We won’t win a war with jihadism, but we can sure lose one

One week ago, terrorists attacked multiple locations in Paris, killing 132, and wounding hundreds more.  The Islamic State (IS), which isn’t really a state, regardless of what they call themselves, claimed responsibility, and has since released at least two other videos claiming plans for future attacks in the US.   French President Hollande declared, “We are in a war against terrorism, jihadism, which threatens the whole world.”  While it is an appealing sentiment, and probably necessary to galvanize his nation, declaring armed combat on a tactic, or even an ideology, is absurd on multiple levels.

Just identifying a definable enemy makes the declaration ridiculous.  While IS has at least made identifying them a little more feasible with the creation of a flag and by attempting to occupy and govern territory, IS certainly is not the totality of “terrorism, jihadism,” or the popular term “radical Islam.” The reality is that since President Bush declared a “War on Terror” on September 20th, 2001, we have been engaged in a mostly military campaign against an ideology that isn’t constrained to a nation or specific people group, and has seen mixed results, at best.

Besides the lack of an identifiable enemy, combatting an ideology (radical Islam, or jihadism) or a tactic (terrorism) with military force is illogical from the simple fact that you cannot shoot, bomb, or kill an idea.

The ideology of radical Islam, or jihadism, has proven a formidable foe to military attack.  Since 9/11, this ideology has been under constant assault from the most formidable military force the world has ever known, and much like trying to punch a mist, it seems to give way to force, only to regroup again.  History is replete with failed attempts to defeat an ideology with military force.  Successful examples are rare, and limited.  If one considers the fascism of Nazi Germany an ideology, then the true defeat of the ideology occurred not on the battlefield so much as in the decades of occupation and reconstruction that followed military success, that controlled the culture until a new ideology was formed.  Perhaps more appropriate for this discussion would be consideration of the Cold War defeat of Soviet Communism–which was not won on the battlefield at all.  Fighting against an ideology that is rooted in religion becomes even more difficult, particularly when the religion rewards martyrdom.

Terrorism itself is not constrained to use by jihadists, as the British (Irish Republican Army) and Germans (Red Army Faction) can attest.  Terrorism is a tactic adopted by many different minority groups in an attempt to elevate their cause.

Before all my brothers in arms write me off as a pacifist, let me affirm that there are instances where military force is appropriate, and arguably this one.  But first we need to identify an enemy that can be defeated by military weapons.  As we witnessed in Afghanistan, military force can be successfully applied against a combatant organization such as the Taliban or al-Qaeda.  The Islamic State presents itself as a viable military target–they are a specific group of people who are generally occupying a distinct physical territory.

OK, so we can attack the IS militarily.  Note that this is not the same as warring against terrorism, or jihadism.  Rather, it is attacking the most recent organization representing these concepts. Several questions must be considered before we start loading the C17s.

  • Do we have the national will to engage in this fight?
  • Do we have sufficient international support, or lacking it, are we willing to accept the international opposition?
  • Will battlefield success solve the larger problem?

I could expound on each of these questions for days, and still not adequately cover all the nuances.  Instead, I want to focus on the last one, because it is the key to my assertion that we can’t win a war with jihadism, but we can lose one.  Because the problem isn’t IS; the Islamic State is just the most recent symptom of the true problem.  President Hollande rightly identified the problem as bigger than a belligerent organization; the problem is an ideology that approves of murder, fear, and compulsion to advance its agenda.  Complete military defeat of the Islamic State won’t solve the problem presented by jihadism.  Quite the opposite, it is likely that military success will only serve to reinforce the narrative that helps drive this ideology.

Am I advocating doing nothing, or cowering in fear?  Certainly not.  But before we take action, we should decide what our desired outcomes are, and what actions are feasible to achieve those outcomes, then if we as a nation are willing to fully commit to those actions.  You see, our original goals in Afghanistan and Iraq were achievable, but we did not have the will as a nation to achieve them.  To truly achieve the defeat of jihadism would have required a long-term commitment to the occupation and transformation of those two countries, much as we demonstrated during our post WWII reconstruction of Germany and Japan.  While to many it seems like we’ve been engaged in those countries for a long time, our efforts pale in comparison to our work in Germany and Japan in both duration and level of engagement.  The jihadists were banking on the fact that we would grow weary of our efforts, and would redefine victory in a desire to disengage.

