When USMC Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller first got news that an explosion had rocked one of the gates at the Kabul airport on Aug. 26, killing 13 U.S. service members and 169 Afghan civilians, he decided to post a YouTube video with his reaction — knowing it could kill his 17-year career and current post as a Marine advanced infantry battalion commander.
“I’m making this video because I have a growing disconnect and contempt for perceived ineptitude at the policy level,” said Scheller, donned in his Marine fatigues and looking a bit shell shocked. “The reason people are so upset right now … they are upset that senior leaders let them down and no one is raising their hands and saying we messed this up.”
He pointed to Secretary of Defense Austin and other senior civilian and military leaders who had assured Congress in May that the Afghan Security forces would be able to withstand the Taliban sweep when American and NATO forces withdrew. He questioned the decision to evacuate the fortified Bagram Airfield in early July.
“Clearly they were wrong,” he said, noting he was fielding emails questioning whether fellow Marines had died in vain over the last 20 years. “What I’ll say is, from my position, potentially all those people did die in vain if we do not have senior leaders who own up, who raise their hands to say we did not do well in the end. Without that we are just repeating the same mistakes.”
Scheller was relieved of his command, jailed briefly, and court-martialed, but a largely sympathetic military judge gave him a reprimand and $5,000 fine (much to the consternation of the prosecution). While the military community was split over his punishment for violating code, there was clearly something more powerful going on. Scheller’s decision to put his career on the line to demand accountability became a mantra, not just about the August evacuation — but a reckoning of the last two decades.
(Ret.) Col. Doug Macgregor, writing in the American Conservative in October:
The generals always knew that the public admission of failure would not simply throw 20 years of graft and deceit into sharp relief; such an admission would expose the four stars themselves to serious scrutiny. To explain the rapid collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan state and the inexcusable waste of American blood and treasure, the American people would discover the long process of moral and professional decline in the senior ranks of the Army and the Marines, their outdated doctrine, thinking, and organization for combat. For the generals it was always better to preserve the façade in Kabul, propping up the illusion of strength, than face the truth.
It was as if the Afghanistan debacle had finally ripped the last scab off the military’s role in the failed enterprise. Suddenly the superstar warrior/monk generals for whom the mainstream media had written endless paeans, before which members of Congress had bowed and scraped, were under the garish light of delayed circumspection.
As a result, there is plenty of talk about what went wrong and what shape the military is in for the future. And certainly just focusing on “the generals” would be shortsighted. This is about the institution — for which America’s trust is actually plummeting. So can the military really afford not to take stock of the cultural, institutional — and yes, political — changes that have swept over it in the last 20 years or more?
“My major concern is military effectiveness,” says (Ret.) Marine Corps. Capt. Dan Grazier, who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan in a tank battalion and is now a military analyst at the Project on Government Oversight, “that in the rare event where the military does need to be deployed that we can be the most effective, lethal force possible when the situation calls for it.”
After interviews with several infantry veterans who served in the post-9/11 wars, The American Spectator picked up on a familiar theme as the main obstacle for rebuilding the forces and the faith: leadership corrupted by careerism and influenced by outside interests that don’t always coincide with the interests of the national defense.
The forces aren’t healthy: whose fault?
To Grazier’s mind, after 20 years of constant deployments the military is “going to naturally decay.” It’s impossible to sustain systems on a tempo of that measure without undergoing entropy. According to the most recent RAND Corporation study on deployments, 2.7 million service members have served in 5.4 million deployments across the globe since 2001. The National Guard and reserves account for about 35 percent of the total (as of 2015). In fact, thanks to COVID, wildfires, border patrol, and the extra security put on the nation’s capital in January, the Guard was used in 2020 more than any time since World War II. Missions peaked in June when more than 120,000 of its 450,000 members were on duty here or abroad.
Gil Barndollar, who served in Afghanistan with the Marines and is now a fellow with Defense Priorities, says retention will be a concern. These “citizen soldiers” have “become an operational reserve, not the strategic reserve they were originally intended to be,” he told the Spectator. “Manpower is a rollercoaster, the effects on recruiting and retention always have a lag after events and policy decisions.”
He laments that the Guard, of which he is currently a member, has been used to augment the active duty force so that it can maintain what has become protracted, unending overseas conflicts, often using resources and equipment that are needed stateside, particularly helicopters necessary to fight wildfires in western states.
“It hasn’t been just a long year, it’s been a long 20 years,” Army Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty, commander of the Washington state Guard, said back in January. “I just want to focus on that. We’re all consumed with our domestic operations right now, but it is simultaneous with our overseas deployments, which have not let up one iota.”
Unfortunately, instead of pouring resources and energy into maintaining readiness, much of Washington’s zeal today is about throwing money at shiny new objects: big-ticket weapons systems, ships, and aircraft that either take years to build, become obsolete, or don’t work. A boon to the Beltway defense lobby, not so much for the fighting forces.
“The military has gotten into a lot of bad habits over the last 20 years. If you look at the amount of money that was thrown at the Pentagon, it’s created a lack of discipline,” Grazier charges. “After 9/11 the floodgates were opened wide. That played to the worst tendencies of the military industrial congressional complex.”
