How We Nearly Broke The US Military

I grew up during Operation Desert Storm and I would one day enlist to serve during Operation Enduring and Iraqi Freedom; and I'm not alone - my entire generation has had one single unifying fact that binds us together:  we've been a generation at war.  More specifically, we've been a generation that has been engaged in an unconventional war with very asymmetrical forces and we've seen a complete overhaul of the modern war fighter.  As a result of my employment within the Department of Defense, coupled with my insatiable curiosity, I have been following our engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq with great interest.

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So it should come as no surprise that when former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, released a new book - I jumped at the chance to read it. This book is a must read for military historians or analysts, but those without a fair amount of background knowledge will find themselves struggling through the text because this isn't an account of military history.  This is a candid and emotional memoir of the war that the Secretary of Defense fought against Congress, the Department of Veteran's Affairs, and the Pentagon on behalf of the American Soldier.  This is a 600 page tome of the challenges that Secretary Gates faced in attempting to break down the military industrial complex and set in motion the changes in culture to a more agile fighting force that is geared towards caring for our service members.

But in order to understand the gravity of these struggles, we must first understand why Robert Gates was brought in to replace Donald Rumsfeld at the helm of our military and that requires a brief history lesson.  Embedded in this very brief lesson are links to documentaries and other works that I highly recommend interested parties read - and given that America's primary export is military power, I recommend virtually every American develop an interest in military history.

Prior to our engagement in 2003 (and even prior to the attacks of September 11th, 2001), the United Nations were placing harsh economic sanctions on Iraq to deter the advancement of their weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs.  Due to nationalistic tendencies, the Suddam led government abused the oil-for-food programs and traded on the black market enough to continue operating a lavish government while his people suffered.  During this time, religious extremists began grass-roots movements to seize control of the populace - where the Iraqi government was no longer providing for the people, religious extremism would.

Among these religious extremists groups were the Ba'ath party, which had political control of the country since the 1970s and boasted several million members.  Among these members were the political elite and the technocrats and highly skilled laborers that made up the upper crust of Iraq's economy, and as a result of De-Ba'athification, these members were removed from their jobs and prohibited from pursuing employment within the Iraqi government for the remainder of their life.  Among those affected:

  • Medical Professionals
  • The Military
  • Educators
  • Most Civil Servants

Now, as a result of the combined effect of strict economic sanctions the United Nations had pushed people towards affiliation with religious extremists in order to survive - and then removed their ability to pursue legal employment because of said affiliation.  The result would be an economic quagmire that is still not solved to this day, an anti-UN/US sentiment, and a picture-perfect recruitment pitch for the Taliban.

Combine this inability to earn an honest living and provide for your family with the United States military's small and agile force that was incapable of securing valuable cultural centers and the Iraq war can be categorically described as a systematic removal of an entire country's history, future, and current security.  As quickly as a forward operating base would be stood up, it would be abandoned.  The US led NATO forces simply didn't have enough personnel to secure the neighborhoods that they cleared, so every operation just created a vacuum in which the Taliban was happy to fill.

To make matters worse, while the Rumsfeld Doctrine gave us an unbelievable amount of operational agility, we simply lacked the bureaucratic responsiveness to keep up with an evolving war.  A weakness that shifted Iraqi and American confidence away from our potential success in the counter insurgency efforts.  The Pentagon was under heavy pressure from Congress, which as a result of the lobbying of defense contractors, to continuously prepare for tomorrow's war with large, expensive, and useless weapon systems aimed at traditional nation vs nation warfare.

As a result, the war fighter of the Global War on Terrorism was ill equipped and undermanned to handle the challenges of counter insurgency.  So while Donald Rumsfeld's efforts in integrating the services into a cohesive and agile fighting force were an outstanding success, his inability to prepare for and deliver on the long-term strategy of the war led to Robert Gates succeeding him as Secretary of Defense.  His first action:  Surge the number of American troops in Iraq.

While the Iraq war was only part of the Global War on Terror, and the Global War on Terror was only a (significant majority) of Secretary Gates' challenges on assuming the role of Secretary of Defense, this background information should be enough to get you started in understanding the importance of this book.