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July 13, 2006

Comments

Soldiers branded as 'baby killers' (true story: in college a fellow student stopped me one day while I was wearing my dress greens and asked why I wanted to kill babies.)

How appallingly rude and stupid.

(This is an excellent post, by the way: congrats to the ObWing collective for picking you.)

And reports of atrocities in Iraq will only serve to further damage the Army by making it less likely we can recruit the kind of high-quality soldiers we need.

I don't want to prejudge your views on this, but presumably you mean it's not the reports of atrocities that are damaging, but the fact that the atrocities occurred and went unpunished? If the atrocities committed in Vietnam had been punished, perhaps the US would have a better military today: if the atrocities committed in Iraq are punished, perhaps the US will have a better military in the future. But letting the atrocities go, as if no better can be expected of the US military than to follow illegal orders to kidnap, torture, and kill civilians, that I see as intrinsically damaging to the US military.

Andrew: for me, working in the Clark campaign was my first real exposure to the career military. My Dad had served (JAG office, clearing people accused by McCarthy until he won his first six cases and was abruptly transferred), as had most of the adult men I knew, but only because they were drafted. I didn't know anyone who had chosen to make it a career.

One of the things that really struck me about the people I encountered in the Clark campaign, along with their being generally admirable people, was this: a lot of them were, like Clark, officers who had chosen to stick with the army after Vietnam, when they had other, more lucrative possibilities. They were the people who had put the army back together again. I hadn't fully realized how bad things had been after Vietnam, or how much work it had taken to set things right; and it was really inspiring to meet these people. (None of whom talked as though they thought they were any sort of moral heroes; as far as they were concerned, they just loved the army and wanted to do right by it and by their country.)

And they were all absolutely terrified by the thought: it's going to happen again. They had worked so hard, and it was all being so carelessly thrown away. -- Obviously, since I met these people in the Clark campaign, selection bias was at work, but it was still really hard to see.

Hard to blog about, too: back when anyone who criticized Bush or the war in Iraq was accused of being blinded by Bush-hatred and a desire to see America fail, I would sometimes try to say: no, you don't realize that not only do I not at all want America to fail, but I have run into all these people who are the last people on earth that one would describe this way, who are terribly, terribly worried.

Here's to us, and those like us. Damn few left.

Well said. 7th ID and 32nd AADCOM, 82-86. Even though it was the peak of the cold war I enjoyed my service and had great pride in the units I was with and the men and women I served with.

I am saddened by this post.

Jes,

I definitely want to see all such reports investigated thoroughly and the guilty punished severely (including commanders who were either involved, or who failed to act when they learned of the problem). I phrased it that way because it's frustrating to me that while the vast majority of soldiers conduct themselves in a professional manner, we are always judged by the worst among us. And that creates a feedback loop, because some people who might otherwise consider joining the service think otherwise because they don't want to be affiliated with such actions. (Obviously, I'd prefer not to be affiliated with such actions either, which brings us back to the investigation/punishment issue.)

nitpick:

back when anyone who criticized Bush or the war in Iraq was accused of being blinded by Bush-hatred and a desire to see America fail

this hasn't changed.

--

another good post, Andrew.

good job ObWi, on the new poster selection.

I definitely want to see all such reports investigated thoroughly and the guilty punished severely (including commanders who were either involved, or who failed to act when they learned of the problem). I phrased it that way because it's frustrating to me that while the vast majority of soldiers conduct themselves in a professional manner, we are always judged by the worst among us.

That's a more natural prediliction for the Iraquis, of course. Having suffered similar atrocities from Sadaam, they'll think that the US soldiers are just more of the same, if they know of atrocities. That's why it should have been of utmost importance that our soldiers kept to the highest standards of professionalism (and why it should have been applied to the hired security forces there as well).

Andrew: well said. but it certainly appears to this civilian that what happened at Abu Ghraib was, if not actually intended, the natural consequence of Gitmo-izing the facility.

