fraud, waste, and abuse, pt. 2

But if we’re paying contractors ridiculous amounts of money for half-assed results in Iraq, there are still worse kinds of waste going on in the military. Chief among them has to be the failure of the current system to attract and retain capable, ethical people in the key positions, as well as the failure of Army institutions to retain lessons learned.

Our platoon, without overstating it, is the most highly-trained platoon in the regular Army. We are musicians, artists, writers, mechanics, computer programmers, and physicists, all on a sort of bizarre holiday as soldiers — mostly older guys (the average age being something like 28), all with some college and about half having completed their degrees prior to enlistment, and nearly all DLI-trained linguists (covering the spectrum: Dutch, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Persian, Chinese, Arabic and Korean). And we are very, very good at our jobs — we are, as we’re repeatedly told by visitors from echelons above, the best SIGINT platoon in Iraq. Without getting into the (classified) details of our mission, we modestly redefine the role of intelligence-gathering in the combat brigade, over time earning the trust of the ground units as our techniques enable them, time and again, to efficiently find and neutralize the enemy, often before he can attack. This is how intelligence should always work, of course, but in our case a number of factors converge to make the ideal a reality — NCOs with an unusual level of experience; an aggressive and hyperverbal platoon leader who’s our constant advocate; a command that, after some convincing, abandons the official plan for intelligence operations at the brigade level and tries something new; and (perhaps most importantly) a nearly two-year trainup period that enables us to actually become competent at our jobs. We even win a prestigious prize in the SIGINT community. (Here’s a picture.)

We’re also capable soldiers: most of us are well above the squadron PT standard, itself far above the Army standard; we’ve had extensive marksmanship training, thanks to our old grunt first sergeant; we’re all excellent students of land navigation, first aid, and all the other little skills that form the corpus of common knowledge in the Army.

Obviously a certain number of these soldiers are going to leave the Army no matter what. But depressingly, nearly the whole platoon has decided to get out after the deployment. Of the nineteen soldiers and sergeants in the platoon, only six are staying with the Army, and of that six, only one — Travis, who was forced to re-enlist to avoid being trapped in the unit’s next “lifecycle” — is on his first enlistment. In other words, the only people staying in are those who’ve already invested so much time that they might as well stick it out to retirement. But the young enlisted who should come up behind them, buck sergeants and specialists who’ve devoted five or six years to learning their (highly technical) craft, will nearly all just vanish from the Army’s ranks. We should be moving up to leadership positions and teaching the new crop of young soldiers how to do what we did in Iraq. But we’re not going to. Most of us started out open to the idea of staying in for the long haul. But one by one we’ve concluded that we just can’t take it. The Army itself is its own worst handicap when it comes to retention.

Sometimes this happens very directly. When Fred, our “alpha nerd” and a talented intelligence analyst, goes to the re-enlistment office, the sergeant in charge offers him a lousy assignment, no bonus, and a snotty, take-it-or-leave-it attitude. Despite his initial reservations about trying to find a job in the private sector that will provide for his young family as well as the Army does, and despite his evident enthusiasm for military life, he eventually realizes that he can, indeed, leave it.

But much more often, we leave because of the thousand little daily insults that add up to an intolerable situation. We leave because of self-defeating and poorly considered policies implemented by incompetent and lazy commanders and NCOs who’ve acquired rank without wisdom, who are impossible to dislodge from their positions of power, and who not only make Army life a constant, rash-like irritation, but who actually impede the important work we’re called on to do. For security reasons, I can’t tell you about the important things, the way fools and puffed-up martinets undermine everything from intelligence-gathering to combat operations. But I’ll tell you about the trivial things and let them serve as examples of the problem as a whole.

We return safely to the United States. There are a million things to be done as we settle back in at Fort Lewis and, in the vast majority of cases, begin to outprocess, either for transfer to another unit or for transition back to the civilian world. Every day we check in with the unit, do PT together, and then scurry around post for a few hours, packets of paperwork in hand, carrying out our various missions. For most of us, this is a fairly relaxed process — I, myself, am not officially leaving active duty until September 3rd, although I’ll be taking terminal leave by mid-August to drive down to L.A. But for those who are trying to leave on an accelerated schedule — usually to start school on time — everything has to be done much faster. Some people are starting terminal leave as early as mid-June. And so they are rushing to get through dozens of bureaucratic hoops in half or a third the time the rest of us are taking.

