Fog of War

How can we talk about the military if we can't define what it is?

Just what exactly is the military?

On one level, this question has an obvious answer. "The military" is "the armed forces," which in this country essentially means the active duty Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, together with their respective reserves and the National Guard. (Yes, yes, under certain circumstances the Coast Guard could be considered part of the military, and then there's the Merchant Marine, and the Public Health Service, and even a bunch of uniformed officers with commissions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- did you know that? -- but let's keep it simple for now.)

Sticking with the obvious, if we know who's in the military, then presumably we know what the military is: the military is what it does. In other words, military functions are those functions performed by members of the military.

This is a nice tautology. (That's why they pay columnists the big bucks!) Granted, it's not very enlightening, since military personnel do a whole lot of not-very-military-ish things at Uncle Sam's behest, but more on this in a moment.

Okay: maybe it's more useful to define the military as a specialized, hierarchically structured organization that's legally authorized to use lethal force to protect the state and advance its interests. This dovetails with our commonsense assumption about what our military is: it's an organization that fights wars. It's a group of people bearing weapons -- whether swords, rifles or shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles -- who use those weapons to deter, disable, capture, or kill those who threaten U.S. security interests.

Superficially, this seems like a more helpful and precise way to define the military. But is it really? After all, the vast majority of military personnel don't "fight." Instead, they serve in a myriad of headquarters, logistics, administrative, and support positions: they cook, play in bands, draft memos, file papers, fix computers, write articles for the base newspaper, drive trucks, do archival research, analyze signals data, investigate crimes, build roads, and so on, rather than serving in combat roles.

True, truck drivers and file clerks can drive over IEDs or fall prey to insurgent ambushes. The same is true for civilian government employees, journalists, aid workers, and children walking to school in the morning. Here in the United States, 9/11 reminded us that violence can also come to airline passengers and Wall Street secretaries. But though the distinction between the frontline and the rear has eroded, being targeted and fighting back isn't the same as serving in a combat role.

Military analysts refer to the ratio of combat versus non-combat troops as the "tooth to tail" ratio (T3R, if you want to get really wonky). In 2007, the Army's Combat Studies Institute published a fascinating study by John McGrath, who found that the U.S. military's tooth-to-tail ratio has declined substantially over the last century.

During World War I, for instance, the United States initially fielded about twice as many combat troops as support troops, for a 2-to-1 tooth-to-tail ratio. By 1945, as World War II wound down, that had changed; only about 40 percent of troops in the European theater were combat troops, while the rest were headquarters, administrative, logistics, and support troops of varying kinds (giving a T3R of roughly 2-to-3). By 1953 -- in Korea -- the tooth-to-tail ration was 1-to-3. By the 1991 Gulf War, it was even lower: McGrath estimates it as 1-to-3.3. During the Iraq War, the ratio of combat to non-combat troops deployed ticked up slightly, but primarily as a function of the increased use of civilian contractors.

McGrath -- himself a retired Army Reserve officer -- concludes that "combat elements have progressively declined as a proportion of the total force since 1945." And "[A]s the percentage of combat troops deployed declines, it raises the question of whether such a deployment is, in fact, a military deployment at all, or some other type of operation."

That's a vital question.

Go back to my initial query: just what is the military? If it's defined formalistically, it's the Army, Navy, and so on. If it's defined functionally, it's a lot less clear.

Let's complicate matters some more. McGrath's important study defined combat troops not by whether troops actually engaged in combat, but by rather by job description: thus, for instance, he counts as combat troops all "company size and above units of infantry, armor, cavalry, field artillery, air defense, artillery, attack and assault aviation, and combat engineers...special operations forces" and so on.

But in Iraq and Afghanistan, those combat troops spent a great deal of their time engaged in activities far removed from combat. They engaged the enemy when needed (the high casualty rates for troops in combat-related military occupational specialties make this painfully clear), but also found themselves doing everything from building schools to encouraging women's participation in economic activity.

The stated rationale for such seemingly not-very-militaryish activities was clear: to "win" in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States needed to win the hearts and minds of the population. As Lieutenant General William Caldwell put it in a 2008 Military Review article, "The future is not one of major battles and engagements fought by armies on battlefields devoid of population... victory will be measured in far different terms than the wars of our past. The allegiance, trust, and confidence of populations will be the final arbiters of success."

Counterinsurgency -- all the rage just a few years ago -- seems to have officially fallen out of fashion today, but there's no reason to think that our combat troops won't continue to engage in non-traditional multi-tasking in the decades to come. The military will always need the capacity to shoot people and blow stuff up. But in a world in which critical threats to U.S. national security may come from airline passengers armed only with boxcutters, from cyberspace or from a virus deliberately transmitted, it's inevitable -- and necessary -- that our troops will spend more and more time on activities that don't much resemble traditional forms of combat. They'll control drones from hundreds or thousands of miles away; they'll engage in "offensive actions in cyberspace"; they'll engage in covert and clandestine activities more traditionally viewed as the sphere of intelligence agencies.

