Small Wars Journal

An America Cramped by Defensiveness

An America Cramped by Defensiveness - A Washington Post Op-Ed by SWJ's editor Peter Munson.

... Since I returned home, a darkness has grown in me as both I and our nation have failed to live up to the sacrifices of these young men and women. I had no expectation of “victory” in Afghanistan or Iraq, whatever that would mean. Nor did I expect some epiphany of strategic insight or remorse from the nation’s brain trust.

I just found that I could not square the negativity, pettiness and paranoia in the discourse of our country’s elders with the nobility and dedication of the men and women I had seen and served with in Afghanistan...


As noted in my comment on Feb 5 at 7:55pm below, I believe that our current malaise stems from the knowledge that -- whether we should wish to lead, wish to be an example for the world, and/or wish to embark on or to continue a crusade -- we presently may not have the necessary wherewithal needed to do so.

This, because in the euphoria of winning the Cold War, we overreacted and took across-the-board risks; risks that did not seem to pay out but that did, instead, cost us (equally across-the-board it would appear) dearly.

In order to extracate ourselves from this dilemma, it would seem that we must do what we have suggested, asked, and/or attempted to compel other nations and peoples to do. This is: to alter and/or give up aspects of one's accustomed and time-honored way of life or expectations.

As in the case of other countries and peoples that we have suggested such transitions to, likewise in the case of our nation also there is little support -- and little "inner go" -- that can be directed at and/or channeled toward the achievement of such difficult and unpopular changes.

Rather what we, like these other nations and peoples, tend to reap in these situations is "defensiveness," "bristling" and, indeed, combat, from any and all parties who are asked to give up things for the nation's greater good.

Thus, as MAJ Munson notes, while the members of our armed forces and their families are willing to cooperate and make sacrifices for the nation's betterment, the other members of our national community would not seem to be so inclined.

Move Forward

Wed, 02/06/2013 - 10:59pm

In reply to by Peter J. Munson

I indirectly gave you two out of 85 lines posted trying to talk sense into you. I give up.

My government check is very small compared to most because I had about 14 years of officer and enlisted time and had less options. I subsequently worked upwards of 80 hours a week for 13 years running my own brick and mortar business so good luck at matching those hours.

I'm more irritated that both Democrats and Republicans are going to cause sequestration to hit thus depriving my extremely hard working wife, who is already underpaid and has had her pay frozen the past three years, to lose one day of pay each week.

Peter J. Munson

Wed, 02/06/2013 - 10:04pm

In reply to by Move Forward

I have served my country for sixteen years honorably. Service. Not putting in my time for a pension. You, sir, have your logic completely crooked because you believe that I should follow in your footsteps and validate your path, perhaps. For example, you try to use me as an example of a "culture across all generations of have-it-all-now without the necessary blood, sweat, and long-term approach of other cultures," stating that I won't "stick it out" for another four years to get my government check. The easy way is to stick it out for another four years. I will end up sweating more and likely working longer to make up that annuity you are so fixated on. And I will do so while contributing quite ably to our economy and completing the honorable task of raising two able and intelligent citizens who will likewise contribute well to our society. So I implore you not to use me as an example of your imagination of a me-first, right-now, I-don't-want-to-work culture. My outlook is longer term than you can understand. I've given my service and am leaving plenty in the coffers for people more fixated on government checks than I. Use it wisely. But please stop condescending me here. Let it go. Speak to the issues, not my personal affairs.

Move Forward

Wed, 02/06/2013 - 8:49pm

In reply to by Vitesse et Puissance

Fox News can be extreme but MSNBC makes me nauseous. CNN splits the difference at times, but admit it, the media is 90% or so liberal. Why? Their correspondents and producers invariably were taught by professors who were 90% liberal.

