National Security

Trouble on the Home Front

The Petraeuses aren’t the military family we should be worried about.

Are my fellow military wives and I shocked and outraged by General Petraeus' adultery? Frankly, after 11 years of war, military families around bases and posts throughout the world are too tired for shock, too experienced for outrage over this unhappy episode. I've heard a range of reactions, from sad recognition, to compassion, to the knowing response that no one can look inside another person's marriage. This story does, almost universally, make us reflect on the strains our families have been through over the past 11 years, and the fact that in many ways, the strains are about to get worse. 

Yes, worse. 

It is wonderful that the war in Iraq is over, that the war in Afghanistan will wind down in 2014. Sing hallelujah, strew the eucalyptus. It has been a difficult time for many men, women, children, and marriages. That's not the whole story -- many marriages stand strong for the joint experience of having been called to do something difficult, and meeting the call. Many marriages took a heavy challenge, but fought back. I think of my friend who, in the airport after the welcome home "honeymoon" with her Special Forces husband, opened an email with pictures of him and another woman. She left her husband, but eventually they came back together, and with counseling confronted together the strain of repeated combat and his destructive choice to cope through affairs. In fact, despite extraordinary challenges, military couples are still no more likely to divorce than similar civilians. But statistics shouldn't mislead anyone to think that things are therefore fine. 

It is very difficult for civilians to appreciate what the past decade-plus has been like for so many of our military families. Half of those responding to the Blue Star Families annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey have been separated from their spouse for more than two years. Half of those families have been separated for more than four years -- not only for combat and non-combat deployments, but for schools, trainings, and temporary assignments. 

What happens during those years apart? Births, deaths, personal growth, trauma. As one friend of mine explained to me, "When my husband left for his first deployment, we were basically newlyweds. Three years later after back-to-back deployments and ‘temporary duty' assignments he came home to find me, this single mother of a special needs child who didn't recognize him." 

It's not just the separation; it's also the reintegration after the stress of combat. Over a quarter of the military spouses in the BSF survey reported seeing symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress in their service member (with less than half seeking and receiving a diagnosis). That squares with the Veterans Affairs estimate that 11-20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans experience PTSD. Almost a fifth in the survey said that reintegration with spouse and children after deployment was difficult or very difficult. Add the difficulty of reunion to the fact that the average military child moves 6-9 times. 

Another friend of mine tells of her Marine husband's anger and how her son, dealing with moves and his father's rage, spiraled down in school. Her husband retired from the military, and the marriage fell apart. She loves her ex-husband, and still wonders about reconciling -- on the other hand, her son is doing much better. It's hard to know what the right thing is to do in these situations.

But, one might say, Iraq is over, Afghanistan winding down. Problem solved, right? 

Wrong, because for the active duty military and their families, war -- or war-like readiness -- is going to continue as a way of life. There's no peace dividend for military families. It's something the civilian society should be aware of, because as government resources dwindle, we'll need support to help us continue to cope.

Cope with what? Set aside the very pertinent fact that we still have 68,000 troops in Afghanistan. The U.S. military is forward-deployed, away from family, throughout Africa, in the Balkans and Black Sea, around the Middle East, in South America, on ships in the Pacific, around the straights of Malaca, in Korea. We send and will continue to send thousands of service members to Japan on two-year orders away from their families. We will add new deployments to places like Australia.

To many military planners, the world is no less dangerous now than it has been -- it is perhaps even more dangerous. The Army is planning to move to a faster, cheaper rotational force, increasing "responsiveness and mobility" according to Army plans and policy. This means some Army families used to being together in garrison for two to three years in the United States will now live more like the Marine Corps, with their service member leaving them for six months or more at a time for "peacetime deployments" as part of the new way of doing business.

Here's how Secretary Panetta describes the post-Iraq-and-Afghanistan missions of this "smaller, leaner" force: they will counter terrorism and irregular warfare, deter and defeat aggression, project power despite external challenges, counter weapons of mass destruction, defend the homeland, provide a stabilizing presence throughout key areas of the globe, conduct stability and counterinsurgency operations, and conduct humanitarian, disaster relief, and other operations. 

Suffice it to say, our military will be busy. The families will continue to feel that they are at war -- but they will not have the same level of public backing that they have been able to rely on. As much of a strain as the hot wars were, they had in their way become predictable. Most families had long notice before their loved ones left, and they left in large units with significant support, including family readiness officers. The new force will be smaller, the separations will be less predictable, and there will be less support. Paychecks will be smaller since combat-zone tax-free pay and extra combat pay will go away; and the declining budget means fewer military-sponsored family programs. Plus, American society writ large will think that the war is over, the troops have come home. 

