Two Decades of War Have Eroded the Morale of America’s Troops
After nearly 17 years of war, service members have seen plenty of patriotic displays but little public debate about why they’re fighting.
South of Fallujah’s Route Fran were hundreds of insurgents who’d spent months digging trench lines, emplacing roadside bombs, barricading streets, training with their weapons, reading the Koran, and watching videos of suicide bombers to inspire them for the fight to come. North of Route Fran were the roughly 1,000 men of 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, preparing themselves for the assault. Route Fran itself was a wide, four-lane highway. On November 9, 2004, the highway was wet—it’d rained the previous day—and the sky was gray and foreboding.
“You just know that this whole company crossing this road,” marine Justin Best later told a reporter, “someone’s gonna get hit.”
When crossing an open space like Fran, it’s important to have units in overwatch, shooting at locations from which the enemy might fire at you and your buddies. Most of the bullets expended in war aren’t intended to kill the enemy so much as to keep his head down while you maneuver your way to a place where you can kill him. It doesn’t always work. There were enough large buildings on either side of Fran that the marines could never hope to cover every window.
The marines started to cross—one platoon running at full speed, the others firing away, filling the sky above with bullets. Insurgents on the other side opened up as well, one of them hitting Sergeant Lonny Wells, a 29-year-old father of four children. The round tore through his leg and he pitched forward, falling to the ground. Wells, his mother later recalled, had wanted to join the military since he was young. She’d tell him, “Why don’t you try to be a model? You’ve got the looks.” And he’d reply, “Oh, Mom, I’m gonna be a marine.” Now he was facedown in the middle of an open highway in Fallujah, blood pooling around his body.
Gunnery Sergeant Ryan Shane, whose platoon had been providing covering fire, put down his rifle. As a senior leader, he wasn’t expected to be the one to recover Wells. Nevertheless, he ran out to the fallen marine, grabbed him by the drag strap on his body armor, and, along with one other marine, began tugging him to safety. After Shane took a few steps, a bullet slammed into his lower back, and he fell to the ground. Now there were two injured men facedown in the middle of the open highway, bleeding onto the wet pavement.
Everyone in overwatch had seen Wells fall, and they’d seen what had happened to Shane when he’d tried to help. They all must have known that the two injured men were now bait, that insurgents were waiting to fire on anyone else foolish enough to try to save their brothers. Naturally, marines being marines, two more of them ran out. Thanks to them, Shane would live, but they were too late for Wells. He bled to death.
This is a common sort of war story. Every war provides them—young men and women risking and sometimes losing their lives in ways that provoke a kind of entranced awe. How, and why, do they do it? In America, we have a very particular set of answers. Driving through the South, outside of churches you’ll occasionally see a Fallen Soldier Battle Cross next to a sign bearing an image of Christ and a message: they both died for your freedom. Ronald Reagan once posed the author James Michener’s question about the heroes of the Korean War—“Where do we find such men?”—only to answer it with, “Well, we find them where we’ve always found them. They are the product of the freest society man has ever known.”
In this view, ours is a democratic courage, the purest reflection of the nature and quality of our society. Those men who rushed out under fire were formed by our civic body. Raised in our American democracy, with its love of liberty, strong civic institutions, and glorious past, those men would fight courageously as, in George Washington’s words, “Freemen” and not as “base hirelings and mercenaries.”
In turn, we, as members of that body from which they came, are to take heart from their example and commit ourselves with equal vigor to sustaining an American civil society that will continue to inspire such courage. When Abraham Lincoln stood at Gettysburg, he channeled what he claimed were the democratic impulses of the Union dead, urging the nation to rededicate itself with “increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.” When Woodrow Wilson stood at the American cemetery in Suresnes, France, he channeled the same impulses in articulating what he called the “unspoken mandates of our dead.”
The fraternal bonds of combat have always been invoked to political ends. But as we stand on the edge of 17 years of war, these ends have become smaller, indeed almost pathetic. When Donald Trump addressed the widow of a fallen Navy seal in the middle of a speech to Congress in February 2017, he didn’t articulate a vision of American ideals, or outline our broader moral purpose in the world, but merely defended his claim that the raid in which the seal was killed had been a success, generating intelligence that would lead to more targets in the never-ending War on Terror. The president and the widow received rapturous applause. “He became president of the United States in that moment,” one political commentator on CNN said, arguing that the president’s deployment of the grieving widow was “unifying.” If it was, the blood of the fallen seal proved a weak glue, lasting little longer than the bipartisan applause that briefly filled the Capitol building.
