From a good article the other day about retired Army Col. Eric Welsh by Mark Davis of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
Welsh recalls July 2, 2007. His Humvee was rolling along a road in Mosul when he heard a boom, felt the vehicle shake as if the ground was about to swallow it. The force of the blast knocked him out. When he came to, Welsh, shrugging off his latest concussion, returned to his troops. A physician stopped him. How many blasts does this make? the doctor asked. Welsh thought. "I don't know," he replied.
By Rebecca Frankel
Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent
There were a lot of great canine-soldier photos and stories that popped up on Monday's wire. But this one stood out. As Tom might say, it's one of those times when the photo stands on its own:
A dog snuggles up to a woman with a prosthetic leg while waiting to march in the Veteran's Day Parade on Nov. 11, in New York City. The parade included members of all four branches of service, as well as members of the FDNY, NYPD and veterans from all major conflicts that the United States has been involved with since World War Two.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images
By Jim Gourley
Best Defense columnist
America spent Monday celebrating Veterans's Day. In recent years, journalists and military observers (Mr. Ricks among them) have remarked on the difference between how Americans remember the occasion in comparison to Europeans and our Canadian neighbors, and the relative merits of each approach. For every football halftime show that lauds our nation's heroes with girls in star-spangled hot pants, there's an op-ed saying we shouldn't do that. Whichever side of the fence people fall on, they have something in common with their opposites -- they both feel that we should be doing something to support our military.
"Doing something" is quite a dilemma for a country that is at once so acutely aware of, yet so physically removed from, its veterans. Over the last 10 years, Americans have gone with that convenient go-to mechanism of philanthropy. They give money.
Veterans' charities are most helpful in their effort to focus logistics. They perform good works by bringing qualified help and money to the people in need. But as recent American conflicts heightened, even the burgeoning size and population of non-profits wasn't sufficient to deal with the legions of veteran issues. From suicide to schooling, the issues of reintegrating America's veterans became a domestic equivalent to the war on terror's game of whack-a-mole. The emergence of groups like Student Veterans of America and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America showed non-profits a new approach by appealing directly to the government to retool its existent, outdated care systems. Lobbying among veterans' non-profits increased. Today, non-profits that solicit donations from people to help veterans are sending significant amounts of money to Capitol Hill and the White House.
The numbers vary, and the biggest spenders are not always household names. Paralyzed Veterans of America spent $250,000 on lobbying last year, compared to just $200,000 from the Wounded Warrior Project. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America also outspent WWP with $230,000 poured into political efforts. AMVETS led all veteran organizations with $260,000, down from $590,000 in 2011. While these sums pale in comparison to the $50.4 million spent on lobbying by the defense aerospace industry in 2012, it's remarkable that these 501(c)(3) groups each spent enough money to crack into the top 15 on the list of corporate lobbyists. Even the USO spent $400,000 between 2011 and 2013 on lobbying. While most of these groups are open about their broad policy goals, it's a little more difficult to find which specific items of legislation they support or oppose, and to what extent they try to influence the process.
Some of the initiatives these lobbying dollars fund may raise eyebrows among donors. The AMVETS legislative page declares that the organization "has been a leader since 1944 in helping to preserve the freedoms secured by the Armed Forces of the United States of America. Today, our organization continues its proud tradition, providing not only support for veterans and active military service members in receiving their earned entitlements but also countless numbers of community services which enhance the quality of life for this Nation's citizens." Among its own 2014 resolutions, it adopted an official stance to continue support for Taiwan, advocacy for a bill protecting the U.S. flag from desecration, and to press the U.S. government for a postage stamp recognizing AMVETS as an official veterans' service organization.
The money trail runs in both directions. Few bills received as much veterans' group lobbying support as H.R. 2433, the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011. It passed both houses unanimously (raising the question of how much lobbyist support was necessary), providing employers with tax credits for hiring veterans. No large corporation has latched onto this initiative as much as Wal-Mart. Not everyone thinks this is what the deal was supposed to accomplish. In addition to the wage debate, there's the matter of how donations contributed to the situation. It could be argued that people gave money to charitable organizations, which then used it to gain access to politicians so they could secure passage of a bill that will put veterans in minimum-wage jobs, so big companies can get tax breaks.
The consequences of this involvement go beyond questions about whether the money is hitting the donors' intended targets. Politics leads to sticky political issues. The VFW spent nearly $250,000 on lobbying annually prior to 2001. It recently stood up a parallel political action committee to support its legislative aims. That experiment ended abruptly in 2010 after the PAC's board angered members with controversial endorsements of congressional candidates. As reported by Stars and Stripes last week, former Executive Director of Student Veterans of America Mike Dakduk now works in the employ of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities -- which arguably works on behalf of SVA's primary antagonists.
