As a Chicago native and Gen X’er, one indelible part of my childhood was the 1985 Bears. The Super Bowl Shuffle, the Fridge, Coach Ditka – it was a magical season, capped off with a dominating win in Super Bowl XX. Despite some brief glints of greatness, the Bears, since that season, have never been able to recapture the glory of that epic season; most would argue they haven’t even come close. But that doesn’t stop us, the diehard fans of the Monsters of the Midway, from reminiscing about that incredible season, from playing our Super Bowl Shuffle record, from foolishly thinking we will return to greatness someday, and that we are still, at least in some ways, awesome. And then there’s reality… The Bears have the 4th-worst record of any NFL team over the last decade, with a 61-101 record. As of the writing of this article, they currently have the longest active losing streak of any NFL team and have begun this season after much hype and promise at 0-4. Awesome, we are most decidedly no longer.
The Pinnacle (and the beginning of decline) of the American Military
If you have never been to Normandy, France, I would highly recommend you visit it. There, on the windswept beaches of northwestern France, unfolded the scenes of quite possibly the pinnacle of the modern-day American civilization.
In one brutal but magnificent day, the inimitable powers of freedom and democracy joined together in the greatest combined operation of modern warfare in order to confront the evil forces of Nazi Germany. Never in the post-industrial era have we endeavored to do something as momentous as Operation Overlord. We will likely never do so again. Since that generation, with the toppling of fascism in Europe followed shortly by the confronting of Communism in Korea, the U.S. military has been in steady decline. Some periods of that decline have been masked by a spike in patriotism, or renewed calls to service, but from a macro-level perspective, our grand military is but a shell of its former great self.
With increasing frequency, the plight of the military’s ability to recruit has emerged into the public spotlight, to include the mainstream media. The leadership of the military has been quick to point at factors external to the institution: the state of the economy[i] [ii] [iii], the lack of able-bodied men and women[iv] [v], and a shrinking military footprint throughout the nation due to Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) decisions. Far more infrequently discussed by the Pentagon’s brass, however, is the myriad of factors internal to the armed forces, which dissuade Americans from serving, or continuing to serve: the high rate of Military Sexual Trauma (MST) especially among women[vi] [vii], the rate of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and suicides amongst veterans[viii] [ix] [x], the corrupted systems of justice and redress that fail to protect the individual service member[xi], and an ever-increasing self-serving leadership corps especially amongst senior military officers and civil service personnel[xii] [xiii]; these are just a few factors that have combined for an inconvenient and un-confronted truth in the Pentagon: it is the military itself that is at least partly, if not mostly, responsible for its own recruiting woes.
But this article is not about the decline of the prestige and trust the military used to enjoy, it is ultimately about the decline of capability. And what we at the Foundation find far more disconcerting than the decline of our military’s readiness, is that very few in positions to alter that downward vector really seem to give a damn, whether that be the Congress or the military institution’s leadership.
Everyone Sees the Train Approaching, but No One is Flinching
In the nearly two years we have been in operation, we have dealt with many levels of Congress, from individual staffer, to major committees. From those interactions, here is what we assess, with a preponderance of the evidence, “moves the needle” in Congress with respect to military issues:
- Big defense contract dollars
- Hot-button social agenda items
- Embarrassing press
Markedly absent in that list are:
- Oversight of the military, especially its leadership,
- Accountability of a Department of Defense that consistently violates laws and regulations,
- Rights and protections of the individual service member,
- Issues that impact readiness, military industry contracts notwithstanding.
Meanwhile, we, as a nation and especially as a military, are approaching a confluence of two converging paths:
💥 A potential future conflict with a peer adversary
💥 A military that can no longer recruit and retain an adequate amount of talent in order to conduct that conflict
If you believe the above two to be true, you should be writing your Congressmen now. And in that letter, the message should be simple: you, Representative / Senator X, are not doing enough now in order to avoid what could be a catastrophic collision of events in the future. Their inadequacy comes through because, aside from the above-listed three issues, our Congress is not doing its Constitutionally-mandated job of executing checks and balances on the Executive branch, mainly our armed forces.