OCSteve: the mid-80s were the end of the cold war, not the peak. I think the soldiers who flew in the Berlin Airlift have a better claim. I am not minimizing your service. But there's strong evidence that there were a number of periods other than the mid-80s when the risk of war was worse.

I phrased it that way because it's frustrating to me that while the vast majority of soldiers conduct themselves in a professional manner, we are always judged by the worst among us.

Yes: it's human nature, I'm afraid.

But one thing that can make a difference in the long run is top down expectations of change. Unfortunately, that's one more thing that can't even be expected to start until after January 2009. Bush authorised torture: who can expect Bush to authorise an investigation that would condemn himself?

When the most senior officer to be prosecuted for committing torture and murder is a Chief Warrant Officer (and when he wasn't subject to a jail sentence for murdering a PoW during interrogation because if he'd been jailed he'd have lost his pension) no one can be expected to believe that the US military is yet seriously trying to set its own house in order, no matter what the good officers (who undoubtedly outnumber the bad) want to happen.

And I do feel for the good ones. Some of them are friends of mine.

Here's a question: How can you be sure that the army of 2001 - which was the product of the twenty years' renaissance which you describe - was actually any better than the army of 1981?

I mean, I know it had higher popularity, better pay, higher educational standards, more training time and so on, but those are inputs, not outputs. Was it any better at fighting and winning wars? It didn't exactly cover itself in glory when put to the touch in Afghanistan, that's for sure.

If your argument is that Reagan, Bush I and Clinton built an army that was excellent in every way as long as it didn't go to war, when it would immediately start to disintegrate, then, well, that doesn't sound like much of an army at all. The words "chocolate teapot" come to mind.

Andrew:

Gang activity is reported to be a rising problem in military units, although I have no personal experience of any such thing in my service.

Not just 'gang' activity...

It didn't exactly cover itself in glory when put to the touch in Afghanistan, that's for sure.

I'm not sure what you're referring to here. The Army didn't have a great deal to do with Afghanistan beyond special operations, at least during the initial fighting. I'm curious what makes you 'for sure' that the Army performed so poorly in Afghanistan. Also, you seem to be skipping over the Army's performance in Iraq. During the initial invasion, Army and Marine forces performed a feat of arms that would have been considered impossible before it was done. I won't pretend that the poor quality of Iraq's forces wasn't a factor there, but I think the evidence that the Army acquitted itself quite well during the invasion was quite clear.

Naturally any war is going to cause some degree of disintegration in an army: that's what casualties are. If you think that an army ought to be able to go to war and not sustain casualties, you have unrealistic standards of performance, as they can never be met. My concern is that decisions that have been made prior to the war, and more since it began, are causing a longer-term problem in the service that may require significant effort to overcome. The Army can overcome many foes, but Congress isn't one of them.

Naturally, I can't prove that the Army was any better at fighting and winning wars in 2001 than 1981, since we didn't fight any wars in 1981. That assessment is based on my professional opinion, which I suspect would be backed up by most soldiers. It's not a precise measure, but I'm not certain how we could measure an output that was never actually produced.

"...there's strong evidence that there were a number of periods other than the mid-80s when the risk of war was worse."

Yes and no. Able Archer.

"I'm curious what makes you 'for sure' that the Army performed so poorly in Afghanistan."

I was wondering the same thing. Tora Bora was a strategic mistake, but it reportedly wasn't made by the Army, and in any case, even if it had been, all armies occasionally make bad decisions; that's not at all the same as performing badly.

Now, I would to some degree fault the Army and Pentagon/DoD for having largely ignored counter-insurgency warfare in training and planning in the last thirty years, until the last couple of years when smacked in the face with the need, but it's not clear that that's what ajay was referring to.

Another excellent post, Andrew. My father volunteered for Vietnam and served admirably as an artillaryman and head of his gun section. I have at various times considered military service, not out of any fiscal need, but because I believe it is admirable to serve one's country in this direct manner. However, this last foray in Iraq sealed the deal against me ever joining. I do not think I could volunteer for an Army I knew was being misused illegally and immorally, as well as just generally being run into the ground. Your post nails my dissatisfaction on the head.

