“If the highest aim of a captain were to preserve his ship, he would keep it in port forever.”
~ Saint Thomas Aquinas
A military is about more than self-preservation. Security is a principle of war; safety is not. Risk is in the soldier’s job description.
Amidst all the artificial turmoil, the subordination of military necessity to current day political pieties, the elevation of inclusiveness over effectiveness and social engineering over victory, as politicians – to include those who masquerade as generals and admirals – prostitute themselves and sell out the country’s future for short term personal and political gain, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that militaries are about making and winning war. It’s so easy to lose sight that even within the purer ranks of the military there are some indicators that the purpose – winning wars – is being or has been forgotten. If the former is true, we’re in trouble. If it’s the latter, we’re toast.
Which is it, though? It’s hard to say. Some folks read it one way, some quite another. Some of the more depressing ways to read it came up in relation to the “reduce the loads” column.
The following comments, among many others, were posted in my conference of my publisher’s online forum.1
From my former law partner, ex-enlisted military intelligence:
I don’t think they’re stupid. I think their emotions are controlling them. I’m pretty sure Tom suggested this as well. It’s not that they can’t grasp his idea that maybe not everybody needs to be carrying an IFAK all the time; it’s that they’re spouting the same sort of emotional bullshit (that their lives are worth more than the mission) that is partly responsible for loading them down with too much stuff to accomplish the mission.
I see the fact that they consistently misstate Tom’s opinion as “get rid of the IFAK”2 not as evidence that they are stupid, but as them trying to avoid doing the thinking that Tom suggests, “Hmm, maybe we are being too careful to win…”
It’s not an accident that they are freaking out over the equipment that exists to save their lives. What they’re really objecting to, on a gut level, is Tom’s assumption that it is just and proper for the military to be taking chances with their lives, and that taking extra chances with the troops’ lives might be the right thing to do. It contradicts the message they’ve been getting all their lives and all their careers, that they are special and that every effort would be made to save their lives.
I never thought that a peace time rear echelon mother effer such as myself would have any insights that a combat vet doesn’t have on this issue. But it is apparent to me that the army no longer has the attitude that it had when I was in – the assumption that we were going to die in droves (yes, even us REMFs), and that was perfectly acceptable, provided that the mission succeeded. Those guys arguing with Tom do not believe, at a gut level, that they are expendable, that risking their precious hides is acceptable, and that the mission comes first.
That’s a big change since I was in and the troops took a perverse pride in how short their MOS’ alleged life expectancy was when WW3 broke out (In MI, the GSR operators routinely lorded it over everybody else in an MI unit claiming their life expectancy was 17 seconds from when they turned on their radar).
I’m sure you know this, but the rot is societal. Everybody needs to have an IFAK at all times stems from the same impulse that has soccer moms berating the soccer coach for not giving their kid enough playing time, and ensuring everybody gets a trophy.
Was just doing some reading related to Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind, and I saw this gem that sums up the problem quite nicely. In 1950, 12% of high school students answered “yes” when a pollster asked, “Are you an important person?” A few years ago, that number had risen to 80%.
There it is, right there.
And, from a retired Army infantry first sergeant and former Marine ANGLICO3:
That was my takeaway also. If those posters are genuine, the US Army Infantry is in very bad shape. At first the back and forth on the IFAK was somewhat entertaining, but it quickly turned into a farce. I doubt you could do anything to get your point across to them, they refuse to listen.
I knew there was a rot in the Military but had always hoped it was just at the senior levels. Judging from those commenters, the rot is widespread now and may be past the point of any cure.
Those are just a small sampling from people asking, in effect, “What the Hell has happened to my_____ (insert service here)? What the Hell has happened to our country?”
Contemplate those questions. Contemplate the answers, too.
“No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor, dumb bastard die for his country.”
There are different versions of that. Patton may never have said it. If he did actually say it, I doubt he fully meant it; it has the ring of the kind of bullshit some commanders spout to convince the troops that they’re not really the ruthless, insensitive bastards the job requires them to be.5 Bill Mauldin probably pegged Patton pretty well when he wrote, “Soldiers were peasants to him.” Moreover, even if Patton did say it, or something like it, and did mean it, or some of it, it’s at best a half truth, hence wholly misleading.
As with many persuasive sounding half-truths, the half that is false is the half that’s unstated. No one bastard ever won a war, period; it’s a team sport. No team, no army, ever won a war – well, a real war that meant something – without the bulk, the overwhelming bulk, of its soldiery being willing to accept as normal and justified a substantial risk of death or grievous wounds, which risks will be realized in many, many cases. Without understanding that unstated part, people tend to forget, to minimize, or to deny what war is, what it is like, and what the price for winning must inevitably be. To deny what war is and what the cost is? I think so, even among the troops. As one piece of evidence, go back to that column and look in the comments. I wrote, “[E]very man you lose in a losing war is a waste. May as well not even show up. So, all to the horror of mommies throughout the land, what is better, at least as a theoretical and moral matter, to lose X men in a war you lose, or to lose X + 1 in a war you win? Especially when every man lost in the first case is a waste?”
No one answered it. No one answered it in a column that was one of the most commented on ever on EveryJoe. Why?
I think I know why, but I couldn’t prove it. Per the comment above from my former law partner, I think readers, including apparently a lot of military and veteran leaders, went into emotional mental shutdown over the concept of “more losses to win is probably better than fewer losses to lose” and couldn’t take up the gauntlet I threw down there because of that. They simply cannot, at an emotional level, face the question.6 And that gives me the willies. We lost in Vietnam largely through the collapse of a weak home front, and even that only among a minority. The troops were willing enough until it became obvious the home front wasn’t going to support them to the end. Most of the troops, about two thirds, were volunteers for the war (oh, yes, they were, to include as many as 30,000 – some say 50,000 – Canadian volunteers). But if the troops can’t face the equation, and if the leadership won’t explain it – whether for fear of answering questions they have no palatable-sounding answer for, for fear of poor recruiting, of for fear of mommie getting the vapors – then the problem has gone from being a mere fraction of the home front to every aspect and corner of our society.
If that’s true – I hope it isn’t, but if – then we’re done as a power.
1 The KratsKeller in bar.baen.com. Registration is required. I’ve edited slightly.
2 I am not remotely interested in discussing the IFAK again.
3 Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company. The short version is that these are Marine organizations provided to non-USMC forces, to coordinate and direct fire support. I think pretty much everybody but the enemy loves ANGLICOs.
4 Lines from the movie, but…
5 Or, since the troops used to be harder to fool, to convince mommie that her widdle baby boy or girl is in good, kind, sensitive, caring hands.
6 One notes, cynically, that one of the side effects of overloading the troops is that they will never catch up to Haji that way. If they can’t catch up to him, they can’t fight him. If they can’t fight him, then fewer would be lost, even though the war was certain to be lost.
Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from Amazon.com for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.