The atrocities committed by IS in Syria and Iraq make most of us want to wipe IS off the planet.  But we aren’t going to do that with airstrikes; it’s going to take conventional and SOF forces on the ground, for years.  That is complicated further in the case of Syria, where we would be trying to destroy a non-state entity in the midst of a civil war in which the national government is supported by Russia and Iran.  Just sorting out the allegiances of the various players can become an insurmountable task.  Do we, as a nation, have the will to take on the war necessary to destroy IS militarily?  I would submit that recent history indicates that we do not.  And anything less than total victory will result in our defeat.

Most importantly–defeating IS won’t solve the root problem.  The root problem is a conflict of ideology, and that conflict is not resolved with military force.  As we learned in the Cold War, military force is necessary to shape the ideological battlefield, but the weapons with which we will win are not operated by armies, and the victory will go to those willing to play the long game.

I’m not saying we don’t engage in this ideological battle.  In fact, I believe we must engage, but we need to know the battle, and we must commit to what it will take to win.  More to follow…

Un-knot your undies, at least on my behalf

The internet and my Facebook page are exploding with posts, memes, and articles apoplectic over the “cuts in military retirement and disability pay” in the appropriations bill on its way to the President for signature.

As a disabled veteran whose military pension is his primary source of income, I am fully qualified to tell all of the pundits to “just chill.”

First, NO ONE’S BENEFITS ARE BEING CUT.  That’s right, no one will be earning a single dollar less than what they are entitled to.  Not people already retired, not those who are on active duty and might someday retire (which, by the way, is only a small portion of those who actually serve in the military.

What the bill does is set a limit on the COST OF LIVING ADJUSTMENT effective in JANUARY 2016 (that’s two years from now).  Cost of living adjustments were never part of the entitlement, folks, just like they’re not guaranteed for the vast majority of defined-benefit pension plans, public or private, in the US (Great Britain, by law, guarantees inflation adjustments to pensions–but that’s socialism, so we don’t want to do that).  In most years, the DoD budget includes increases to pension benefits to adjust for inflation, and I’m glad they do, but retirees have never been “guaranteed” a COLA, and right now, it’s important for our nation to cut deficit spending.

What Congress just approved, was a bill that set the 2016 COLA  to 1% less than the inflation rate, and then only for retirees between the ages of 40 and 62 (like me).  The thought here is that many, but certainly not all, of these retirees go on to start second careers, so they are not solely surviving on their retirement checks.  I’m 48, so this change will affect me for 12 years, beginning two years from now (assuming Congress takes no further action in the next 14 years, which is not a valid assumption, as sooner or later, the political and economic winds will change, and Congress will adjust the appropriation to address this, if history is any indicator).  Let’s make this a little more concrete:  For simple calculation purposes, let’s say I receive a pension equal to $40k/year, and that inflation averages 3% per year.  ASSUMING (which isn’t valid, but we’ll do it, to make the point) that Congress were planning an annual COLA equal to inflation, my pension would increase 3% per year, but this bill changes that increase to only 2% per year.  Beginning in 2016, and through 2027 (when I will turn 62–man, I’m getting old), my real income would decrease slightly, although my nominal pension will continue go up.  How much?  In that 12 year period, I’ll receive a TOTAL of $10, 729 than if my COLA had matched inflation.  However, since there is no guarantee of inflation-proofing with military retirement, or most other defined-benefit pensions, for that matter, I’m NOT losing money, I’m just not receiving as much inflation protection as I would like.  The bill also provides for a one-time catchup when I turn 62, so that from that age on, when I’m less likely to be working, and more likely to truly need that pension to provide for myself, it will then maintain real spending power for the rest of my life.  I haven’t really taken the time to do the math, and I haven’t found the actual bill to read the details of the catchup provision, but I’m comfortable that my analysis is close enough for purposes of discussion, as well as for my long-term financial planning.

