The Best Defense

Iraq, the unraveling (Part LXVII): The difference between Sen. McCain and me

Sen. John McCain said yesterday on Face the Nation that:

Iraq is unraveling. It's unraveling because we didn't keep a residual force there because the president of the United States pledged to get out of Iraq. And we could have kept a residual force there and kept some stability. Instead, it's unraveling, and Iran's influence is increasing, and there's every possibility you could see a very chaotic situation there.… The vice president of Iraq is now hiding out in Irbil. There is militias and death squads operating. There is a breakdown in the Iraqi government, and there will be increased tensions on the border between the Kurdish areas and Iraq.

The difference between me and Sen. McCain is that I think it is possible that the unraveling was inevitable, from the moment the U.S. military entered Iraq in the spring of 2003. We untied the knot that was Iraq.

I admit it: When I was writing The Gamble I thought for a while that such a residual force was the way to go. But with the passage of the years since then I increasingly have come to believe that the Iraqis were simply sitting around keeping their powder dry and waiting for Uncle Sam to get out of the way, so they could sort themselves out. Remember, the surge was half a war ago -- it began five years ago, in January 2007. Iraq was given a lot of time. I do not see what keeping 15,000 troops there for another year or two would do that it did not do in 2009 or 2010. Plus, President Obama was not elected to keep us in Iraq; he was elected, in part, to get us out. So it would be pretty hard to keep troops there without a clear indication that it would do any good. Especially since Iraqis seemed to want us out.

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

The Best Defense

Discussing the battle against veteran suicides: Harrell and Berglass respond

By Margaret C. Harrell and Nancy Berglass
Best Defense guest respondents

The blogosphere discussion regarding our policy brief, Losing the Battle, has been rich and provocative. Of the criticisms sent our way, there are some with which we disagree, some with which we concur, and some about which we have little evidence but take interest. One among the latter is the assertion that were the VA to incentivize healing and not reduce or eliminate veteran benefits when patients improve, more veterans would heal from wounds both physical and invisible, and fewer would reach levels of desperation deep enough to lead to suicide. We know of no empirical data to support that idea, but it's a compelling hypothesis that is gaining traction in policy circles and merits serious investigation.

There are also a few criticisms that, we assert, are misguided in elemental ways. Two concerns have been voiced to which we take particular exception, but that we also think raise the opportunity for some clarity in this discussion.

First is the assertion that our work puts the burden of solving military and veteran suicide solely on the shoulders of government agencies. We see how the writer may have perceived this to be the case. However, the truth is that Center for a New American Security's (CNAS) role as a research partner to the White House's Joining Forces initiative -- under which Losing the Battle was written -- was largely seeded by co-author Nancy Berglass's influential policy brief America's Duty. The premise of America's Duty is that civilian stakeholders, and specifically community-based organizations, are critical to "winning the battle." With all due respect to the blogger, CNAS has played and continues to play a leadership role not only in framing the discussion about the role of community players in the veterans space, but in defining best practices for such involvement. Not only do we understand and appreciate the role of communities in reintegrating veterans, but the Joining Forces initiative under which the suicide brief was authored is based on the very fundamental assumption that federal agencies and communities alike must "join forces" in order that our communities, including service members, veterans, families, remain well.

That said, we believe that while communities have a central role to play in the reintegration of veterans, DOD and VA do bear primary responsibility for the wellness of their charges; underresourced community organizations cannot be effective in addressing the entirety of the problem. We agree that it is a moral imperative that the 99 percent who have not been to war should care for the 1 percent who protect our nation. However, moral imperatives do not play well in the face of reality and constrained resources; and neither DOD nor VA has invested meaningfully in helping resource community organizations so that they can do their share to meet this "moral obligation."

Second, we'd like to address the assertion that our only motivation for writing the piece was "to ensure that men and women would keep enlisting." The notion is an unfortunate misinterpretation; both authors have dedicated significant aspects of their careers (and personal lives) toward understanding and -- where possible and appropriate -- developing actionable solutions that emphasize and proactively address the human concerns of war. The writer of that comment, however, hit upon something we do think worthy of further exploration. How does a think tank dedicated specifically to examining issues from a national security perspective contribute to discussions about the human experience of war? A decade of unprecedented warfare has taken an intense toll on our families, friends, and communities, but CNAS, the platform from which we produce our work, is a national security think tank. Our job is to view the issues through that particular lens. Our primary audience includes leaders who change our nation's course, and they are largely concerned with costs and benefits. Unlike advocacy organizations -- whose missions allow for more impassioned and morally based arguments -- CNAS elicits positive results through research and analyses that are in greatest part informed by data and interpreted via the political reality of the cost-benefit equation. Thus, the best approach to policy change is rarely a focus on the personal, even if those stories are tragic and personally meaningful. That it is our job to discuss these issues in the context of how they affect our nation's security does not mean we do not care about the human aspect. But our primary goal is to elicit change. To be effective, we must know our audience. In that sense, Losing the Battle was meant to raise discussion of how we address a serious human condition of war, in light of the far more material emphasis on the allocation of resources in tough times. This paper was developed to give DOD and VA actionable recommendations to reduce suicide among their constituents -- and it did just that.

Our policy brief had four stated objectives: to examine the phenomenon of suicide within the U.S. military community, including both frequency and relatedness to service; to outline steps taken by the DOD, the armed services, and the VA to reduce suicide; to identify obstacles to reducing suicides further (we never asserted, as several bloggers seemed to think we should have, that we had all the answers); and to make recommendations to address those obstacles. We think we did those four things well. To those who criticize this framework as faulty for not offering "solutions," we counter that were the issue that simple, we would have. But look at the blog posts so far; how actionable and constructive are recommendations like "treat veterans like people" or "Do not equate playing high school football or other sports with the camaraderie of military service"? The recommendations we've made are not framed as complete solutions to the suicide problem, but they are actionable measures that can mitigate it.

To all of those who have commented, we are grateful for the discussion; fostering dialogue about the issues that affect service members, veterans, and military families is a core objective of the Joining Forces initiative under which the paper was developed. As a nation, we are unlikely to reach consensus about many of the tough issues pertaining to war, but such open discussion about them is critical to strengthening the role of civilian actors as stakeholders in veterans' wellness.

Margaret C. Harrell is a senior fellow and the director of the Joining Forces initiative at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Nancy Berglass is a nonresident senior fellow at CNAS, the director of the Iraq Afghanistan Deployment Impact Fund (IADIF) of the California Community Foundation, and the principal of Berglass Community Investment Consulting.

CNAS