But thanks for the link. Bacevich is always enjoyable to read and were it not for the tragic death of his son, he too might have different views that would make him a conservative beacon of sanity in a left-leaning world. His points centered on perceived excesses in the following areas that true conservatives should embrace, somewhat like MAJ Munson's thesis:

1) Human excess that damages the environment
2) Excesses of American militarism and unnecessary interventions
3) Excesses in government deficit spending
4) Excesses in single-parent homes and irresponsible adults
5) Excesses in untoward/ill-advised impulses by government leaders that religion should check

Examining each excess leads to a picture of fat and happy, spoiled Americans who don't know how good they have it...even when they are poor and demand more (oh no, my welfare-funded big screen TV is too small and I have too few minutes on my cell phone). It is a culture across all generations of have-it-all-now without the necessary blood, sweat, and long-term approach of other cultures. For instance what if I told you that you could have the equivalent of a $1,350,000 annuity at age 45 if you stuck it out another four years? But you want something different now.

Returning to my theme of the Depression and WWII. How can we lement 9% unemployment compared to the 24% of the Depression? Why the huge government stimulus and deficit spending trying to fix a few percentage points? Why the long-term unemployment checks that stops folks from taking other jobs? Why the emphasis on protecting the rich from tax hikes when Depression and WWII era rich were nowhere near as wealthy on average as today's richest who have seen incomes climb 275% as middle class incomes declined in real value terms?

I recall a small home in Iowa and a family station wagon with holes in the floor so we could see the road. Little pink houses for you and me was the reality of the 50s and 60s. Now, if you don't have 3000 square feet you feel deprived (ours is 1600 ft2 w/ a $100 power bill). The results for left and right coasts are mortgages that force two-or-more income extended families under the same roof (no mortgage here anymore but we still need two incomes and bet your mortgage was not 10.5%), and has home-owners buried and stuck in place so that few Californians can take Gov. Perry's offer. Yet Dr Bacevich feels two incomes should be unnecessary as he sits in Boston with $75K in COL retirement and $250K in likely income as a Professor. He still takes the bus perhaps because his Boston housing cost is sky-high.

Such is the case when you thrust most Americans and their jobs along congested coastal urban areas. The resultant supply and demand pushes mortgages and rents to a level requiring a far higher portion of household income versus 1960 levels. Add safety and electronic gizmos to cars and they too are over-priced relative to average incomes. Evidence? 72 month loans when 36-48 months once was the norm. Add the final whammy of cell phone bills and cable that are through the roof and no wonder Americans need two incomes.

But I digress:

1) U.S. natural gas exported abroad would be cleaner than coal-burning power polluting China resulting in 380 million tons of coal expended versus a world total of 420+ million tons. Zakaria asked Gore as much this past Sunday and was met with baloney about lights over North Dakota that are fires burning the methane he claimed was a by-product of fracking. If it is burning how is it entering the atmosphere? Then he later claimed excess CO2 caused more rain while 30 seconds later pointing to drought in middle America. Jobs await middle America if we open home sources instead of caving into environmentalists who would be happy if we all biked to work and never showered.

2) We rarely knowingly start wars without good reason and Bacevich would have us be isolationists. The problem is that the Middle East remains screwed up and heading for worse without any of our intervention in north Africa, Egypt, Syria, or Iran. When we finally are forced to get involved, things will be worse. Other nations start wars that drag us in. Would war between Japan and China over puny islands force us to honor treaties? How about Israel attacking Iran? Even if we don't start it, we are likely to have to finish in WWII.

3) Deficit spending? Increase taxes on the wealthy. Unlike rich retired COL Bacevich, most of the wealthy don't send their prized offspring off to war. The least they can do is pay the taxes to finance those who will defend the nation. The top tax bracket at the time of Eisenhower's "military-industrial complex" speech was 91% and the military had far more servicemembers at that time.

4) Irresponsible adults? Taking Bacevich's cue bring back the draft or mandatory service for all 18-25 year olds. They can choose military or civil jobs to bring down costs of government and serve their country. Unlikely to happen obviously since the young vote Democrat since they never have had any responsibilities and thus don't understand the harsher reality of the real world that they never were taught by liberal professors who never had a private sector job.

5) Religion can fix it? Isn't that the problem abroad. In the U.S., a few days ago, a report cited virtually no Islamic terror from homegrown sources. We don't see Jews and Muslims fighting here either. Only abroad do the most extreme screw it up for the rest. The Iranian revolutionaries of 1979 to the Arab Springers of today think they will help but only make matters worse and drag us or Israel into conflict.