I wasn't discussing Iraq because by that time the army had been at war for 18 months, and you said above that the transition from peace to war caused a decline in quality.

(Incidentally, I'd agree that the initial invasion of Iraq was a tremendous feat of arms. So were Napoleon's capture of Moscow and Massena's advance to Torres Vedras - if you see my point.)

And I know the difference between casualties and disintegration quite well - the disintegration I am referring to is the long-term damage which you described in your post. Sorry if this was ambiguous.

But Afghanistan, as the first operation in the War on Terror, was by definition fought by the peacetime army. And Anaconda, its first major operation, wasn't a great success.

I'm just interested to know why it is your personal opinion that the army was so much better in 2001 than in 1981. What makes you so sure that the 2001 army wasn't, in fact, a chocolate teapot?

Andrew, this is a very fine post, and I reiterate the praise above to the other Obsidian Wings regular posters for bringing you to us.

Question: In addition to the factors you've cited as reasons for the degradation of the Army, post-Vietnam, what part did the ascendancy of the other branches of the Armed Forces play in this process? Then, and now?

Secondly, I agree with Jes that the "baby-killer" comment was dumb and rude. It's too bad this tactic was used as often as it was, although I've never seen an accounting of its real prevalence.

But, it is true that babies are killed during war, either in close house-to-house action, or from bomb-bay doors. I wonder how we as an open society can learn to deal with that awful fact, other than having Armed Forces spokesmen calling it "collateral damage", which seems to lead some to put a finer, misdirected point on it as shown in your experience.

Incidentally, I view "baby killer" comments as the idiotic, ill-informed equivalent of opinions from some on the other end of the political spectrum who trumpet the patriotic wonders of military conflict without actually having had any experience with ordnance meeting flesh.

War may be necessary in some instances but it still sucks. (I am not qualified to make this statement, but there it is) This is something my Dad and my uncles and my father-in-law, all of whom served in World War II or Korea understood. They liked a good parade as much as anyone, but questions about combat were met with silence or, later in their lives in some cases, with some choked, emotional talk about the human damage to comrades and the enemy.

Just as those who throw around "baby killer" epithets know nothing, I would hope for a civilian President who doesn't reveal his infantile relishing of combat and death with "hoo-haws" and "Bring it on(s)"

Because babies ARE killed, and the least we can expect from a leader is to act like an adult and exhibit the proper solemnity.

War may be necessary but I don't think anyone in a position of power should like it TOO much.

Iraq was fought largely by the peacetime Army as well, actually. Because we committed such a small force to Afghanistan, for most of the Army Iraq was its baptism of fire. (And I'm well aware that great feats of arms don't necessarily win wars. I think they do serve to illustrate the quality of forces engaged, however.)

As for Anaconda, while I concur it wasn't a successful operation, I fail to see how this was an Army failure. The decision to fight Anaconda with minimal U.S. involvement was made at echelons above the Army. To the best of my knowledge, Army forces that did make contact during Anaconda acquited themselves very well.

As to my assessment of the 2001 Army being superior to the 1981 Army, I think the fact that in 2001 I could walk into any barracks in the Army and not have to worry about getting shot indicates a decided increase in discipline among the soldiers. Discipline is an indicator of a quality force. Therefore, I think just based on that, the 2001 Army wins hands down.

