June 27, 2003

Constabulatory Duties and the Warrior

Constabulatory Duties and the Warrior Ethos

Back in 2000, I had the opportunity to visit the United States Military Academy at West Point as part of a trip with the Council on Foreign Relations. The visit occurred shortly before the Presidential election. As you might expect, most of the West Pointers were rooting for Bush-Cheney to win. Clinton was widely disliked in the army and few wanted his Veep to win the election. Cadets and professors felt that Gore didn't "get" the issues facing the military but that a Bush-Cheney ticket would.

There were a variety of reasons for this. For one, Republicans have traditionally been viewed as playing a stronger hand on national security matters which renders the military more important in the grand scheme of things. In addition, Clinton had aroused passions and mistrust when, way back in '93, he came charging into Washington pushing the "gays in the military" issue with quite a bit of alacrity. And, let's face it, lots of his young staffers and crowd at the White House didn't pay much heed or deference to army folk in their midst. Further, disheveled, rumpled, professorial types like Defense Secretary Les Aspin didn't generate much trust or respect from the top military brass either. In short, the Clinton-Gore administration was not viewed as a net positive (speaking charitably) for the U.S. military by many serving in the various branches.

There were deeper reasons for this poor cohabitation between the top civilian leadership and the military as well. In times of peace and prosperity--the importance of the military is reduced significantly within the overall society. Fewer resources, time and attention are devoted to it. The rollicky, inward-looking casino-like '90s were such a time. The military got pretty short shrift. It didn't feel loved. Or respected.

But there was another reason for this too. And that brings me to Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo (and back to my West Point trip). When the military did have a job to do in a place like Kosovo or Bosnia--it tended to be gendarmarie, constabulatory-style peacekeeping duties (aside from airforce pilots dropping ordnance).

I can tell you that most enlisted men (and women) don't like this kind of work. It's dreary, repetitive stuff. Protect a Serbian family or two in this village in Kosovo. Make sure this bridge stays open in a certain town. Do some crowd control. Keep polling stations open. Make sure the power generator for this town is up and running and not being sabotaged. And so on.

Not only isn't it much fun, but people I spoke to at West Point, from cadets to commanders, had other concerns about using combat-trained troops for such peacekeeping duties. The undergrad cadets I had lunch with in the huge main mess hall at the university had pretty basic concerns. I was trained to fight, to do combat, to win wars. What's up with this peacekeeping gig?

For more senior folk, there was fear that having combat divisions rotate through a place like Bosnia for more than a year "doing kindergartens" and the like would negatively impact something we might call the warrior ethos. Run-of-the-mill peacekeeping duties, the thinking went, if performed regularly over a long stretch of time, prevent troops from being in tip-top combat-ready condition. Put less euphemistically, they don't kill as well, or so the thinking goes.

No one out and out said this (some expressly denied it)--but you could just tell this was yet another reason that Clinton and gang were resented. Our boys were being sent around doing the kind of work blue helmets should be doing. And because of that, on top of all the other indignities, our army was suffering. Dubya, take 1600 Penn back and save us!

Fast forward a few years. Irony of ironies, the Rummy/Cheney/ crowd who poo-pooed nation-building in the run-up to the election are now finding themselves with, not one, but two mammoth nation-building tasks in Iraq and Afghanistan. And unlike Bosnia or Kosovo--no one can argue these exercises are not in the vital national interest. If we screw this up and leave either country in tatters (especially Iraq)--U.S. credibility will plummet and our stock on the global stage will be low indeed.

Which brings me to this Pete Beinart article in this week's TNR. The main theme? Our combat troops aren't used to the peacekeeping duties they are being asked to perform in Iraq. They weren't trained for them. And it's hot as hell. And they're getting shot at. And they don't understand why the locals aren't always that happy to see them. In a word, they're getting pissed.

Now, I'm not trying to compare, in any way, Dubya's actions to Clinton's vis-a-vis usage of American forces. Dubya has done wonders for reconstituting and reinvigorating the military's morale. Victories in Afghanistan and Iraq have put the Vietnam syndrome definitively to bed. Beyond that, every guy on the ground remembers those towers tumbling with thousands of innocents turning into dust in some huge, horrific crematorium that was lower Manhattan for many months. They know what they are fighting for. They are combatting groups or regimes that have used terror, the pre-planned, purposeful killing of civilians for political ends, as a significant or integral part of their strategic toolkit.

But they deserve better than the role they are being asked to do. The United States must, in my opinion, train several divisions of specialized personnel that would be specifically trained to handle constabulatory duties like guarding various sensitive sites, crowd control, maintaining infrastructure, liasing with local leaders.

Note too, our heavily armored combat personnel with their helmets and various heavy gear must appear like quasi-Martians to Iraqi villagers. Such gulfs between the parties feed fear, mistrust, recriminations, resistance, attacks on our forces. A force better trained to handle peacekeeping duties, even in matters as basic as how they appear, might be better able to defuse much of the difficulties on the ground now stemming from such realities.

And so here's the $64,000 question. If we don't have such constabulatory forces ready, and I don't think we do, might we not ask U.N. forces to assist with some of the peacekeeping duties? Because the other countries we've asked to come on board are pretty much anteing up de minimus contributions that probably, at the end of the day, aren't going to cut it.

Folks, I'm not saying bring in large batches of French and German blue helmets. But I'm wondering, just wondering, if we might need a bit of help here? We are too strong to be worried about displays of humility--about maybe actually needing a spot of help.

Perhaps there is a role for the U.N., beyond humanitarian relief and the like, on the ground in Iraq. A modest peacekeeping forces to supplement our forces in, say, portions of the "Sunni Triangle" might be worth a thought or two. I'm not saying we should be rushing into a greater U.N. role in Iraq. But I am saying such an idea might merit more sustained consideration if the situation on the ground isn't significantly better by, say, the early fall.

Posted by Gregory at June 27, 2003 10:39 PM
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