He points specifically to the F-35 fighter, which reached its 20-year anniversary in October and is the most expensive military project in history at $1.7 trillion in lifetime costs. One Air Force Secretary called the industry cost overruns in the program a “poster child for acquisitions malpractice.” And it still hasn’t passed full mission testing, mostly because its super-advanced technological bells and whistles have created a maintenance nightmare. The tragic irony? It’s likely to become obsolete. Yet Congress keeps buying more. Lockheed Martin, the F-35’s primary contractor, has spent $76 million in lobbying over the last five years alone, so it’s sure to get its money’s worth.
Then there is the Littoral Combat Ship, which was based on strategic planning in the 1990s. After spending $500 million for 21 ships, the Navy has decided the early designs are largely obsolete, particularly for “great power competition” with China. So it’s already decommissioned one ship — after only 13 years of service — and plans to take several more offline rather than spend the $2.5 billion upgrading them. Today there are still 31 built or under construction.
(Ret.) Army Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, who also served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, blames the influence of private industry, particularly its cozy relationships inside the Pentagon for the dysfunctional nature of procurement and acquisitions. Private defense firms spent $1 billion lobbying Washington since 2001, and in return received some $7 trillion in taxpayer funds over the course of the post-9/11 wars — that’s half of the $14 trillion spent overall.
Davis says this amount of money sloshing around has created enormous boondoggles that leave the forces ultimately high and dry (and the contractors fat and happy). Chew on this: the Air Force now wants to cut more than 87,000 pilot training hours because aircraft sustainment costs soared to $1 billion this year.
A favorite example of the lunacy, Davis says, is failure of the Army’s Future Combat Systems, which in 2003 promised to replace the M1 Abrams and M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles by 2010. It was canceled in 2009 after $18 billion spent and without a functional prototype.
In 2010 the Army announced the new Ground Combat Vehicle. That was canceled in 2014. Then the Army proposed the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle. This had to take a “tactical pause” in 2020 after a poor showing by contractors. As of today the program is back to square one, with five vendors sharing $244 million for the initial design phase, with full production by 2027. That’s a nearly quarter-century saga. Unfinished.
“This is a service-wide failure of the highest order,” Davis tells the Spectator. “The Russians started their own vehicle modernization program and started making production units of tanks and infantry fighting vehicles in a total of six years, yet the vaunted U.S. Army with all its alleged brilliance, has started multiple new programs since 1999 — and has yet to produce even a single prototype.”
Davis and Grazier say the problem is too much money and industry influence going on the E-Ring to get at it. Thus the revolving door: one POGO report from 2008 to 2018 found that 280 high ranking officials became lobbyists, board members, executives, or consultants for defense contractors within two years of leaving the service. Military officers going through the revolving door included 25 generals, 9 admirals, 43 lieutenant generals, and 23 vice admirals.
And then they come back. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper was a Raytheon lobbyist ($27 billion in federal contracts in 2020); Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan came from Boeing ($21 billion), Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy bounced over from Lockheed ($74 billion), and current Secretary of Defense Austin was a paid member of the Raytheon board after leaving the service in 2016.
Ethics rules are notoriously weak and the culture within the Pentagon incentivizes what many call “cronyism” or “rent seeking” inside, in which the top five companies get a third of all federal defense contracts, crowding out competition and making programs — like the F-35 — notoriously inefficient. Grazier says service members are conditioned early on to believe that industry interests are one in the same with the country’s interests (and to act accordingly), but that is not always true.
“I remember going through the quad in the Pentagon, it must have been late 2012,” said Davis. “I remember being disgusted by the fairs that defense companies would hold. It looked like the circus had come to town … it was all ‘buy this, buy that.’ There was nothing about how this might accomplish our strategic objectives; it was all about buying cool stuff. Find a place to make it fit.”
No Pattons or MacArthurs here
Barndollar sees the “careerism” that has overtaken the officer ranks over the last two decades as an even bigger issue. To his mind, this has led to a culture of risk avoidance and “CYA” (cover your ass) among the ambitious, where often blind loyalty and the ability to play politics play second fiddle to merit and competence on the path to higher promotions. In order to stay on that upward trajectory, one has to keep his or her head down, play the game.
Critics say this tends to produce ineffectual, mediocre commanders, and that can lead to serious leadership failures.
Barndollar points to the two Navy ship collisions in a span of months in 2017 which actually left 17 sailors dead. “Officers (and civilians) at the top refused to listen to warnings and bad news,” leading up to the accidents, said Barndollar. An official Navy report confirmed that leadership issues were rampant and both events were “avoidable.”
“It’s easier to see this in the Navy because they are running massive equipment in a tougher environment,” but it is happening in all of the services, said Barndollar.
On the greatest level, you see it manifest in the failures of the war strategy, the generals telling Congress only what they wanted to hear for 20 years, the inability of officers to stand up and say no, we aren’t doing this right. “When you see moral cowardice from the general officers, that’s about careerism. It’s a failure to speak truth to power and call out the institution and its problems.”
If the zeal with which the prosecution wanted to punish Stuart Scheller is any indication, it’s going to be very difficult to turn this particular ship around. The rank and file may be ready for the truth, but until the leadership is provided different incentives beyond cozy industry sinecures and stars, critics say the military is headed for more hurt than healing.