
So what is it like to go to one of these shows?
The show I attended on December 22 was held at the Clark County Fairgrounds in Springfield, Ohio. Thirty-eight miles west of Columbus along Interstate 70 in flat farm country, I made the trek on a stereotypically cold and grey Ohio winter day. Pulling into the lot for parking around 12:30 p.m., one out of every two vehicles was an American-made truck, varying in degrees of dilapidation. Scanning my surroundings there were numerous warehouses, one labeled arts and crafts, one a youth center, and a mercantile. To my six ‘o’clock were several hundred yards of open air animal stables covered by a 30 foot tall galvanized steel roof. Devoid of livestock at the moment, I could only imagine how many farming kids paraded their prized animals during the fair days.
As I was shuffling my cell phone and wallet and placing my loaded Walther PPS conceal carry pistol into my center console a fully packed minivan disembarked next to me. Two adult men were driver and passenger with four young men in tow, varying in age from ten to about eighteen years old. The driver promptly opened the tailgate to his van and removed a .50 caliber sniper rifle which was almost as tall as one of the younger men. The other man produced an AR-15 rifle from a black carry case. No cause for alarm, what might cause city slickers and urbanites a panic attack is just standard fare at a gun show.
The fee to enter was nine dollars cash, and for vendors each exhibit table was priced at sixty dollars. Prior to entering a large sign hanging above the entrance directed patrons that loaded weapons were not allowed into the show and no pictures were permitted either. A table before the entrance was manned by a worker who visually inspected each weapon’s chamber and then placed a plastic zip tie through the bolt or action and fastened it in place, rendering the weapon incapable of being loaded or fired. The show was split between two rectangular rooms conjoined by a small hallway, the first about 100 by 50 yards, the second 150 by 50 yards, with vendor tables being arranged in parallel to the longer side of the rooms.
Although each table and vendor are unique, you can classify each table generally between guns, ammunition, accessories, privateers and collectors, and small businesses. For the gun tables the largest presence are actual gun dealers that set up shop at the shows. One vendor had five tables, the first two completely covered by handguns laying directly on top of their carrying cases or boxes, all new. Each gun had a security wire running through the trigger guard which was then plugged into a larger system to alert the seller if someone tried to walk off with a gun, unlike at traditional gun stores where weapons are either held lock and key underneath a glass case or behind the counter in a rifle rack. I requested to inspect a Taurus Public Defender, a revolver that can shoot both .410 shotgun or 45 Colt rounds. On sale for $359 plus tax. The other tables were new rifles sitting atop their boxes with several more beneath each one. I spot a few Kel-Tec Sub 2000s, a lightweight rifle that can fold in half for storage chambered in 9mm that accepts Glock handgun magazines, some American-made AK-47s from Century Arms, and of course, AR-15s. At the end of this vendor’s table was a German MG34 machine gun, on “sale” for $9,000 and 1300 rounds of belted ammunition but only of course to a holder of a FFL. Capable of firing at 850 rounds per minute, you could get about a minute and a half of fun before you needed more ammo.
The other vendors selling guns were usually collectors with one or two tables, the standard display being about five or six used guns either laid out on a mat or in a simple wooden gun rack clamped securely to the table, some paramilitary weapons like the SKS, others older like double barreled shotguns, a bin of miscellaneous collector items such as knives or patches, and a few ammunition magazines of varying caliber. When I started going to the shows in the early 2000s they were still under the shadow of the 1994 assault weapon’s ban, which lasted for ten years, expiring without renewal in 2004. Imported assault rifles ran in the thousands of dollars and high capacity magazines, generally anything capable of holding over ten rounds, were banned. To score a thirty round magazine in the early 2000s was like finding a rare 1970s muscle car in an abandoned barn. Not so today, for sale on numerous tables were AR-15 drum magazines capable of holding 100 rounds, and thirty round MAGPUL magazines for the AK-47 were only 15 bucks. I bought three. One collector had amassed about a dozen muskets from the late 1800s, many over four feet long, the barrels had a patina of rust and the wooden stocks were darkened and smooth from years of handling. Known as Pre-98s, they existed before serial numbers were stamped on weapons and each one had the makers name engraved. One piece from Cincinnati was tagged for $1700 but the collector said he’d let it go for $1,000. I passed.
The clientele of the shows are fairly easy to describe. Out of hundreds of attendees, I counted three African-American men, about five females, and the rest where white men, half of whom were bearded or wearing either civilian hunting or military camouflage. Eavesdropping is easy in the narrow confines between tables. Many patrons who toted a weapon for trade or barter could be heard explaining to a total stranger the make of the gun, how it shoots, the new sights, the two stage trigger, what they’ll take for it, and of course, the occasional ranting about the Democrats, liberals, Obama, Second Amendment rights, and the coming revolution. A standard technique is to put a wooden or metal rod in the barrel of the rifle as it is slung on the shoulder, barrel up, and attach a small paper sign to the rod to function as a walking advertisement for the gun and the price the owner is asking.
Ammunition sales were booming as usual, raking in cash from dozens of clamoring customers. Hard-to-find calibers can sometimes be found at the shows, especially for paramilitary weapons. Surplus vendors arranged large plastic bins of camouflage clothing, canteen pouches, parkas, boots, and blankets. One even possessed military booklet manuals for first aid, booby traps, and improvised munitions. I even spotted a service manual for the famous Thompson submachine gun sitting next to copies of Serpent’s Walk. A coin collector was selling US silver dollars from the 1880s for 38 bucks.
The oddball small business tables pushing wares and merch reflected the customers’ tastes. One table was selling bumper stickers, printed in Dixie by proud Americans, one for two bucks, three for five bucks. Some memorable mottos: “If You Want Gun Control Move to Chicago” and “Go Green-Recycle-Reload Your Own Ammo.” Several knife sharpening blacksmith’s were grinding away, and one woman was selling female focused clothing with a twisted Oprah like phrase: “Coffee, Jesus, and Pepper Spray.” JJ’s Café was up and running as well at the far end of the larger hall, the menu organized by the type of meat in the sandwich: beef, chicken, pork, or fish. And if you want vegetarian, well grilled cheese was your only option, although I was pleasantly surprised to see an overweight gun collector break out a homemade iceberg lettuce salad, only to bury it in an avalanche of ranch dressing.