Complicating matters even more, the decline in the military's tooth-to-tail ratio has been paralleled by a rise in civilian organizations (public and private) engaging in what look suspiciously like traditional military activities. The CIA has gone kinetic, for instance, with paramilitary forces that engage in direct action, often working hand in hand with military special operations forces. And for-profit private military companies increasingly place civilian contractors in jobs that resemble combat positions in all but name.

All this leads me to echo McGrath's question: When is a military deployment not a military deployment? Or: when does a military stop being a military? Is there some minimum quantum of traditional "combat" that makes a military "military," as opposed to something else, something we have yet to imagine or define?

There aren't just academic questions. Whether (and how much) the civilian-military gap matters depends greatly on how we categorize what the military is doing. In fact, much of what we think we know about how to run our military -- how to sustain it and constrain it, how to divvy up roles and missions, funding and authorities between the military and other entities -- depends on our ability to know what it is that we mean when use the term "the military."

If "the military" increasingly performs civilian functions, for instance, then maybe it doesn't matter that much if the State Department has fewer resources -- maybe our focus should just be on ensuring that the military performs those formerly civilian functions well. Conversely, if civilian entities such as the CIA perform "military" functions, then maybe we need to rethink how we hold the CIA accountable for its activities, which are far less transparent than those of the military. More generally, how do we make sense of civil-military relations -- and civilian control of the military -- when the boundaries between the "civilian" and "military" categories are grow ever more blurry?

In a recent guest post on Tom Ricks' blog, Mackubin Thomas Owens wrote, "The line between military and civilian is not impermeable. Success in national security requires that civilians have an ongoing say in military affairs," while "the military has to be at the policy and strategy table" as well.

That's wise advice. But if we can't define "military affairs" with any clarity, or reliably distinguish it from "policy" or "strategy," can we act on it?

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National Security

Thought Cloud

The real problem with the civilian-military gap.

One of the biggest misunderstandings about the civilian-military gap is that it is cultural -- the national security version of the red state-blue state divide.

But the distance between those in and out of uniform isn't fundamentally a matter of Texas vs. Massachusetts or NASCAR vs. Wimbledon. At the most basic level, it encompasses deeply different understandings of how we think -- how we plan, how we evaluate risk, even how we define problems in the first place. Ironically, the one place where the gap should be the most avoidable is the place where its effects are the most pernicious: Washington.

It's avoidable because if there's any venue where which civilians and military personnel work together side by side, day after day, it's in the national security establishment. In theory, this constant interaction ought to breed familiarity, not contempt.

In practice, though, too many senior civilian officials know virtually nothing about the structure of military organizations, the chain of command, or the military planning process, while some senior military officers have forgotten that there's any other way to run an organization or think about problem-solving.

During my time at the Pentagon and the State Department, I watched numerous interagency discussions devolve into exercises in mutual misunderstanding and frustration. Some of these discussions made front-page news (think of the squabbling over troop levels in Afghanistan and the split-the-baby outcome). Others never registered in the public consciousness, but rankled those involved.

Here's a small but not atypical example. A few readers may remember the spring 2010 crisis in Kyrgyzstan. Several hundred people were killed by police and ethnically aligned mobs, many more were wounded, and thousands of refugees (mostly from the Uzbek minority population) fled their homes.

Within the White House, these events triggered fears of a possible ethnic cleansing campaign to come, or even genocide. One day, I got a call from a member of the White House's National Security Staff (NSS). With little preamble, he told me that Centcom needed to "move a surveillance drone over Kyrgyzstan, ASAP, so we can figure out what's going on there."

This wasn't such a crazy idea. Drones and other intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets have the potential to be powerful tools in human rights monitoring. The ability to watch troops or mobs or refugees move in real time, to see weapons being stockpiled or mass graves being filled, might help us take timely and appropriate action to stop a genocide before it gets off the ground.

There was one enormous problem with my NSS colleague's request, though: Neither of us had the authority to order Centcom to immediately shift a potentially vital asset from wherever it was currently being used to the skies over Kyrgyzstan.

"It's an interesting idea," I told him. "Has the president discussed it with [Defense] Secretary Gates?"

"We don't have time to spin up a whole bureaucratic process," he responded irritably. "The president doesn't want another Rwanda. This is a top priority of his. I need you to just communicate this to Centcom and get this moving."

This, I explained, wasn't going to work. The chain of command doesn't go from a director at the NSS to an advisor to the defense undersecretary for policy to Centcom -- and the military doesn't put drones into foreign airspace without a great deal of planning, a lot of legal advice, and the right people signing off on the whole idea.

