Are we chickenhawks and so bear the responsibility for our lost wars since 9/11?

Summary: Now the wars have ended (although some Americans continue to fight abroad) we move to the next and equally difficult phase — retrospective and learning. Too many Americans seek to skip this — looking forward in ignorance rather than gaining something from our past. Here we look at a new article by James Fallow, one of the few exceptions. It’s a long deep look at our wars, the US military, and its relationship to America.  (1st of 2 posts today)

Military spending


The Tragedy of the American Military

By James Fallows
The Atlantic, January/February 2015


“The American public and its political leadership will do anything for the military except take it seriously. The result is a chickenhawk nation in which careless spending and strategic folly combine to lure America into endless wars it can’t win.”

James Fallows’ does some of the best long-form journalism of anyone today. It covers so many subjects (ten thousand words) with so many contradictory cross-currents that it defies easy analysis. Much of it I agree with. However Fallow’s core message is pernicious and his recommendations are almost irrelevant to the problems he so well describes. It points us in the wrong direction to understand and solve our problems.

He opens with description of a speech by Obama in mid-September at Central Command HQ in Florida (transcript here):

If any of my fellow travelers at O’Hare were still listening to the speech, none of them showed any reaction to it. And why would they? This has become the way we assume the American military will be discussed by politicians and in the press: Overblown, limitless praise, absent the caveats or public skepticism we would apply to other American institutions, especially ones that run on taxpayer money. A somber moment to reflect on sacrifice. Then everyone except the few people in uniform getting on with their workaday concerns.

Fallows’ article has received lavish praise from many in the military, active duty and veterans. What would their reaction have been if Obama had criticized the military for the many reasons Fallows (rightly) points to? How many in the military would have said “thanks, boss”? What does Fallows expect us to do after hearing a speech about the military? Although the US faces rivals and foes, as always, today’s threats are small compared to those of the past century.  Also, the level of global violence has been dropping for generations.  We should turn our attention from war and the military to the other important concerns.

The remainder of the article gives the same message, in different forms.

I’m not aware of any midterm race for the House or Senate in which matters of war and peace — as opposed to immigration, Obamacare, voting rights, tax rates, the Ebola scare — were first-tier campaign issues on either side …

After 13 years our war-madness has faded! Oddly, Fallows doesn’t agree. His following analysis is quite backwards.

Chicken Hawk
Chicken Hawk. He’s looks quite fierce.

This reverent but disengaged attitude toward the military … has become so familiar that we assume it is the American norm. But it is not …. At the end of World War II, nearly 10% of the entire U.S. population was on active military duty … Through the decade after World War II, when so many American families had at least one member in uniform, political and journalistic references were admiring but not awestruck. Most Americans were familiar enough with the military to respect it while being sharply aware of its shortcomings … The difference between the earlier America that knew its military and the modern America that gazes admiringly at its heroes shows up sharply … the distance between today’s stateside America and its always-at-war expeditionary troops is extraordinary.

The aberration in US history is not today, but our militarization during WWII and the Cold War. Until then America had a small military except during relatively brief wars (the Civil War was only 5 years). With few external threats (similar to today), we considered that appropriate. Nor was there an idyllic military-civilian relationship. Our policies for using them was often just as daft in the past as it is today; the public knew little of the military and had no respect for it.

“Fear, fatigue, poor rations and little appreciation from his countrymen — that was the lot of the US Soldier whose job it was to enforce the nation’s arrogant and often muddleheaded Indian policies.”

— Opening sentence to the The Soldiers volume in the Time-Life series “The Old West” (1973)

Fallows then goes to his primary message.

… they {us, the public} lack the comfortable closeness with the military that would allow them to question its competence as they would any other institution’s.

His paints the US citizenry as knowledgeable and engaged in public policy. But as Fallows himself wrote in 2011, “the average voter spends only 5 minutes thinking about for whom to vote for Congress.” Of all aspects of public policy, present or past, the public is probably least qualified to decide on military and geopolitical affairs — whether a veteran or not.