“War will purify the political atmosphere,” one magazine argued on the eve of the War of 1812, America’s first great military disappointment. “All the public virtues will be refined and hallowed; and we shall again behold at the head of affairs citizens who may rival the immortal men of 1776.” In our era of constant war, something like the opposite is happening. Though the military currently enjoys stratospheric approval ratings—72 percent of Americans express a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in it—almost every other major institution of American life is in the red: 12 percent approval for Congress, 27 percent for newspapers, 40 percent for the Supreme Court, and 41 percent for organized religion. Meanwhile, 27 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans see the opposing party as a threat to the nation.
If the courage of young men and women in battle truly does depend on the nature and quality of our civic society, we should be very worried. We should expect to see a sickness spreading from our public life and into the hearts of the men and women who continue to risk their lives on behalf of a distracted nation. And when we look closely, that is exactly what we see: a sickness that all the ritualistic displays of support for our troops at sporting events and Veterans Day celebrations, and in the halls of Congress, can’t cure. Such tributes don’t begin to get at what “the last full measure of devotion” actually means on the ground, or what might be required to sustain it. The bonds of men in combat are far stranger, and perhaps more fragile, than our lofty rhetoric would suggest.
In 1999, Maurice Emerson Decaul was preparing to deploy overseas with a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Decaul, who is black, was a lance corporal in a Marine artillery battery. Because your average military unit is a cross section of American society, he might well have expected to work alongside a broad range of Americans—white kids from the Northern Virginia suburbs, Hispanic kids from small towns in New Mexico, children of Vietnamese refugees from rural Indiana. More surprising, though, was the West Virginia kid from a family so deep in the Klan that he showed up to the battery’s barracks with a hooded white robe packed in among his Marine Corps uniforms. I’ll call him “J.”
If Decaul had wanted to—if anybody in the unit had wanted to—he could have gotten J. booted out of the Corps. The Marines don’t tolerate hate groups, and the service regularly runs classes on how to spot gang and hate-group tattoos to help officers identify and remove their members. When General Robert B. Neller, the commandant of the Marine Corps, tweeted out a condemnation of racial hatred and extremism in the wake of last year’s neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, he was giving voice to a policy that dated back to the 1980s. That policy was kicked into even higher gear after Timothy McVeigh, a Gulf War veteran, bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, in Oklahoma City. As far as the military was concerned, men like J. didn’t just undermine unit cohesion and the moral character of the force, they were also a domestic terror threat. If somebody had notified the chain of command, or even left an anonymous note at the office of the unit lawyer, the unit would have investigated, and that would have been that. Such things, a military lawyer told me, are a pretty straightforward affair. But this is not what happened.
Instead, J.’s fellow marines observed him in training as they geared up for deployment. Even though it was pre-9/11, combat was a possibility. The previous unit to go on their planned deployment had ended up taking a detour to the Balkans. The leadership had impressed upon Decaul’s unit that they might be relying on their fellow marines for their lives. Which meant that Decaul and the rest of the black and Hispanic and Asian and Jewish kids might be relying on a Klansman, and not simply in a day-to-day, “Can I trust this guy at the office?” kind of way. The question before a deploying marine as he looks at his brothers and sisters is quite simple: If I am, like Sergeant Wells and Gunny Shane, facedown and bleeding to death in the middle of an open highway as small-arms fire rages around me, will you run out to save my life?
This might seem like a lot to expect of J., but Decaul didn’t have any serious concerns. “I never felt like I couldn’t trust J. in combat,” Decaul told me, seeming a bit amazed by the words coming out of his mouth. “I never felt like J. didn’t know his job. In training, you see who you can trust. You see the guys who shy away. And, well, he wasn’t one of those guys.”
J. wasn’t the only racist marine that Decaul dealt with while in the Corps. Once, during mountain training—a famously austere experience that Decaul told me was worse than his time in Iraq—he’d had to care for a lance corporal on his fire team who had developed altitude sickness. Because Decaul was this guy’s noncommissioned officer, he helped the marine make his slow and painful way down the mountain. Midway through, they stopped to rest, and the young marine, perhaps out of an awkward sense of the gratitude his leader was owed, began telling Decaul about his family, and the racism he had been raised to believe in. It wasn’t an apology. It was something short of that—an openness, a moment of honesty without the kind of moral epiphany such moments are supposed to bring about. He didn’t attempt a racial reconcilement, he didn’t beg forgiveness for a past that included his family’s denial of Decaul’s basic equality. Decaul listened to the lance corporal, who was his marine and his responsibility, and then they continued down the mountain.
