The Civilian-Military Divide: General Kelly is a Canary in the Coal Mine

One portion of Gen Kelly’s remarks yesterday have gotten some notice, but I think it is important to highlight them and discuss their import.

Josh Marshall identified this portion of Gen Kelly’s remarks as specifically worrisome:

We don’t look down upon those of you who that haven’t served. In fact, in a way we’re a little bit sorry because you’ll have never have experienced the wonderful joy you get in your heart when you do the kinds of things our service men and women do — not for any other reason than they love this country. So just think of that.

Marshall goes on to provide his interpretation of this portion of Gen Kelly’s statement:

Kelly made a similar point when he refused to take questions from any reporter who was not either from a Gold Star family themselves or personally knew someone who was. You may not even deserve your civic freedoms, the right to talk, to ask question, unless you are near to military sacrifice.

On the other side of the political spectrum, David Frum made a similar observation.

And despite all the correct concern and condemnation over further upsetting a grieving family, as well as the subsequent disparagement of a member of the House of Representatives, which when debunked, was doubled down on, there is a larger issue buried in all the noise, smoke, and fire: the civilian-military divide.

GEN Dempsey, when he was the Commanding General of Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) commissioned a study of the Army as profession after a decade of war. GEN Dempsey was concerned, as were a number of subject matter experts in military professional ethics, that after a decade of persistent conflict the profession was at risk of being degraded by the corrosive effects of war. This project became known as the US Army Profession of Arms Study*. A white paper was compiled and issued, followed up by a lot of staff work, and then the final report. The Profession of Arms is defined as:

The Army is an American Profession of Arms, a vocation comprised of experts certified in the ethical application of land combat power, serving under civilian authority, entrusted to defend the Constitution and the rights and interests of the American people.

In the “Our Ethic” section of the study is the following description (emphasis mine):

The nature of military professional ethics. As the Army moves forward into future conflict, it will continue to rely on an all volunteer force. The framework of the Army Ethic must provide a consistent theory of military ethics that grounds the martial virtues in more general moral concepts and lessens any gap between the Army and the society it serves and which provides its recruits.

Gen Kelly’s unfortunate remarks about service and how those who have served view those who haven’t run counter to how the Profession of Arms defines its own professional ethic. More importantly it provides a flashing warning sign of the potential for a civilian-military divide that separates those who have chosen to join the All Volunteer Force (for whatever reason) and those who haven’t. Including those who have undertaken other forms of public service. While we’ve seen this type of divide emphasized in the discussion over policing and the use of force by law enforcement, Gen Kelly’s statements yesterday were, perhaps, the most explicit example of the civilian-military divide I’ve seen or heard in the past decade.

One of the most important discussions we had in the my seminar’s seminar room at USAWC, which we also engaged in within the USAWC team assigned to work on the Profession of Arms study, was the discussion of how an All Volunteer Force during a time of extended war and conflict relates to the vastly larger society of civilians. There was great concern that if a gap was allowed to develop, grow, and harden that the All Volunteer Force, especially those who make a career of their military service, will grow so estranged from the rest of American society as to not just become a distinct sub-culture, but one that threatens the very state and society it is sworn to defend.

And this isn’t just some hyperbolic concern. We often joked that the US military is America’s largest set of centrally planned and run gated communities. While a lot of military personnel, especially as they achieve higher ranks throughout their career arc, will choose to live off post (on the economy), it is quite possible to live, work, shop, socialize, and play on post while never leaving it. While few who serve do this, there is a tendency to associate within the profession as one’s coworkers and colleagues become one’s friends through shared work and experiences. Including combat.

This is also not a recent or new concern. In 2011 Time dedicated its cover and the bulk of an issue to the civilian-military divide.

The U.S. military and American society are drifting apart. It’s tough inside the civilian world to discern the drift. But troops in all the military services sense it, smell it — and talk about it. So do their superiors. We have a professional military of volunteers that has been stoically at war for more than a decade. But as the wars have droned on, the troops waging them are increasingly an Army apart.

The civilian-military gap has taken on an edge recently, driven by the lack of sacrifice — either in blood or treasure — demanded of the rest of us compared to what the troops are giving.