But there's also the creation of the Combat Training Centers to consider. Prior to the creation of the National Training Center, Army forces had no means to train at the brigade level or higher. Today there are three different CTCs where the Army practices warfare at the brigade level. We have also developed numerous simulation systems that allow division and corps commanders the opportunity to practice handling a force that size. Those training practices led directly to significant improvements in the Army's ability to fight and win on the battlefield. I commend you to read America's First Battles, which takes a look at the first battle American troops fought in each war through Vietnam. Compare those experiences (almost uniformly bad to disastrous) with the U.S. Army experience in the Gulf War, where we executed a complex plan effectively and quickly. The 3d ACR was the first unit that had fought in the Gulf War to rotate through a CTC, and the commanders noted that the NTC provided a more difficult environment for them than actual warfare had. That suggests to me that the training programs instituted by the Army through the 1980s were highly successful, and therefore the Army was of a much higher quality than it had been in 1981.

Now, I cannot say that the 2001 Army was necessarily any better than the 1991 Army, however.

Question: In addition to the factors you've cited as reasons for the degradation of the Army, post-Vietnam, what part did the ascendancy of the other branches of the Armed Forces play in this process? Then, and now?

John, I think that may be another whole post. I'm going to have to take some time to think about it.

To some of your other comments, I think General Robert E. Lee put it best. During the fighting at Fredericksburg, where the Federal Army suffered horrific casualties attempting to carry the Confederate lines (Joshua Chamberlain's unit was among those committed; he survived the charge and spent the night using dead bodies for cover against enemy fire.), Lee commented "It is well that war is so terrible, lest we should grow too fond of it."

Interesting reply. I take your point about discipline. Certainly no longer shooting one's officers is an improvement...

Though I'd disagree about how well US forces performed in Anaconda. Accounts of poor reconnaissance leading helicopters in to ambushes, and of large numbers of troops dropping their weapons and radios and fleeing when under fire, don't sound great.
Given that, on the "first battle" test, it's possible that the army had regressed significantly since your example of 3 ACR in 1991.

By the late 1970s, in the wake of the damages wreaked by the Vietnam war, officers did not dare to enter some barracks without carrying a sidearm. Drug use was rampant, and discipline was breaking down in some units.

My father, an infantry officer, won the Bronze Star in Korea. As I was approaching high school graduation in 1978, I was planning to go to college, but because military service is a family tradition dating to Cowpens and Kings Mountain, I also was considering service -- either by enlisting immediately after high school, then going to college after active duty, or by enrolling in ROTC while at college. My father, however, talked me out of it, using a description of the Army similar to yours as an argument for not going there. At the time, I wondered whether this wasn't just him finding an unemotional way of saying "I don't want to risk your getting shot at," but for better or worse, I now think he meant exactly what he said.

large numbers of troops dropping their weapons and radios and fleeing when under fire, don't sound great.

I have never heard of anything like this. Where did you hear this?

I should also note that it is possible that the Army had regressed from 1991 to 2001, as I noted some of the difficulties we had during the 1990s. However, I still am of the belief the 2001 Army was superior to the 1981 Army.

"That suggests to me that the training programs instituted by the Army through the 1980s were highly successful, and therefore the Army was of a much higher quality than it had been in 1981."

I am, of course, just a guy who sits in an office chair and reads, and so take my opinion on this for what little it is worth, but all I can say is that everything I've read on the U.S. military then, now, before, and in between, agrees with Andrew's evaluation. (And I also worry about what lowering standards today, and the other factors mention, will mean for the Army [not so much the other branches, which largely don't feel the same pressures, save to some extent for the Marines, but the Marines are less affected for various reasons] of the near/mid-future.)

Does the M16 really need replacing? It works, and appears to be suited to the job. The M1 was designed for massed tank battles in Eastern Europe, and way outclasses anything fielded by plausible near and mid-term enemies. I'm skeptical of the idea that the US needs major new weapons systems. As a civilian I lack direct experience on the topic, but from the outside it looks to me that military priorities at this point ought to be reducing the logistics demands and increasing the number of frontline troops and the quality (and especially relevance) of their training.

togolosh,

The M16 question has the aura of a religious war these days. Some people love it, others hate it. I personally would prefer a weapon with less penetrating power and more stopping power, but there are reasons to continue using the current model.