Lenny, Ryan, and Gary have all been trying to get through the process at this faster pace. I’ve been slipstreaming them occasionally, following them around to the various offices on post, just to get a little ahead of the crunch. After a couple of weeks, we’ve done most of what can be done without receiving our final orders. But to get the orders, we need certain items from various offices, including copies of our orders and something called a “PERSTEMPO” from the S-1 (personnel) section at squadron HQ.

I know our S-1, and I know this is going to be a process. I try to start off nice — I go to the office as soon as it opens one day and ask SPC L_______ how I can get my PERSTEMPO. He consults with his supervisor, writes down my information, and says he’ll try to get it done by the end of the day. As a goodwill gesture, I leave him a ream of paper, since I know they have the only working copier in the building and everyone’s pillaging their supply.

Later in the day, after we’ve run other errands, the three speedies and I decide to meet at S-1 and try to get the PERSTEMPO situation straightened out. I arrive first, and while SPC L______ isn’t around, SGT R_________, generally the straightest shooter in the S-1 and the guy most likely to actually get something done for you, searches around for the piece of paper SPC L______ had written my information down on, and says he’ll have it done in the morning. This is fine with me, and I leave. On my way out I call Lenny and leave him a message telling him to go to S-1 and give them his information.

He and the other guys arrive not long after I leave, but when they get there SGT M_________, another guy on a tight schedule, tells them not to bother — he was trying to get his own PERSTEMPO, he says, and they told him the computer was down. Meanwhile, the senior NCO in the office — unfairly, I’m going to call him SSG Douchebag — sits carefully cutting up little laminated instruction cards for something or another.

After a brief consultation, they decide to go to brigade S-1. This is skipping a level — normally, we only deal with our squadron “S shops” — but they’re trying to make an interlocking set of paper requirements come together in a limited amount of time, and every day wasted is a day they risk not being able to leave on time.

So they go up to brigade HQ and ask the young specialist at the desk if they could get their PERSTEMPOs from her, since the computer is broken at squadron. She hesitates. “I don’t know if I’m supposed to do that for you,” she says. “Well,” says Lenny irresistibly, “I won’t tell if you don’t.” She turns to her computer and gets to work. Amazingly, they are on the verge of getting something done. It’s an exciting moment.

While they’re waiting, another soldier who works in the brigade S-1 walks up to Lenny and hands him a cell phone. On the other end is SSG Douchebag. He yells at Lenny for going to brigade and tells him to come back right now.

“If we come back, can you actually get this done for us?” Lenny asks.

“Yes,” says SSG Douchebag.

And indeed, when they return to squadron five minutes later, they find not only their own PERSTEMPOs, but mine, too, hot off the computer.

This sounds like a victory, but consider: these people put me off, twice (though I didn’t care much because I wasn’t in such a hurry), lied to SGT M__________ (sorry, the computer’s broke!), and only finally got down to business because someone went over their heads to the next-higher unit. And to top it all off, they employed spies (spies, for God’s sake!) to alert them when anyone tried to get around them. This is not how things should work.

It’s a minor incident, but “S-1” is an automatic punchline around our unit because of exactly these kinds of capers. For the linguists, in particular, the absolute impotence/indifference of the S-1 shop in the face of our three-year struggle to receive correct Foreign Language Proficiency Pay has left a certain sour taste in our mouths. I’m still not receiving the right pay, despite numerous pay inquiries and submissions of paperwork since late 2006. Combine that with the S-1’s losing the personnel action to change my control language (and then claiming that it had been sent up and accepted), which delayed my promotion to Sergeant by a good four months, and I estimate that they’ve cost me, personally, around $2800. There’s also a $1400 travel voucher outstanding that I don’t have a lot of hope for. I just don’t expect to see that money ever again. At this point I’m philosophical about it, but the overall unwillingness of the people who control our destinies to do their jobs properly, and our powerlessness to seek out help elsewhere (complaints to the chain of command seem to evaporate), is one of the things that makes it hard to think about re-enlisting. Because we haven’t been paid what we were supposed to be paid on this enlistment, it’s hard to take seriously the promises of recruiters and re-enlistment NCOs about the shining, golden rewards of the next contract.

