Fewer veterans are serving in high office in the United States. It's no coincidence that America is going off the rails.
Looking back at a decade of war -- with $3 trillion spent pursuing victory in Iraq and Afghanistan, millions of our citizens plucked from home for combat deployments, and more than 50,000 of our brethren wounded or killed in action -- Americans need to ask themselves a single blunt question: Are our current military and civilian leaders fit to lead us in the next war?
There's a reason our national experience since 9/11 has been mixed with confusion, pride, trying developments, ruinous expense, and fleeting successes. We have lots of leaders but a national deficit in true leadership. Two trends have brought us to this crisis.
First, the vast majority of our current leaders have only a theoretical, intellectual, and abstract knowledge of the military and war -- not an experiential, visceral, and personal understanding. The proportion of our key decision-makers who have served in the military and have personal experience with defense is in steady decline.
Before 1993, nearly every modern president had served on active duty in uniform, most in wartime, and a few were war heroes. At one point, 77 percent of Congress were veterans. Come 2013, veterans will make up a mere 19 percent of Congress -- and many among this 19 percent have "military service" in their record purely because they sought to avoid the draft and Vietnam combat; they volunteered between 1966 and 1975 for what was then safe, part-time service at home in the National Guard or Reserve.
People who have not served in uniform or combat are often ill equipped to understand how conflict and armies work (or, frequently, how they don't), how war moves to capricious rhythms, and how war plans last only until first contact with the enemy.
Consider the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 -- perhaps the most high-stakes example of this concept.
President John F. Kennedy was a Navy veteran, and his brush with war left him without illusions. He kept his own counsel during the showdown with the Soviets precisely because he had been to war and had his boat sunk in combat. Kennedy was not overawed by the cigar-chomping general with a constellation of stars on his collar who disdainfully told him, "Sir, you have few options on Cuba except ‘surgical strikes' followed by invasion."
JFK knew that using the words "precision" and "bombing" in the same sentence was nonsense. We now know that if he had taken the advice of Gen. Curtis LeMay and others, Soviet commanders at sea and on the island would likely have ordered the use of tactical nuclear weapons -- potentially escalating the crisis beyond the point of no return. Kennedy had the instincts and experience to discern the right course and hold his military to proper account in that unforgiving moment.
Being a veteran does not inoculate someone from making stupid or reckless decisions about war -- not at all. But an executive who's never been to war needs first to be brutally honest with himself -- to know what he does not know -- and second, to surround himself with veterans whom he trusts. The Cuban missile crisis turned out well because Kennedy had served in uniform and he had trusted and experienced advisors who were veterans and could provide a check on the generals; he could walk down the hall to ask Kenny O'Donnell or Dave Powers, two former Air Corps bombardiers from World War II, "Is this the real deal or B.S.?"
Two other cases have dominated national security policy since 9/11.
The most conspicuous example of this phenomenon came in the run-up to the Iraq war. Four combat innocents, "The Quartet" (Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Blair) -- phony toughs, two of whom had actively gamed the system to avoid Vietnam combat -- unleashed the dogs of war. And those same men actively excluded the one cabinet member with the requisite military experience, Colin Powell, because he could have judged both the civilian and military realities and cast doubt over the entire dubious enterprise.
The second example is, of course, Afghanistan, where civilian decision-makers demonstrated disinterest and failed to act with timely boldness. In 2002, and again in 2009, after al Qaeda's nest had been obliterated and the Taliban bloodied, most American forces could have withdrawn and been replaced by ad hoc Special Forces missions taking out targets to deliver hurt and fear upon the Taliban.
Instead, we went all in; funding and embarking on the lunacy of nation-building among an ancient tribal people, all without any cold, hard, cost-benefit assessment, leading to America's longest war without any compelling American strategic interest at stake. As Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, "To fight out a war you must believe in something and want something with all your might." From this Civil War veteran later turned civilian leader, wisdom worth mulling on Afghanistan.
The point is not that the military is always or even usually right -- frequently its first inclination or recommendation is off the mark, inadequate, or undesirable. And that's why civilian leaders need the ability to rigorously assess plans, forging a solid civil-military partnership, all the while holding the military to account. ("And general, what's our Special Forces option if things suddenly go pear-shaped in Libya?")
A decision-maker who's never seen combat should lean on smart folks who have -- think veterans like Jim Webb, Bing West, or George Mitchell -- to credibly say what many people might not want to hear. The odds of creative alternatives and better outcomes resulting would go up astronomically.
Second, true leadership requires a dedication to others.
One of the key elements missing among today's leaders is "other-centeredness." We have leaders who are fixated on their own ambitions, their next career move, and narrow interests, not on the common good. True leaders look out for others at their own expense, at their own peril. In the Marines, leaders are judged by their ability to generate results and take care of their Marines.
Unfortunately, recent administrations have seen presidents and top officials who have marvelously polished resumes, unbridled fascination with themselves, unmatched ability to elbow up to rostrums and self-promote. They try to distract us from their dinner mint-thin real accomplishments, only to reveal their lack of mettle as they learn on the job, leaving pronounced blunders in their wake. Yale scholar William Deresiewicz called such leaders skilled "hoop jumpers" -- they are merely accomplished at appearing accomplished.
The flawed business of appointing or electing people who check all the right boxes, collect all the right "merit badges," attend all the right schools, whose accomplishments are merely personal, is costly and unsound. Leadership is a trait, not a position.
How can we tell when a leader is made of the right stuff?
Every individual has two personalities: their normal one and the one that appears under stress. If we study a potential leader's past, we should hunt for evidence that they experienced or put themselves into vulnerable situations, under stress, and they performed exceptionally well, took risks, and even risked themselves, their careers, or their futures for others. Combat is the most obvious caldron where "skin in the game," bravery, moral courage, and heroism frequently abound. But it's not the only one.
Lincoln was never in the military, and neither was FDR. But both had been tested in other ways and proved to be exceptional commanders in wartime.
The late Sen. Daniel Inouye, who lay in state last week in the Capitol, embodied all the traits of a true leader. He spent 50 years honorably representing the people of Hawaii in Congress, received the Medal of Honor for acts of extraordinary combat heroism that cost him his arm while fighting the Nazis, desegregated the House cafeteria by walking in with a black man, and shepherded a remote island territory into statehood. Senator Inouye demonstrated true leadership at every stage of his life.
The right leaders can be hard to find, but they do exist.
Consider former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a possible nominee to be the next secretary of defense. Hagel was born of middle class stock not privilege, he was tried by combat in Vietnam, he rose to become a successful business executive, senator, and educator. Thirty years ago, as the deputy in President Reagan's Veteran's Administration, Hagel displayed moral courage by supporting the now-treasured design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Faced with bitter opposition and told he would be fired for his position, Hagel replied: "I serve at the pleasure of the president. If he fires me for supporting a design ... so be it." There are few better former Army sergeants available to go toe-to-toe with the Pentagon brass and wrestle the best future for our defense from the status quo. A Hagel tenure could be a signature success of the Obama administration.
We need to attract heavy hitters for leadership roles who are canny but proven selfless leaders from among our communities, bipartisan in their DNA, able to play hardball when hardball is the game, but also sensitive to the needs and realities faced by ordinary Americans.
We need leaders who act boldly, dare greatly, and risk losing their own comfortable futures by their decisions. We need to radically change the nature of our national leadership so as to ensure that we are not truant to America's true promise.
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