As a black man in America, Decaul could expect that being part of a national organization, be it the Marine Corps or any other, meant putting his shoulder to the wheel alongside the sort of people who in generations past had lynched and tortured men like himself. Nothing about this is just, but with a pragmatism that is common to members of the military, he accepted it and did his job. And he considered his unit’s relationship to J. in the context of that job.
Just before the battery deployed, its members threw a big, blowout barracks party. For those who have never gone to a barracks party, or been the officer on duty responsible for dealing with the chaos that follows one, imagine a frat party but with almost no women and even less common sense. “We were 19; there was this feeling that maybe we could die,” Decaul told me. “So fuck it, have fun, get that shit out of your system.”
One sergeant started proclaiming that he was Batman. When fellow marines called bullshit, the sergeant decided to prove the haters wrong by jumping off the third deck of the barracks. He broke both his legs. Apparently, he was not Batman. Another marine, a lance corporal, led a high-speed, lights-off drunk drive to raid another barracks. But what Decaul remembers most vividly from that night is seeing J. appear on the barracks’ catwalk in his Ku Klux Klan gear, hood and all.
Another black marine made a beeline over to the West Virginian Klansman. He got right in J.’s face while everybody else watched, wondering what was about to happen in this confrontation between a black marine and the embodiment of American white supremacy. “Hey,” he said, staring into J.’s eyes, “let me wear your Klan suit.” J. stripped off his robe and hood and handed them to the black marine, who put them on and began walking around the party in the Klan uniform, giving people high fives and cracking jokes.
Decaul now has a playwriting fellowship at Brown University, where he assures me that racial dialogue happens very differently than it did in the Corps. But thinking back, he told me, “No one, including me, was offended. Everyone thought it was hilarious.” The party continued, and the deployment followed without incident. The last Decaul heard of J. was recently, when he got a Facebook notification that J. wanted to “friend” him. “I turned him down,” Maurice told me. “I thought, I’ve had enough of you, J.”
Even given the youth of the marines; the fact that the power structure of the unit had a significant number of black Americans; that America is more accepting of white radicalism than black radicalism; and that marines are drawn like moths to a flame when it comes to the dangerous, the transgressive, and the darkly humorous, Decaul’s claim that no one was offended is hard to accept. There are limits, after all, and they should probably stop well short of accommodating the most brutal domestic-terrorist organization in American history.
Sometimes marines—not just white ones but also marines of color—like to paint the military as a color-blind institution where people are judged for their abilities and character and not by their race or background. “The Marines don’t have anyrace problems,” General Daniel “Chappie” James Jr., the first black four-star general, is claimed to have said. “They treat everybody like they’re black.” This isn’t true. The Americans who join the Corps bring with them the prejudices they inherited from American society. I heard some wild things in the military. Once, after going through the gas chamber, an exercise where marines in training are exposed to CS gas, my whole unit was outside, tears streaming from our faces, long gobbets of snot hanging from our noses, our skin burning, when the sergeant instructor went up to one of us and said, “Hey, candidate! You’re Jewish, right?” He pointed to the gas chamber and said, “You should go again. You’re used to it.” But whatever prejudices new marines bring to the Corps also get filtered through a powerful group identity that changes the contours of how people interact and what their values are.
The most straightforward case of this was the fight over whether to permit gay people to serve in the military. Before the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was implemented, the Rand Corporation researched what effect allowing gays in the military would have on unit readiness. The argument against allowing gay people to serve was that the average soldier had such antipathy to gay men and women that it would hurt morale, limit the amount of good old homoeroticism that combat units run on, and generally make soldiers feel uncomfortable around one another in the intimate conditions that service in the military entails. But Rand’s report, released in 1993, overwhelmingly concluded that this wouldn’t be a problem. Not because Rand didn’t find evidence of extreme homophobia in the military. I assure you, even a decade later, when I joined, such sentiments ran strong. The reason they didn’t matter was because interpersonal attraction—the qualities someone has that, under normal circumstances, make you want to spend time with them outside of work—had no reliable impact on unit effectiveness. In fact, high social cohesion could even hurt unit effectiveness, by shifting individuals’ priorities from the organizational to the social. Instead, the most important element was a shared commitment to a task. Emphasis on unity—rather than divisions along gender and race—as well as on the importance of the mission, was the crucial factor.
