Saturday, March 11, 2017

Command and out of control:
A troubling new military autonomy



Mandrake, do you recall what Clemenceau once said about war? He said war was too important to be left to the generals. When he said that, 50 years ago, he might have been right. But today, war is too important to be left to politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought.

                                 General Jack D. Ripper, “Dr. Strangelove” (1964)


IT ALL sounds so operationally liberating, so refreshingly autonomous, so unlike the control-freak identity of the young Trump administration. The Washington Post and The Associated Press reported that a few hundred U.S. Marines deployed into Syria as part of the continuing preparation for the coming battle to push elements of the terrorist cabal known as ISIS out of its self-declared headquarters of Raqqa.

AP reported Wednesday that, according to a senior U.S. official, while“[t]he deployment is temporary ... it is likely an early indication that the White House is leaning toward giving the Pentagon greater flexibility to make routine combat decisions in the IS fight.”

Sourcing insiders at the Pentagon, The AP reported that the Raqqa campaign follows “the recent temporary deployment of some dozens of Army forces to the outskirts of Manbij, Syria,” in what the Pentagon has called a mission to “reassure and deter” — basically a chance to brandish American might by flying the Stars and Stripes and making a show of the strength embodied in heavily armored vehicles. The Marine mission will also include heavy artillery.

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AP reported that “[m]ilitary commanders frustrated by what they considered micromanagement under the [Obama] administration have argued for greater freedom to make daily decisions on how best to fight the enemy.

“The moves to pre-position U.S. troops closer to the fight, so they can be tapped as needed, are the kinds of decisions that military commanders say they need to be able to make more quickly, without going to the White House every time for approval,” AP reports.

At first blush, and given the 140-character attention span of the current occupant of the Oval Office, it might be seen as a good idea — even taking into account Trump’s penchant for micromanagement.

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BUT WHAT begins as a welcome overture to the military and its grasp of the situation in Syria has the potential to morph into something more, wider and more ominous. Basically, the Trump policy potentially sets this nation’s military on the slippery slope of that military assuming, over time, even more of the command and control of U.S. armed forces — the way of making sure war is left to the generals — and it does so with an outwardly palatable argument, in the guise of improving operational readiness in times of crisis.

It establishes the pretext under which the military may decide to make major moves on behalf of the commander-in-chief, without consulting the commander-in-chief — a fundamental walk-away from the civilian oversight of the military that’s a hallmark of American government.

We’re sure to be told that, of course, the civilian leadership will be consulted in making the big decisions about America’s use of force in foreign conflicts. The question is, for commanders in the field newly empowered by an autonomy they haven’t had in at least eight years, what constitutes a big decision? What’s the threshold for seeking direct input from the executive branch of the government — the White House? What's important enough to tear the commander-in-chief away from Twitter?

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The potential is there for some in the military to take liberties, to go too far in the name of protecting this country and its allies. We’ve already seen how that could play out.

Early in February, a photo making the rounds on Facebook showed how scarily this could play out. The picture taken by Carole Puryear and posted to her Facebook page, shows a Humvee personnel carrier rolling down a road, one of several military vehicles in a convoy near Lexington, Ky. The vehicle Puryear photographed was flying a Trump 2016 campaign flag — not in addition to the American flag, but instead of flying an American flag.

If that seems a bit out of bounds to you, rest assured you’re not alone. “Department of Defense and Navy regulations prescribe flags and pennants that may be displayed as well as the manner of display,”  said Navy Public Affairs Officer Lt. Jacqui Maxwell, to the web site for WSMV-TV. “The flag shown in the video was unauthorized.”

Of course it was. Which didn’t stop it from happening, now did it?

AND THE potential’s always there for the military just to go too far, to reveal that, at the end of the day, they’re as subject to human nature as the rest of us. When left to their own devices, guys will be guys.

By now we’ve heard a lot (and maybe too much) about the nude photo-sharing scandal now engulfing the Marine Corps, a controversy that’s found some of them starting private Facebook pages to circulate photos of nude female Marines.

A story in Friday’s Daily Beast gets you up to speed:

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“A private Facebook group called Marines United—with more than 30,000 current and former male Marines, U.S. Navy Corpsmen, and British Royal Marines—was caught sharing thousands of nude photos of women without their consent. Hundreds or thousands joined chat rooms with links to Dropbox and Google drives filled with videos and images of female Marines, both nude and clothed, as well as Marine wives, ex-wives, girlfriends, and ex-girlfriends. In some cases, dozens of the women were identified by their full names, ranks, and location of duty station.

“After journalist and former Marine infantryman Thomas Brennan broke the story on March 4, thousands of members exited the group and moderators and admins tightened any restrictions they could find. Almost immediately, posting and sharing of the videos and photos shifted to other groups or sites and resumed, and in some cases even accelerated.

“But then a Marines United 2.0 Facebook group sprung up posting links to the same cache of photos and scrutinizing those seeking admission. Marines United 2.0 currently maintains over 3,000 members, according to a Marine who spoke on condition of anonymity, due to Department of Defense media regulations. Additionally, a Marines United 3.0 has formed, with a membership of 262 at the time of this publication.”

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JAMES MATTIS, the retired Marine general who is now the secretary of defense, talked about the scandal, saying in a statement that “[l]ack of respect for the dignity and humanity of fellow members of the Department of Defense is unacceptable and counter to unit cohesion.” Sure it is. Which didn’t stop any of this from happening, now did it?

To one degree or another, this is the evolving risk you run when you announce your intention to cede more control and oversight of the military to the military. It’s inevitable; what happened in Kentucky (and less visibly but no less actually online) shows how esprit de corps can be eroded when and where it’s least expected.

Georges Clemenceau may well have said or written it at some point: La guerre! C’est une chose trop grave pour la confier à des militaires. He checked out long before Donald Trump ushered in his own laissez-faire military philosophy, a fox-runs-the henhouse approach that publicly pledges allegiance to operational efficiency. We can do better: War may be too important to be left to anyone but politicians — answering to the civilians who elected them. We just hope those politicians are paying attention.

Image credits: Trump army flag: Carole Puryear. Facebook logo: © 2017 Facebook. Sterling Hayden as Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove (1964): © 1964, 2017 Columbia Pictures.

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