With my ammunition, high capacity magazines, and a new holster for my “truck gun,” a Springfield XDM .40, I headed for the doors around 2 p.m. Just outside several vendors were taking a smoke break, complaining they should be allowed to light up indoors, cursing the damned liberals who have made too many rules and are stealing our freedom. I love gun shows.
The Swamp. Candidate Donald Trump alluded to it constantly during his historic campaign. No one explicitly stated the definition of the Swamp but it was tacitly understood to be a visual analogy for what was occurring in Washington: a site of stagnation, stench, and rot.
Translated into political imagery, the Swamp has been identified as the source of dysfunction, waste, and deceit. “For too long,” Trump said in his inaugural address, “a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.” Some Americans associated the Swamp with selfish elite politicians, bureaucrats, operatives, and lobbyists responsible for outsourcing and the loss of jobs, and trade deals and taxation benefiting the rich. But amidst the righteous patriotic anger at the state of our country, one victim of the Swamp has gone largely unnoticed: the military. As one of the only institutions that Americans continue to have faith and respect in, it nonetheless has not been immune from decay, cronyism, and dysfunctional, scelrotic bureaucracy.
After serving in the Marines for nine years as an officer and naval aviator, I witnessed firsthand what Trump has called the “broken system.” The military began fiscal year 2018 with a budget of $717 billion, bases across the world that serve as self-sufficient, self-contained cities, and hundreds of thousands of civilian and contractor support personnel. Despite these basic but significant conditions, we are suffering from a readiness crisis, sometimes with deadly consequences, as seen in rising aviation mishap rates and Navy ships colliding on the high seas.
What is readiness? The military defines readiness as “the ability of U.S. forces to fight and meet the demands of the national military strategy.” In layman’s terms readiness is maintaining a quantifiable level of proficiency in assigned missions over the course of time. For an aviation mission like close air support, readiness is how well we can put our rounds on a target at the right time today, tomorrow, in a month, and in a year. Every military unit utilizes a reporting system that quantifies readiness. The Marine Corps utilizes the Defense Readiness Reporting System and updates their data every 30 days.
The causes of the readiness crisis are complex, and in order to separate and analyze them it is useful to visualize the military as a living organism. Just as an animal needs blood and nutrients to survive, so too does the military need resources to function properly. But today the massive Swamp leech is slowly bleeding the military dry of time, equipment, money, and resources.
The first nutrient the military needs is time. The average American is under the impression that members of the military spend the majority of their time and energy doing their stated jobs or military occupational specialties. Pilots fly their planes and soldiers train on their weapon systems. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Leonard Wong, a former Army lieutenant colonel turned researcher, conducted a rigorous study at the direction of the U.S. Army War College to determine the burden of administrative training requirements placed on soldiers. His team’s findings were released in April 2002 and found that company commanders had to fit 297 days of mandatory training into 256 available training days. Reporting again in 2015 after interviewing dozens of Army officers, Wong found that the burden of training requirements created a culture where “subordinates are forced to prioritize which requirements will actually be done to standard and which will only be reported as done to standard.” From one officer, “we can probably do two or three things in a day, but if you give us 20, we’re gonna half-ass 15 and hope you ignore the other five.” Several phrases that consistently appeared in the study’s interviews were “hand waving, fudging, massaging, or checking the box.” In other words, administrative training requirements created a troubling culture of dishonesty and deception.
What is the nature of this training? Some training, such as the rifle range or conditioning hikes, contributes to readiness, but a great deal does not. From my time in the Marines, here’s a non-exhaustive list: Anti-Terrorism Training, Uncle Sam’s Operational Security, Violence Prevention Program Awareness (no this isn’t a joke; there is a program to teach warfighters to be non-violent, instituted after the Fort Hood shootings, which were a terrorist attack, not workplace violence), Semper Fit Tobacco Cessation, Combating Trafficking in Persons, Cyber Awareness Training, Sexual Health Training, Sexual Assault and Response Training, Records Management Training, Suicide Prevention, and Risk Management. This “training” consists of nothing more than computer-aided tutorials which must be repeated each year. In practice most Marines just click through the programs as fast as possible so rosters can be completed.
In addition to this mandatory training, officers are required to manage and administer dozens of programs that correspond to the operation of their respective units. These include: Postal Affairs, Combat Marksmanship Program, Equal Opportunity Program, Historical Program, and the Performance Evaluation System, to name just a few.
Programs for morale and welfare have also grown exponentially with the war on terrorism, even eclipsing readiness and capability in priority. Shortly after the government shutdown of October 2013, then-defense secretary Chuck Hagel ordered back to work furloughed Department of Defense civilians whose “responsibilities contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities, and readiness of service members.”
Though they supported families amidst back-to-back deployments during the long years of Iraq and Afghanistan, is it reasonable now to maintain nearly 160 golf courses across the world when less than half of Marine aircraft can fly according to standards? While combat operations have drawn down, the opposite has not occurred. As in any bureaucracy, necessary improvements always lag behind need, sometimes by years.
A short listing of support programs in the military include: Military OneSource, Family Readiness Program, Military and Family Life Counseling Program, Family Advocacy Program, Community Counseling Program, DSTRESS hotline, Marine Corps Family Team Building, Operational Stress Control and Readiness, and numerous others. The redundancy and overlap of these programs prompted my former squadron to create a flow chart of yes/no questions, a jumbled maze of a document, to guide leaders in pushing troubled Marines in the right direction. Mentoring and caring for their subordinates using “intrusive leadership,” once the duty of Marine leaders, has been contracted to a new army of civilian DoD employees, further splintering military cohesion and esprit de corps.