Optimism or lack thereof is not the problem. The problem is humans, greed, poverty abroad, unwillingness to make tough decisions on use of shorter term force, and well-meaning diplomats who squander opportunities to change colonial borders after invasions to give ethnicities their own home state BEFORE holding elections. Why the insistence on a two-state solution in Israel, yet we would not consider the same or three split-up states in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria as worked out in the old Yugoslavia?

Vitesse et Puissance

Wed, 02/06/2013 - 1:08pm

In reply to by Peter J. Munson

Speaking as one who very strongly opposes many of the changes happening in our nation and our world, I think it would be very convenient to just serve in the field and forget the rest. Once upon a time, that was where my head was at - with full, existential commitment, but not a lot of hope. I came back from a long tour in Germany in the early 80s, feeling that all was lost...and walked off the plane into Ronald Reagan's happy-clappy "Morning in America". This is a moody nation in which we live. MAJ Munson has indeed picked up on the sourness and the insularity of our national consciousness - but I want to go on record as saying those are not just manufactured emotions, they are about something. Admittedly, the mainstream media, and even its right-wing doppelganger, is as manipulative as Pravda. Just filter that stuff out, if you can. I'm sorry that the politics do not stop at the water's edge these days, but that train has left the station. We are broke in many ways, and lack of consensus on foreign and defense policy is just an example of that brokeness.

Bacevich is at it again, this time pushing his own Weltanschauung out on the American Conservative (where else):…

Much as I find agreement as to the diagnosis, I find the cure Bacevich offers worse than the disease. There are only so many ways to spell the word FAIL.

Bill M.

Wed, 02/06/2013 - 1:32am

In reply to by Dayuhan

I agree with your point about the dangers of excessive optimism or pessimism. My point was we can avoid these extremes by pursuing our ends with the right ways and means. It means stop trying to force change upon societies with military force. That is what the communists did. Much can be accomplished effectively with military force, but attempting to misuse the military to force social change will most likely be met with great resistance. When that happens we tread water until we get tired and then withdraw stating "we had the best intentions, not sure where it wrong."


Tue, 02/05/2013 - 11:54pm

In reply to by Bill M.

I didn't mean that to refer to Vietnam specifically, though one might suggest that supporting the French colonial regime was "picking the wrong side", or at least picking the side that was going to lose. At a certain point, roughly coinciding with the later Vietnam period, Americans began looking around the world and seeing their government in bed with the likes of Marcos, Pahlavi, Mobutu, Somoza, Stroessner, Noriega, etc, ad nauseam. This was not a comfortable position for a nation that believed itself to be - and in many cases genuinely wanted to be - a champion of liberty and democracy. It was not a circumstance that enhanced our already damaged confidence.

I'd still maintain that excessive confidence and self-belief and excessive pessimism and reticence are equally damaging, and that we need to spend less time at the extremes of that continuum and more in the middle.

Bill M.

Tue, 02/05/2013 - 11:21pm

In reply to by Dayuhan

I'm not at all convinced we backed the wrong side in Vietnam. There has been so much misleading talk about self-determination that we tend to forget the forced imposition of communism wasn't self-determination. We didn't pick the wrong side in Iraq or Afghanistan (at least not until we facilitated the installing of less than legitimate governments). Where we errored in all cases was trying to use the military to accomplish objectives that could never be achieved militarily.

Unfortunately our collective optimism does fade after we pursue truly nomal goals using the wrong ways and means. I see no reason for our most of our ends to change, they're generally just and righteous. However they lose the smell of righteous when we try to forceably impose them on people instead of helping guide them and most importantly serving as that example by keeping our own house straight (economically, politically, morally).

Take your eyes off Al-Qaeda (we excessively focus on this movement) and look at the broader trends globally since WWII. We aren't doing that bad. Yes there is a lot of bad in the world, but relative to where it was in the 70's for instance we seem to be moving the right direction. The lesson is not to dream or think big, but to pursue those dreams more intelligently.