For two decades after World War II, the standing force remained so large, and the Depression-era birth cohorts were so small, that most Americans had a direct military connection.

Fallows makes this point repeatedly, as if this hyper-militarized period should be our standard. Perhaps he has it backwards, and we should shrink the military (as are almost all other nations with large military forces), ratchet back our bellicose foreign policy, and think less about the military. For 150 years the military survived as a largely ignored sliver of America; we might take a few steps back to that norm.

If I were writing such a history now, I would call it Chickenhawk Nation, based on the derisive term for those eager to go to war, as long as someone else is going.

Henry the Chicken Hawk
Henry the Chicken Hawk. He looks fierce.

Fallows provides zero evidence for this serious charge. Nor does he say what we should have done. Should we all have enlisted? Perhaps as in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, only vets should vote. The public supported everything: the troops, more military funding (the various shortfalls were the military’s fault, such as in healthcare and veterans’ services), even the wars — until they were revealed as based on lies and incompetently run.

Outsiders treat it both too reverently and too cavalierly, as if regarding its members as heroes makes up for committing them to unending, unwinnable missions and denying them anything like the political mindshare we give to other major public undertakings, from medical care to public education to environmental rules.

Fallows repeats this charge about relative “mindshare” several times in different ways, never with the evidence.

But for democracies, messy debates are less damaging in the long run than letting important functions run on autopilot, as our military essentially does now.

This is misleading on several levels. First, do members of the military (active or vet) solicit and value civilian advice? If we chose to exercise more active control over the military, who would most strongly oppose us? Second, the wars were not run on “autopilot”, but supported by one of the most intense propaganda barrages since Vietnam (with senior generals, active and retired, in starring roles). Third, do our rulers often listen to us? One of the public’s strongest policy recommendations for decades has been to limit immigration, yet we’ve had almost wide open borders for generations (until 9/11 and high unemployment forced change).

Too much complacency regarding our military, and too weak a tragic imagination about the consequences if the next engagement goes wrong, have been part of Americans’ willingness to wade into conflict after conflict, blithely assuming we would win.

While correct, he omits to mention that we believed this after 9-11 because the military said so. We had COIN, our tech, and scholar-soldiers like General Petraeus and John Nagl (Lt Colonel, US Army, retired). In hindsight he’s right; we should not have believed. The logical conclusion of Fallows’ reasoning here and in the remaining 8 thousand words (most of which I agree with) points to a defect in our political system. What fix does he recommend? Perhaps a Leftist-like distrust of the military and its endless wars. Plus a draft, to spread the burden (an obvious response to Fallows’ insights about our narrow participation with the military). No; instead he serves us weak tea.

What might that mean, in specific? Here is a start. In the private report prepared for President Obama more than three years ago, Gary Hart’s working group laid out prescriptions on a range of operational practices … Three of the recommendations were about the way the country as a whole should engage with its armed forces. They were:

Appoint a commission to assess the long wars.

Clarify the decision-making process for use of force. Such critical decisions, currently ad hoc, should instead be made in a systematic way by the appropriate authority or authorities based on the most dependable and persuasive information available and an understanding of our national interests based on 21st-century realities.

Restore the civil-military relationship. The President, in his capacity as commander-in-chief, must explain the role of the soldier to the citizen and the citizen to the soldier. The traditional civil-military relationship is frayed and ill-defined. Our military and defense structures are increasingly remote from the society they protect, and each must be brought back into harmony with the other.

The first is probably futile (we could cross the Atlantic on the collected reports of government commissions). As is the second; no bureaucratic schema can handle the ever-changing kaleidoscope of geopolitics (there is already a clear legal process). The third relies on the President’s ability to change things by force of will (a codicil to Matthew Yglesias’ Green Lantern theory of geopolitics).

Fallows provides a confused but gripping description of our dysfunctional military (the majority of his analysis is excellent), but the framing and diagnosis are flawed and he chokes when it comes to the cures. It’s a start to a long debate we must have to prevent more lost wars.

