Meaningful Distinction:

Patrick S. Lasswell Look outward for something to accomplish, not inward for something to despise.
pslblog at gmail dot com
Sunday, May 09, 2004
In Defense of the Strategy of Miserable Troops

I spent three miserable years in the Navy from 1988 to 1991 doing my part to keep an undermanned ship afloat and functional, upon reflection; I must grudgingly admit that this was probably a good thing. Don't get me wrong, we should have gotten more support and better training to do our jobs with fewer people, and it sucked to be on that ship. It destroyed any possibility of my advancing rapidly and nearly caused me to have a nervous breakdown. The thing is that I was a lot better sailor and our ship was a lot more effective at critical elements of naval warfare than many fully crewed ships of the same class. A key part of this was not that we were assigned better sailors, but that we had to be better because there was nobody else to do the job. It was never somebody else's problem. We were miserable as individuals, but as a unit, our morale was high.

A lot of people are seeing the solution to our problems in Iraq in assigning more troops; multiple times the current number of forces. I disagree. The belief that security and efficiency comes with greater numbers is compelling, but based on illusions. The primary illusion is that all our forces are always engaged in the kind of firefights that make the evening news. The secondary illusion is the view that all Iraqi's are like the animals in Fallujah who mutilated our citizens. The third illusion is that a significant fraction of our troops are as out of control as the idiots who tortured prisoners in Abu Gharib. The final illusion is the concept that diminishing responsibility of individuals improves efficiencies. The first three illusions have been dealt with very well here, here, and here, so I won't go into them. What I can speak of with assurance is the illusion of diminished responsibility.

The traditional view of military behavior, and for many people the only understanding they have about what servicemen do, is the vision of troops marching in formation and standing in ranks. That neat, comprehensible view of ranks and files of troops operating as a singular will is compelling as all get out; it makes sense. About a century and a half ago, the breach loading cartridge firing rifle made that kind of military obsolete. A century ago, the development efficient machine guns and logistics systems to supply them, made that kind of military behavior in the field suicidal. Troops still march in ranks because it is easier to keep track of them, but that mostly happens in parades and training commands. Today, the average serviceperson is a specialist with months of training, even is they are "just" carrying a rifle. Each one of them is made aware of their responsibilities, and when given the opportunity, they carry them out to the best of their ability. There are marginal troops in our current forces, but my experience is that even marginal troops do their best when it matters.

The main effect of doubling or tripling our current number of troops in Iraq would be to make things not matter so much. The morale effects of taking troops away from important duties and making their efforts irrelevant is much worse than taking casualties. There is a fair amount of military history to back this up; Marines who were fighting on the line in Guadalcanal one day could not climb the nets onto the troopship the next day after they had been relieved, for example. My experience backs this up, too. Sailors on regular Navy ships were slower and didn't train as hard as sailors on reserve ships where effort was more crucial.

Our current force levels in Iraq mean that our troops there will be miserable, but will have the high morale of people who are personally responsible for doing something important. While it may seem the right thing to give misery company, it is not really the successful thing to do. Our primary goal in Iraq going forward needs to be the establishment of a successful democratic state, not the development of a comfortable duty station. We do not need a draft; we need to let the people on the scene do their jobs. If you want them to be less miserable, send them double-stuff Oreos.
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