Military leaders know the gap is widening, which leads to important questions: is this a bad thing? If it is, should we care? And if we should care, what can be done to reverse it? “I have this deep existential angst about a military organization within a democratic society that’s as isolated from the rest of that society as our military is becoming,” says Michael Desch, a political scientist and military expert at Notre Dame. “The gap can make civilian control of the military harder to achieve.”

That may be a reach, but senior officers sense the parting. “I have been struck in my travels at the lack of what I would call in-depth understanding of what we’ve been through,” Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told Time before he retired last month after 43 years in uniform. It’s almost like the American Foreign Legion. “We come from fewer and fewer places — we’ve BRAC’ed our way out of significant portions of the country,” Mullen said, referring to the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission process that has shuttered hundreds of military posts across wide swaths of the nation. “Long term, if the military drifts away from its people in this country, that is a catastrophic outcome we as a country can’t tolerate.”

Click across and read the whole thing, it is really worth the few minutes.

This has been an ugly week in the US. It started with a needless, self inflicted wound by a President who does not speak well off the cuff and does not seem able to accept responsibility or tolerate being questioned. It got uglier when the President, feeling goaded into responding, responded in a way that deepened the injury. Including to not only the bereaved family he called, but also several others. And it moved well into I cannot believe this is happening in the US in 2017 territory with Gen Kelly’s attempt at damage control.

Despite all the ugliness some good can come of the week. Gen Kelly’s remarks yesterday are a canary in the civilian-military coal mine. War is corrosive to a military and a self governing republic. It eats away morale and effectiveness. And it drives a wedge between those who have chosen to serve, or if there’s a draft those chosen to serve by the state, and the non-serving in uniform citizenry who they are protecting and defending through their service to the Constitution. If any good can come from this week, perhaps it is a renewed discussion of civilian-military relations. As well as the nature of voluntary military service in a self governing republic. And a long overdue debate about if the US is indeed facing existential threats from al Qaeda or ISIS or the DPRK or Iran, then perhaps we need to actually declare war and actually mobilize the citizenry to fight the declared war.

* I was a contributor to the Profession of Arms study as part of the USAWC team assigned to look at the strategic issues of the profession. My specific responsibilities were to assist the USAWC Team Lead with conceptualizing the cultural aspects of what a profession is, what it means to be a member of a profession and how the norms and values of a profession are transmitted, taught, and learned.



Rachel Maddow Is Wrong: There is No Connection Between Chad’s Withdrawal of Forces in West Africa and the Ambush on 3rd Special Forces Group and Nigerien Soldiers

Last night several of you asked me in comments if I’d seen a segment on The Rachel Maddow Show where she took a deep dive into connecting the dots between Chad being placed on the latest travel ban list; Chad then withdrawing its troops from the multi-national forces working to interdict Boko Haram, al Qaeda in the Maghreb, and other violent extremists in the western Sahel; and the ambush on Soldiers from the 3rd Special Forces Group and the Nigerien Soldiers they were training, advising, and assisting. Once I got a chance to watch the segment, I replied with:

Okay I’ve gotten through the Maddow segment. What she’s positing – that the violent extremists planned and carried out the ambush or, at least, took their planning operational when they did because Chad had withdrawn its forces because of inclusion on the travel ban – is plausible. I’m not sure, however, that we have enough information now to make that conclusion. I’m also not sure we ever will. It is almost a counterfactual type of argument.

This was at 11:23 PM last night. I had not gone and tried to ascertain where in Niger or other parts of the western Sahel the Chadian forces were operating or what they were tasked with doing before they were withdrawn. I was wrong, it was not plausible. Fortunately, Laura Seay, a political scientist who specializes in west Africa, has provided her expertise to debunk Dr. Maddow’s theory. While Dr. Seay’s whole debunking can be found at this link, I’m going to highlight what I think are the key pieces below.