Other posts in this series: why does America keep losing?

These matters are more extensively discussed in the previous posts in this series.

  1. Are we chickenhawks and so bear the responsibility for our lost wars since 9/11?
  2. Does America have the best military in the world?
  3. Is victory impossible in modern wars? Or just not possible for us?
  4. Why we lose so many wars, and how we can win — a summary at Martin van Creveld’s website.
  5. A powerful new article shows why we lose so many wars: FAILure to learn.


For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts Military and strategic theory – and practice and Our military, and our national defense strategy, and especially these about the skill and integrity of our senior military leaders:

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

Now that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have ended in failure…

…Fallows recommends a tighter engagement of the public with the military. I am skeptical that would have created stronger oversight, or that we could have overcome the plans of our military leaders. Perhaps we need less engagement with the military, more respect for our generals — and more sympathy for those that do the fighting. Here’s the origin of the “What you mean ‘we’, Kemosable?” joke, in Mad Magazine, issue 38 in 1958. There’s a lesson here.

Mad Magazine #38 (1958)
From Mad Magazine #38 (1958)



28 thoughts on “Are we chickenhawks and so bear the responsibility for our lost wars since 9/11?”

  1. Recovered Drunk / Veteran of Foreign Wars

    The Baby Boomers are now Graybeards, and Fallows has begun the swan song.

    The prescription is found in page 62 of the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book,

    “If the rest of the world would only behave; the outlaw safe cracker who thinks society has wronged him; and the alcoholic who has lost all and is locked up. Whatever our protestations, are not most of us concerned with ourselves, our resentments, or our self-pity?

    Selfishness – self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles. Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate. Sometimes they hurt us, seemingly without provocation, but we invariably find that at some time in the past we have made decisions based on self which later placed us in a position to be hurt.

    So our troubles, we think, are basically of our own making. They arise out of ourselves, and the alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot, though he usually doesn’t think so. Above everything, we alcoholics must be rid of this selfishness. We must, or it kills us! God makes that possible. And there often seems no way of entirely getting rid of self without His aid. Many of us had moral and philosophical convictions galore, but we could not live up to them even though we would have liked to. Neither could we reduce our self-centeredness much by wishing or trying on our own power. We had to have God’s help.

    This is the how and why of it. First of all, we had to quit playing God. It didn’t work. Next, we decided that hereafter in this drama of life, God was going to be our Director. He is the Principal; we are His agents. He is the Father, and we are His children. Most good ideas are simple, and this concept was the keystone of the new and triumphant arch through which we passed to freedom.”

    1. Yes. Bravo.

      I read Fallow’s piece prior to this Post, sitting in an isolated Hotel near the Canadian Border in Montana waiting out a deep frigid spell… maybe hunt birds the last few days of the Season.
      I linked it and sent it off to a friend, older and a Vet.

      Opining that Jim was always worth a read and commenting that JF’s diatribe was fairly accurate but his prescriptions were weak and old.

      Finally, I offered that this phenom is simply all about the current Major Flaw in America. “It’s all about Me.” In America. Self Centeredness run rampant. Just like the gent referenced above. (The Big Book for everybody). It really is that simple and so very difficult to face and cure.


      1. Breton,

        While the core observations in Fallows article were solid, the framing was imo horrible. It is daft to say that we lost these wars because Americans are chickenhawks. He has received massive applause from the military, active service and vets — as “stab in theback” narratives after lost wars usually do.

        We went through this after Vietnam, and appear to be doing so again. We have learned nothing.

        We were lied into these wars. The senior military leaders unleashed a massive propaganda barrage — largely lies — to keep us in these wars. Now they blame us for losing the wars.

        Unlike you, I was not happy reading the article.

      2. Breton,

        The “me generation” meme is nonsense. Just another media narrative made up out of nothing, idealizing a mythic past.

        I have seen not the slightest evidence that people’s degree of self-centeredness has increased. Certainly reading literature of the past suggests no change.

