Thursday, July 06, 2006

The two are not mutually exclusive

Babble on.

Max Boot is concerned about troop comfort: he thinks American troops are too comfortable.

Yet there is a danger of professional soldiers becoming so focused on supply lines that they lose sight of larger strategic imperatives. In Afghanistan and Iraq, we may already have crossed that threshold.

In the past few months, I have traveled across U.S. Central Command's area of operations — a vast domain stretching from the deserts of Arabia to the mountains of the Hindu Kush. Everywhere, I have found massive bases fortified with endless rows of concrete barriers and stocked with every convenience known to 21st century Americans.

Some front-line units continue to operate out of spartan outposts where a hot meal is a luxury and flush toilets unknown. But growing numbers of troops live on giant installations complete with Wal-Mart-style post exchanges, movie theaters, swimming pools, gyms, fast-food eateries (Subway, Burger King, Cinnabon) and vast chow halls offering fresh-baked pies and multiple flavors of ice cream. Troops increasingly live in dorm-style quarters (called "chews," for "containerized housing units") complete with TVs, mini-refrigerators, air conditioning/heating units and other luxuries unimaginable to previous generations of GIs.

Mark at Daimnation! seems to agree with Boot's assessment.

The enormous logistical tail of US forces hardly helps counter-insurgency effectiveness - nor do all those lattes...

John at Castle Argghhh!!! does not. John, unlike both Boot and Mark, contributes some context to back up his perspective: first, that American troops have always fought with more amenities than the other guys, and have generally won while doing it, and second, that the supposed 'luxuries' aren't as much of a burden on the warfighting effort as one might initially suppose.

American forces, since the Civil War, have *always* built huge support infrastructures as quickly as we could, consistent with the demands on shipping assets. One has only to look at the 'boring' pictures from WWI, WWII, Korea, to see that as soon as we are able, we build large camps, filled with recreational facilities and troop comforts. It has oft times caused our enemies, and allies, to call us soft, even as we were steamrollering them into the dirt and surrender - if anything, it added to their annoyance.
Nor is as much being diverted from the war effort as you might think - MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation) activities are not funded using appropriated monies (though they do leverage facilities). Those activities are funded via donation, contract services, the profit from the Exchange system (on-base department stores) and revenues from MWR activities. For example, here at Castle Argghhh! the Equine Family Members live in the stables at Fort Leavenworth - a service we pay for. That activity does *not* pay for it's building (the old 1909 Quartermaster Stables) but do pay for any new construction, electricity, employee salary, etc - and, since 2001, we've been hit with a surcharge of 10% - that goes directly to fund the overseas MWR activity for deployed troops. We tax ourselves, in a sense.

Max and Mark miss the real point entirely, and John only touches upon it: living in some small degree of comfort during off-duty hours, and undertaking a successful counter-insurgency or 3D mission outside the wire aren't mutually exclusive propositions.

If U.S. forces aren't spending enough time outside the wire, then order them to. If the tactics or strategies being employed aren't effective, then change them. But how exactly will taking mini-fridges away from troops make them any more fit to stabilize Iraq or Afghanistan?

Here's your test: if you made every U.S. service member in Central Asia live in a simple hooch, eat nothing but MRE's, and forego all recreational distractions, would the mission be going any better?

Not bloody likely, I say. It would most certainly be going worse, since troops would be more exhaused, more stressed, and more unhappy. Morale affects mission capability. That's such a fundamental concept, I'm amazed it needs to be explained here.

As I understand it, U.S. forces have had a steep learning curve since 2001. They are still struggling to find a balance between interacting with the local population - with all the well-known benefits to HUMINT, credibility, cooperation, et cetera that that confers - and providing security for their forces. The more time you spend outside the wire, the more exposed you are, but the more you can accomplish. There are limits, however: every hour you spend outside the wire is an hour you're 'on' - there's no real downtime in a situation like that, and too much 'on' time will drain you to the point of ineffectiveness. There's no perfect balance point, but it's not too much of a stretch to say that the U.S. could still learn a thing or two from other countries with a bit more experience in this area.

But if troops are spending too much time sipping their morning macchiato and scarfing back their Egg McMuffin, the answer is to get them outside the wire, not to take away their Green Bean and McDonald's.

Conflating increasing troop comfort levels with decreasing mission effectiveness is a mistake.

Babble off.


At 11:53 a.m., Blogger Chris Taylor said...

Excellent post. I fully agree that the presence of so-called luxury amenities does not necessarily equal reduced mission capability.

What I suspect happened here is that someone's tour of the rear echelon areas did not jive with their particular notions of wartime privation and sacrifice. I guess he figured these guys lived in their HMMWVs and Bradleys and never slept on anything you didn't have to shake a dozen camel spiders out of first.

If it were a lesser journo I'd suspect it was standard wailing about how poor, misled American boys are dying for the profits of Big Oil, Big Coffee, and Big Trans-Fats (which is entirely consistent with the usual LA Times editorial slant) -- but I'd expect better of Max Boot.

At 12:32 p.m., Blogger Sean McCormick said...

I get the impression that Max wants to see U.S. troops punished for something.

At 5:30 p.m., Blogger MB said...

We have a saying in the military, "Any fool can be uncomfortable".

This is what the old guys tell the young guys when they look down upon the experienced soldier attempting to make himself more comfortable.

Only the inexperienced soldier thinks being miserable makes him a better soldier.

At 11:20 a.m., Blogger Greg said...

If I might say, Max (like many neocons) is getting ready to find a scapegoat. Afterall, the plan was must be the troops fault that things have gone so wrong!

At 3:50 p.m., Blogger Greg said...

On a related note B, Take a look at Idealistic Pragmatist's new post on Post Traumatic Stress. It is a good one.

At 3:03 p.m., Blogger Alan said...

Militarily, the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have been mind-boggling successes, notwithstanding the luxuries that may or may not be available to American troops. In Iraq, forces numbering well below 200,000 (for some perspective on that, check the numbers for any major battle in WWII) have taken and held millions of square miles of territory with a population of some 30 million. There is no serious challenge to the military supremacy of the Americans and their allies. They could stay there for a very long time indeed, were they so inclined, and not too squeamish about the casualties, which have been remarkably low. (The U.S. lost 10,000 men in one month from December 1944 to January 1945). So if the boys who brave rpg's and neck slicing lunatics want to kick back after a hard day risking their lives, I think America can spot them an ice cream and a seat at a good movie.



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