As our 9-11 wars end, new problems appear for the US Army

Summary: As our 9-11 wars wind down, the US Army must confront not only the bitter truth of these failures, but also the serious structural problems temporarily masked by the wars. They’ll do so while DoD downsizes their numbers and Congress looks to cut their pay and benefits. Today we have a brief analysis of the situation by Mike Few (Major, retired, former Editor of the Small Wars Journal).

“People, ideas and hardware, in that order!”
— The late John R. Boyd (Colonel, USAF), “A Discourse on Winning and Losing” (unpublished), August 1987.

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  1. The challenges facing the US ArmyT
  2. he state of the Army
  3. About Mike Few
  4. For More Information


(1)  Challenges facing the US Army

For years I accumulated articles and studies starting in the late 1990s about deteriorating recruitment and retention at “Army at the breaking point“. The wars masked these problems. Now that the wars are ending, what happens? None of the Army’s problems have been fixed. Will they return?

Perhaps the slow economy combined with the longer-term decline in opportunities for America’s lower middle class, will more than compensate for internal weaknesses in the Army’s culture.

The Army’s ability to recovery depends on many things. Perhaps most importantly on morale of the officers and senior NCOs — history suggests lost wars are often followed by a “dreamtime” in which the army constructs a narrative of a valiant war followed by good things. Such as applause and rewards.  When those things don’t happen, as they usually don’t after wars, the reaction is rarely strong — but those rare cases can be significant. (for details see The Culture of Defeat – On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery by Wolfgang Schivelbusch (2001).

The Army might already have began this next phase: “Army morale declines, survey shows“, Boston Globe, 19 August 2012 — ” Only 1/4 of the Army’s officers and enlisted soldiers believe the nation’s largest military branch is headed in the right direction, the lowest on record”

Another wild card: how the public sees our troops. The far-Right grows increasingly paranoid and rebellious to the Republic, fires stoked by conservatives for generations. This might tip their love-hate relationship with the military to hate. The Left is soured by accounts of US war crimes, and the evolution of the USAF and Spec Ops into assassins.  The Left has maintained a pretense of supporting the troops, but this could change now that the wars end.

The military might find itself friendless, except for contractors leaching its blood. Not an uncommon situation in 19th C America. Mike, Your thoughts?

Army morale
Army survey as reported by Boston Globe, 19 August 2012

(2)  Mike Few’s reply, warning us about the state of the Army

It’s important that you brought up the past behavior of the military and the stats on the breaking points. Here’s some thoughts that qualify what you’re thinking.

(a) About the military’s people, then and now

The military is probably much worse off than in the 1990’s due to lowering the bar on recruitment and rapid promotion rate that started around 2005.  While some of this is tempered by the massive amounts of combat experience, there is a good percentage that have no business being in the military.  Moreover, many young officers and NCO’s don’t know the basics (land navigation, planning, etc.).  These are real concerns.

(b) DoD’s likely solutions

The military will try to combat this problems with restoring “good order and discipline.”  Don’t be fooled by the word play.  It equals haircuts, uniform inspections, check the block risk assessments, and eight hour long days of PowerPoint briefings.  These measures will stifle any good leadership slowly lulling them to sleep, and it will allow mediocre leaders continue to excel in the bureaucracy.  Very similar to what I think happened in the VA.

This is what happens to large bureaucracies over time.  Same thing happened to some degree in Iraq on the larger Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) with folks more concerned with how things looked rather than winning a war.

See General Officers and Reflective Belts at the Small Wars Council.

(c) Continued Bureaucratic Drift

Staffs are growing larger.  Do a Google search on Centers of Excellence.  Even the mess halls have a Culinary Center of Excellence.

(d) Good Leaders are tired

If the human resources folks wanted to measure good leaders, they can with a simple search of valor awards and number of tours in the database.  Those folks, who excelled in leading in war, are tired and simply trying to make it to 20 years and keep their families together.  Many of them have no desire for battalion or above command.