To highlight Congress’ failures, let us view a list, taken from various sources, as to why America has lost trust in the military institution:
- Fruitless conflicts that have cost an inordinate amount of American lives and money[i] [ii] [iii],
- A consistent lack of transparency [iv] [v],
- Unchecked assault, abuse, and harassment of its members,
- An uncurbed mental health and suicide epidemic[vi],
- A lack of a truly independent and uncorrupted system of justice,
- Leaders who are increasingly self-serving and sycophantic.
It is here where the question is begged: what measures is Congress and our Commander-in-Chief enacting in order to address the above six ailments of our military? The answer is: little to nothing, at least nothing to little of substance. Instead, they invest their energies into one of their priorities: big defense dollars (which just so happen to equate to big campaign dollars), or pursuing their party’s social issue du jour which has little to do with readiness and defense of the nation in the slightest. And with this lies the ever-present hypocrisy: how can our government espouse the importance of military readiness while it at the same time refuses to address so many of the problems that directly affect it?
The Infinite Loop
Time and time and time again, we at the Foundation see this pattern with our Executive and Legislative branches:
- A systemic problem arises in the military which impacts readiness,
- Service members attempt to address it, to include taking their concerns to Congress,
- Congress carries out one of the following:
- Defers the corrective action(s) back to the Department of Defense, which inevitably does nothing,
- Attempts to effect policy change which an uncooperative Department simply out-waits,
- Effects policy change which the Department either disregards with impunity or does enough to placate any short-lived oversight entities.
The most salient example we can provide of this phenomenon is that of the ongoing issue of Military Sexual Trauma (MST) in the Armed Services. Despite over 20 years of attention, the military has made veritably zero progress in this fight: rates of MST have not declined, service members’ trust of the system’s handling of cases is at an all-time low[i], and moreover, the institution that has attempted to cover the issue up is continuing to be exposed in a manner which America’s youth sees[ii] [iii]. The Walk the Talk Foundation has dealt with a handful of cases recently which involve elements of MST. The military’s conduct in these cases has been as surprising as deplorable: consistently scoffing DoD regulations and Title 10 law in their handling of the allegations, not to mention the unchecked retribution of the victims. And with each case, we are forced to cogitate: how is it that the military would continue to conduct itself in this manner? Have they learned nothing? All crassness and cynicism aside, we believe the answer really is “yes” – they in fact have learned nothing. In military speak, we would call this a “lesson identified”, not a “lesson learned.” One in three women in today’s military have been or will be sexually harassed or assaulted while serving[iv]. One in three. And that is after two decades of the military “confronting” the issue. If you had a service-aged daughter that inquired about serving in the military, what would you say to her, given that statistic? But why is this problem not going away? Why does it remain a “lesson identified” in perpetuity? The answer is simple: because it can. And this problem, like so many others, won’t be fixed of the institution’s own accord – they gain nothing by doing so. After all, how many Generals and Admirals have had their career impacted by not addressing MST? Zero. So, what’s the motivation level to really fix MST? Also zero. And this axiom can be applied to hundreds of issues across the DoD today amongst our top brass: doesn’t affect me or my career? Don’t really care. But remember: “people are our most valuable resource,” so says the leadership cabal.
Check Out That Sound System!
After the Defense Intelligence Agency was highlighted in a February 2022 Wall Street Journal Article for not addressing rampant toxicity in the workplace, its Director, in an effort to launch a PR counter-offensive, was quick to address the members of the Agency highlighting all the good things people were doing there. He wasn’t wrong – there were people doing great things in DIA, and there still are. But his response was akin to when you try to return a lemon of a used car because the transmission is blown out and the salesman retorts “just listen to this sound system!” One has nothing to do with the other, and, even more germane to this discussion: the good aspects simply don’t nullify the bad ones. To highlight this common DoD deflection tactic as it applies to the answering the wrong question with the wrong answers, here is what our military leadership asserts are the roots of its recruiting problems:
- Out-of-shape youth,
- A healthy economy,
- A reduced military footprint throughout the nation.