But if the incompetence and goldbricking of the bureaucracy gives you pause, it’s the endless wasting of your time that finally drives you crazy. Soldiers are famous for shirking work — one of our Arabic teachers was unaccountably delighted by the most common word for it, “shamming” — but there’s a good reason for it: much of our work is stupid and pointless. I don’t know a grunt who minds fighting, a cook who minds feeding people, a SIGINTer who minds doing nerd things. I would imagine that even the paper-pushers in S-1, once you can finally motivate them to do something, probably feel some job satisfaction in getting people’s pay sorted out or processing someone’s award. But they all hide from work, hide from their units, disappear at every opportunity, and fob things off on other people, because one of the things you learn first in the military is that 90% of everything that will be asked of you is stupid and useless. Especially since a lot of it is just nothing. There’s a tremendous amount of sitting around that goes on, a tremendous amount of waiting for higher-ups to finish what they’re doing and release you.

Our original first sergeant was a crusty old grunt with a giant grin and a foot soldier’s love of cutting through the bullshit. If there was nothing left to do for the day, he’d often release us at one or two in the afternoon. His perfectly reasonable justification for this — not that anyone would have had the balls to challenge him on it — was that there would be no opportunities to go home early in Iraq, so we might as well do it now as often as possible. But more generally, he was a man who didn’t like having his time wasted and wouldn’t do it to anyone else if he could avoid it.

But eventually both our commander and our first sergeant moved on to other things, and the new command group took a different approach. As the months and then weeks prior to our deployment dwindled, they took to keeping us later and later; all the training and real work for the day might be finished at 1500 or 1600, but we’d be sitting in the office, doing puzzles, reading books, playing Spades, complaining with increasing bitterness, until 1800, 1900, 2000 hrs. Sometimes we’d clean, sweep, and mop the troop common areas two or three times waiting to be released. Once or twice, things came uncomfortably close to mutiny.

(I say “we” here, but in practice a few of us missed out on a lot of this because we were in Arabic class. We’d finish class in the afternoon and quietly disappear off to our rooms — a classic example of soldiers taking it into their own hands not to have their time wasted.)

This is mind-boggling to me when I think about it. In another lifetime, I used to work freelance in the film and commercial photography industries — as a photographer’s assistant, production assistant, assistant camera, assistant director… in lots of jobs with the word “assistant” in the title, most of them entry-level. I’ve spent a lot of time at the bottom of the hierarchy in the private sector, and standing around doing nothing was a really good way not to get hired again. And I was hired a lot. Even when it looked like you were standing around doing nothing, you were actually doing something — like a muscle that’s not moving, but flexed, tensed for action. A good assistant director can tell the difference between a PA who’s on his post, ready to lock it up, and one who’s just sucking down sweet Hollywood oxygen.

An NCO who walks past a group of soldiers sitting around doing absolutely nothing, by contrast, will hardly register the sight. In day rooms, in offices, at staff duty desks, in designated smoking areas, on lawns, in motor pools, piled into trucks and conexes — right now, all across America, soldiers are doing nothing. It’s our chief activity.

Sometimes this nothing takes on a highly formal, even ritualistic aspect. When we return from Iraq, there’s an extremely brief welcome home ceremony that takes place in the gym as soon as we get off the buses. It’s nothing — a prayer and a couple of words from some officer, and then the families are piling over one another, out of the bleachers and onto the basketball floor; made-up wives in low-cut blouses pushing or pulling overamped children; grunting, smelly men transformed momentarily into something warmer and more humane. We single soldiers, meanwhile, make a quick exit through the back door to go secure our barracks rooms and luxuriate in the semi-privacy. One way or another, everybody’s happy.