I'm an Armor officer, so I'm biased, but I think history backs me up on the need for a good light tank. The M1 is so heavy, there are a lot of places it can't be used. And it's old enough now that maintenance issues are significant. A tank that's back in the UMCP isn't much good.

I concur that we ought to look at putting more combat troops out there. I'd like to see us build two new divisons, personally, but that's a political non-starter.

The training changes are already here, although they will require continual refinement.

I'll chip in with agreement to what everyone else has said about the impact of lowering recruiting standards. A friend's father served in vietnam for two tours, and said that 'drafting warm bodies' was the worst thing the army could've done.

He had chilling stories of waking up to realize that the guy who'd been in charge of setting up camp had installed a ring of claymore mines backwards...

"Does the M16 really need replacing? It works, and appears to be suited to the job."

Lots of people seem to feel that the AK-47 is more reliable; maybe we should just get a licence to make them.

:-)

"He had chilling stories of waking up to realize that the guy who'd been in charge of setting up camp had installed a ring of claymore mines backwards..."

Well, that'll end your miseries right quick.

It's back. Yay. *celebrates*

As far as I know, AK's more reliable, but not as accurate, and heavier. Depends on your priorities. Changing the round to something that does more damage (like the old 7.62) would be a huge deal, given the trouble the US took to standardise Nato on the 5.56.

Andrew: the poor reconnaissance that led to the LZ ambushes is a matter of record. The account of the troops fleeing is from Hersh and contemporary press reports. I don't have Hersh handy, but I think it was the 10th Mountain Division.

Francis:
the mid-80s were the end of the cold war, not the peak. I think the soldiers who flew in the Berlin Airlift have a better claim.

I would consider the Berlin Airlift more like the beginning, the Cuban Missile Crisis as the most dangerous moment, and the early – mid 80’s as the peak – as in over the top and heading down the other side.

But there's strong evidence that there were a number of periods other than the mid-80s when the risk of war was worse

Ever hear of Able Archer?

I was on in the Signal Corps during that little exercise and I can tell you first hand that things got very exciting. I believe it was second only to the Cuban Missile Crisis in terms of how close we came.

Oops, I see Gary beat me on the Able Archer point. Guess I should read all the comments before responding :)

claymore mines backwards...

Look, maybe he just had an extreme aversion to dying *at the hands of the enemy*. Which this tactic would handily forestall.

Though I am confused about one point--I thought claymores were the ones that popped up and did a 360 spray at waist level. In which case backwards/forwards big dif. Are they something more directionally lethal instead?

Mines in general are not nice, nor productive of nice things. Except a great bit of dialogue in a Black Adder episode set in a WWI mine field.

It's more like a 60-degree arc, with overspray out to 180.

"Though I am confused about one point--I thought claymores were the ones that popped up and did a 360 spray at waist level."

That's incorrect. There are different technical names for such mines, but they were commonly known as "Bouncing Betties."

"In which case backwards/forwards big dif. Are they something more directionally lethal instead?"

Just so. A claymore is mounted, usually more or less at chest or waist level or so, and fixed to spray in the direction of the enemy you're intended to ambush or defend against. It's a single-use blast, of course.

S-mine, aka "Bouncing Betty."

Chilling anecdotal account.

The M18 Claymore. (Not to be confused with the Scottish sword.)

"Mines in general are not nice, nor productive of nice things."

Nothing that kills and mutilates people is nice.

However, if you're, say, sitting in a jungle in a couple of dug-in positions with some buddies, and there are a bunch of Vietcong roaming out there, waiting to find you, or come assault your position and shoot you, mutilate you, or rip you apart with a bayonet, having a few claymores surrounding you for when they come is probably apt to add slightly to your relative comfort level. And similarly in other similar circumstances.

Also, claymores aren't the sort of mines that are buried and triggered when kids come walking by years later, as a rule. You pull the trigger on them manually. They're something like one-shot cannons with a wide field of fire.

But guns and bayonets aren't nice when used against people, either. There's a startling shortage of nice weapons.