Analyses by the Center for Responsive Politics suggest that lobbying expenditures by non-profit veteran groups are falling coincident with those of the defense industry. It is likely that, as the United States retracts from its present conflicts, the need to care for veterans will recede in line with that for new military equipment. Certainly, the noise about it has already abated. The box has been opened, though. More than ever, non-profits see government lobbying as a major instrument to achieve their objectives. This is a remarkable turn of philosophy, as the basic premise of non-profit organizations is to achieve goals outside of governmental means. In coming years, it will be interesting to see what percentage of donor contributions are directed toward lobbying, and what specific initiatives veterans' organizations choose to endorse.
Jim Gourley is an author, journalist, and former military intelligence officer.
In my interviews, however, many senior military leaders complained of feeling baffled and shut out by a White House National Security Staff that, in their view, combines an insistence on micromanaging minor issues with a near-total inability to articulate coherent strategic goals. "The NSS wants to run the show, day to day and minute to minute," laments a former military official, "so they have no time -- they're almost incapable of strategic thinking."
.... There was the White House staffer who called me up and asked me to have CENTCOM move a U.S. drone to Kyrgyzstan, for instance, in an effort to track an alarming outbreak of ethnic violence. When I told him why I couldn't -- the chain of command just doesn't work that way, and in any case no formal planning or risk assessments had taken place -- he quickly grew exasperated.
"You guys" -- the Pentagon -- "are always stonewalling us on everything. I'm calling you from the White House. The president wants to prevent genocide in Kyrgyzstan. Whatever happened to civilian control of the military?"
"You," I had to tell him, "are the wrong civilian."
As if to emphasize the culture clash, after episodes like this one, the response from some of my Obama administration colleagues in the White House was bitter: Had I "gone over to the other side?" one asked.
Tom again: That certainly rings true to me. There is a tendency in many of Obama's officials, I think, to see the military as a political interest group, and to treat honest dissent as a form of disloyalty -- not recognizing that top generals are required to give their personal views when asked to do so by Congress. Slapping down generals for honesty was a deleterious tendency of Lyndon Johnson.
(Among the potential conflicts of interest in this item: I am working with Rosa on a project at the New America Foundation, and she used to date a good friend of mine. Plus Susan Glasser, the editor of Politico Magazine, used to be my boss at Foreign Policy magazine, and before that at the Washington Post. I am sure I will think of more. Oh yeah, Rosa also has a weekly column in Foreign Policy. Also, I talked to her about this article when she was writing it.)
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
In my mind, Snowden did a great public service to our country. If he hadn't blown the whistle, the gargantuan IC bureaucracy would have inexorably grown even bigger and more powerful -- and neither Congress, the media, the judiciary, or our political leaders would have known enough to effectively provide oversight and direction. And of course, the public would have known nothing at all. Clearly the NSA in this case was on track to becoming a runaway agency. The question we should ask is: before Snowden, what mechanism or process was there to objectively calibrate the balance between the need for surveillance and the privacy rights of citizens? And after Snowden, were there substantive reforms and improvements made as a result of the disclosures? And let's not be too naive about the IC's claims that the disclosures were so damaging. The scope of NSA's activities surely was already known to or anticipated by any foreign intelligence agency worth its salt, and they would have taken the necessary precautionary measures. The greatest damage probably was the embarrassment to the US.
Of course, I think Snowden needs to pay a penalty for breaking the law, just as the civil rights demonstrators in the 1960's expected jail as the price of civil disobedience. But the law is not supposed to be a blunt instrument. That's why judges can impose a sentence, and then suspend all or part of it. Or a person can be convicted, and then be paroled or pardoned. Or (and this one does bother me) the draft dodgers who fled to Canada or Sweden to avoid the lawful call of their country could be pardoned and allowed to return to the country that they rejected. So the Justice Department should negotiate a plea bargain with Snowden, and let him pay the reasonable (not a .22 bullet in the brain) penalty imposed. And let the country move on to really get a handle on the Surveillance State that we have and stop trying to shoot the messenger.