The reason it’s a band of brothers, and not a band of friends, is because you can fight all day long with your brother and still be willing to die for him. J. wasn’t the only misfit in Decaul’s unit. Decaul’s roommate was heavy into alcohol and hard drugs. “We used to get into fights all the time,” Decaul told me. “I’m talking about fistfights.” But the roommate’s peers didn’t get rid of him either, because out in the field the guy worked miracles on artillery pieces. The drug addict and the Klansman—both of whom should have been kicked out—were seen by their fellow marines as contributing members of the unit, useful to the task at hand.
When a threat is existential, the qualities you value in an individual shift. Marines like Decaul weren’t willing to work with a Klansman and a drug addict in spite of the fact that their lives might be on the line—they were willing to work with them because their lives were on the line. As the Corps saying goes, “You can trust a marine with your life, but not your money or your wife.”
The philosopher J. Glenn Gray, who served as an intelligence officer in World War II, marks this as the distinction between friendship and camaraderie. Friendship is a relationship between those who possess true emotional and intellectual affinity—they do not seek to lose their identity, but rather “find themselves in each other and thereby gain greater self-knowledge and self-possession.” Camaraderie, by contrast, is about submersion in a collective. The Russian writer Vasily Grossman, who covered the Battle of Stalingrad for the Red Army’s newspaper, considered this submersion to be the crucial component of battlefield success. In battle, he wrote, “I am we, I am the mass of infantry going into the attack, I am the supporting tanks and artillery, I am the flare lighting up our common cause.” Understanding how to manage this transition from the “frail, timid ‘I’ ” to the “gallant, intelligent ‘We’ ” was what Grossman considered “a key not only to the success of night-attacks by companies and battalions, but to the military success and failure of entire armies and peoples.”
These feelings are temporary—Gray later noted the awkwardness of WWII-veteran reunions where the old fellow feeling could be reignited only with the strong application of effort and alcohol—but they’re deeply powerful. For many people, they are the strongest and most intense feelings they’ll experience in their life. How often do you look at a group of 30 men and women and think, Any one of the people in this room might be called to die for me?
Which means, when talking about making a military unit effective, we’re not just talking about a grudging choice. We’re talking about holding out the chance for that peculiar love born of camaraderie, a love that can exist between men who in normal circumstances would have no reason to love each other, men who might not even deserve such love. It is perhaps, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, a “brutal solidarity,” but a solidarity nonetheless. That such a thing is even possible is in part thanks to the selfless character of the men and women who join the military, submit to the arduous training, and pledge to leave no one behind. But no less important is their commitment to something outside of the unit. They need a mission—one that is achievable, moral, and in keeping with the values of the society they represent and whose flag they wear on their uniform.
In the long term, the strength and legitimacy of the military will be a function of the perceived strength and legitimacy of the project it is supposed to represent. The clarity of purpose so central to bonding men in combat cannot emerge purely from the military itself. And in our current climate, after a decade and a half of multiple wars on multiple continents, the hope for such clarity is rotting away.
When I left the Corps, I was a firm believer in the mission, and I had cause to be. I had driven down Route Fran, past where Lonny Wells had died, past where many other marines had died, or lost limbs, or had their face burned beyond recognition. Roadside bombs, sniper attacks, ambushes—Fran had been a regular site of death and violence. But my time on Fran didn’t require much courage. I was there after Operation Alljah, which had cleared most of Fallujah’s insurgents and set up joint security stations with the cooperation of the local tribes. As we were driving past piles of rubble, buildings riddled with bullet holes, and young Iraqi children riding bikes, we saw something we didn’t expect. “Holy shit,” one marine said. “Is that … is that a bridal shop?”
And there it was, a newly opened bridal store, sitting on the edge of Fran. We couldn’t believe it. “A bridal shop on Fran,” another marine said, sighing. “Jesus.”
This was part of the much-heralded “success” of the surge, George W. Bush’s decision to increase troop presence in Iraq and commit to a strategy grounded in the new counterinsurgency field manual General David Petraeus put out in 2006. Scholars and military strategists are still debating the degree to which the shift in policy helped cause that year’s dramatic decline in violence, but for those of us on the ground, the connection was assumed.
