Can the US military recover its reputation?

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Is the U.S. military’s reputation in free fall? It sure looks that way.

The Ronald Reagan Institute just announced that public confidence in the military has continued its precipitous drop. The institute’s November 2021 poll found that only 45 percent of those polled report “a great deal of trust and confidence in the military” — down 25 points in three years. The institute adds “Increasing numbers of Americans say they have little or not much confidence in the military, which is up 15 points in the last three years.”

The military isn’t the only public institution suffering a bad reputation, but it is used to basking in public esteem. As a result, it may not know how to recover.

The slide from the February 2021 poll – where the military was at 56 percent – may have been exacerbated by the actions of military leaders in the wake of the violent demonstration at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Though some Americans feel military leaders stopped a coup by Donald Trump, the actions of General Mark “We’re the guys with the guns” Milley likely repelled many Americans who though he sounded like a Turkish generalissimo.

It was likely the chaotic retreat from Kabul in August — the first time the American people witnessed a defeat in real-time — that pushed the poll numbers lower. Added to that were the deaths of 13 service members killed by a suicide bomber at the gate of Kabul’s airport as they worked to speed the humanitarian evacuation. Of the 13, 12 were in their 20s, and all were volunteers.

How can the military recover?

The worst way would be to fight another war.

The Pentagon may think like the coach of the Navy football team who, if he has a bad season, will get some slack if he still manages to beat Army. Their judgement in these matters is poor, so what missions will both protect America and raise them in the eyes of their countrymen?

America’s military leaders may be unreconciled by the ending of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, which wasn’t marked by an epic armored battle à la Kursk, but by Soviet citizens  deciding it was over because the Soviet economy couldn’t deliver a decent standard of living. The brass missed the Big Game and may think that a scrap with Russia in eastern Ukraine might redeem their sagging reps, forgetting that those Russians will be fighting with their backs to their border.

Unique in the world’s militaries, the Pentagon doesn’t think it is responsible for defending its country’s borders. Instead of defending America, it defends American interests, which are not viewed overseas as positively as they are in Massachusetts Avenue think tanks and in television green rooms. 

The to-do list for the brass might be:

  1. Start a conversation about how the military can help defend the country’s borders. In the U.S., this is regarded as a civilian, law enforcement function, but it’s time the taxpayers get something back for the $700 billion they give the Pentagon every year.
  2. Instead of misdirection about some scattered right-wing extremists in the ranks, end the military’s epidemic of sexual assault. Why any father of a daughter would allow her to enlist is a mystery, and this issue is the Deathwatch Beetle inside the service.
  3. End the culture of impunity that excuses the accidental killing of civilians on the battlefield — as long as they are foreigners. The recent drone killing of ten members of the innocent Ahmadi family in Kabul was excused by the Air Force’s Inspector General because the shooters “truly believed” they were targeting a threat to U.S. forces. Well, OK then.

The military is an economic enterprise. It relies on a generous budget to not just pay itself  but also the captive defense contractors that build weapons and provide services — and hire former servicemembers. It’s not “Military, Inc.” like in Pakistan or Egypt, but its economic interests aren’t always the same as those of the American people, and it’s time to stress the organization so it starts to provide value for money.

A 10 percent across-the-board budget cut — including paring back the executive jet fleet — would get the attention of the E-Ring, especially since the Pentagon just reminded us that the terrorist group ISIS-K may be able to launch attacks from Afghanistan against the U.S. in as little as six months. Why these baddies are still standing after 20 years of unlimited funding and battlefield authority for the commanders wasn’t explained.

ISIS-K isn’t a threat to the U.S. military. The guy they have to worry about is the ambitious Republican congressman who suffers no consequences for repeatedly voting against the interests of the military, despite military leaders’ usual empty exhortations of “Support the troops!” or “Putin!!!” That politician will succeed because Middle America, which is the foundation for recruiting and a strong national defense, won’t risk its children’s lives for the brass, after it overlooked military officials’ ethical lapses or personal enrichment.

The Reagan Institute poll reported Americans still want to engage with the world and they recognize that China is the biggest threat to the U.S.

On the other hand, only 42 percent think the U.S. should be “More engaged and take the lead” (down from 51 percent in February 2021) which may offer less leeway for military adventures. Worrying for military bosses, only 33 percent of those polled regard “Military leadership, such as officers and generals” as the best, likely due to the disorganized retreat from Kabul, the abandonment of billions of dollars of military equipment to the Taliban and not being aware the Taliban were placing sleeper agents in most every Afghan government agency and institution.

If the Pentagon were a publicly traded company, the board of directors would have fired the managers and would be in fear of a shareholders’ lawsuit. That’s what the 2016 election started, and it’s up to the next president to finish the job.

James Durso (@james_durso) is the Managing Director of Corsair LLC, a supply chain consultancy. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Durso served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years and specialized in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority.  He served afloat as Supply Officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).

Tags Afghanistan troop withdrawal American military Defense budget defense budget cuts Donald Trump kabul bombing Military Opinion poll public confidence Taliban

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