    2. Your point about being lied into the Wars is beyond disagreement.
      And America is a very violent culture also.
      It all fits well together.
      Your penchant to overlook the trends in current American culture as you so see fit re: an increase in narcissistic tendencies is daft.
      None of these things are scalable nor provable.
      Your point that you have not “seen the slightest evidence…” is as valuable and as certain as anyone else’s.

      The World is not reasonable.
      Each of us seek respite in various ways.
      All are allowed.

      Keep up your fine work, sir.


  2. FM: “After 13 years our war-madness has faded!”

    I would rather say, “After 13 years, our struggle with war-madness has faded. Because the war-madness won.”

    Obama has started another round in Iraq and Syria, fighting(?) a group that thrives on gruesome headlines. The best policy to defeat them would be to cut off the money supply and to bury them in the news with other, better stories. The US ground troop count is growing and I am waiting for the inevitable first headline telling us that US troops have gotten into direct combat with ISIS.

    Then there is the ongoing nastiness in Africa. I can’t get anything resembling regular reliable news but what little appears suggests that the conflict is not going to end any time soon.

    Afghanistan is winding down with 10,000 US troops left in the country. Do you think they are going to sit idly by while the Taliban acts?

    Has the fighting ended in Yemen? Again, I can’t get any information.

    We egg on countries like Ukraine and the Baltic states with money, supplies, and occasionally troops.

    The behavior of our militarized police is currently front and center. The NYC police department borders on insubordination and they are praised by Fox News and are not punished by their civilian leaders.

    Where does this end? It can only end in tears. The only questions left are when and where. The longer we wait the higher the likely butcher’s bill.

  3. I enjoyed Fallowes’ article, but I disagree with the chickenhawk premise. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were fought by volunteers. Granted, many who enlisted after 9/11 to fight in Afghanistan and went instead to Iraq may not have supported the Iraq war, but those who didn’t got out and joined the IAVA, while those who did stayed in for multiple tours. By this point, if you still wear the uniform, you own a piece of the policy. To me, that’s puttimg your money where your mouth is.

  4. “… he chokes when it comes to the cures.” Geeze, he had it all right … until the end. Never forget, there is no money in solutions (cures). Surprised? Not,

  5. ” Also, the level of global violence has been dropping for generations.”

    I would not read too much into this, there were similar talks before the French revolution as the last major European war had been a generation before and warfare had got more “civilized” since the Thirty Years war. Their assembly even managed to vote some blurb about renouncing wars of conquest in 1790…

    “Fallows makes this point repeatedly, as if this hyper-militarized period should be our standard. Perhaps he has it backwards, and we should shrink the military (as are almost all other nations with large military forces), ratchet back our bellicose foreign policy, and think less about the military. For 150 years the military survived as a largely ignored sliver of America; we might take a few steps back to that norm.”

    The existing status of affair has been in place for half that amount of time, few elders aside nobody reminds anything different and thus as far as the people are concerned this is the norm. More importantly with the exception of the mostly irrelevant far left and a few eccentrics on the right nobody seriously question it, most are happy to take their turn at beating the drums, while instead rolling back an entrenched bureaucracy managing hundreds of billions would take a level of popular mobilization that it is hard to imagine in a contemporary western country. That it is not a campaign issue is a sign that, like for torture, people are fine with it.

    More likely that as a reaction to Obama “weakness” we will see instead the pedal being pushed to the metal. As in: escalation with Russia, (whether what passes for pols today will be able to keep it from going nuclear will be interesting to watch in a morbid sort of way) , one or more ground invasions, a multiplication of air campaigns and the likes. At home perhaps the official introduction of torture of american citizens at presidential discretion and the incineration of the next Snowden, to the giggling of the pretty journalists on Fox News.

    “I am waiting for the inevitable first headline telling us that US troops have gotten into direct combat with ISIS.”

    Officially denied and pinch of salts need to apply but…

    1. Marcello,

      Thanks for posting these insightful comments. Especially about the post-WWII era being 1/3 of American history!