Meanwhile, back home, a raucous debate about military policy was under way. When General Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the ambassador to Iraq, came to testify before Congress in September 2007, the anti-war group MoveOn.org took out a full-page ad in The New York Times wondering whether Petraeus should be called “General Betray Us” and stating that he was “cooking the books for the White House.” Hillary Clinton, then a senator from New York, told Petraeus and Crocker that it took “a willing suspension of disbelief” to accept their reports; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared that the plan they proposed sounded like “a 10-year, at least, commitment to an open-ended presence and war”; and when Republican Senator John W. Warner asked whether the strategy in Iraq did anything to make America safer, he was told by Petraeus, “Sir, I don’t know, actually.” Two days later, President Bush gave a televised address to discuss what he saw as the progress in Iraq and to explain his rationale for a continued military commitment.
Hawks sometimes try to cast such debates as an affront to the troops. General John F. Kelly, a former marine and the current White House chief of staff, once gave a speech in which he declared that service members “hold in disdain those who claim to support them but not the cause that takes their innocence, their limbs, and even their lives.” But looking back, I realize that the cut and thrust of public debate were crucial in forming my own understanding of what our purpose was, and what success was supposed to look like. As a marine in Iraq’s Anbar province in 2007, I could turn on the TV and see the various benchmarks of success in Iraq—security, political reconciliation, diplomatic engagement, economic and essential services—being debated in Congress. The Bush administration’s claims were presented, attacked, defended, and presented again. The counterargument—that the gains of the surge were overstated and unlikely to achieve the broader political compromises essential for ensuring lasting stability in Iraq absent a large U.S. troop presence—received the same treatment. The sheer heat of the arguments, for or against, made clear that the policy, and our presence, mattered.
I returned from Iraq in 2008, and within a year the Corps was ramping up for Afghanistan. When Barack Obama announced a surge of troops there, we felt like we were being called to repeat the Iraq “miracle,” and suddenly marines around me were angling to get on a deployment. Anbar was too safe, too boring. The fighting was in Afghanistan. And maybe lightning could strike twice. Maybe counterinsurgency theory really worked. At one point, I asked a young lance corporal out on a field exercise how his unit was going to be successful once they arrived in Helmand province. I was expecting something along the lines of “By having a plan to kill everyone we meet.” Instead, he told me they’d be successful “through cultural effectiveness, Sir,” employing the language then being pushed down from his battalion commander, company commander, platoon commander, platoon sergeant, and squad leaders. It was a more hopeful time.
Instead of staying in and hunting for a deployment, I chose to get out of the Corps and go to grad school. In my first year there, while settling into a comfortable life in New York, I found out that one marine I had known, who’d volunteered for Afghanistan after I introduced him to a captain of a deploying unit, had died in the blast from a roadside bomb. I learned that a marine I’d worked with closely had been hit by an improvised explosive device and taken shrapnel to his eyes that left him partially blind. I took a bus down to Walter Reed to see him, only to arrive hours after he’d been transferred to the West Coast. He recovered well, stayed in the Corps, is now a gunnery sergeant, and has a false eye with the Marine Corps’ eagle-globe-and-anchor emblem for a pupil.
Iraq was unraveling, and Afghanistan wasn’t showing tremendous signs of progress. One Marine battalion fighting in Helmand province in 2010 and 2011 suffered worse losses than any Marine battalion in the previous 10 years of fighting. When asked by an embedded journalist what such sacrifices were for, the best that one of the sergeants in the battalion could muster was: “This war is stupid. Well, so what? Our country is in it.”
An Army friend of mine stationed in northern Afghanistan around this time wrote in a letter home, “There’s no point in even imagining an end state for all of this because there isn’t one—not through violence anyway.” The next year, 2012, I received an email from a buddy who described the remoteness of where he’d been sent; the lack of the comforts he’d known when he was in Iraq, which had better chow and more reliable resupply; and how his biggest problem wasn’t so much handling violence as “a maddeningly ambiguous environment with an ill-defined mission set they keep changing.” Marines in Afghanistan started telling a joke about their enemy: “We have the watches,” they’d say, “but they have the time.”
Meanwhile, those marines’ elected leaders were doing everything they could to avoid the kind of public discussion that would have clarified the mission those men and women were carrying out. As special operators and advisers were reintroduced to Iraq, the Obama administration repeatedly insisted that those troops didn’t count as “boots on the ground,” leading some veterans to joke that special operators must wear combat slippers. In July 2015, President Obama bragged at a fund-raiser, “We’ve ended two wars.” No wonder our troops were having difficulty articulating why they were fighting. Their commander in chief couldn’t even bring himself to admit that we were still at war.