Hagel’s comments highlight one of the most dangerous negative effects of the civilian-military divide: the assumption by the American people that voluntary service members are only interested in “morale and well-being” in the material sense. Marine officers are taught that the purpose of military leadership is mission accomplishment, followed by troop welfare. The fallacy that has become the norm is that material happiness equals morale, and that morale correlates to readiness. But the opposite is true. Readiness boosts morale. Being given the resources and time to accomplish our missions is what makes the troops most content.
Is some of this administrative training and support required to achieve readiness? Absolutely. But without real results the current system cannot be defended. The readiness crisis is real, but the military is accepting mission failure as long as the boxes are checked. For example, naval aviation had a flight time requirement of 100 hours per year. Many Marine pilots, including myself, did not get the minimum required hours over the last several years.
Service-wide frustrations with these activities were addressed in July 2017 when Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis ordered the formation of a working group to examine the “mandatory force training that does not directly support core tasks.” Recommendations were due in December 2017. When I left the Marine Corps in April 2018 I had not heard of any changes, and today close friends still serving confirm the status quo remains intact.
The military loves to quantify things. But because we don’t have the time, money, and resources to achieve readiness, we compensate by pursuing and cataloging things that don’t matter. And as we learned so painfully in Vietnam, not everything that can be counted counts.
In addition to time and the discretion for its use, the military requires trained personnel and functional equipment to achieve readiness. Several of the metrics used to calculate readiness pose the following sorts of questions. Does the unit have the number of helicopters or tanks on hand that are specified by their Table of Equipment and Organization and enough maintenance personnel? What is the operating status of this equipment? Is it in depot-level maintenance and not available for training or is it fully mission-capable and up for tasking?
How the Swamp has created a situation where the military lacks working and adequate equipment lies primarily in the two major regional contingency (two MRC) strategy.
After World War II, the United States developed a new national security strategy under President Harry Truman. This policy was guided by National Security Council Paper NSC-68, created in April 1950. Citing the “hostile design” of the Soviet Union and rejecting isolationism and outright war, the policy recommended the “the rapid building up of the political, economic, and military strength of the free world.”
By 1992 the USSR had dissolved, but what remained intact was the capability to fight the USSR. As the old saying goes, if you don’t use it you lose it. Shuttering an armaments industry in business for 45 years with yearly budgets in the hundreds of billions wasn’t the same as closing a seasonal Halloween store.
Wasting little time, in 1993 the Pentagon under Defense Secretary Les Aspin came up with the workaround: the two MRC strategy. The idea was that the military would be sized to fight two major regional conflicts simultaneously.
Reporting in 2012 for Time magazine, Mark Thompson described the two MRC strategy “as a floor on just how much of a military we need to buy; if we need X to wage and win one war, it sounds logical that we need double that—2X—to prevail in two places.” He summarized that it “isn’t a strategy at all, but merely a capability.”
In October 2017 the Heritage Foundation completed their yearly assessments of the military branches, using the two MRC strategy as the standard for grading capability. What type of capacity is required for a military capable of fighting two MRCs? For the Marine Corps, by far the smallest service, it means possessing more combat aircraft than the United Kingdom’s formidable Royal Air Force. Through the lens of the two MRC strategy, the crisis is fairly straightforward. By law the Marine Corps must fly and maintain enough aircraft to fight two big wars at the same time. This sorry state of affairs led the commandant, General Robert B. Neller, to declare in 2018 that the Marine Corps had “too many airplanes.” As noted in the Heritage assessment, only 40 percent of those aircraft could actually fly as of December 2016. An emphasis on quantity has negatively impacted the quality of the aircraft.
And digging deeper, that 40 percent even includes aircraft that aren’t fully mission capable. To be safe for flight is one thing; to be capable of attack is another. If certain weapon systems or sensors are not in working order, the aircraft can still fly, but is reduced to a flashy looking news helicopter, incapable of locating and shooting targets.
A similar story plagues the other services. In the Army, 21 Brigade Combat Teams of 4,500 soldiers apiece are required for one major contingency. But in 2017, only three of the 58 were considered ready for combat.
Setting these expectations creates spending allocation problems. There simply isn’t enough money to fix, operate, and maintain all of our equipment. Analyzing the fiscal year 2018 military budget, more than 40 percent of the budget, or $272 billion, was alotted to pay and benefits of military personnel and their dependents before one bullet or bomb was purchased. After accounting for procurement at $115 billion and research and development at $82 billion, $223 billion was left to split between the four major services for operations and maintenance.
A military sized for two simultaneous regional wars requires massive contractor support in order to run training ranges, flight simulators, and higher-level maintenance facilities. In 2012 the contractor army stood at 670,000 and cost $129 billion to maintain.
Without the proper tools in capable hands, military exercises to prepare for war degenerate into nothing more than elaborate propaganda displays. On my first deployment, while on board the USS Bonhomme Richard off the coast of South Korea before Exercise Ssang Yong 2014, our executive officer emailed the aviation detachment the following statement: “Everyone needs to realize this is not a tactical exercise. This is a political exercise to show that even in fiscally constrained times we (Uncle Sam), can do a beach assault with all of our toys. What actually makes it to the beach is mostly irrelevant.” The “exercise” that followed resembled a cross between the Westminster dog show and a Leni Riefenstahl production.
The mock enemy positions, simple fighting holes dug a few hundred meters inland, in no way simulated a North Korean defense, there was no live fire, and the outcome of the exercise was predetermined: the Marines won. What Marines public affairs officers reported about the exercise was more valuable to our leaders than the training value extracted for the participants whose morale suffered accordingly. Trump was right to cancel them. Upon further examination, our leadership wasn’t being disingenuous.
