I first met Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli in Baghdad in early 2005. He was about to go home after a year’s assignment as the head of the First Cavalry Division, and he was dreading his return.
The dread related to the loss of 160 men and women from his division. A sign outside his headquarters read: “Complacency kills — don’t become a statistic.” Chiarelli knew he’d carry the cruel statistics back to Fort Hood, Tex., and face the bereaved.
“The hardest thing is going home and facing those parents and wives and loved ones,” he said, looking me in the eye with tears in his. Chiarelli, now the senior military assistant to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, is a thoughtful, decent officer who has absorbed his share of the military’s post-9/11 hurt.
The first two decades of his career were spent training to defeat the Soviet Ninth Combined Arms Army in Europe. This was symmetrical war, tough but clear. It had nothing of the elusive asymmetry of borderless modern warfare, counterinsurgency and counterterrorism.
Like the U.S. armed forces as a whole, Chiarelli has learned and adapted through two Iraq tours. Now he has gathered his thoughts in a forthcoming article for Military Review that makes devastating reading. The picture he paints is of a military and nation still at some remove from reality.
“Much of our government and interagency seem to be in a state of denial about the requirements needed to adapt to modern warfare,” Chiarelli says, adding that even today some believe “that all we have to do to win our modern wars is kill and capture enough of the enemy.”
Nonsense, Chiarelli argues in a piece written with Maj. Stephen Smith. Shadowy modern wars are less about overwhelming force than mastering instantaneous communication to win hearts and minds, adapting rapidly, flattening ponderous military hierarchies, understanding nation-building, and bringing to bear U.S. abilities in fields as diverse as engineering and agronomy.
“If we are unable to do a better job than our enemies of influencing the world’s perception, then even the most brilliant campaign plan will be unlikely to succeed,” he writes. Unreadiness for the real-time reactions of an interconnected globe has often allowed a video-camera-wielding enemy “to run circles around us, especially in the information environment.”
Further damage has been caused by some military leaders and service members who “have not internalized the moral and ethical codes that define who we are as an armed force and nation.”
Failure to meet this moral “imperative” hurts “our credibility as a fighting force, our mission and indeed our standing in the world.” Chiarelli adds that, “Too often, we are reluctant to admit mistakes.”
At a deeper level, beyond the damage of an Abu Ghraib, this general says the United States must address what is needed to conduct long campaigns for its security in places like Afghanistan.
“The U.S. as a nation — and indeed most of the U.S. government — has not gone to war since 9/11,” he observes. While the military is fighting, “the American people and most of the other institutions of national power have largely gone about their business.”
Rarely, if ever, has daily death in combat been accompanied on such a scale by the maxing out of credit cards at the mall. President Bush likes to call himself a “war president.” More accurately he has been the war-and-shop, conflict-and-home-equity-credit president.
Now those two worlds, eerily remote from each other, have come together in simultaneous Iraq and credit crises. While Bush considers lowering troop levels, Fed chairman Ben Bernanke considers lowering interest rates. The overseas and home fronts, the dropping and the shopping, are not unrelated after all.
Chiarelli has long suffered the disconnect. He saw his soldiers killed in flimsy Humvees because American industry was not geared up in World War II fashion to produce replacements. He has seen the military pushed to provide agricultural, governance and legal experts when they might come from the Departments of Agriculture, State and Justice.
“Our current problems raise the legitimate question of whether the U.S., or any democracy, can successfully prosecute an extended war without a true national commitment,” he writes.
Unless you believe the United States can simply withdraw from the world, a popular but naïve view, that essential strategic question needs addressing beyond the Iraq tactics before Congress this week. An answer is the minimum the now overstretched shopping nation owes the long overstretched fighting nation it seldom notices.
Foreclosure is grim. But what the war bereaved want and cannot find is closure.
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