Inspired by some recent reading, both here and elsewhere, I wanted to address some matters military. Since this post is somewhat meandering and since I'm just a guest here, I'll put the post below the fold so readers can skip past to the more important stuff.
I'll start with this article about the Army's standard firearm, the M4 carbine. This is a matter of some importance to me, as I carry an M4 whenever I leave the FOB and it is my primary means of personal defense should things get unpleasant here.
The article lays the issue out: the M4, while a pretty good weapon, tends to jam frequently relative to other weapons, particularly in conditions prevalent in Iraq and Afghanistan. I can speak directly to this. When I first arrived in Kuwait, we had to go verify the zero on our weapons (this means to make sure that the weapon's sights are pointed where the bullets strike). It was a windy day, and sand and dust were very heavy in the area. In short order, weapons were jamming routinely as the dust and sand penetrated the chamber of the weapons and clogged the action. Bolts had difficulty locking into position as the chambers filled, and we faced a constant struggle to keep weapons working in order to get everyone zeroed. I cannot imagine what we would have done had we actually been engaged with the enemy at that time, as our weapons were wholly unreliable for sustained firing. Fortunately, we did not face such a problem, and have not yet, but were that situation to arise, I would feel very nervous about our chances of escaping cleanly.
Procurement strikes me as a very difficult issue to get right. It is very easy to make a blanket statement like 'all our soldiers should have the very best equipment available,' but such statements ignore realities like budgets and standardization. Technology moves ahead remarkably fast, which is a good thing. But that also means that improvements come down the pike with a frequency that would require an Army dedicated to giving its soldiers only the very best equipment to spend almost all its time and money buying and fielding new equipment. With half a million soldiers in the active Army, buying a new standard firearm is a rather significant investment. The limits of practicality mean that, rather than the best available equipment, the Army simply has to settle for good enough in most cases, even if the gear truly is the best available at the time of its purchase. The trick remains determining just what is, in fact, good enough.
When it comes to weapons, it seems clear to me that the Army is dropping the ball in this case. Even without going to far as to purchase a clearly superior weapon like the XM-8, the Army could purchase new upper receivers (M4s break into two parts: an upper and lower receiver; the upper receiver includes the barrel and bolt chamber while the lower receiver includes the trigger assembly, hand grip, and butt stock) for its existing M4 stock and significantly improve their reliability without requiring any significant new training for soldiers nor a massive expense when measured against procuring completely new weapons. And when it comes to a question of weapon reliability, while cost can never simply not be an object, I feel that ensuring the Army's weapons will fire when the trigger is pulled is worth a little extra. I suspect Congress could find the extra $1 billion it might cost to fix this problem without too much difficulty, even if it meant pulling that money from somewhere else.
Now, on to other topics, like heterosexism in the military and the breaking of the Army. While I am sure that what OCSteve recalls as the situation extant in his unit when he served prior to Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) may have been the case in his unit, I find it less plausible that a similar situation obtained across the entire military. As Jesurgislac points out, the military was discharging people vigorously for their sexuality throughout the 1980s; DADT may have made matters worse for gays and lesbians, but they were far from accepted before that policy arrived. I have nothing but contempt for a policy that permits convicted criminals to serve while asking people to leave simply because their sexuality or gender does not fit neatly into society's binary system. I cannot say whether I have ever served with any gay or lesbian soldiers; DADT became law about a year after I was commissioned, and while I'm sure that the law of averages means that some of the men and women I worked with over the years were gays or lesbians, I'm equally confident they would not feel comfortable volunteering that information under the threat of DADT. But I can say with complete confidence that I would greatly prefer going into combat with a gay man than with a criminal, and the notion that homosexuality is in any way worse than criminal conduct is abhorrent.
Would allowing openly gay people to serve in the military cause serious damage to the institution? While I cannot guarantee that the answer would be no, clearly the available evidence would suggest that, in fact, the answer is no. The British Army opened its doors to gays and lesbians years ago, and I am aware of no evidence that decision has had any effect on readiness. American society is, slowly and painfully, adjusting to the 'horrors' of publicly gay and lesbian people living their lives just like heterosexuals, and while there have been many growing pains, I have seen no evidence to suggest that society is worse off for that (often-grudging) acceptance. (For the record, claims that society is going to hell in a handbasket precisely because homosexuals and, less often, transgendered people are better accepted is not an argument, it's a value judgement, and it holds no weight with me.) Why would the military be any different? Yes, we can expect to see some growing pains as an institution that historically has disdained LBGT people is forced to accept them, but I have seen no evidence that would suggest that soldiers, who are trained to go in harm's way, cannot discipline themselves to deal with the far less dangerous prospect of serving alongside LBGT individuals. Indeed, I suspect that such a move would only benefit the Army and society as a whole by showing more people that, much to their surprise, LBGT people are much like 'normal' people in many respects, and that in all respects they are, unsurprisingly, people.
Better still from the perspective of an Army that has been strained significantly by the past two decades, permitting LBGT people to serve would provide the Army access to a far superior talent pool than the criminals and high school dropouts it has been forced to accept in increasing numbers over the past six years. As hilzoy noted, the Army is facing some pretty significant strains right now. If you're a soldier, you pretty much accept that you'll be in Iraq or Afghanistan for 12-15 months every few years, and it should come as no surprise that many people are choosing other careers than the Army.
I'd be curious to see the actual evidence that the Army is, in fact, losing its best young officers, though. While graduates of the United States Military Academy do cost the Army more than ROTC or OCS graduates, I have seen no evidence in almost 20 years of uniformed service that USMA grads make superior officers. I have seen excellent USMA graduate officers, and I have seen lousy ones, just as I have seen good and bad ROTC and OCS graduates. It may well be that the Army's best young officers are leaving; I don't know one way or the other. I just hope that the article is not conflating 'USMA graduate' with 'best young officers.'
The article is correct in its larger conclusions, however. I see many of these problems firsthand. I am a 'tweener' in this fight; I grew up in a peacetime Army, but am not senior enough to be running anything significant in the service and am now getting an opportunity to see the fight at close range. I see the younger officers who already have far more combat experience than I did with twice their time in the Army. And I see them being ill-used by senior officers who grew up, as I did, in a peacetime Army, training to fight high-intensity conflicts, and frequently unable to wrap their minds around the idea that this conflict is different. We've been in Iraq for four-plus years now, and yet I still see many commanders who spend far more time worrying about raids than helping the locals learn how to protect themselves or letting the Iraqi Army take the lead. It's very difficult for people who trained for close to 20 years to fight a war to force themselves to understand and fight as a counterinsurgency force. All too often, people end up trying to do what they know rather than stepping outside their comfort zone. And that can drive young officers right out of the service, because they see little reason to stick around when they see senior officers doing the wrong things.
This problem is not insoluble, however. Prior to the Cold War, the United States maintained a small cadre Regular Army that was sufficient for handling minor tasks, and ramped up to a larger, citizen Army when war loomed. While that often led to difficulties, American armies throughout history have demonstrated comparable skill at all levels to those of far more militaristic states. A smaller Army would be far better suited to retaining only the best officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs), as pay scales could be increased while slots were decreased, placing converging pressure on poorer performers. This wouldn't guarantee a great Army by any stretch of the imagination, but it would increase the probability of building a solid cadre while allowing the Army to stop bringing in poorer performers to fill in its increasingly poorly-manned ranks. Such a reduction would also reduce the ability of Presidents to rely on military adventurism to fill out their 'legacy,' a not-inconsiderable benefit.
Of course, before we can get to that point, we would have to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I'm not holding my breath.