Why should Americans care? Because families remain a key partner in the health and stability of our military. Our military understands that family strength is a component of readiness, because if military life is too hard on families, we can no longer retain our force. Moreover, when the troops are in distress, families are a key line of defense. Finally, the country should care because in the end the military and the families serve the nation, not the Pentagon. We've had unprecedented support in recent years during the wars. And we still need it. If the media and Washington gave a fraction of the attention to this issue as they have to David Petraeus, we could perhaps mobilize a response to this coming challenge. And that could make a difference to our families, to our military, even to our national security.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

National Security

Israel 2012 vs. London 1944

What the buzz bomb can tell us about Iron Dome.

Rockets raining down on cities. Missile defenses valiantly trying to intercept them. Air strikes to knock out missile sites.

Gaza 2012? No, London 1944. It was nearly 70 years ago when the first rocket campaign against cities began, as German V-1 "buzz bombs" (so named for the sound of their engines) rained down on England.

The V-1 was a guided rocket (actually more a drone), but with a guidance system so primitive that only about half of those fired could be expected to land within eight miles of their target. That accuracy rate seems comparable to Hamas' collection of homemade projectiles and Iranian-supplied Fajr-5 rockets, which are landing in southern Israel -- as far away as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem -- seemingly at random.

Like the Israelis with their Iron Dome anti-missile missiles, the British created an elaborate air defense system of fighters (that actually knocked down the bombs by ramming them), barrage balloons, and massed anti-aircraft guns in southern England that destroyed nearly three-quarters of the 400-mile-per-hour V-1s. (It was the V-2 missiles arcing in on a suborbital trajectory that were unstoppable.) That seems to be about the same rate at which Iron Dome is hitting the targets it tries to shoot down.

Nevertheless, British defenses could not intercept every V-1. Like the Israel Defense Forces, which must use $50,000 missiles to stop cheap homemade Hamas rockets, the Royal Air Force had to create massive and expensive defenses to stop the V-1s. And like Israeli civilians, the British public had to live with the expectation that a bomb could land at any moment.

I gained a sense of how hard it is to stop a rocket offensive by playing a simple board game. "War with a Vengeance," published last year by Against the Odds magazine and designer Paul Rohrbaugh, is a solitaire game of the German V-1 onslaught, with the human player controlling the British defenses while the game controls the buzz bombs. It is a simple game, with the rules printed on a 17 x 22-inch map depicting the northern French and southern English coasts, which are connected by rows of "flight path boxes" that show potential V-1 trajectories.

Most of the 100 cardboard pieces are of buzz bombs, which award the Germans victory points for each V-1 that lands on one of four British target areas (with triple points awarded for hitting London). The British have a limited number of Royal Air Force fighters, anti-aircraft batteries on land and at sea, and barrage balloons to stop them. The problem is that the British can never be sure where to allocate their defenses, because they don't know where the rockets will land. Dice are rolled each turn to determine how many V-1s are launched by each of the five German launch sites in France. More dice are rolled for each V-1 in flight to determine the exact flight path that it takes (or whether it crashes on the way). That path can randomly change as the rocket streaks over the English Channel, so it's not clear which target will be hit almost until the buzz bomb strikes. Thus the British have the choice of concentrating their defenses around London at the expense of the rest of southern England, or spreading their defenses thinly. They can also divert bombers from supporting the Normandy invasion to striking V-1 sites, but the damage is only temporary. In the end, stopping the buzz bomb onslaught is as much guesswork as strategy.

Iron Dome is supposed to be better, with computers that can discern which rockets will land on populated areas and prioritize them for intercept. Yet Israeli cities are being struck and civilians killed, which suggests that either Iron Dome is being saturated or that it can't always predict where a rocket will land.

The irony is that while smart bombs are supposed to be the pinnacle of warfare, it's the dumb bombs that are the real pains. If the V-1s or Hamas rockets were precision-guided weapons, the British and Israelis could guess their enemies' likely targets and concentrate their defenses accordingly. But when a rocket has an equal chance of striking an empty field or an apartment building, it is difficult to know which can be ignored and which must be destroyed. Low-tech is low-tech, but it is an effective way to wage warfare.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images