According to a Marine Corps Times article published in January 2018, the Marines want the Navy to man and operate 50 amphibious ships to be able to practice large scale amphibious operations as called for by current policy. Currently there are 32, down from 62 in the 1990s. The result? The Navy “could not fulfill 93 percent, or 293 out of 314, of the Marine Corps’ requests for amphibious training for the San Diego-based [Marine Expeditionary Force].” Current plans call for 38 ships by 2033, still well short of the 50 desired.
Another facet of our equipment problems stems from the military procurement system. We now have a military that supports the procurement system, rather than the other way around, resulting in ineffective, unreliable, and irrelevant hardware plagued by cost and timeline overruns that span years and gobble up billions.
The Marine Corps’ latest ship-to-shore troop connector, the Amphibious Combat Vehicle, selected in June 2018, swims at seven knots in the water, the same speed as the 46-year-old Assault Amphibious Vehicle it replaces. This, despite deputy Marine commandant Lieutenant General Brian Beaudreault stating in 2017 that “we have to find a solution to getting Marines to shore, from over the horizon, at something greater than seven knots.” In between these vehicles was the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, a high speed connector that churned through $3 billion and more than two decades before finally being canceled in 2011.
As the Project on Government Oversight’s Dan Grazier has reported, unit costs for the $1.5 trillion F-35 program have more than doubled from $62.2 million in 2001 to $158.4 million today. The program is 12 years behind schedule and, most recently, program office officials have downgraded or altered potentially fatal or mission-degrading design flaws to avoid blowing through yet another development milestone. The cost of future modernization is now approaching $10.8 billion, easily clearing the threshold for an entirely new Major Defense Acquisition Program. Lockheed Martin wisely spread the pork across 45 different states employing 146,000 workers, undermining any congressional will to cut the program, resulting in the ultimate coup d’état of the defense industry over the military and taxpayers.
In fact, between 2001 and 2011 the Department of Defense spent over $46 billion on weapon systems that were ultimately canceled.
On the surface, the two MRC “strategy” seems reasonable: whoever has the most soldiers and highest quality equipment wins. Why are the streets of Paris lined with trees? So the Germans can march in the shade. In World War II they outmaneuvered a larger and better equipped French Army that had eight months to prepare for war and had a home field advantage. The conflict lasted 43 days. As TAC contributor and military historian William Lind has mentioned, American military theory is French-inspired and over 100 years old. But outside of that interesting and necessary debate, something much more nefarious is at play.
Trump’s national security strategy, released in December 2017, focuses on the return of great power competition with Russia and China. The strategy states that the United States must “retain overmatch—the combination of capabilities in sufficient scale” and also “must reverse recent decisions to reduce the size of the Joint Force and grow the force while modernizing and ensuring readiness.”
As alluded to previously, the military-industrial capacity that found itself without an enemy at the close of the Cold War is now in the driver’s seat. Just as when a totalitarian government overtakes the legal system the motto of justice becomes “show me the man and I’ll show you the crime,” our defense policy motto has become “bring me a $717 billion defense bill and I’ll find you an enemy.”
With this strategy in hand, a new spending spree has commenced with the passage of the latest $717 billion defense bill, which includes 473 new Bradley fighting vehicles for the Army, $40 billion to fix the aviation crisis, 15,600 more troops overall, and, of course, a 2.6 percent pay raise to show the troops how much we love them.
Will it solve the readiness crisis? In the short term there will likely be relief, but as government shutdowns increase in frequency, with no end in sight for overseas contingencies, and debt projections reaching $33 trillion by 2028, the system will no doubt relapse into dysfunction. The hallmark of a “broken system” is a constant, unacceptable result despite changing initial conditions. Without the time to achieve the mission, without operating equipment, and without the proper allocation of resources the readiness crisis will continue unabated despite fresh infusions of billions. We have to choose between having a large, underfunded paper tiger military or a smaller, properly funded, lethal military. We can’t have both.
The military is drowning in the Swamp. Will she survive? For my friends still serving and for our country’s sake, I sure hope so.
“They don’t like the fact that we oppose them, and we like the fact that they don’t like the fact that we oppose them. Three hundred of us, surrounded by them, we’ve got them right where we wanted, right?”
This statement was made by the current Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, Ronald Green, in December of 2017 in reference to the 300-man-strong Marine Rotational Force stationed in Trondheim, Norway, approximately 200 miles north of Oslo. At the invitation of Norway, Marines began six-month training rotations there back in 2017.
Why? Because more than 25 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia has seemingly reemerged as a threat to Europe and the world. President Trump’s national security strategy, released in December of 2017, solidifies this stance in “Pillar 3: Preserve Peace through Strength,” which focuses on the return of “great power competition” with Russia and China.
American policy towards Russia now appears identical to what it was during the Cold War: contain the threat. But if the USSR and Russia are not the same by any stretch of the imagination, why is the policy the same, and more importantly, does it work?
Following World War II, as the Soviet Union consolidated its position behind the Iron Curtain, the United States deliberated over how to react. President Truman tasked the U.S. Department of State’s Policy Planning Staff with reviewing national security strategy.
Under the leadership of Paul Nitze, the staff created National Security Council Paper 58 (NSC-68), released in April 1950. Citing the “hostile design” of the Soviet Union and rejecting both isolationism and outright war, it recommended the “the rapid building up of the political, economic, and military strength of the free world.” The strategy was one of deterrence and containment backed by a credible capability to fight and win in the event of war.
Defense spending as a percentage of GDP tripled between 1950 and 1953 from 5 percent to 14 percent. In the words of President Eisenhower, “we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.”
We needed intelligence on the enemy and hence created the CIA in 1947, the NSA in 1952, and the DIA in 1961. Think tanks were born to develop policy and guidance. The DoD had to hire thousands more workers to administer the new defense establishment. A real enemy—the Soviet Union—justified a real defense establishment.