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By "N. Airman"
Best Defense guest columnist
1. IT'S ALL ABOUT PAGE COUNTS. The Air Force's answer to being accused of running a program that wasn't rigorous is to measure everything by page counts -- written and read -- especially as the number of pages relates to the school maintaining civilian accreditation for its mandatory master's degree program. Unlike AWC classes of the past, where "it's only a lot of reading if you actually do it," we're compelled to read the ~150 pages every night. Instructors quiz their seminars to ensure people are reading ("Bill, what was Mr. Mearsheimer's thesis in last night's article?"). That said, however, no one expects us to understand or apply what we read. The seminars are still mutual reinforcement sessions. It doesn't matter what you learn as long as you can convince the instructor you read and then participated in seminar with whatever unsophisticated thought you wanted to spew. I've described this to some using a Vietnam body count analogy: More pages must mean we're good. As a result, I read a lot and that's it. I'm never asked to synthesize it. Nor am I given time to reflect upon the reading and come up with questions or original thoughts. Just move to the next 150 pages, please.
2. EVERYONE'S A STRATEGIST. The Air Force doesn't have a career field that educates and grooms strategic thinkers. Instead, AWC students are constantly told that we'll leave here with a "degree in strategy" that will allow us to drop into any senior command structure and give sophisticated military advice to our civilian leaders. Everyone here receives the same watered-down strategy training (not education), under constant reminder that any of us could be "the guy" who plans the next big thing. Now, I consider myself a smart guy, but for the nation's sake, I'd better not be the officer who gives senior civilian leaders strategic advice next year. I don't have the education or background to do that. And 11 months of reading and writing X and Y number of pages won't remedy that.
3. IT'S CONFUSED. The Air Force touts its program as a serious graduate program, because ... it says it is and it got someone to accredit it. However, the Air Force doesn't want to treat its students like either graduate students or senior leaders. Instead, we get a weird mix of military training, company-grade accountability techniques, and the 8th grade. We have a student council that debates such issues as trash pickup and snack bars. We're compelled to participate in "duel of the schools" events against the Command and Staff College. Of course, you can't compete successfully without practicing, so practice sessions are laced into the duty day. Imagine the taxpayer response to my being paid really well to attend AWC poker team practice. Again, this isn't extracurricular activity. This is mandatory, middle-of-the-day stuff. Back in the classroom, the "leadership" course merely rehashed the same material we got in our company-grade leadership school (with a brief discussion of senior officers caught with their pants down thrown in). The Air Force can't decide what it wants this place to be: graduate school, senior officer education, PME, SOS part 2? It tries to be all at once, and doesn't do any one of them well.
4. IT'S SOMEONE ELSE'S FAULT. So far, we've learned that General McChrystal did nothing wrong; Rolling Stone screwed him. Two senior officers who were relieved in the wake of the loss of control of nuclear bombs spoke to us. They did nothing wrong; the nation just didn't tell them nukes were still important. The generals who provided advice going into Iraq and Afghanistan did nothing wrong; they just did what their civilian masters told them to do. I see a trend here! What could be a great opportunity to dissect and discuss the decisions senior leaders make, where they failed, and where the institution failed them, became instead comfortable finger-pointing.
5. IT'S JUST NOT IMPORTANT. We're constantly reminded by the leaders here that this year, above all, needs to be a time for us to relax and reconnect with our families. Instructors add that rigorous education and "break year" are incompatible concepts. Therefore, instructors make it clear to us that if we wish to "kill ourselves" and do the work, they'll be happy to support us. Otherwise, they recommend we just "take the B." Why are we here, then?
"N. Airman" is a two-decade active-duty Air Force officer with a broad operational background and experience. He is currently a student at the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base, unless they figure out who he is. (Tom said that, not him.)
So asks my smart friend, Navy Capt. Henry Hendrix. It makes sense the amount of damage caused by storms is increasing (though not necessarily their frequency or intensity). He wrote this in an email exchange Tuesday that I am quoting, of course, with his permission:
I have been suggesting for about five years now that we ask the Philippines to allow us to dock a hospital ship there with her non-medical caretaker crew. This would allow the ship to cut its response time to the disasters that predominate in the region. The medical crew could be flown out and the caretaker crew could ensure that the ship would not be trapped in port when a storm hits. I also think that we should suggest basing a squadron of unarmed JHSVs there to aide with intra-theater logistical lift. I think we could get the Philippine government to agree to both of these suggestions and would create the core of an influence squadron there in the P.I.
That seems excessive, even for the thuggish NoKo monarchy. The report seems a bit thinly sourced, but if it were true I would not be surprised.
I wonder if there is a good study of death penalties by society and crime -- that is, what kinds of societies deemed what offenses to require the death penalty?
In considering that, one thing to keep in mind is that death is not the ultimate penalty. Even worse is penalizing an entire extended family, village, tribe, or sect. That sort of collective punishment has happened surprisingly often, from ancient China to modern Syria.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.