(3)  About Mike Few

Mike Few (Major, US Army, Retired) served multiple tours in various command and staff positions in Iraq, and was a former Editor of the Small Wars Journal. He is a graduate of the United States Military Academy and studied small wars at the Defense Analysis Department at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA

Today he focuses on nation-building back home in North Carolina. See his articles at the Small Wars Journal, and the other post by Mike Few here:

  1. Tell Me How This Ends: Restoring American Power in the 21st Century, 21 November 2012
  2. Things we need to know about the Long War, 11 January 2014

(4)  For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.  For more posts about this see posts about America’s military, and those about An Army near the Breaking Point: studies & reports. Especially see those about the skill and integrity of our senior military leaders:

  1. The Core Competence of America’s Military Leaders, 27 May 2007
  2. The moral courage of our senior generals, or their lack of it, 3 July 2008
  3. Obama vs. the Generals, 1 October 2010
  4. Careerism and Psychopathy in the US Military leadership, GI Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired), 2 May 2011
  5. Rolling Stone releases Colonel Davis’ blockbuster report about Afghanistan – and our senior generals!, 12 February 2012

18 thoughts on “As our 9-11 wars end, new problems appear for the US Army”

    1. “All our 9-11 wa[r]s” consist of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the former was eminently justified and forced on the US by another al Qaeda suicide attack, their third in just over 3 years. Iraq was conducted stupidly because it was stupid from Day One, and was definitely justified dishonestly. Afghanistan was unavoidable, but some aspects of it could’ve been conducted more intelligently.

      1. albury,

        The Afghanistan War — the occupation of Afghanistan — was founded on a Big Lie, as I described at length here. As so many other people have pointed out.

        First, the 9-11 Commission disagrees with you. Afghanistan was not the key “base” from which the attack was staged.

        1. 9-11 was planned in Europe, not Afghanistan
        2. 9-11 was planned and conducted by people from nations other than Afghanistan (e.g., Saudis),
        3. 9-11 training was done in Florida (flying the planes); only trivial training done in Afghanistan (eg, physical training, small arms). See Chapter 5.

        The 9-11 Commission also reported that the State Department had proposed a plan to pressure Afghanistan’s government to surrender. Bush ignored that, having decided to invade immediately. See Chapter 10.

        Second, the “prevent al Qaeda from using Afghanistan again” theory is neither valid nor even logical, as so many experts have pointed out during the past decade. Like Stephen Biddle (Prof George Washington U, Council on Foreign Relations):

        But al-Qaeda is no longer based in Afghanistan, nor has it been since early 2002. … the risk that al-Qaeda might succeed in doing this isn’t much different than the same happening in a wide range of weak states throughout the world, from Yemen to Somalia to Djibouti to Eritrea to Sudan to the Philippines to Uzbekistan, or even parts of Latin America or southern Africa.

        Our leaders so frequently lie to us because we so gullibly believe them. When that changes, reform will become possible in America.

    2. Wrong again. Bin Laden and al Qaeda had been based in Afghanistan since leaving Sudan in 1996, regardless of where the individual operatives originally had citizenship or traveled, and the only sensible foreign policy was to drain the swamp. You’re dreaming if you think the Taliban would ever have handed over bin Laden, or that he and his AQ buddies would’ve gone without a fight. The US military relied heavily on the Northern Alliance and other “friendlies,” and abruptly leaving them unsupported would damage US credibility for decades.
      You’re proposing simplistic solutions to very complex problems. Those usually-dysfunctional and gridlocked “leaders [who] so frequently lie to us” voted unanimously minus ONE vote for the resolution to use force in Afghanistan after 9/11. Think about it.

      1. All bury,

        I bow before your omniscience about Al Qaeda, probably based on your deep knowledge of Middle Eastern cultures, languages, and history.

        Your comment about simplistic, however shows you have a sense of humor. As if anything could be more simplistic, and stupid, than invading and occupying Afghanistan for over a decade.

      2. Albury,

        I forget to congratulate you on your assumption of your superior knowledge of these things to the area experts in the State department. Many of whom have actually been stationed there, often with knowledge of the history, language, and culture.

        Plus, of course, actual knowledge and experience at diplomacy.

        That does mean that they’re correct. But we can draw accurate conclusions about laypeople who assert that these experts are definitely wrong.

    3. The basic facts about al Qaeda terrorism require no omniscience and are easy to find from any number of very credible sources, including al Qaeda itself. If you’re really interested in a good overview of the facts instead of pretending to be omniscient, read Pulitzer Prize-winning The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright, and Manhunt and Holy War, Inc., two excellent books on AQ and Osama bin Laden by Peter L. Bergen, who along with Peter Arnett personally interviewed OBL on video in 1997. Is that enough knowledge and experience for you?
      You’re full of simplistic criticism of post-9/11 US policy in Afghanistan, but have ignored the reasons I gave for it and are very short on alternative solutions. I can only assume that you regard yourself as much more astute than the entire US congress in late 2001.