The incoherence has deepened under President Trump. To ensure that victories against enemies like isis result in long-term stability and the suppression of new terrorist groups threatening our interests, the military has consistently articulated a vision of intergovernmental cooperation. That means cooperation among the Department of Defense, the intelligence community, the State Department, USAID, and other divisions that can provide humanitarian aid and development expertise. Former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates argued, “Without development we will not be successful in either Iraq or Afghanistan.” Even former Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, Trump’s short-tenured national-security adviser, called at one point for a “Marshall Plan for the Middle East.” But the Trump administration has shown little aptitude for or interest in such coordination and planning. In 2016, I had the opportunity to pose a question to then-candidate Trump at a televised veterans’ forum. I asked him about his plan for after the fall of isis. He didn’t have much of an answer, beyond the puzzling suggestion that we should “take the oil.”
Unsurprisingly, then, the current military leadership has, if anything, been more assertive about the necessity of non-DOD support than they were during the Obama years. James Mattis—who as the commander of Centcom famously told Congress in 2013 that if it cut funding to the State Department, “I need to buy more ammunition”—has continued to advocate for the importance of diplomacy during his time as secretary of defense. General Joseph L. Votel, the current commander of Centcom, has said, “There is a lot that the military can do, but it is extraordinarily important that our diplomats, our Department of State, our other development agencies, and others are involved in this process as well,” because if the United States doesn’t integrate military objectives with soft-power capabilities, “we risk creating space for our adversaries to achieve their strategic aims.”
Yet, in response to strong pressure from the DOD to fund nonlethal components of U.S. power, the Trump administration has proposed a 2019 budget that would cut State Department and USAID funding by 26 percent from the 2017 level, and would cut the Treasury Department’s international programs by 20 percent. Under former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s leadership, the State Department slowly bled close to 12 percent of its foreign-policy specialists; dozens of high-level positions remained unfilled; and retiring foreign-service officers told the press that morale has never been lower. In his speech last summer on Afghanistan policy, Donald Trump may have claimed that a “fundamental pillar of our new strategy is the integration of all instruments of American power—diplomatic, economic, and military—toward a successful outcome” and that “the brave defenders of the American people will have the necessary tools and rules of engagement to make this strategy work,” but his administration has supplied few of the tools his own military leaders say are crucial to the mission.
Without a real integration of all instruments of American power, our recent military successes could potentially leave us no better off than we were after our military victory over al-Qaeda in Iraq. Believing the mission complete, the Obama administration followed those successes by limiting diplomatic engagement with Iraq, planning sharp cuts in civilian programs, and slashing economic assistance. A few years later the country was ripe for the rise of a new threat, which came in the form of isis. When we create a vacuum, something fills it. As Denise Natali, the director of the Center for Strategic Research, has pointed out, following the victory against isis in Mosul, militias backed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps filled some of the void in services left by both Baghdad and the international community, and managed to recruit not only among Shia Muslims but even among Sunnis. In other words, simply by emphasizing the sort of soft power the current administration disdains, Iranian-backed militias are seeking to turn American and Iraqi tactical successes into Iranian strategic victories.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has expanded lethal counterterrorism operations in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia—more than quintupling the number of such operations during the final six months of the Obama presidency. But an onslaught of counterterror raids does not make a policy. As General Votel, who led Special Operations Command from 2014 to 2016, has noted, “We’ve been doing this long enough to know that leaders are killed, and we’ve killed plenty of them. And there’s always somebody who is going to step up into those positions.” People in the national-security community sometimes refer to these sorts of raids as “mowing the grass,” which brings to mind the old infantryman’s riddle, “What makes the grass grow?” The answer: blood.
One would think that almost 17 years of war would have taught the American people and their elected leaders the limits of a strategy that focuses only on the use of military force without a broader endgame, but in fact we have moved in the opposite direction. Now we have a government that seeks to wage war without even the slightest interest in committing to precisely those efforts that our own military leaders insist are essential for victory. In June, Defense Secretary Mattis bluntly told Congress what the troops had known for years: “We are not winning in Afghanistan right now.” Of course not. We don’t want to win. We just want to take scalps.
“Tough love in the Marine Corps. That’s why I love the Corps so much. It’s the only place I was ever loved. Tough love, but still.”