Now look at the list of 6 factors in the previous paragraph that are contributing to the decline of trust vis-a-vis our military institution. You’ll note there are no commonalities in the “he-said-she-said” discussion about why our youth find the military to be less and less trustworthy and hence less attractive as a career.
Referring back to the MST epidemic, should the military not list in “barriers to recruiting” the fact that if a woman enlists, she is statistically more likely to be raped while serving in the military? The answer to that is an undeniable yes – that absolutely should be a concern which is discussed candidly. But it isn’t. It’s easier and more palatable for our military leadership to talk about exogenous boogeymen instead of addressing the ugly truths staring at them in the mirror. In short, the military is trying to discuss only the metaphorical sound system, without even mentioning the blown out transmission. But again, who cares? The blaring unaddressed problems internal to the military like unchecked MST don’t get more than a veritable shoulder shrug form our short-attention-spanned Congress, and perhaps something only slightly more from a relatively disinterested press. In short, the military is sucking at defeating these “domestic enemies”, or perhaps more accurately just plain chooses not to defeat them (unable to defeat enemies sadly being an emerging trend) and no one that could change that really gives a damn.
Where are All Those Unicorns?
One of those entities that could effect change that doesn’t is our flaccid General Officer / Flag Officer (GOFO) corps. General officer revisionist history has become some of our favorite reading as of late. A perfect exemplar of that General Officer nonsense comes from the now well-known quote about raising mavericks in the service.
“Take the mavericks in your service, the ones that wear rumpled uniforms and look like a bag of mud but whose ideas are so offsetting that they actually upset the people in the bureaucracy. One of your primary jobs is to take the risk and protect these people, because if they are not nurtured in your service, the enemy will bring their contrary ideas to you.”-GEN James Mattis
Where are those in the GOFO ranks? When have we seen them speak out against the institution? The answer: not until they’ve exited it with all the pomp and circumstance (with follow-on contractor/advisor positions lined up to boot) they came to expect as a GOFO. GEN McKenzie’s lamenting about the Afghanistan evacuation is a perfect exemplar:
“I have a lot of regrets about how it ended in Afghanistan. I have a regret with the basic decision, which I think was the wrong decision.”-GEN Frank McKenzie, former commander of CENTCOM, on the Afghanistan withdrawal
I wonder where his dissension was while he was serving as commander of CENTCOM? I wonder what stand he took two years ago while still in uniform? Not knowing for certain, the law of probability would say that General McKenzie was following suit and singing the company line as that is what is rewarded (with additional stars) in our military today. And where are those mythical mavericks Mattis purported to have protected and nurtured along the way? Mavericks like those that spoke out and questioned the lawfulness of the COVID vaccine mandate much like its dubious counterpart of years past (Antrhax)? Or those that challenged the fact that the Department was capriciously denying service members their due religious accommodations? We can’t say for sure where those renegades are now, but we can say for certain where they are not: the GOFO ranks of today, and of the future.
Nothing to See Here!
While on the topic of COVID… Over the course of the vaccine debacle of the last two years, over 8,000 service members were ushered out of the military due to refusing the vaccine[i]. Of those who applied for a religious exemption to the vaccine (a process guided by DoD policy), zero were approved. None. And in the relative blink of an eye, nearly two armored brigades worth of men and women were shuffled out, their skills and talents not to be replaced for a long time coming (if ever, based on the military’s recruiting epidemic). And just like the 7,000+ American service members that died in wars of the last 20 years, our Congress barely batted an eye. Sure, they capitalized on the bungled Afghanistan evacuation in order to sling mud across the aisle in a political kangaroo court[ii], but real answers, real accountability, real learning, and most importantly: real improvement in capability and readiness — those just don’t happen any more of our own volition. And again, most everyone seems to be hunky-dory with that, at least, most everyone who is empowered to be able to incite real progressive change.
And so, we arrive at the theme of this article: our military is sucking – on quite a few levels, actually – and the proverbial “we” seem to be happy with that. Whether it be unchecked abuses or uncurbed assaults or shit living conditions for service members and/or families or corruption in the upper ranks or the total failure of redress/justice systems (or… or… or… there really are too many to list), three things seem to be holding true:
- The situation is getting worse, almost without exception,
- People who could change it don’t feel necessarily compelled to change it so long as their (next) careers are progressing,
- The military is no longer able to hide its own unraveling.