There are two important points to emphasize as a result of all of this. The first is that subject matter expertise matters. Having access to specialists like Dr. Seay with deep knowledge of a region and its culture, sociology, politics, economics, religion, human geography, etc prevents this type of mistake from being made. While Dr. Maddow and her staff have access to a lot of quality military and security analysts through NBC/MSNBC, what she really needed yesterday was someone with subject matter expertise in the western Sahel, its politics, and the deployment of the various military forces in the region to troubleshoot her reporting.

The second is that the two real lines of inquiry into what went wrong are 1) the seeming intelligence failure and 2) the abysmal lack of support available for 3rd Special Forces Group Soldiers and their host country partners in case something went wrong. What the investigators need to learn is why there seemed to be a bad intelligence assessment that indicated the risk of attack was low enough to conduct train, advise, and assist (Foreign Internal Defense) operations along the western Nigerien border when, in fact, an attack was planned, extremists were in the area, and an ambush was imminent. Something got missed and what has to happen is a determination of what was not collected, or overlooked if collected, or not considered relevant if not overlooked, in order to keep it from happening again. Intelligence is art, backed up by social and behavioral and physical science, not science itself. So mistakes will happen. The key is to learn from them so as not to tragically replicate them.

The investigators also need to determine who decided that it was acceptable to deploy around 800 US military personnel with no close air support and aviation based casualty evacuation. CNN has reported that a short term bridge contract was in place. But that contract was woefully inadequate.

“In August 2017, US Transportation Command approved a sole source contract to hire Berry Aviation to provide one fixed wing aircraft and one rotary wing aircraft in Niamey for, among other duties, casualty evacuation. This sole source bridge contract runs through the end of this month, October 2017,” Mack told CNN.
Contractor aircraft are typically not armed, though their crews may carry side-arms for personal protection.

Was this contract put in place because Special Operations Aviation Command, Special Operations Command Africa, US Army Africa, and/or AFRICOM couldn’t provide air support, for whatever reasons, for 90 days and this was to get over the hump in what was considered to be a largely permissive environment? Or was this contract issued because someone had decided this was all the air support these Soldiers might need? Someone made a decision that one unarmed fixed wing and one unarmed rotary wing aircraft were all that was needed to support almost a battalion’s worth of Soldiers in this operating environment. We need to know why this decision was made and how it was justified. And changes have to be put into place to prevent this from happening again. US military personnel should not be deployed without the resources to back them up and take care of them if something goes wrong.

Full disclosure: I authored the cultural preparations of the operational environment on Mali (2013), the Republic of South Sudan (2012), and Nigeria (2011) for US Army Africa.



President Obama’s Speech On Behalf of Ralph Northam

Figured it made sense to bookend my blogging day with President Obama’s speech on behalf of Ralph Northam from earlier this evening. The video is all teed up for President Obama’s remarks.

Open thread!



President George W Bush Speaks Truth to Power

I know a lot of our readers and commenters are not fans of President George W. Bush. But he has just finished giving a speech at a George W Bush Presidential Center event in New York. For those wondering where our living former presidents were and if/when they would find their voices and speak out in regard to what is going on in the US and the world, here is one example. The video is below and is set to start when he starts speaking. President Bush (43) took the opportunity of this address to speak truth to those currently holding power in the US.

Open thread!



Conflicting Reports from Kirkuk

I’ve been covering the potential for an Iraqi Civil War between Iraqi Arabs and Iraqi Kurds for Kirkuk and its surrounding areas since before the Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum in September. Tonight we’re getting conflicting reports out of Kirkuk about what is actually going on.

From the Government of Iraq:

There have been reports of US led coalition aircraft over Kirkuk:

And that attacks have begun despite PM Ibadi’s orders:

From al Jazeera (emphasis mine):

Iraqi security forces have launched a “major operation” in the Kurdish-held region of Kirkuk to take control of a strategic military base and oil fields, according to Kurdish and Iraqi officials.

The aim of the advance early on Monday was taking control of the Kurdish-controlled K1 airbase, west of Kirkuk, Lieutenant Colonel Salah el-Kinani, of the Iraqi army’s 9th armoured division, told Reuters news agency.