My friend was incredulous. "We're talking about, like, one drone. You're telling me you can't just call some colonel at Centcom and make this happen?"

"I'm afraid so."

"Why the hell not? You guys" -- meaning the Pentagon writ large -- "are always stonewalling us on everything. I'm calling you from the White House. The president wants to prevent genocide in Kyrgyzstan. Whatever happened to civilian control of the military?"

"You," I told him, "are the wrong civilian."

This was a minor issue, in many ways, but the exchange was far from unusual. My White House colleague -- a smart, energetic, dedicated guy -- went away furious, convinced that "the Pentagon" was refusing to take atrocity-prevention issues seriously (an attitude that soured many later interagency discussions about Sudan, Libya, and more).

My military colleagues reacted to the request with equal frustration: This guy was a fairly senior White House official, and he didn't understand why sensitive, expensive military assets couldn't instantly be moved from a war zone to foreign airspace with a simple phone call to a Pentagon acquaintance? If the president wanted to make this happen, he could call the defense secretary and direct him to have Centcom undertake such a move (though he'd be unlikely to do so without plenty of discussion at lower levels first), but the chain of command can't be accessed midway down and more or less at random. My military colleagues were insulted: How incredibly ignorant -- and arrogant! -- those White House people were.

Some months later, similar misunderstandings plagued interagency planning on Sudan. With a referendum on South Sudanese independence in the offing, officials at the White House and the State Department were concerned about a resurgence of ethnic violence in the wake of a pro-independence vote. The Defense Department was asked -- this time more formally, at the assistant secretary/deputy assistant secretary level -- to produce plans for preventing or responding to mass atrocities. "We need to give the president some options in case all hell breaks loose," explained White House officials.

Once again, the military response was to express polite frustration. What assumptions and constraints should guide planning? What kind of plans did they want? To respond to what kind of mass atrocities, against whom, and in what likely places? Respond for how long and through what means, and to what ultimate end? Peace in Sudan? Peace on Earth? Would this mean fighting Sudanese government forces on northern Sudanese soil? Going to war with a foreign (and Muslim) state? If so, it was hard to imagine the president signing off on such a thing -- we already had two ongoing wars -- and it was a foolish waste of scarce planning resources to plan for something that was never going to happen.

Or maybe the goals were narrower? Should we be planning to evacuate displaced people? Where to? Should we just focus on protecting a humanitarian corridor? Was the White House prepared to have boots on the ground, with the inevitable risk that events could easily spiral out of control if U.S. troops were attacked? Did they want planning for targeted strikes designed to degrade the military capacity of the bad guys, whoever they might be?

The ensuing back and forth was tense and occasionally broke out into open expressions of anger and mistrust. At best, White House staff members considered their military counterparts rigid, reductionist, and unimaginative. At worst, they were convinced that the Pentagon was just being difficult -- that the military "didn't care" about Sudan or about atrocity prevention and was determined to flout the president's wishes by stonewalling and foot-dragging at every turn instead of getting down to work.

The military representatives involved in the discussions were equally exasperated. What was wrong with these civilians? Didn't they know what they wanted? Were they too naive -- or uncaring -- to understand that the potential mobilization of thousands of people and millions of dollars of equipment required greater specificity in terms of assumptions, constraints, and desired end-states? Without that specificity, the range of possibilities was endless. The United States could use nuclear weapons against the Sudanese regime; we could withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan and shift them to Sudan; we could do nothing whatsoever; and we could do a great many things in between. But unless the president wanted to move into crisis-planning mode, ginning up serious plans for any of these options would require months, not days or weeks, and planning for all of them just wasn't realistic.

In a sense, it was a civil-military version of the chicken-and-egg problem. White House staff wanted to be able to give the president a sense of his options: In the event of mass atrocities, what was it realistic for him to consider doing? How complicated, time-consuming, risky, expensive, and effective would it be to protect a humanitarian corridor, as opposed to engaging in limited military strikes to degrade the capacity of those committing atrocities? Without help from military planners, White House staff couldn't properly advise the president. But without political and strategic direction from the White House (How much money are we willing to spend? How many troops are we willing to move? What tradeoffs are we willing to make in terms of other ongoing operations? What constitutes success?), military personnel couldn't properly advise their civilian counterparts.

Eventually, the issue got semi-resolved. The White House staff was forced to get more specific; the Pentagon was forced to let go of the elaborate planning process it preferred and cough up some back-of-the-envelope assessments. Fortunately for everyone, the feared genocide in Sudan hasn't happened (yet).

At the national level, however, the costs of the civilian-military gap are real, and high. Such mutual ignorance -- and such systematic cultural differences in how to think about problems and solutions -- leads frequently to misunderstanding, inefficient decision-making, and, too often, bad policy.

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