Tue, 02/05/2013 - 9:00pm

In reply to by Bill C.

We've cycled between excessive optimism and a retreat into excessive pessimism before, no? I'm not even sure the end of the Cold War is the best benchmark. The end of Vietnam saw a deep descent into pessimism, accentuated by the emerging perception that we'd supported the wrong side by backing troglodyte dictators in the name of anti-communism. That perception gradually wore off, partly because the Cold War ended, partly because of the confidence boost from the perceived prosperity of the great 90s economic bubble, partly just because time passed and people forgot that there are limits to what power can accomplish, that unintended consequences abound, and that things can and will go wrong.

To me our problem is not an excess of optimism or an excess of pessimism, but our tendency to cycle between the two extremes, both of which can be crippling.

Bill C.

Tue, 02/05/2013 - 8:55pm

In reply to by Peter J. Munson

From the end of the Cold War -- to the beginning of the financial crisis -- I believe that the United States had a very positive view of itself, and a very optimistic view of its/the future. The United States, indeed, seemed to be overly self-assured.

9/11 did not seem to change this.

Indeed, "hubris," to wit: "arrogance caused by excessive pride," has, I believe, been used to describe America's mindset and the across-the-board risk-taking (military, financial, etc.) that the United States engaged in during this period of euphoria.

These "bets" did not pan out. Now, due to these errors in risk-taking (and the failure of responsible oversight?), it is questioned whether America -- and/or the western world -- has the resources and wherewithal needed to lead, act as an example and/or crusade; today and/or in the future.

This, it would seem, is the reason for our current pessimism, pettiness and defensiveness. We would seem to be very much weaker today (and by our own hand) than we have been in quite a while.

Thus, the question becomes: Will it take something akin to World War II to get us out of our current predicament; the roots of which (as may have been the case following World War I also) are (1) the ill-advised risks that were undertaken in (2) the spirit of excessive (and extremely dangerous) optimism that prevailed following the Cold War?

Peter J. Munson

Mon, 02/04/2013 - 8:57pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C.,
When I spoke of the defense, I was speaking of a broader mindset, not a military task. In my mind a defensive mindset in which everything is a threat can lead to a military offense and overreaction. More than the specific issues of Iraq and Afghanistan, or even terrorism, I see the defensive mindset as one that fears the broader changes going on throughout our world, both foreign and domestic. I argue very briefly in this op-ed and at greater length in the end of my book that we need to have a more positive and self-assured focus on leading and cultivating the bases of our own power rather than defensively striking out at all the threats we see.

This is not meant to be solely a commentary on the military or on our national security policy, but on all aspects of our current outlook. A feeling of change and a sense of pessimism about our future has put us in a defensive posture which makes us fear foreign threats and squabble domestically. It is undermining our ability to lead by example and our credibility and image in the world. I believe we should be trying much more to lead as the exemplar, not the crusader.

The world is changing very quickly and the only way we can deal with it is to lead it, rather than trying to hold it back. So looking back at the WWII example and quote above, I'm speaking of how we dealt with the postwar changes, not with the conduct of the war. We did have our bouts of paranoia and squabbling, but we also led the period of change with a self-assured mindset.

I hope this helps.

"After World War II, the United States sought to create a world of economic interdependence and prosperity, hoping to banish the malaise that helped precipitate a global conflict. The prospect of rapid growth in the developing world was not viewed as a threat but rather offered the promise of robust markets for American goods and ingenuity. We were confident and focused on the positive tasks of expanding our economy rather than fearing change."

Was the use of our military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan not viewed as being both positive and offensive? This, in that the use of our forces in these countries was channeled so as to be consistent with both the spirit and direction of our strategic goal noted above?

Thus, in looking for the reasons for our elders' negativity, pettiness and paranoia, should we look more toward domestic difficulties -- rather than toward problems present by our military endeavors/foreign affairs?

Bill M.