The key takeaway is that the starting point for Cold War strategy began with the enemy and necessitated a large military capability. Or as Israeli historian Martin Van Creveld notes in The Transformation of War, “nothing is more characteristic of strategy than its mutual, interactive character.” A strategy without an opponent is meaningless.
With the fall of the USSR, the Cold War came to a close. And in the American tradition, base closures and cuts to the size of the military soon followed. But the conflict with communism didn’t run a few years like World War II; it spanned the order of decades. Shuttering an armaments industry in business for 45 years with yearly budgets in the hundreds of billions wasn’t the same as closing a seasonal Halloween store.
As George Kennan foresaw the problem in 1987:
Were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the American military-industrial establishment would have to go on, substantially unchanged, until some other adversary could be invented. Anything else would be an unacceptable shock to the American economy.
The successful containment strategy of the Cold War began with the enemy and necessitated a capability. Today that capability remains and is fighting for its life against reality. Small wars and insurgencies won’t do. A larger scale is required. The military-industrial complex requires industrial enemies.
Just as when a totalitarian government captures a legal system the motto of justice becomes “bring me the man and I’ll find the crime,” our defense policy motto after the Swamp captured the DoD has become “bring me a $700 billion defense bill and I’ll find you an enemy.” Or stated differently by Commander Salamander on his military blog in a post slamming the Air Force’s light attack program, “we have a procurement system that does not support the military; the military supports the procurement system.”
While there was much to criticize about America’s conduct during the Cold War, at the end of the day it was a win for the United States. And it is always hard to criticize results, regardless of the strategy. Today our biased and misguided policy is detrimental to legitimate foreign policy goals. In other words, it doesn’t work.
To seize Crimea, rather than roll in a column of tanks as in Hungary in 1956, Russia simply marched in unidentified “green men” and claimed the peninsula without a single life lost. The USSR might have fallen, but Russia learned. Our response? In addition to sanctions, $200 million dollars were allotted in the 2018 defense bill to upgrade air bases in Norway, Iceland, and the UK to deter Russia. If that sounds similar to the Cold War strategy of containment, that’s because it is. The system only knows one enemy: the USSR.
Viewed from this angle, the Marines seeking out “business opportunities” in Norway can be explained, but not justified. The Corps is simply executing the policy laid out in the Trump administration’s national security strategy. Proponents of this strategy claim it deters Russia from even considering an attack. But does any sober assessment of Russian aims or strategy include a large-scale war in Europe?
What would today’s Russia stand to gain from such a war? Russia is authoritarian but not totalitarian and no longer pushing for the worldwide revolution of the proletariat. The Gulags have been closed for decades, the Politburo and the police state have receded, and while the censorship remains in place, it’s been there since being instated by Catherine the Great in 1797. Neither land nor resources are good reasons for war. At 17.1 million square miles, Russia is the world’s largest country. Additionally, it’s ranked number one for energy reserves with a combination of coal, oil, and natural gas. Russia’s economy is also unlikely to sustain a large-scale war. The GDP of Italy at $1.8 trillion is comparable to Russia at $1.2 trillion, and the GDP of the EU is 10 times that of Russia.
Yet all the branches of the military are rushing to execute this Cold War strategy. The Army recently placed orders for 473 new Bradley infantry fighting vehicles. And after the last American tanks left Europe in 2013, the Army has returned to defend NATO against Russia.
Despite President Trump campaigning on the irrelevance of NATO and threatening the EU with consequences for failing to meet spending targets, the U.S. military base sites in Europe remain numerous and are growing. In his book Base Nation, David Vine explores our base presence in Europe. The United States has 174 base sites in Germany, 50 in Italy, 21 in Portugal, 27 in the UK, 10 in Belgium, seven in the Netherlands, five in Romania, four in Bulgaria, eight in Greece, and 17 in Turkey.
Russian military policy has had many recent successes: a short hybrid war against Georgia, a lightning seizure of the Crimea, and the defense of Syria’s Assad against ISIS and other factions. The United States has accrued losses in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and, at 17 years old, the war in Afghanistan.
And just as our system can’t adapt to new Russian tactics in Crimea, a simple map study of Norway reveals something troubling that borders on laughable: the Norwegian base at Trondheim is well over 700 rugged miles from Norway’s extreme northern border with Russia. If the industrial juggernaut of the USSR never sent its tank columns through the Fulda Gap in Germany, why would Russia send them through a small desolate sliver of land on her border with Norway that lies just beneath the Arctic Circle? What political end-state would be the goal of such a move? Even the average civilian can see the absurdity of a military attack through northern Scandinavia.
But these reasonable and necessary questions are irrelevant and inconvenient. Russia is the enemy and everything follows from this premise. Or as Norwegian opposition party members plainly asked, what exactly are Marines doing in Norway?
Tuesday’s primaries revealed that insurgency in the Democratic Party is alive and well, as the progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez triumphed over the incumbent Congressman Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th Congressional District. Despite being outspent by a margin of 18-to-1, Ocasio-Cortez, who previously worked on Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, beat Crowley by a wide margin. Vogue has called Ocasio-Cortez the possible “future of the Democratic Party.” As a self-avowed democratic socialist, her campaign platform echoed the Bernie revolution: Medicare for all, higher education for all, housing as a human right, a federal jobs guarantee, fighting climate change, and even the abolishment of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to name a few.
But before Ocasio-Cortez’s romantic notions of socialist utopia and economic justice run head-first into America’s federalist power-sharing system, it’s worth examining them through the lens of local politics and social capital.
Is running for Congress the right path to institute socialist policies for your constituents? Examining the democratic side of her democratic socialism first, Ocasio-Cortez’s fatal flaw is well summarized in her campaign video introduction: “I was born in a place where your zip code determines your destiny.” This system, she says, doesn’t work. The rent keeps climbing, wages are low, access to health care is prohibitive, and families struggle. Yet it is also well known that democracy works best at the local level and decreases in effectiveness as the scale of the population increases. Hence the federalism that’s built into America’s constitutional system. The citizens of Boise, Idaho have a say over taxes in their city just as the citizens of the Bronx have a say over their education system.