But a month later, once the units have all returned and we’ve been properly re-integrated into garrison life, and just before we go on block leave, the real ceremonies descend on us with a vengeance. First is the rehearsal for the sergeant-major’s change of responsibility ceremony, followed by the actual ceremony, followed by rehearsals for the official, Very Large Scale welcome-home ceremony, followed by the Jeep ceremony, followed by the official, Very Large Scale welcome-home ceremony.

Yes, the Jeep ceremony. More on this in a moment.

Each of these ceremonies is at least an hour long, and involves long, long periods of standing at either attention:

or parade rest:

These are not exactly stress positions, but they are uncomfortable. Standing at attention requires a vigilantly upright posture, which tightens the muscles in the lower back, and absolute immobility, which causes increasing levels of pain to the soles of the feet. Parade rest, on the other hand, torques the shoulder back at an awkward angle, pinching nerves and cutting off blood vessels, and also causes your legs to go numb. The best-planned ceremonies shift soldiers frequently back and forth between these two positions, to alternate the pressure points and provide some relief. But ceremonies ultimately boil down to their speakers, and the speakers are often senior officers, who, though they themselves have stood in these formations and know the pain thereof, for some reason inevitably run to length in their remarks.

It’s a given that these kinds of ceremonies aren’t for the soldiers’ benefit — in almost every case, we’d be thrilled with something an eighth as long. But cui bono? Sometimes, it seems, the ceremony is primarily an opportunity for high-ranking officers and NCOs to express feelings that would be more appropriate in a private setting. I remember sitting through the retirement ceremony of a sergeant-major at DLI (for some reason, I got out of having to stand on the field) and squirming with increasing embarrassment as he rambled on about his father and it began to dawn on us that he might actually be drunk at the podium. And at this week’s change of responsibility ceremony for the squadron CSM, the CO gives an exhaustive catalog of our accomplishments in Iraq, although we were all there and still remember the events in question, and then dilates impressively on the virtues of our sergeant-major, what a pleasure it’s been to work with him, how his diligence has improved the soldierly excellence of each man in the unit, etc. For a very. Long. Time. After which the sergeant-major does the same thing, only with the polarities reversed. He also thanks everyone in the world. A couple of times in the middle the brigade sergeant-major, who’s in attendance, almost starts clapping, thinking he must surely be wrapping things up. (Hint to public speakers: thanking your wife comes at the end, not in the middle.)

The CO’s expressions of gratitude and appreciation are oddly personal, and for more than just the sake of my feet it seems like they’d have been better suited to a private conversation in the office. I mean, he’s the CO, and we love him — his tremendous personal courage and rustic way with consonants have warmed everyone’s heart many times over, and I’ve always respected his weekly attempts, at squadron formations, to quash rumors and give us accurate information — but at a certain point, if this whole thing becomes about him and the CSM, maybe they could just leave us out of it.

But at least we know the sergeant-major, and he knows us. At least there’s a connection there, and obviously we’re willing, grudgingly, to stand for a while and honor him, even if we wish he’d shut up. By the time you get to the level of the brigade ceremony, however, the speakers are Rep. Norm Dicks, the commanding general of I Corps, and the brigade commander. The first two, with due respect to the important work they do, we couldn’t give less of a shit about.

The brigade commander we might care about, if he were succinct: “Soldiers of Fourth Brigade, you’ve done tremendous work. God bless you.” Recognize our wounded, who slowly make their way across the parade field with incredible dignity and poise and take their place in the brigade formation. Present the posthumous Bronze Star with valor to the soldier’s widow. That would be fine. We all recognize the value of these things. But then bring it to a close, because those things speak for themselves.

Instead our commander recites, again, the laundry list of statistics regarding our accomplishments in Iraq and then, emotionally, he quotes Lt. Col Harold Moore:

I can’t promise you that I will bring you all home alive. But this I swear, before you and before Almighty God, that when we go into battle, I will be the first to set foot on the field, and I will be the last to step off, and I will leave no one behind. Dead or alive, we will all come home together.