Tue, 02/05/2013 - 11:25pm

In reply to by SWJED

While Peter could make continued contributions if he decides to stay in, I actually admire his courage for stepping away after investing so much to pursue his dreams. If you stay after you lost your passion, or you have a greater passion to pursue other objectives you risk becoming a careerist instead of professional. If we fight for freedom, we should have the courage to live free. Best of luck in all your future endeavors.


Tue, 02/05/2013 - 9:13am

In reply to by Peter J. Munson

As SWJ's Editor-in-Chief, who can't say enough good things about what Peter has done for Small Wars Journal, I too have worried over Peter's decision. That said, he is one of the most talented authors and editors we have met and I'm confident he will be just fine and will shine in whatever endeavor he pursues.

Peter J. Munson

Mon, 02/04/2013 - 9:45pm

In reply to by Move Forward

It is in excess of a million dollars.

I'll be fine. Not living one's life as one truly wants to is the only mistake I'm worried about. I can make up for the rest.

Move Forward

Mon, 02/04/2013 - 9:01pm

In reply to by Ned McDonnell III

<blockquote>This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.</blockquote>

One problem: This line was delivered in the inaugural speech following his 1932 election, so no war was in sight yet and the speech was about the economy. Obviously, there was very much to fear beyond fear itself in the later years...ask all of Europe, the Soviet Union, North Africa, all of east Asia, Hawaii, and forget not the Jews.

Second, according to Mr. Lebergott in a Wikipedia graph about FDR, unemployment was as follows:

1933: 24.9%
1937: 14.3%
1938: 19.0%
1940: 14.6%
1941: 9.9%
1944: 1.2%

It seems pretty clear that while his New Deal government stimulus made some headway, it was not until WWII that the US economy took off and unemployment disappeared. Again, not the way you want to fix the economy...but clearly some redeeming value while simultaneously saving yourself and friends from a horrible existential threat that killed many millions. The nation "only endured/revived/prospered" because it was forced to fight, and initially was very poorly equipped to do so. That same trend happened again in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s in a cycle of procurement holiday followed by unpreparedness and surprise war...just like Ground Hog Day.

Could not happen today you say? Nuclear war with a near-peer, probably not, which makes the Pacific pivot such a puzzle and the whole idea of going after underground tunneled nukes in the interior of China...just stupid. On the other hand ample zealots and rogue states exist and the more you disperse and proliferate WMD to preclude bombing or be part of the club, the more likely an accident or rogue leader/terrorist could seize some those weapons and use them in a suicidal manner for themselves and their people.

Since you are a CFA, please estimate how large an annuity you would require to save up for to generate well over $50,000 in annual income for a retired Lt Col who is likely to survive another 40 years. He also would be making in excess of $125,000 annually if he remained in the Marines as a pilot. Not my business, and the Marines should offer a 15 year retirement to him or Voluntary Separation Incentive (he also is not eligible for), but this would be one of the biggest mistakes of his life...and the Marines need this guy!

Ned McDonnell III

Sun, 02/03/2013 - 1:15pm

Here is what I said to introduce your elegant prose when I posted your article on my F.B. page: "I wish everyone in the United States would read this article. It brings back to life President Roosevelt's great line, 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself.'"

Vitesse et Puissance

Wed, 02/06/2013 - 1:16pm

In reply to by Peter J. Munson

Just a piece of advice. Don't trust the "nation-building at home" rhetoric. Them is just words, and no one in this country is as needy as billions around the world who are hungry, cannot read, have no real prospect of blooming where they were planted, and are exploited and oppressed by the local thugs in power. If you want to walk away from that scene, okay fine - America hasn't exactly been grateful to those who try to make a difference overseas. But don't delude yourself that there is any great virtue in those big government pork projects that have taken up so much of our national priorities. No one talks about Appalachia anymore, except when it comes to putting the coal industry out of business.

Peter J. Munson

Sat, 02/02/2013 - 11:48pm

In reply to by Move Forward

Move Forward,
That sentence has been one of the key focuses of criticism. I probably could have stated it differently, but the point was that a military by itself is not a producer in an economic sense. Your counterpoints are taken, but in each case, the only reason that the war had such results was because the military effort was coupled with a vibrant national economic effort. Others, please don't try to draw any inferences that I'm arguing for the militarization of the economy. We're talking about apples and oranges between the WWII situation and now But I see your point and would counter that it still wasn't "the military" that produced these things. At least not in isolation.