Hemin Hawrami, senior assistant to Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) PresidentMasoud Barzani, also said on Twitter that Peshmerga forces had been ordered “not to initiate any war, but if any advancing militia starts shooting”, then they had the “green light to use every power” to respond.

Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from Erbil, said Kurdish forces in and around Kirkuk “have vowed to defend it to the last man”. He added that the Kurdish governor of Kirkuk has reportedly called residents to arms, “saying anybody with a weapon should take it up and defend the city”.

It seems as if all diplomatic efforts have failed,” said Stratford, calling the push a “very worrying” development.

At this point it is unclear what exactly is going on. While the reports of actual fighting are scattered and only partially confirmed, there are two armed forces moving into close proximity of each other. And those two forces have very different objectives. Cooler heads may yet prevail, but it won’t take much for this to get really ugly really quickly.

Here’s a live stream from Kirkuk:



What Exactly is the Military’s Role in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands?

We’ve had a lot of discussion in the comments over the past couple of weeks about not just what is going on with the disaster response, emergency management, and/or humanitarian assistance missions in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, but also what exactly the US military’s role is. The US military is currently involved in assisting with all three components of the response: disaster response, emergency management, and humanitarian assistance. They are specifically doing so through what is called Defense Support of Civil Authorities, which is abbreviated as DSCA and pronounced as disca.

Defense Support of Civil Authorities is defined in Joint Publication 3-28/Defense Support of Civil Authorities:

Defense support of civil authorities (DSCA) is support provided by federal military forces, Department of Defense (DOD) civilians, DOD contract personnel, DOD component assets, and National Guard (NG) forces (when the Secretary of Defense [SecDef], in coordination with the governors of the affected states, elects and requests to use those forces in Title 32, United States Code, status or when federalized) in response to requests for assistance from civil authorities for domestic emergencies, law enforcement support, and other domestic activities, or from qualifying entities for special events.

DSCA in the US presents a unique challenge based on the history of the country and the interaction of the federal, state, local, territorial, and tribal governments and private and nonprofit organizations. These relationships establish the multiple layers and mutually reinforcing structures throughout the state and territorial governments for interaction based on the US Constitution, as well as on common law and traditional relationships.

US Army North has been mobilized as the Joint Land Force Component Command (JFLCC) to coordinate the US military response. This includes Task Force 51*, which is contingency command post. Specifically:

TF-51 is Army North’s contingency command post and conducts Defense Support of Civil Authority (DSCA), homeland defense and theater security cooperation in order to promote the defense and security of the United States​

There are also US Army Corps of Engineers, US Army Civil Affairs, and US Army National Guard – primarily from the Puerto Rico National Guard, as well as US Marine Corps personnel from the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group/26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (USS Kearsarge, USS Arlington, and USS Oak Hill) plussed up with USS Wasp, US Coast Guard Sailors, and the USNS Comfort on site assisting. There are also civilian personnel from a variety of US government civilian agencies.

The Commanding General of US Army North is not actually in charge of the response. Rather a FEMA executive on site is responsible. Unfortunately everyone defaults to “the US military is there, there’s a 3 star commander on site, the US military is in charge”. This is not actually the case. Because of how the news media has covered things since 9-11 everyone expects the military not only to perform, but to work miracles. This is largely a result of the US military being the only US governmental institution that is viewed positively by a majority of Americans. Whether the result of good public relations, the concerted effort not to treat uniformed personnel returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom the popular perception about the way returning Vietnam veterans were treated**, or a combination of the two, there is a pervasive belief among elected and appointed officials, as well as the US citizenry that the US military can do anything and everything. This combined with the significant divide that has grown between the All Volunteer Force and the rest of Americans, as well as a general lack of knowledge and understanding about what the US military does and does not do, can and cannot do, all contributes to the default belief that if the US military has responded, then it is in charge. So if things aren’t going well, then someone in uniform must be screwing up.