Most of our country has been up in arms about the runaway federal budget deficits.  We don’t typically want to pay more taxes, and most insist that the government should live within its means, which means cutting spending.  This budget deal cuts spending.  The problem seems to be that we are all for cutting government spending, unless it’s on something WE think is important!  Here’s the rub:  for every government dollar being spent, SOMEBODY thinks that expenditure is important.  In 2010, a bipartisan commission took a hard look at fiscal reform to address deficit spending and develop proposals to put the federal budget on track for long-term prosperity and economic health.  They did good work, and on page 45 of their final report they recommended the very actions established in this bill for reforming federal workforce retirement programs.

We’ve been demanding reform.  Now we’re getting it.  The pain is widespread; veterans should not be exempt.  I’ll leave you with some thoughts from the Preamble of the report cited above.  This is the collective work of some very smart people from across our political spectrum who devoted themselves to difficult, careful study of the problem, and what it’s going to take to solve it:

 The problem is real.  The solution will be painful.  There is no easy way out.  Everything must be on the table.  And Washington must lead….  we share a common belief that America’s long-term fiscal gap is unsustainable and, if left unchecked, will see our children and grandchildren living in a poorer, weaker nation…. None of us likes every element of our plan, and each of us had to tolerate provisions we previously or presently oppose in order to reach a principled compromise.  We were willing to put our differences aside to forge a plan because our nation will certainly be lost without one…. In the weeks and months to come, countless advocacy groups and special interests will try mightily through expensive, dramatic, and heart-wrenching media assaults to exempt themselves from shared sacrifice and common purpose.  The national interest, not special interests, must prevail. We urge leaders and citizens with principled concerns about any of our recommendations to follow what we call the Becerra Rule:  Don’t shoot down an idea without offering a better idea in its place.

Many of you probably have already forgotten about this commission or its report.  It didn’t catch on.  Seems everybody had some favorite program that was targeted in their recommendations, just as the authors predicted.  So we just abandoned it, and kept right on spending.  It’s too bad.  This was probably one of the best efforts put forward by our national leadership in quite some time.

It seems to me that what we really have is a terminal case of selfishness.  We demand sacrifice from all others, so that we can preserve what we have.  In the end, no one is really willing to sacrifice themselves, so we continue full speed ahead on the course we’re on.   I’m not playing that game.  If by reducing the amount of annual increase I will see in my pension, we can start reining in the spending that has resulted in a national debt which former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen cited as the most significant threat to our national security (see cited report, page 20), then I’m willing to make a bit of sacrifice for the benefit of our nation.  Please don’t be offended on my behalf.

It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died…

It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather, we should thank God that such men lived. -General George S. Patton, June 7, 1945

Many writers will chastise Americans today for spending too much time on barbequing and not enough time remembering the sacrifices that this day is set aside to memorialize. I’m not one of those. We each remember in our own way, and I would submit that many of those fallen servicemembers would prefer that they be remembered, not in somber ceremonies, but in celebrations of the American way of life.

I served my country for 23 years, and while proud of that fact, I also will tell you that I’m humbled by the opportunity, and don’t feel that anyone owes me anything. I chose to serve, and knew full well the potential outcomes. I am eternally grateful for all who served before me, with me, and those who have served since. I honor each and every one of them, and particularly honor those who gave their lives. This nation is unique in the world, both present and historically, and that uniqueness has much to do with the character of its citizens, who respond to the call of freedom, and make the necessary sacrifices to preserve freedom, not for glory, but out of a sense of selfless service.

Three days ago, six men from one of my old units, the 101st Pathfinder Company (now Co F (Pathfinder), 159th Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault)), joined the ranks of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation. 1LT John M. Runkle, SSG Edward Mills, SSG Ergin Osman, SGT Louie Ramosvelazquez, SGT Thomas Bohall, and SPC Adam Patton died in combat in Afghanistan May 26th, just a few months short of their rotation home. I never knew them, but I thank God that they lived.

Remember them today as you celebrate Memorial Day.

Semper Primus(“Always First”, the motto of the 101st Pathfinders).