As for your observation on my lack of judgment, there are a whole host of reasons that it is time for me to move on, the most important of which that my family and I are ready to settle down in one area and see the kids through the rest of their school years without any more moving or separations. My finances are my finances, but I'm confident that I can serve to add value to the nation in other ways and make a living that won't see me in penury in my old age. As for making a difference, yes as a LtCol I could affect more, perhaps make things better at a very local level as a squadron commander, but solving the problems in a grander sense... I've seen far more senior officers say that they can't solve these problems. Staying around to solve problems is largely a delusion. I want to enjoy my life and my family. And there are other problems out there to solve anyway. Everyone has his own path and deciding to leave the military is no failure or sign of insanity. I've just decided not to continue down a path just because others expect that I should.

Finally, I'm not arguing that our defense spending is crowding out broader economic success. The fact that all we can agree on is that the troops are great is the flip side of our problem: we can't agree on anything else, we don't have the collective motivation to work at remaining the great power we are, and we are forgetting the need to continually tend the bases of power of our nation. It isn't that the civil sector is great and the defense sector is bad. It is that everything--defense and all else--depend on the vitality of the economy and the economy rests on public goods like education, infrastructure, etc. If we don't tend to these things, then ultimately there will be nothing worth defending.

Move Forward

Sat, 02/02/2013 - 10:41pm

<blockquote>A nation cannot survive on defense alone. Militaries and wars produce nothing. They only consume — time, lives, resources and hope.</blockquote>

I'm not a historian, but would venture to offer that WWII produced several things: 1) a more industrial America that emerged from a depression as a manufacturing powerhouse, 2) nuclear power that has assisted in clean energy and deterrence of other major wars, 3) the greatest generation tested and honed in battle, and subsequently educated via the GI Bill.

If (and since) I am a smart ass, I might also offer that far more time, lives, resources, and hope would have been lost had WWII turned out differently. Instead, because it did turn out well for us, and MacArthur's and Marshall's plan helped rebuild our former enemies, the 3rd and 4th largest economic powers in the world are now our friends and trading partners.

Generally, you make lots of sense, however occasionally you display a contrarian streak and lack of judgment that is troubling. Exhibit A, leaving the Marine Corps just when you approach a rank that could help solve many problems you note...simultaneously depriving you and your family of needed income to educate your kids and live out your elder years. Exhibit B, is overconfidence that the civil sector, infrastructure, and education can create this bold new America...and is the greener grass just barely out of reach because we spend 4% of GDP on defense.

Europe has all kinds of non-defense social, educational, and infrastructure programs and the high taxes to pay for them with much less real estate to build on bringing down costs. How is that working out for them? Since when are state and local funded domestic programs the purview of the federal government? Perhaps when their union employees and primary beneficiaries vote Democrat?

Madhu (not verified)

Sat, 02/02/2013 - 5:23pm

<blockquote>Collectively, we have lost that positivity — what historian Louis Mumford called an “inner go.” Mumford was referring to the Romans, who in their decline focused only on security and stability, losing the vitality to embrace change and take risks. In our increasingly paranoiac discourse, we too have lost focus on the positive, creative tasks that continuously remake American power, resilience and vitality.</blockquote> - from linked article

I wonder about this too. Is it real, the loss of positivity, is it a phase, is it cyclical, does it relate to an aging population or simply to the aging of a nation full-stop?

<blockquote>The U.S. birth rate dipped in 2011 to the lowest ever recorded, led by a plunge in births to immigrant women since the onset of the Great Recession.</blockquote>…

What is the nature and quality of vitality in a society and how does it relate to positivity?

What an insightful article with its focus on building and creation, of valuing that which is truly valuable!

I think the fear goes beyond the shattering of safe feeling post 9-11, I think it relates to many trends within our society.

1. An aging population worried about its future.

2. 9-11 (as mentioned) as a shattering of safe feeling rooted in our previous geographic isolation.