What do the local politics in the zip code of New York’s 14th reveal? That district, a small sliver of real estate encompassing the eastern Bronx and part of north-central Queens, is home to approximately 700,000 people. The borough presidents of both Queens and the Bronx are Democrats and have been since the 1960s. In fact, in Queens, well over 60 percent of the population identifies as Democratic voters. Climbing higher to the state level, the last Republican governor, George Pataki, left office in January 2007 to be replaced by Eliot Spitzer, who was followed by two more Democrats. The state legislature, minus Republican control of the senate attained in 2011, has remained solidly blue.
Speaking with Vogue, Ocasio-Cortez blamed luxury real estate developers and claimed that “in the last three years or so, the median price of a two-bedroom apartment in New York 14 has gone up 80 percent.” But how can New York inner-city real estate pricing be controlled by a “housing as a human right” policy enacted at the federal level? Congress represents hundreds of millions of Americans spread out across a vast country. If the Democratic majority politics of the tiny 14th can’t produce affordable housing in the 14th, how can one Democratic congresswoman in a legislature controlled by Republicans pull it off?
Shifting to her socialism specifically, when questioned about the appeal of her ideology, Ocasio-Cortez said that “to me what socialism means is to guarantee a basic level of dignity.” Yet there has already been a comparatively high level of dignity achieved. Reporting in 2015, the Cato Institute found that in New York a mother with two children under the age of five, after drawing from six welfare programs, would receive benefits equating to $27,500 per year. Compare that to similar compensation in Germany ($23,257) and Sweden ($22,111); New Yorkers are only behind Denmark and the United Kingdom so far as welfare generosity goes. And that doesn’t include Medicaid, valued at $10,460 per year.
In fact there’s a much deeper problem in New York’s 14th. In his groundbreaking book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam correlates diversity with a marked decrease in social capital. Distinguishing between bridging and bonding capital, the former between two different groups and the latter within the same group, Putnam finds that ethnic diversity and multiculturalism cause a decrease in both types. Similarity increases trust and cooperation; diversity has the opposite effect, causing people to “hunker down” in the words of Putnam.
The breakdown of the 14th district is approximately 50 percent Hispanic, 19 percent white, 16 percent Asian, and 11 percent black. And while this eclectic ethnic diversity surely results in delicious culinary enrichment, basic human psychology has demonstrated that it lacks the building blocks for social capital. In a borough like Queens where 138 languages are spoken, eligible voter turnout for primary elections stands at 3 percent. The average American citizen knows the stereotype of a New Yorker well: unfriendly, cold, and rude.
The answer to “so what?” is that socialism as a guarantee of dignity and safety requires similarity to be voluntary—without that similarity, it becomes compulsory and coercive and therefore undemocratic. The welfare states of Northern Europe are smaller in population and share a similar culture, history, religion, land, and language. The average citizen of a country like Denmark doesn’t see resource reallocation as robbing Peter to pay Paul; he sees it as a form of fraternity and willingly votes for socialized medicine and a welfare safety net. The significant costs associated with such programs are acknowledged and accepted. (Nowhere in Ocasio-Cortez’s policy proposals are costs discussed or acknowledged. Right after right is listed, free of obligation or responsibility.)
Fortunately, Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign won’t make it that far in a sizable and dysfunctional Congress. If you want socialism, you have to start small and work big, and the fact that generous welfare policies in New York’s 14th still have Ocasio-Cortez asking for more truly says something. The question now is whether her campaign represents a continuation of the Bernie revolution or a splinter faction that splits the democratic socialist Bolsheviks from the Mensheviks (Bolshevik translated as more and Menshevik as less). After all, even old Uncle Bernie didn’t go so far as to demand that ICE be abolished.
The last presidential election cycle made it abundantly clear that something about our way of life does not “work.” After voting for change in 2008 and getting more of the status quo over the next eight years, furious voters from both parties decided to look outside the establishment for leadership.
So what exactly are we feeling right now? Perhaps it might be useful to take a trip to the past, 40 years ago to be exact. On this day in 1978, Russian writer Aleksander Solzhenitsyn delivered a commencement speech to Harvard University graduates, entitled “A World Split Apart.“ Not surprisingly, his fears about the sustainability of American society and culture still resonate today—though he offers little solace that any of it can be easily resolved.
While the country reeled from its recent losses in Vietnam and saw little inspiration coming the Carter administration, the gathered graduating class of Harvard ‘78 gathered—America’s elite—probably expected the former Gulag inmate to praise and reaffirm American exceptionalism and democratic ideals at the height of the Cold War.
To their disappointment, however, Solzhenitsyn had no such intentions. After noting at the outset that trust is not often “sweet” but “bitter,“ he said “a measure of truth is included in my speech today, but I offer it as a friend, not as an adversary.”
Not to put a finer point on it, Harvard Magazine recalled in 2011 that the ‘The Exhausted West,’ delivered in Russian with English translation under overcast skies, chastised the arrogance and smugness of Western materialist culture and exposed the adverse effects of some of those achievements that Western democracies had long prided themselves upon.”
In doing so he further underscored that the true divide between what seemed to be two world superpowers was much deeper and more complex than simply capitalism-versus- communism—a context sorely missing in the American Cold War reality, whether it be politics, news, film, or higher education.
The Nobel Prize winner indeed trained most of his fire on the West (“since my forced exile in the West has now lasted four years and since my audience is a Western one”), on its early colonization of other worlds, “not only without anticipating any real resistance, but usually with contempt for any possible values in the conquered people’s approach to life. It all seemed an overwhelming success, with no geographic limits. Western society expanded in a triumph of human independence and power.”
But there were limits, and in 1978: “it is difficult yet to estimate the size of the bill which former colonial countries will present to the West and it is difficult to predict whether the surrender not only of its last colonies, but of everything it owns, will be sufficient for the West to clear this account.”