  1. Personally, I don’t believe for a moment that our post-9/11 wars are winding down. On the contrary, I suspect that America has just barely begun to fight endless unwinnable wars around the world. As evidence, consider the newly-created Africa Command.

    But let’s drift off into the dreamland of a fantasy world in which the 9/11 wars actually do peter out. My own personal suggestions for reforming the U.S. military involve:

    [1] The tooth-to-tail ratio of the U.S. military has continually risen from roughly 1:2 circa WW II to 1:1 today. Currently, U.S. troops need to carry 60 pounds of batteries just to power all their useless electronic widgets. Throw out the widgets and go back to lean mean lightly equipped highly mobile troops. At least one entire army corps should use equipment which includes zero (no) microprocessors.

    [2] Weapons costs continue to skyrocket while the number of boots in the field continues to decline. For example, the A-10 warthog is being retired (a cheap incredibly effective low-flying slow unglamorous but superbly useful airplane) and the absurd boondoggle F-25 is being slotted in as a replacement (a procurement disaster of such epic proportions that some services may even refuse to deploy the F-35). Why don’t we replaced ludicrous hunks of junks like the humvees and F-35s with old WW II-era Army jeeps and revamped versions of the F-16, a light relatively cheap incredibly maneuverable fighter designed by the greatest ace America ever produced, John Boyd?

    [3] Get rid of the dead wood in the U.S. officer corps. At least 2/3 of these people shouldn’t have jobs. They’d be better off managing a Cinnabun in Craters of the Moon, Idaho or working on a new ad campaign for Malibu Barbi.

    [4] The executive branch should set up a test for all general officers. The president asks to see each general officer one at a time and requests a plan for a particularly insane pointless mission, like, for instance: “General, I want you to work up a plan of invasion for Tierra del Fuego. Our objective is to win the hearts and minds of the people there. This is to secret and is to be a total commitment of America’s geostrategic power requiring, if necessary, 50 years of occupation and a twenty trillion dollar budget.” If the general doesn’t immediately tell the president that this plan is unworkable and counterproductive and if the general does not refuse to produce such an invasion plan, the general should be sacked pronto.

    [5] Set up a a military equivalent of the Government Accountability Office and require that their salaries get paid entirely by a percentage of the wasted money they identify. Require that officers above the rank of lieutenant be promoted based in part on their ability to identify and eliminate waste.

    [6] Require all general officers and any civilian advisors to the military to pass a detailed test on the history of the region in which a conflict is to be waged. If they fail, they become ineligible to offer advice on military involvement in that region.

    [7] Assign a history officer to the group planning every proposed military intervention. The officer’s job will be to research the history of previous similar conflicts and present findings of what is likely to happen based on previous similar situations.

    1. “At least one entire army corps should use equipment which includes zero (no) microprocessors.”


      And they would communicate with each other how? Smoke signals?

    2. “Require all general officers and any civilian advisors to the military to pass a detailed test”

      1) Who will design the test?
      2) Who will review the results?
      3) And most importantly: who will select the people performing (1) and (2)?

      “present findings of what is likely to happen based on previous similar situations”

      One answer will come up, the same that was given every time such a point was raised:

      But, this time it is different!

  2. Joe remarks with astonishment to my suggestion that one army corps (at least) should use no microprocessors by asking: “And they would communicate with each other how? Smoke signals? ”

    The radio was invented in 1915 around the same time as the vacuum tube. The microprocessor was invented in 1971.

    Armies mysterious managed to communicate without microprocessors for 56 years. As FM constantly points out, amnesia remains the greatest problem for America.

    Coram’s bio of Boyd is classic. My favorite scene is the one where Boyd hurls so many details at a general trying to obstruct Boyd’s creation of the F-16 fighter than the general falls of his chair foaming at the mouth. Boyd later described it as “an air-to-rug maneuver.”

    1. Thomas,

      Your reasoning is equivalent to saying that modern armies don’t need modern weapons, because they got along for millinea with spears and bows. Joe is quite correct; a military force without modern communication would be quickly trashed by one with modern commo (all other things being equal)

    2. editor,
      Colonel Boyd was no fan of the Thunderbirds. He thought they were a preening bunch of hot-dogging prima donnas whose act had nothing to do with combat flying, that old ladies could be trained to do it, and that they did their thing at air shows and then hit the “pussy and cocktail circuit.”
      Typical blunt and irascible John R. Boyd; the guy was hilarious as well as amazing. You’ll soon see why he was never a general officer, despite being much smarter than most of them and usually right. :-)

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