      As for the duration of the current slowing in global violence — we can only guess about the future, of course. However I believe one aspect of it is almost certain to continue: the cessation of large-scale inter-State warfare. It was correctly predicted in the decades before WWI war was no longer profitable (a change from the past), but nukes made this discontinuity in history a permanent one. “It’s good to be King”, and warfare becomes unlikely when rulers fear that they’re among the first to die.

      As for violence inside societies, I think that’s also on the downward track. Domestic violence becomes less likely as the economic status of women improves, an trend that appears irresistible. Might dueling and revenge killing return? Anything is possible, especially if the mad trend to carrying guns continues in America (although the rest of the developed world moves in the opposite direction). But I doubt it.

  6. “Perhaps a Leftist-like distrust of the military and its endless wars. Plus a draft, to spread the burden (an obvious response to Fallows’ insights about our narrow participation with the military). No; instead he serves us weak tea.”

    Would you support a reinstatement of the draft? Because to me it’s probably something that would end this endless military adventurism…

    1. Hare,

      (1) “Would you support a reinstatement of the draft?”

      I prefer not to bother thinking about fantasy solutions. We need paths to realistic policy objectives.

      (2) “it’s probably something that would end this endless military adventurism…”

      I don’t believe the data supports that. First, it’s often been implemented as a tool of social indoctrination, usually to right-wing or even explicit militarist social goals. Second, I doubt the data shows States with drafts are more or less willing to engage in foreign wars — either large or small ones. It provides cheap manpower (encouraging wars), but provides a connection to the public which decreases tolerance for casualties. Note that until the slow growth after the tech bust the US military was having difficulty recruiting and retaining people, especially highly qualified officers and technicians.

      1. Hare,

        These are word salad, reasoning from a few special case to draw vast conclusions about all wars. War is too complex and varied a phenomena to draw such simple conclusions.

        “I think these make a good case conscription makes war harder and is necessary.”

        Could we have had 500,000 troops in Vietnam during 1967-1969 without a draft? No. Did having a draft prevent the Vietnam War? No. We can find examples to justify any position in this debate, but its not a useful basis to draw any conclusions.

    2. I think the case is more easy to make than you let on. Again, here’s some other good cases for it:

      Everyone from op-ed commentators to military experts like Andrew Bacevich see this.

      Also we should have a general “National Service” law for all people for a few years, like other countries, since it has a lot of benefits, including social cohesion. Also it’s simply logical. As David Sirota has said:

      “However, what I find troubling is that assuming a draft WOULD be administered fairly, a lot of folks in the comments section nonetheless seem to say the concept of a draft of compulsory national service would be immoral and that it “plays games with our kids” for a political ploy. But then, if you believe we need a military to defend this country, and if you believe we need police and firefighters and community service workers, why do you think its moral that OTHER people should do that FOR society, rather than EVERYONE having to contribute to those efforts? I’m sorry, but that’s not moral – that seems selfish. Now, maybe you don’t believe we need a military or police or firefighters or any of that. Fine, then your argument against a draft is consistent. But if you believe we need those things but oppose any sort of draft or national service requirement, why do you think its fair or equitable or moral to ask only others to do that, but not yourself or your family? Food for thought…”

      1. Hare,

        IMO it’s a sign of a weak argument when people advocate something without giving historical examples, and when given a LARGE counter-example — ignore it.

        From the Guardian article: “The only way to keep a rein on our nations’ military activities may be to make sure everyone is directly involved in them.” Like Vietnam? The Vietnam War madness makes our invasion of Afghanistan look rational, even brilliant. As I said before — the Vietnam War would not have been possible without a draft (it was barely possible even with a draft), nor did the existence of a draft put any visible break on it until visible defeat (wars very often become unpopular in the face of defeat).

        These articles are abstract speculation. Which is odd, since western nations have had many wars with and without drafts since the revolutionary French government started conscription (the modern form of the draft) in 1798. That proves ample data for analysis. I suggest you look in the political science literature, rather than op-eds, for analysis and evidence.

