When, in mid-September, General David Petraeus testified before Congress on “progress” in Iraq, he appeared in full dress uniform with quite a stunning chestful of medals. The general is undoubtedly a tough bird. He was shot in the chest during a training-exercise accident and later broke his pelvis in a civilian skydiving landing, but until he went to Iraq in 2003, he had not been to war. In the wake of his testimony, the New York Times tried to offer an explanation for the provenance of at least some of those intimidating medals and ribbons — including the United Nations Medal (for participants in joint UN operations), the National Defense Service Medal (for those serving during a declared national emergency, including 9/11) and the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal (for… well, you know…). Petra! eus is not alone. Here, for instance, is former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Peter Pace, a combat Marine in Vietnam, with one dazzling chestful of medals and another of ribbons.
Medal and ribbon escalation has been long on the rise in the U.S. military. Here, for instance, was General William Westmoreland, who commanded U.S. forces in Vietnam, sporting his chestful back in that distant era. But the strange thing is: As you continue heading back in time, as, in fact, U.S. generals become more successful, those ribbons and medals shrink — and not because the men weren’t highly decorated either. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who won World War II in Europe for the Allies seems, in his period of glory, to have chosen to wear between one and three rows. And General George C. Marshall, who oversaw all of World War II, after a distinguished career in the military, can be seen in photos wearing but three rows as well.
It’s hard to believe that there isn’t a correlation here — that, in fact, there isn’t also a comparison to be made. For all the world, when I saw Petraeus on display, I thought of the full-dress look of Soviet generals, not to say the Soviet Union’s leader Leonid Brezhnev, back in the sclerotic 1980s when, ambushed in Afghanistan, they were on the way down. Like the USSR then, the U.S., only a few years back hailed as the planet’s New Rome, has the look of a superpower in distress — and it’s hard to believe that generals with such chests full of medals, whether in the former USSR or the present USA, have the kind of perspective that actually leads to winning wars — or to assessing a losing war correctly. Consider what a retired military officer, Lieutenant Colonel William Astore, has to say on the subject. Tom
Saving the Military from Itself
Why Medals and Metrics Mislead
By William Astore
It’s time to save the military from itself. I say this as a retired Air Force officer who served for twenty years, my last three in a “joint” assignment, working closely with Army, Marine, and Navy officers and enlisted men and women. As the Dean of Students at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, I saw hundreds of young troops cross the stage, graduating with new skills in Arabic and other strategic languages. With few exceptions, these (mostly) young men and women were highly motivated, committed to their service and country, and ready to go to war. They had no quit in them.
But in the words of Kenny Rogers, “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em. Know when to fold ’em. Know when to walk away. Know when to run.” The reference to his hit song, “The Gambler,” is not facile. The Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote that war, in its complexities and uncertainties, most resembles a game of cards — let’s say Texas Hold’em in honor of the President’s adopted state. Over the last four-plus years, we’ve shoved hundreds of billions of dollars into the Iraqi pot, suffered sobering losses in killed-in-action/wounded-in-action, yet we’re still holding losing cards dealt from a stacked deck. Even so, the Bush administration has recently doubled-down instead of folding, hoping to hit an inside straight despite long odds.
Why are we spilling blood and treasure with such reckless abandon? One answer is the military itself. Our military is a funhouse reflection of ourselves — purpose-driven, results-oriented, can-do, never-say-die, win-at-any-cost. Many commentators have noted that, in his recent testimony before Congress, General David Petraeus was hardly likely to criticize his own strategy in Iraq or, more crucially, the performance of the troops under his command. I have no doubt, however, that his belief in the viability of his mission reaches far deeper than that. Indeed, it surely taps into a core belief within the military that we can — and must — prevail in any conflict. We’ve been seduced by our own hype about being the world’s “sole superpower,” as if nuclear and technological supremacy had made us omnipotent as well as omni-competent.