Not only is he quoting Moore’s rallying speech to his troops before conducting the first air cavalry mission into Vietnam, he’s echoing his own rallying speech to us before we left for Iraq. I can remember being less than impressed the first time — if you have to crib some schmaltz about the duties of command, can’t it at least be in Latin? — but at the interminable back-spasming foot-numbing brigade welcome home ceremony, it just pisses me off.

But that’s the end of it all. Before that happens, before the neverending official expressions of sentiment to unwilling subordinates standing rigidly in a field, there are a couple of ceremonies that make all the soldiers in the squadron — and not just snobs like me — roll their eyes.

The end-of-tour awards ceremony isn’t bad, physically; mostly we sit in the seats of the theater and file row-by-row onto the stage to have the CO clip medals to our lapels and shake the sergeant-major’s hand. But the way it’s constructed — we’re lined up by unit, then by rank, then by name — makes perfectly clear the absolute meaninglessness of these awards. Everyone platoon sergeant and above receives a Bronze Star, while everyone squad leader and below gets an Army Commendation Medal. Period. Although each award is technically justified by a write-up detailing the recipient’s accomplishments (I had to do one of these for the sole remaining Specialist in my squad), the unvarying uniformity, Bronze Star after Bronze Star, ARCOM after ARCOM, practically shouts the utter pointlessness of it all. It’s the Army equivalent of grade inflation — awards matter for promotion and career advancement, and anyway nobody wants to feel left out, and so everybody gets the same thing. Except that people of higher rank get something a little better. Back in our seats, we joke that the whole thing would be more fun if the CO had a basket of random medals: “Oh, you get a Medal of Honor! Good for you, trooper! And you… get an Army Service Ribbon. Well, thanks for your hard work.”

(Of course, even more comical was my friend Ben’s awards ceremony over at Fort Hood’s 1st Cavalry Division. They didn’t have enough medals to go around, so at the end of each battalion’s ceremony the soldiers had to turn their medals back in, to be used by the following battalion.)

But it’s the Jeep ceremony that takes the cake.

A non-profit group called Operation Gratitude encourages organizations, including businesses, to assemble care packages for soldiers in Iraq. Chrysler took part in the program and, as a bonus, threw a set of keys to a new Jeep Liberty into one random package, and some guy in our unit named Gallagher got a free Jeep. Also, Gallagher’s mom arranged with Jeep to have a memorial to the fallen in his unit painted on the hood of the car.

See how quickly I said all that? And that’s how fast it should be when, just before the brigade welcome-home ceremony, they bring the whole brigade over to one end of the the parade field to watch Spc. Gallagher get his Jeep. In the formation, which is particularly ill-formed and undisciplined (people keep disappearing out the back to go to the port-o-potties or smoke), there’s some good-natured grumbling about making this a brigade event at all — really, how does this affect us? — not to mention jokes about carjacking Spc. Gallagher. But overall, there’s goodwill; it’s always nice to see somebody get some undeserved profit out of being a soldier, even if it isn’t you. Gives us hope.

But what should have been a quick “Here you go, young feller!” kind of ceremony goes south fast. First, Carolyn Blashek, founder of Operation Gratitude, does us a good twenty-minute set on how patriotic she is (although she has to be 50, she claims that after 9/11 she went around to all the armed services trying to sign up), the great things she’s doing for soldiers, and how many care packages her organization has sent to deployed soldiers — and then she starts introducing and thanking people. A lot of people. I think she thanked some guy who was just walking by the parade field.

But self-promoting Blashek is nothing next to the Chrysler VP, Bob Something, who cracks a few lame, I’m-not-in-the-military-but-I’m-with-you-guys jokes (“Now I’m supposed to say… Hoo-ah….”) before giving us an undisguised sales pitch for Chrysler products and especially Jeeps. He plays up the historical connection between Jeep and the Army and points out that Chrysler offers many fine discounts and financing options for military servicemembers. It’s gruesomely embarrassing. I want to think that my eight years working in film and commercial photography gives me a certain media savvy that the average soldier doesn’t possess, but it turns out that cav scouts and grunts can spot a tasteless advertisement as well as anyone. Soldiers around me in formation start openly mocking the speaker. “Hmmm. Hey Jones, suddenly I want to buy a Jeep.”