Sure, there are the advocates for change and the one-off Congressmen and press outlets that make a concerted effort in this endeavor. But the stakeholders with the power – they seem to be fine with both the current situation and the not-so-promising trajectory we seem to be on, because to really change would entail one of two great evils for them:
- Admitting culpability
- Relinquishing power/authorities/ego
And so long as the institution’s true priorities lie with a) assuring its own continued existence, and b) never committing one of the two above-listed ‘cardinal sins of senior leadership,’ nothing substantive will ever change – at least on our own terms (another reference to Mattis’ rhetoric). (In this vein, we hereby trademark the official name change from Department of Defense (DoD) to the Department of Defense of Itself (DoDoI), as that seems to be its true lasting mission).
It is important to make a distinction now and highlight that the message here is not everything about the U.S. military is bad and not every leader is a self-serving egomaniac. Just the opposite, in fact: there is an innumerable number of redeeming qualities about service in our military and a number of great people and leaders. The issue, however, is that those positives are currently being completely tainted (and with good reason) by the negatives. Further, those negatives are making good people who served, and enjoyed the positive traits of that service, and alienating them and disenfranchising them at an alarming rate – so much so that fewer and fewer veterans are recommending service to their friends and family, especially their own children[i]. In essence, our nation’s leaders are applying bandaid measures where metaphorical tourniquets are required and in several critical aspects such as manning and readiness, because of the inadequacy of response, the military is figuratively bleeding out.
No Longer Are We Better Than ‘Them’
Many veterans who serve as advisors on the Walk the Talk Foundation recall the times when we would look down our noses at other militaries: those who seemed to be more for show than for substance. They were bloated, usually rank-heavy, and performed poorly in operations. Many of them organizationally appeared to serve more as a socialized jobs program than a fighting force. And now, here we are in 2023 appearing very much like those once-laughing-stocks. Yes, we arguably remain one of the most tactically-competent armies in the world. Yes, we are a nuclear power. Yes, we have all the latest and greatest gadgets (which are then stolen and copied with whiplash speed for pennies on the dollar).
We are incredibly bloated: more and more bureaucrats belly up to the government feed trough of the military, especially in the GS and SES systems. And these oxygen consumers are not our future military leaders nor are they the trigger-pullers and bomb-droppers of the next war. Further, they are almost impossible to dislodge from their positions once anchored there.
At the same time, beyond bloated,
We have become more and more top-heavy in terms of our misplaced senses of self-importance and entitlement seeping down lower and lower into the ranks of our officer corps.
Need we discuss further our performance in the last decade in combat operations?
So, is it a huge leap to say we’ve become what we used to mock? That we’ve also become a second-rate military which is degenerating into a socialized jobs protection program (those protections many times ironically not afforded to our warfighters and enablers)? We at the Foundation say yes and we say our military’s leadership and Congress refuse to acknowledge it and/or change it.
What’s a ‘Hubris’??
Aside from the intrinsic prices to be paid in order to change, another part of the refusal to confront this inconvenient truth of self-destruction seems to be the “1985 Chicago Bears Phenomenon,” introduced at the beginning of this article: the hubris, defined as excessive pride or misplaced self-confidence, that comes from days (and wars) long-since past; the inability to come to terms with a bitter present: that you have fallen a long way from those glory days of yore. Hell, the U.S. Army went so far as to change their Class A uniform back to the 1940s-era uniform [i], perhaps as an homage to that time, more likely perhaps to remind everyone that they won a war 80 years ago.
Sorry, Department of Defense (aka “DoDoI”) and Congress, it’s going to take a hell of a lot more than a retro “pinks and greens” uniform to get America back onboard to trusting you again and seeing your military as an attractive career; it will take much more to deter our future adversaries; it will take much more to make our military truly great again – and you all know it. You just are simply content with not really fixing it.