Meanwhile in the West, the bill of The Enlightenment, and of humanism and unbridled individual liberty was also coming due in the 20th Century.
“Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society has turned out to have scarce defense against the abyss of human decadence, for example against the misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, such as motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror. This is all considered to be part of freedom and to be counterbalanced, in theory, by the young people’s right not to look and not to accept.”
He blamed the Western ruling class for lacking “civic courage,” leaving society, essentially, with so much freedom and material gain that they lost the ideals for the “common good” or the spiritual nourishment that served as motivating factors, if not necessary guideposts, for liberty in the first place.
Every citizen has been granted the desired freedom and material goods in such quantity and in such quality as to guarantee in theory the achievement of happiness, in the debased sense of the word which has come into being during those same decades. (In the process, however, one psychological detail has been overlooked: the constant desire to have still more things and a still better life and the struggle to this end imprint many Western faces with worry and even depression, though it is customary to carefully conceal such feelings. This active and tense competition comes to dominate all human thought and does not in the least open a way to free spiritual development.)
In the pre-modern worldview that ended with the Renaissance, mankind was inherently evil and had to be made better. But following these harsh times, he noted, “we turned our backs upon the Spirit and embraced all that is material with excessive and unwarranted zeal.”
Solzhenitsyn claimed that when “modern Western states were created, the principle was proclaimed that governments are meant to serve man and man lives to be free and to pursue happiness.” No longer was the world God’s domain, the “world belongs to mankind and all the defects of life are caused by wrong social systems, which must be corrected.”
Solzhenitsyn reminded his audience that the American experiment at its founding understood “all individual human rights were granted on the ground that man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility.” Never was the historical idea of freedom or pursuit of happiness interpreted as satisfying “instincts or whims”.
Having been exiled from the USSR in 1974 for publishing the Gulag Archipelago, which shockingly detailed the Soviet prison camp system, Solzhenitsyn had the opportunity to study the United States in person and summarized our society’s organization as completely based on what he characterized as “the letter of the law.” The “limits of human rights are determined by a system of laws” and “any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the supreme solution.” While he admitted,“I have spent all my life under a Communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed,” the western situation created an atmosphere “moral mediocrity” and “paralyzed man’s noblest intentions.”
The legalistic nature of society, devoid of a strong religious foundation, he said, was not conducive to mankind’s higher potential and could not stem or control human decadence and selfish impulses.
“Voluntary self-restraint is almost unheard of: everybody strives toward further expansion to the extreme limit of the legal frames.”
A slavophile deeply distressed by the totalitarian USSR, Mother Russia was not spared by her native son for her embrace of humanism which then led to socialism, and eventually, communism. Ending his speech, the former Gulag inmate tied his visions together:
“We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. In the East, it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests suffocate it. This is the real crisis. The split in the world is less terrible than the similarity of the disease plaguing its main sections.”
With the dissolution of the USSR and the end of the Cold War one superpower crumbled and the freedom loving United States still stood. The Western world cheered the triumph of freedom and markets. The final battle between world ideologies was over. The future would be democracy across the world. World peace was at hand.
But was our victory due to the merit of our system or simply the collapse of Soviet socialism with the arrow of time, the final proof that communism simply doesn’t work? After all, the United States never directly fought the USSR in a military campaign. Nuclear weapons kept the peace.
Solzhenitsyn’s opinion fell into the latter. Russia’s experiment in totalitarian communism lasted about 70 years, a small blink of time in Russia’s rich history. The American experiment in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is about to turn 242 years old.
In the Bible the number 40 represents a time of trial and testing, or even a probationary period. He added:
I hope that no one present will suspect me of expressing my partial criticism of the Western system in order to suggest socialism as an alternative. No; with the experience of a country where socialism has been realized, I shall not speak for such an alternative…
But should I be asked, instead, whether I would propose the West, such as it is today, as a model to my country, I would frankly have to answer negatively. No, I could not recommend your society as an ideal for the transformation of ours. Through deep suffering, people in our own country have now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive. Even those characteristics of your life which I have just enumerated are extremely saddening.
On the anniversary of his speech it is worth examining the American system after many trials and tests over the last 40 years. Where do we stand today?
Materially speaking, there is a lot to be proud of.
Our supermarkets are stocked to the brim, abundant and cheap fossil fuels power our cars and homes, 4 (soon to be 5) G networks keep us connected at all times, diseases have been eradicated, and any consumer good our hearts desire is at the touch of our fingers with Amazon Prime.
But despite these luxuries that make America the envy of the free world, the average citizen has had second thoughts. Domestically we are facing racial and economic tensions, a demoralized middle class, record deficits, and a polarized electorate to name a few. Notable writers at The American Conservative have commented on our pathologies, and the shift from democracy to nationalism.
40 Years after a World Split Apart, as Americans search for answers to our present state of dissatisfaction, our leaders and citizens would be wise to heed the central theme of Solzhenitsyn’s message:
“It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.”
Jeff Groom is a former Marine officer. He is the author of American Cobra Pilot: A Marine Remembers a Dog and Pony Show (2018).
One of the worst symptoms of the paralysis in Washington and at the Pentagon has been the inability to correctly match weapon systems with current enemy threat capabilities. Hence the United States Marine Corps is set to announce the final winner between defense contractors BAE Systems and SAIC to build and field their new Amphibious Combat Vehicle, or ACV.
Or should we say the old Amphibious Combat Vehicle? Because after 46 years and tens of billions of dollars, the Marines are right back where they started with this technology, which leaves no one—except maybe the contractors feeding off this farcical routine—feeling very satisfied.
So how did we get here?
The naval campaigns in the Pacific theater of World War II were successful due to the capability of the Marine Corps to conduct amphibious assaults against Japanese-held islands. Following the war this capability was written into law via the National Security Act of 1947, which stipulated that the Marine Corps was responsible for the seizure of advanced naval bases.