Bean-bag guns, maybe, though they're of limited usefulness. And even they hurt.

no no, many not-nice things. but this is nice:

Blackadder: Now, where the hell are we?

George: Well, it's difficult to say, we appear to have crawled
into an area marked with mushrooms.

Blackadder: [patiently] What do those symbols denote?

George: Pfff. That we're in a field of mushrooms?

Blackadder: Lieutenant, that is a military map, it is unlikely to list
interesting flora and fungi. Look at the key and you'll
discover that those mushrooms aren't for picking.

George: Good Lord, you're quite right sir, it says "mine". So,
these mushrooms must belong to the man who made the map.

Blackadder: Either that, or we're in the middle of a mine-field.

Baldrick: Oh dear.

George: So, he owns the field as well?

Too bad the XM-8, which was supposed to replace the M-16, got canceled last fall right before it was supposed to start being deployed.

I've yet to hear a convincing reason for not going ahead with the program, other than rumors that american gun manufacturers objected to it and lobbied against the program. They apparently didn't like H&K moving in on their turf even though H&K was going to build an assembly plant in the US.

A lot of the issues with the M-16 and M-9 pistol come down to caliber. An lot of people want to go back to the 7.62 and .45 cal rounds. We might end up adopting a rifle using the new 6.8 mm rounds, but I'm unfamiliar with any standard combat rifle chambered to use it. All the one's in use in Afghanistan and Iraq and custom jobs for SOCOM afaik.

"We might end up adopting a rifle using the new 6.8 mm rounds, but I'm unfamiliar with any standard combat rifle chambered to use it."

Tangentially, I'm catching up to Stargate SG-1 via Netflix, since I stopped being able to receive the local Fox syndicated broadcast a couple of years ago, and don't have cable; I was amused to learn that they had to cut back on the P90s they'd been using as standard weapons, and only leave one for Richard Dean Anderson (before he left, obviously), and that to only be fired in very limited bursts, due to a worldwide shortage of P90 5.7 x 28 mm ammo due to Iraq and Afghanistan. (Even though they only fire blanks, of course, on the show, they still need the same cartridges.) (It's a very futuristic-looking gun, don't you think? Even though it's not terribly new anymore.)

I'm an Armor officer, so I'm biased, but I think history backs me up on the need for a good light tank. The M1 is so heavy, there are a lot of places it can't be used. And it's old enough now that maintenance issues are significant. A tank that's back in the UMCP isn't much good.

Aren't the Abrams APC's functioning as de facto light tanks in Iraq?

"Aren't the Abrams APC's functioning as de facto light tanks in Iraq?"

Maybe you mean Bradleys? Or Strykers? Cause there ain't no such thing as an "Abrams APC."

Tangentially, I'm catching up to Stargate SG-1 via Netflix, since I stopped being able to receive the local Fox syndicated broadcast a couple of years ago, and don't have cable; I was amused to learn that they had to cut back on the P90s they'd been using as standard weapons, and only leave one for Richard Dean Anderson (before he left, obviously), and that to only be fired in very limited bursts, due to a worldwide shortage of P90 5.7 x 28 mm ammo due to Iraq and Afghanistan. (Even though they only fire blanks, of course, on the show, they still need the same cartridges.) (It's a very futuristic-looking gun, don't you think? Even though it's not terribly new anymore.)

Yeah, it didn't start off particularly strong in sales for several years until the spec ops community got ahold of it. It was originally meant for use by tank crews and rear area personnel that do not have as much need for a full size assault rifle. However, the compactness of the weapon as well as the proven ballistic performance of the round has made it popular. The lack of many other weapons that use the same round has limited production and it has run into bottlenecks in recent years.

The XM-8 looks pretty damn cool as well. There is still hope for the project, because H&K has continued refining the weapon for additional contracts. It's basically an update of the G-36 in the first place, and hopefully they'll manage to break through the dysfunctional acquisition process eventually.

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