It’s not just that the Chrysler execs use this giveaway as marketing — it seems almost impossible that they wouldn’t, though that would have been the classy way to go. But there’s something truly revolting about openly trying to sell a car to people who are under lawful orders to stand there and listen to you. I was pissed off in Basic Training when the drill sergeants formed us up to hear vendors hawk the godawful Basic Training “class rings” and “class jackets.” But at least the drill sergeants had the good taste to admit beforehand that they were required to do this, and to advise us that we would be stupid to buy anything. No such gruff acknowledgement of shame is forthcoming here.

What makes the sales angle particularly unpleasant is that it’s mixed in with the unveiling of this painting on the hood of the Jeep memorializing the members of Gallagher’s unit who died in combat:

I knew one of these guys — we weren’t close, but it’s still a little sobering to see his name. Gallagher, I’m pretty sure, cries at one point. Maybe an airbrushed painting on the front of my Jeep isn’t how I’d choose to memorialize my friends, but still, this is a pretty somber moment, indelibly cheapened by some aggressive plumping for Chrysler products. Of course, they edit all that out of this supposedly “viral” video which Chrysler has undoubtedly seeded on the internet. They may be tasteless enough to try to monger their wares from a podium emblazoned with the official I Corps emblem, but they’re not stupid enough to let the public see them doing it.

I’ve never, as we say in this line of work, engaged the enemies of the United States of America in close combat. Had some rockets and mortars lobbed at me, but they never got closer than a hundred yards away. So I can’t speak to how the combat experience — its victories and its traumas — might influence someone to stay in the military or to get the hell out. I know I’ve run into a hell of a lot of grunts and scouts who’ve had enough. Often they cite the constant deployment schedule as the chief reason. But many of the most capable people, across MOSes, are just sick of having their time wasted, sick of idiocy and pretension and dishonesty, sick of being toy soldiers that commanders and senior NCOs scatter on the lawn for childish purposes.

The traditional arrangement between joes and the leadership has been that joes will act with instant obedience, and leaders will give them orders that, whether the joes can immediately apprehend it or not, will help win the fight and, as much as possible, save lives. But absolute obedience is no substitute for a respectful professional relationship between adults. Sure, everybody needs a little brainwashing at first, but the people worth having are often the people who will tire of playing the toilet-training-anxiety game. You can’t get good work out of people by screaming at them, or making them do push-ups, or any of the rest of it, and good leaders explain and consult more than they demand blind obedience. This is part of what’s made our SIGINT platoon and our brigade so good — in many parts of the chain of command, there have been leaders willing to listen, to ask questions, to earn respect as much as they demand it, and to sacrifice a certain degree of martial crispness in favor of a creative environment. In particular, our platoon leader, the one-of-a-kind CPT “Bob” S_____, is relentlessly, unrepentantly informal and jokey with his soldiers and gets outstanding work out of them. And the brigade S-2, LTC M_____, thinks so far outside the box that he pulled a hundred soldiers from across the brigade — grunts, interrogators, gas-pumpers, and cooks — out of training to take a ten-month course in Arabic. (He’s also the kind of officer who takes a briefing from a young Specialist or Sergeant as seriously as one from a Captain or a Major.)

But there are also leaders all over the place who place obedience and punctiliousness above problem-solving, and who are incapable of streamlining bureaucratic processes to get soldiers doing useful work as much as possible (or, God forbid, home early). We’ve watched it happen in other units in Iraq, and in other parts of our own brigade, and much as we might not want to leave the nation’s defense in the hands of incompetents, bullies, and time-wasters, we’re also not willing to work for them. And so the institutional memory of the brigade, the knowledge of its most technically savvy soldiers, will slip away, and have to be learned again.