Gunnery Sergeant Maxwell paced down the squad bay, with all of us young officer candidates standing at the position of attention, ready for inspection. This was 2004. The United States was fighting two wars—in Iraq and in Afghanistan. If we became Marine officers, we’d probably head to one or the other. Hopefully Iraq—Afghanistan didn’t seem to have much going on. But first we had to get through Gunny Maxwell’s inspection.
“You gotta deal with a lot of messed-up kids in the Marine Corps,” he was saying. “They come from bad families, never got no love. Gotta give ’em tough love. That’s why we’re so hard on you.”
Gunny Maxwell was huge. Memory always adds a few inches to the sergeant instructors who tormented you during officer-candidates school, but he was definitely much taller than average. I’m 6 foot 1, and as I stood at attention in front of Maxwell, my eyes didn’t quite meet his chin.
More than his physicality, though, he had an intensity that seemed less put-on, less of an act than most of the other sergeant instructors’. Maxwell loved the Corps passionately. “The Marine Corps is the best doggone fighting force in the world,” he told us once. “No—the best fighting force in the universe. Because if any doggone aliens come and try to mess with us, we’ll fuck them up too.” He wanted us ready for conflict, whether our enemies were al-Qaeda, extraterrestrials, or “doggone pinko Red communist lefto Democrats.”
Even to the lefto Democrats in the squad bay, this was an appealingly simple view: Just point us at the enemy. Sadly, the wars we’d end up fighting over the next decade and a half would be far murkier, and far more morally bruising, than your average Hollywood alien invasion. In June, the West Point graduate Fred Wellman went on Twitter to vent after having received what turned out to be a false report of a massacre in a small Iraqi town he’d visited in April 2003. He started by listing the people he’d worked with who had been touched by violence: an interpreter who’d been beheaded on video in 2004; a doctor who’d been blown up in 2006 and lost both his legs only to return to work in the clinic Wellman had helped build, and who would be killed by militants there in 2011 after the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Then he wrote:
At this point nearly every Iraqi I worked with over three tours has been murdered … If someone knows a way I should process that I’m open to it but right now I’m just in shock at the brutality of war. I wish the leaders who claim to have balls because they send men like me to war actually felt the weight of dozens of deaths like me.
Later Wellman would learn the truth—instead of a massacre, four members of the Iraqi security forces had been killed. When it comes to a small town that spent time under occupation by isis, this is what counts as joyous news.
Wellman has nevertheless maintained a typically pragmatic, military approach to his service, which spanned 22 years, multiple wars, and presidents of both parties. When questioned recently by a Trump supporter as to why the Iraq War was worth the cost and loss of American life, Wellman responded, “As an old soldier I’m not one to be for or against the war I fought. I was ordered to go. I did it. My kid got orders. He went.”
Is this enough to sustain a military—an iron sense of duty to a country unwilling to grapple seriously with the suffering caused by its mismanaged wars? Gunny Maxwell’s certain projection of battlefield success has aged poorly in the intervening decade, and though our nation continues to produce men like Wellman, morale is hard to sustain when the burdens of war are shouldered by a few.
I’ve often heard veterans wish for a draft, for something that would drag more Americans into orbit around the dark star that is the country’s constant exercise of military power. The Founders of the republic originally wanted to force Congress to vote every two years just to keep a standing Army; these days Congress won’t even permit a vote to replace an Authorization for the Use of Military Force that was passed prior to the Iraq War and that we are now using to justify fighting against groups that didn’t even exist back then.
For the military men and women overseas looking to explain why they’re risking their lives, they have no public debate to refer to, no clear benchmarks of success being endlessly dissected and analyzed in Congress and on TV, as happened in 2007. Nor is there even clear guidance from the commander in chief, who one month rolls out an escalation in Afghanistan with the express purpose of increasing military pressure on the Taliban to motivate them to engage in a political settlement, and then a few months later announces that he’s uninterested in negotiations and doesn’t “see any talking taking place.” Can service members maintain a sense of purpose when nobody—not the general public, or the Congress elected to represent them, or the commander in chief himself—seems to take the wars we’re fighting seriously?
Our military is a major part of who we are as a country; it is the force that has undergirded the post–World War II international order. Being an American means being deeply implicated in that, for good or for ill. But as Wellman’s response to his war suggests, the solution to our current dead end doesn’t lie within the military itself. The military can’t set its own goals, can’t determine its own budget or which ideals it fights and dies for, and can’t decide how its losses will be honored, dishonored, or appropriated after the fact. So while America as a whole chooses to express its love for its military in gooey, substance-free displays, our military waits, perhaps hopelessly, for a coherent national policy that takes the country’s wars seriously.