It is important to remember that LTG Buchanan, the Commanding General of US Army North, is not the military governor of PR and that martial law hasn’t been declared. In this mission he and the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines under his command actually work for Michael Byrne, who is the Federal Coordinating Officer for Puerto Rico. While it is absolutely correct to question exactly what is going on with the response to the crises in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, it is important to remember who is running the show – FEMA – and who isn’t – the US military. Moreover, we don’t know what the Memorandum of Agreement is between FEMA/DHS and US Army North/Department of the Army that delineates who is doing what in regard to the Federal response to the crises in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands as it is not posted anywhere public facing. Here’s an example of a Memorandum of Agreement between FEMA and the US Army Corps of Engineers from 2008 to give you an idea of what they look like. Here’s the manual for US military support to FEMA in these types of situations to give you some idea of how things should go.

That doesn’t make what we’re seeing in news reports and eye witness reports on social media about the inadequacy of the response okay. It just means that other than knowing that things aren’t going well, despite official pronouncements from various parties in DC, we don’t really know why they’re not going well. As in the root causes. Is the Memorandum of Agreement too limiting? Has too little resources, specifically actual food, water, clothing, medical supplies been queued up? Or delivered on site? Are there too few personnel on site when accounting for US civilian and military personnel? All of these are legitimate questions. But just because the US military on site gets all the press, and just because we’ve become conditioned to assume that they are both hyper-competent and always in charge wherever they are deployed, this is not always the case. And it is certainly not the case in the US response to the hurricane created crises in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.

* Full disclosure: the Chief of Staff for Task Force 51 is my former student from my last year (academic year 2014) assigned at USAWC. I have not been commissioned by him, anyone else at the Joint Force Land Component Command in Puerto Rico, or anyone else in the US military to write this post.

** There is a popular perception in the US that returning vets from Vietnam were treated poorly by the American public. In terms of actual history this isn’t exactly what happened, and there are a lot of nuances, but this is the popular perception.



The Battle for Kirkuk Has Begun!

Three weeks ago, in the run up to the independence referendum called by Masoud Barzani, I wrote:

One of the major issues in play here is who controls Kirkuk. When my teammates and I conducted our tribal study and social history in 2008, with in depth interviews of over 50 sheikhs, imams, political, and business leaders in central Iraq (predominantly from Mada’ain Qada, but also including interviewees from across Baghdad Province, and a few from Diyala and Wassit Provinces) Kurdish independence was only brought up by about five or six of our interview subjects. But when it was brought up we were told that any attempt to declare an independent Kurdistan, especially if the attempt included taking Kirkuk, would be unacceptable. We were specifically told by several sheikhs that this was one issue that would unite Sunni and Shi’a Iraqi Arabs and could lead to an Iraqi-Arab versus Iraqi-Kurdish civil war.

The Iraqi army launched an operation to retake Kurdish-held positions around the disputed oil city of Kirkuk on Friday amid a bitter row with the Kurds over a vote for independence last month.

A senior Kurdish official said thousands of heavily armed fighters had been deployed to resist the offensive “at any cost” and called for international intervention with the federal government in Baghdad to prevent the confrontation worsening.

The Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga have been key allies of the US-led coalition in its fight against the Islamic State (IS) group and the threat of armed clashes between them poses a major challenge for Western governments.

Ethnically divided but historically Kurdish-majority Kirkuk is one of several regions that peshmerga fighters took over from the Iraqi army in 2014 when the jihadists swept through much of northern and western Iraq.

Baghdad is bitterly opposed to Kurdish ambitions to incorporate the oil-rich province in its autonomous region in the north and has voiced determination to take it back.

Al Jazeera reports:

“Thousands of heavily armed peshmerga units are now completely in their positions around Kirkuk,” a top aide to KRG President Masoud Barzani posted on social media on Friday.

“Their order is to defend at any cost,” Hemin Hawrami wrote on Twitter.

The Iraqi Kurdish/Iraqi Arab civil war has begun. This was both predictable (see my September post) and preventable. No one was so naive as to think that the Iraqi Kurds would not declare independence when the fight against ISIS was over. Everyone knew it would happen. Doing it now was just strategically stupid. It will divert attention and resources allowing ISIS to regroup. It will provide openings for the Russian and Iranian backed Assad government to advance their interests. The US led coalition against ISIS is facing a strategic nightmare: a civil war among their host country allies.