    3. “IMO it’s a sign of a weak argument when people advocate something without giving historical examples, and when given a LARGE counter-example — ignore it.”

      This is not true. From the Salon article: “No doubt, the antiwar voices who have recently argued for the reinstatement of a draft will find fuel in this Berkeley/Columbia report. They argue that viscerally connecting the entire nation to the blood-and-guts consequences of war will make the nation less reflexively supportive of war — and the new data substantively supports that assertion. That’s why in the midst of (at least) three U.S. military occupations, this report is almost sure to be ignored by our chickenhawk-dominated political class — because it too explicitly exposes the selfish, self-centered and abhorrent roots of the chickenhawk ethos that now plays such an integral role in perpetuating a state of Endless War.”

      There’s plenty of evidence the draft ended the Vietnam War. The protests ended it. Also, beyond war concerns, I simply think that some sort of mandatory national service is good for national and social character, military and non-military, but that’s going beyond the scope of this post so I won’t derail the tracks too much.

      1. Hare,

        THat’s not remotely correct. Several factors ended the Vietnam War. First, the cost became onerous. Second, defeat broke Americans confidence — the Tet Offensive forced LBJ to withdraw from re-election). Third, as you note, resistance to the draft expansion steadily increased — becoming large scale by 1969.

        About the draft

        The draft did not begin, as you imply, with the lottery in 1969. In 1962 76,000 men were drafted. In 1963 119,000, and up and away until the peak years of 1967-1969. Aprox 1/3 of the US troops who served in the Vietnam war were draftees, and the fraction drafted increased as the war continued to its 1968 peak. The lottery in 1969 broadened the base of those drafted from the poor and minorities to the middle class. That end to class privilege super-charged the protests.

        For more about the Vietnam draft and the creation of the all-volunteer force see this RAND study.


        The draft did not prevent the Vietnam War, nor did it slow its expansion. In fact, the draft was necessary for the Vietnam War. the necessary troops could not be found otherwise at an acceptable cost. I do not understand your objections to the obvious facts.

        Mandatory Service

        Perhaps good, perhaps not. It’s not the subject of this post.

    4. “I do not understand your objections to the obvious facts.”

      I’m arguing, according to studies and others commentary, that the draft created such resistance that at the end the war had to end. The same pressure doesn’t exist for Iraq and Afghanistan. Congressmen (Charles Rangel) know this. Military experts (Andrew Bacevich) know this. Former generals (Stanlely McCrystal) know this. I don’t see me acknowledging this as me “objecting to obvious facts”. That is the reason the draft was abolished and why a draft will not be considered in our current climate, it’d make war too hard, especially these days.

      We weren’t defeated ever on the battlefield, there’s no a single battle in the Vietnam War that ended in US military defeat. It was the fact so many were dying just to maintain our presence there that sparked outrage in the US and ultimately ended the war. Again, nothing like that exists for Iraq and Afghanistan.

      1. Hare,

        You have your mythology about the Vietnam War, and will stick to it. Even trotting out one of the follies that defined it: “We weren’t defeated ever on the battlefield, there’s no a single battle in the Vietnam War that ended in US military defeat.” Sad to read this, more evidence that we have learned nothing.

        “You know you never defeated us on the battlefield”
        ”That may be so,” he replied, “but it is also irrelevant.”

        — Conversation on 25 April 1975 in Hanoi between Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr. (Chief of the U.S. Delegation, Four Party Joint Military Team) and Colonel Nguyen Don Tu (Chief, North Vietnamese Delegation), from Introduction to On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War by Harry G. Summers Jr. (1982)

    1. Hare,

      I guess if you close your eyes — ignoring WWI and the Vietnam War, which contradict your theory — you can pretend anything you want! As a bonus, your indifference to facts makes it pointless to discuss this with you.

      So you can pretend you won. Tomorrow you can pretend you won a Nobel!

  7. Pingback: Why Has America Stopped Winning Wars? | Bill Totten's Weblog

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