What would such a thing look like? It would probably look like rescinding the open-ended Authorization for the Use of Military Force and making the president regularly go before Congress to explain where and why he was putting troops in harm’s way, what resources the mission required, and what the terms of success were. It would look like every member of Congress carrying out his or her constitutionally mandated duty to provide oversight of our military adventures by debating and then voting on that plan. It would look like average Americans taking part in that debate, and scorning anyone who tried to tell them they couldn’t. It would look like average Americans rolling their eyes in disgust when our leaders tell us we’re not at war while American troops are risking their lives overseas, or claim that Americans must support the wars their country engages in if they want to support the troops, or when a press secretary argues that anyone who questions the success of a military raid in which a service member died “owes an apology” to that fallen soldier. It would look like our politicians letting the fallen rest in peace, rather than propping up their corpses for political cover. And when service members die overseas in unexpected places, such as the four killed in Niger last year, it would look like us eschewing the easy symbolic debates about whether our president is disrespecting our troops by inartfully offering condolences or whether liberals are disrespecting our troops by seizing upon those inartful condolences for political gain. It would look like us instead having a longer and harder conversation about the mission we are asking soldiers to perform, and whether we are doing them the honor of making sure it’s achievable.
In short, it would look like Americans as a whole doling out a lot fewer cheap, sentimental displays of love for our troops, and doubling down on something closer to Gunny Maxwell’s “tough love”—a love that means zeroing in on our country’s faults and failures.
If we don’t, then at some point the bottom will drop out. Morale is a hard thing to measure, but plenty of indicators suggest that it’s been falling. Ninety-one percent of troops called their quality of life good or excellent in a survey done by the Military Times back in 2009, when the downturn in violence in Iraq and a new strategy in Afghanistan still held out a promise of victory; by 2014 that had fallen to only 56 percent, with intentions to reenlist dropping from 72 to 63 percent. Recruiting is also down. For the past three decades, the military has generally accepted about 60 percent of applicants. In recent years that figure has been closer to 70 percent and is climbing. And the active-duty force is getting worn out. When I was in, I was impressed to meet guys with five deployments under their belts. Now I meet guys who have done eight, or nine, or 10. The situation is particularly bad within the Special Operations community. Last year Special Operations Command deployed troops to 149 countries; some operators cycled in and out of deployments at what General Raymond Thomas called the “unsustainable” pace of six months overseas, six months at home. I recently met an Army ranger who’d done seven deployments. He was on a stateside duty, and told me that when he and his wife realized that he’d be home for two years straight, it freaked them out a bit. They loved each other, and had three kids, but had never spent two solid years together without one of them going on a deployment. This is too much to ask, especially for ongoing wars with no end in sight. Theresa Whelan, the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and global security, recently told the House Armed Services Committee that the Special Operations community has “had to eat our young … [and] mortgaged our future” to keep going.
Day by day, that mortgaged future creeps closer. When it arrives, who is going to sign up for a vague and hopeless mission? How do you motivate men and women to fight and die for a cause many of them don’t believe in, and whose purpose they can’t articulate? What happens to the bonds between men and women in combat, and to the bonds between soldiers and the citizenry for whom they fight, when we fail as a nation to treat our wars as a collective responsibility, rather than the special mission of a self-selected few?
Without a political leadership that articulates and argues for a mission and objective worth dying for, it’s no surprise that soldiers sometimes stop caring about the mission altogether. A sergeant who deployed to the Korengal Valley, in Afghanistan, told me that by the end of his deployment, he had purposely adopted a defensive posture, sacrificing mission for safety at every opportunity he could. This is reminiscent of what one officer said of the later stages of the Vietnam War: “The gung-ho attitude that made our soldiers so effective in 1966, ’67, was replaced by the will to survive.” It’s not that those troops lacked courage, but that the ends shifted. “We fought for each other,” I’ve heard plenty of veterans claim about their time in service, and no wonder. If your country won’t even resource the wars with what its own generals say is necessary for long-term success, what else is there to fight for? But if you think the mission your country keeps sending you on is pointless or impossible and that you’re only deploying to protect your brothers and sisters in arms from danger, then it’s not the Taliban or al-Qaeda or isis that’s trying to kill you, it’s America.
This article appears in the May 2018 print edition of The Atlantic with the headline “Left Behind.”