3. Uneven societal benefits and inequality within the post-world War II economic order (as you so nicely put in your new book, it is excellent). The 2008 crash looms large in memory as people think about investing in institutions.

4. High profile violent criminal acts magnified through the lens of social media even as overall day-to-day crime decreases. Within the larger population, fewer crimes more randomly distributed may be creating the same psychological effects that have typically taken place in high-crime urban areas.

5.The increase in loneliness or atomization within society (again, themes you've mentioned).

<blockquote>Over the past two decades, questions about loneliness—how it evolved, how it works, how to fight it—have increasingly consumed Cacioppo. His immersion has reached the point, he says, where it “makes me a little bit embarrassed.” He never thought his research focus would be so singular. The founding director of the University’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, and a founder of social neuroscience itself, Cacioppo had written in the past about a range of subjects: attitudes and persuasion, communication and social cognition, emotion, and cardiovascular psychophysiology. “I don’t study things for this long,” he says. “I tend to follow Fermi in the sense of, you study something for ten years, and at the end of ten years your contributions are so small that it’s time to do something else.” But loneliness is a deep well, and he’s fishing for the bottom. “This just continues to change how I think about us as a species.</blockquote>

Working in a variety of hospitals, I was clued into the whole loneliness thing pretty early. As a medical resident, I'd watch as an autopsy would be held up because the hospital morgue had unclaimed bodies in it, no one to take home the body.

In American domestic partisan terms, the right focuses on the decline of the family and the left on the decline of a kind of communitarianism but both seem to meet on common ground with regard to atomization or loneliness in modern societies. Nothing East or West about this, a global trend?…

I don't know. Risk-taking and security--physical and emotional--are weirdly related.

Good Wapo article.

Ned McDonnell III

Sun, 02/03/2013 - 2:07pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill, interesting comments. Yes I am guilty of what that joke-post flying around F.B. says about "stupid sh*t that civilians say". Part of that hero-worship, if that is what I am doing, comes from feeling guilty for not serving in the 1970s. I read "Dispatches" thirty years ago; that was a great book.

Even then, in my more liberal days, I felt much of the culpability lay with civilian leaders for putting young people in impossible situations for uncompelling reasons. In Viet Nam, this culpability was acute since so many of those young men did not want to be there and had been drafted.

The impulse for me is that those people I saw in Iraq and Afghanistan who cared seemed to be overwhelmingly from the Army or Marines. In that respect, more British than Americans spoke out of conscience when they rubbed up against ugly things like torture.

Now, there were three things I should keep in mind. 1st, I tended to see people away from the fighting. 2nd, most of the American soldiers I got to know were activated National Guard. 3rd, they were soldiers in an all-volunteer Army. So my frame-of-reference is skewed.

Perhaps, one reason why the skew has occurred is that there really are enough honorable people in the military to permit it, combined with my tendency to seek out the best in others. Finally, I detect an attitude (often unspoken) among many co-workers when these soldiers go through hell: they signed up for it, what did they expect?

To me at least, that statement is borderline immoral. That these people are volunteers who receive many benefits does not relegate them to the status of hired help to clean up the mess made by policy-makers. About that, I am adamant and so I rush to the defense of the troops when, perhaps, I do not need to.

That said, years ago and at the end of a difficult tour with a lot of pretty-much literal kids in the figurative sand-box throwing sand into each other's eyes, I told the Embassy medical head in an exit interview, "Places like Iraq bring out the best in us and the worst in us." He seemed to agree.

Thanks for the frank comments, Bill; they make me think.

P.S., I still view the opening comment to be impolite. Funny how the most critical remarks seem to come from those lobbing disparagements from afar, behind the safety of a pseudonym.

Bill M.

Sun, 02/03/2013 - 1:48pm

In reply to by Ned McDonnell III

Comment was intended to be constructive, but could have easily come across as unconstructive if you didn't participate in a previous discussion tied to this. I think that conversation was tied to another article by Peter. Key points:

Not everyone in the military that deploys to war is a hero, the majority are not. Heros are exceptional and doing your duty doesn't make you a hero, but it does make you honorable.