This is also one of the problems with the current system of year-long rotations in and out of Iraq. Say a brigade (like ours) does a fantastic job securing its area, reducing violent attacks, creating space for new, innovative civilian institutions to come forward (or be pushed from behind). When the next unit comes, its commander may or may not be as sensitive and clever about the uses of force, its intelligence staff may or may not be as careful and capable in finding and delivering the enemy, its infantry commanders may or may not be as good at rooting out the vicious parasites in the civilian body. The best are sometimes replaced by the worst. And even if that weren’t the case, it’s simply impossible to teach 14 months’ worth of hard-won experience to an incoming unit in a couple weeks’ worth of ride-alongs, which is why places like Fallujah and Mosul are often seemingly pacified for a year or two, only to flare up again.

I frankly don’t know what to do about this. God knows I wouldn’t have liked to stay any longer. But on the other hand, Sen. Saxby Chambliss had a point, arguing against Senator Jim Webb’s bill to mandate more time home for troops:

Keep in mind that during World War II and other wars of this country, service members participating in those wars deployed for 3 and 4 years with little or no break. With this in mind the current proposal by Senator Webb seems out of step with history and what it has taken to win the wars of this country. I can think of no way in which the Webb amendment will help our nation succeed in Iraq.

Of course, this is precisely the problem. We don’t believe in the necessity of this war the way we believed in the necessity of World War II. Patton could push the Third Army across Europe, marching and fighting for months without stop, because it was absolutely what had to be done, and every American knew it. Sure, there are those who try to make the case that Hussein was equivalent to Hitler, and that not invading Iraq would have been Chamberlainesque “appeasement,” the equivalent of ignoring the annexation of Austria. But that argument is stupid, and no one has ever really believed it. The nation has never been unified behind this cause, not even at the beginning, and especially not now. And so the nation as a whole is unable to ask its soldiers to make the painful sacrifices that a real war, one vital to the safety of the nation, would have made inevitable. This is why we are terrified and outraged by the wrong things, like stop-loss. It’s why we can’t stand up to a government out of control that can’t stop pouring our money into the hungry gullets of mediocre, over-charging contractors. And it’s why we will never ask units or soldiers to stay in Iraq, year after year, without R&R, until the job is done.

I am an American soldier. I stand ready to fight whatever enemy you tell me to, or, heck, any enemy who presents himself. But like you, I know what time it is; I read newspapers; I can find Waziristan on a map. I know when I’ve been sent on a mission that the country isn’t behind, that nobody thinks is a good idea any more, and that was sold on a package of half-truths and misrepresentations. And I’ll do it. I will take your money, as much of it as your guilty conscience is willing to shovel into my pockets, and I won’t look back. But you should think carefully about doing this again. Because an all-volunteer army is one thing, and a mercenary army is quite another. If I believed in what I was doing — or even if I believed that you believed in what I was doing, then no sacrifice would be too great. You wouldn’t feel embarrassed about asking, and I wouldn’t feel resentful about being asked. But as things stand now, I’m leaving the Army. And I don’t care that a lot of the people who get out are the people of talent and good character, while a lot of the people who stay in are shiftless, brutish, and incapable of getting or keeping a good job in the civilian sector.

Military life is largely insulting to the intelligence of adults, and it’s far too much of a struggle to get even the simplest things done. In peacetime, that’s fine, because nobody’s being deployed and the benefits are good and there’s a lot of opportunity for education and self-improvement. (One of the hidden costs of the constant deployments is that it’s now incredibly difficult for soldiers to attend college on the side, because between training and deployment there’s hardly any time left.) And in time of real war — when war has become unavoidable and the survival of the nation, or of the community of nations, depends on it — the little annoyances pale before the awful dangers of combat and the incontrovertible urgency of the mission. But this is not peacetime, and it is not that kind of war. This is a war where units take turns, filing in and out of the combat zone in the orderly, bored manner of women waiting for a crowded restroom. This is a war where combat is a career choice, where the risk of death is small and is, for many people, a worthwhile gamble in exchange for college tuition or a good contracting job later. We take the work seriously, do difficult and occasionally heroic things. But you don’t take it seriously — all of you, all hand-wringing aside, you’re not taking it seriously. And there are better jobs out there.

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