In order to move from Navy ships to enemy-held territory, the Marines must be transported across a distance of water and rely on what is generally called a connector. Both the Navy and Marine Corps operate various connectors from ship to shore, while the job of the Marines is to fight their way into enemy territory. Marine connectors only carry one weapon: Marines. Step one is to take the beach.
During World War II, the Navy ships could move to within a few miles of the Japanese-held islands before loading Marines into connectors. But with the advent of ballistic missile technology during the Cold War, a new weapon made its debut: the anti-ship missile.
The idea is simple. If Navy ships are within range of an anti-ship missile, they risk being severely damaged or even sunk. The solution is standoff. The Navy ships must stay outside the effective range of the missiles or use defensive measures to shoot the missiles down. This forces the ships further out to sea and increases the distance the connectors must travel over the open ocean to transport the Marines.
The connector vehicle the Marines adopted in 1972 was the Amphibious Assault Vehicle or AAV. AAVs are stored in hollow lower sections of naval ships known as well decks, which can be flooded so the AAV can exit the aft end of the ship into the ocean. The vehicle moves through the water using two traditional water propellers and also has tracks similar to a tank in order to drive on land. The AAV can carry around 20 Marines, swim through the water at seven knots (nautical miles per hour; seven knots is eight mph for comparison), and has an advertised water range of approximately 20 nautical miles, which in reality is closer to five nautical miles.
But anti-ship missile technology advanced in the 1980s, and proved deadly in the 1982 Falklands War between Great Britain and Argentina as the British lost two ships* to French-built Exocet missiles. So the Marine Corps and Navy rewrote their doctrine to move their ships over the horizon to approximately 12 nautical miles.
This strategy necessitated a new connector vehicle. Marine amphibious doctrine requires a “swift introduction of sufficient combat power ashore.” If the AAV can only swim at seven knots and the ships are 12 nautical miles away, you are looking at close to a two-hour ride to the beach. Time equals distance divided by speed. For the Marines stacked like sardines in full combat gear in the sweltering troop compartment of the AAV, this bumpy two hours becomes a rather nauseating and incapacitating experience.
So work began in earnest on the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, or EFV, in the 1980s. It was designed with a powerful jet propulsion system that allowed it to plane above the water like a speedboat and achieve 25 knots, three times as fast as the AAV with a water range of approximately 65 nautical miles. Over the course of 20 years, more than $3 billion was invested in the program. Operational EFVs were due to be in service by 2015, completely replacing the aging AAVs.
But potential adversaries didn’t stagnate. They developed a defensive Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy. Waters around potential landing sites would be mined, and the range, speed, and lethality of anti-ship missiles enhanced significantly.
The increasing complexity of the operating environment did not go unnoticed. During the Obama administration’s first term, Undersecretary of the Navy Robert O. Work envisioned an either/or type of scenario for the future of amphibious conflict. Either Marines would land essentially unopposed as in Grenada in 1983 or the A2/AD posture of our enemies would be so preventative as to require a massive bombardment using long-range stand-off weapons like Tomahawk missiles and bombers to clear out anti-ship missiles and other defenses. Neither situation necessitated the use of a high-speed, heavily armored connector like the EFV.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates canceled the EFV program in 2011. Immediately afterwards, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Amos, decided to pursue the next iteration of troop connector named the Amphibious Combat Vehicle, or ACV. High speed on water remained a top priority as late as 2013.
After some research proposals were explored, General Amos decided in January 2014 that the ACV would be developed in a phased approach with a decreased need for speed on water. The ACV 1.1 was to be an off-the-shelf, armored, wheeled vehicle that met requirements for armor protection on land but would rely on connectors like the Navy’s Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC, aka Hovercraft) to move it swiftly from over the horizon at 40 knots to a few miles from its objectives, where it would then swim the last few miles. The LCAC has a large deck area that can accommodate several ACVs. Traditionally the LCAC would bring in heavy equipment like tanks or trucks after Marines secured a beach since the LCAC lacks armor protection.
The phased acquisitions approach was a tacit admission that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. The Marine Corps asked industry for a vehicle that offered protection first and then speed on the water at some point in the future.
The ACV 1.1 would not be able to self-deploy and swim from a ship like the AAV or EFV. The Marine Corps would buy a smaller number of the ACV 1.1, upgrade older AAVs and keep them in service until 2030, and research and develop ACV 1.2, a high-speed, fully amphibious vehicle.
But this solution appears to have been smoke and mirrors. In March 2015, Marine Commandant Joseph Dunford testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee concerning the program. He said industry might merge the ACV 1.1 and ACV 1.2 requirements together.
BAE Systems and SAIC were awarded $100 million each in December of 2015 to develop 16 test vehicles for ACV 1.1. And lo and behold, abracadabra, both company’s test vehicles could self-deploy and swim from a ship at, wait for it, seven knots—as fast as, you guessed it, the 1972 version.
Since the introduction of the AAV, almost 50 years have passed and many billions have been spent in research and development. And now the taxpayer will be footing the bill for a connector that holds fewer Marines than in 1972 (13 versus 20), swims at the same speed, and is more expensive.
The Marine Corps and industry are touting the fact that the ACV is under cost and ahead of schedule. The program is projected to cost $1.2 billion with 204 vehicles operational by 2020.
In October 2017, deputy Marine commandant Lieutenant General Beaudreault stated that “we have to find a solution to getting Marines to shore, from over the horizon, at something greater than seven knots. We’ve got to have high-speed connectors.”
It appears the deputy commandant didn’t get the memo. As the F-35 and USS Gerald Ford programs have shown, whenever the system wins, the warfighter and taxpayer lose.
*Story has been changed to reflect the British loss of one destroyer and one container ship during the Falklands War in 1982.
Jeff Groom is a former Marine officer. He is the author of American Cobra Pilot: A Marine Remembers a Dog and Pony Show (2018).