We all have selective memories, but the sad reality is we would be lucky if 50% of our force was as humanitarian as implied in this article and your comments. There has been a lot of ugly events commited by our forces that don't see the light of day. The behavior of most militaries fighting in a war, especially an extended one, is influenced by our need to demonize the enemy, and when we're involved in irregular warfare that all too often means demonizing the people. I'm 98% of the way through "Dispatchs" by Michael Herr, which is one reporter's perception of the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. Unfortunately the complete disregard he frequently cites (almost on every page) that our forces had for the Vietnamese and how fun it was for some individuals (especially aviators) to kill civilians they thought may be Viet Cong is very similiar to the comments I heard throughout Iraq by a significant percentage of the force. War changes people, it changes some people for the better, those the are the people you and Peter point out, but it doesn't accurately reflect the whole. There are a lot of people it changes for the worse, or perhaps more accurately they're allowed to express who they really are.

That shouldn't distract from the respect we should have for our fallen, which I believe most people have. My concern is if we overly worship the military we'll base strategic positions on emotion instead of rational thinking. The tradegy already happened, we lost a lot of good men and women pursuing unrealistic ends laid out by an administration that had no grasp on reality. Do we continue with the same course based on emotional ties, or do we rationally reassess what the way forward should be? There isn't a simple answer to this. The reality is we need to address both the rational and emotional. I doubt there are any good options, but simply some options that are better than others.

I think Peter is absolutely correct that our political body doesn't come close to representing the honor we have in our military. Neither do a lot of civilian government agencies as you pointed out. We fully anticipate to see decisions made in the name of political expediency, but of course with a spin that will imply something else. It is deeply disappointing.

If sounds like I'm all over the map on this I am. Those in uniform will keep driving on despite the ineptness of our political leaders because they're duty bound to do so, which is where our code of honor comes into play. Doesn't mean we don't have our own thoughts on the topic, but we're obligated to put those to the side.

Ned McDonnell III

Sun, 02/03/2013 - 2:24am

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

Thank you, Bill M. and Madhu. Your comments were interesting and timely after a rude and unconstructive opening comment. I really hope everyone in our country reads this article by MAJ Munson. MAJ Munson, thank you for your service to my country. The children in that classroom are waiting for their classmate's good dad. Madhu, I am all set to read that article on loneliness as I sit home alone, on a Saturday night, listening to Senator Hagel's hearing on becoming SecDef!

Madhu (not verified)

Sat, 02/02/2013 - 6:09pm

In reply to by Bill M.

I agree that President Reagan had many good policies but the psychological desires and needs within our Afghan adventure during the 80's--bleeding the Soviets <em>as they had bled us in Vietnam</em>--always puzzled me. It got so much bigger than it needed to be in terms of pure utility with regard to our anti-Soviet policy. But I was just a teen in the 80's and I never could understand all the underground stuff or Iran-Contra. I liked the positive feelings of the 80's after the 70's, it felt real, it felt like we had turned a corner, even as a kid I felt that way.

It's just that, looking back, did it need to be so vigorous foreign-policy wise to be effective? We are paying for some of that vigor today.

Putting the self love aside for the military for a moment, the article touches on important points that couldn't be discussed rationally for many years after 9/11. Our nation seemed to collectively lose its mind and its way after the tragic attacks on 9/11, and not without reason, but wise senior leaders should have channeled that rage and energy to more productive courses of action. Almost all championed the the initial military actions against Al Qaeda, but what happened afterwards based on our defensive strategy (or the 1% doctrine) has tainted our view of the world. The military learned after Vietnam that there is only so much that can be accomplished with military force, yet the Powell Doctrine was dismissed by the politicians after 9/11. President Reagan made progress was focusing what made America great, after 9/11 we had a foreign and domestic policy based on fear. If anyone challenged it they were labeled weak on the war on terror. It became America against the world, and unfortunately those divisive politics are incredibly powerful on the domestic front also. There are bad things happening in the world, that isn't new, but overall the general trend is positive and our policies prior to 9/11 had much to do with that. As we look forward we should consider that.