21 May 2017

Mid-career thoughts: After a decade or so, of war, you begin to wonder if it’s worth it


The wars go on. I increasingly see a weary cynicism in my Air Force peers, and indeed in myself. We lack confidence in the continuing mission and in whether all our efforts over the last decade make any difference.

Here’s an example of the pessimism and doubt I sense. When I recently took a recent distance-learning Professional Military Education (PME) course, there was a competition not to be first in class, but instead to dog it and to mock those who tried to really get into it. I was one of those malefactors, which is embarrassing to admit. Air Force officers just don’t take distance PME seriously. In fact, they compete to keep it at arm’s-length, and those who take it seriously are maligned as try-harders. Distance PME should be a pleasant part of the professional experience, improving one’s knowledge and understanding of what we do. Instead it is a box to check, an ordeal to be endured with as little time and effort as possible.

There was one unexpected side benefit to the PME course. One of the questions posed involved the pursuit of excellence, and the degree to which it could be attained. While researching my paper, I came across an article in Harvard Business Review that mentioned the law of diminishing returns. Reading the piece, I recognized my own situation. There comes a point in time where the juice ceases to be worth the squeeze.

And that leads to an issue the Air Force’s leaders care about far more than professional education: pilot retention.

The Air Force has been having a tough time keeping its pilots. Sympathy and promises to do better haven’t worked, and neither have increasingly larger bonuses. The exodus has a nasty side effect: As officers leave, their old workload is distributed to the rest of the unit, which only increases frustration and cynicism.

Many who exit single out the prevalence of additional duties (queep) and similar lifestyle factors as their primary reason for punching. I’ve experienced the same, but believe there’s an underlying issue of war-weariness which drives a more transactional relationship with our employer. Most of today’s military personnel do not know what a peacetime military is. We came in during a time of war, and all appearances point to us leaving during that same war. In an environment where the ops tempo is expected to continue unabated — and indefinitely — the siren song of fewer hours and more pay in the private sector becomes all the more enticing. If the treadmill is never going to stop, why not hop off when you get tired, and while you still have a chance of getting to know your children?

The root of the problem, I think, is an uncertainty about whether we are doing any good. For years we have been instructed in the article of faith up and down the chain that we are going out and killing bad guys, that we are the only thing keeping those bastards from bombing Peoria, or Sacramento, or wherever matters most to you. Whenever we return from deployment or see bad guys getting blown up, we generally congratulate ourselves on a job well done — because we’re really good at our job. We burn a lot of hours and energy getting good at our job, and when we execute it downrange, it’s validating — that is, we’re doing what we were trained to do. All that used to be good enough for me, but as time goes on, it’s harder to go back to the same place to go after the same guys. To be sure, a lot of these guys are truly evil bastards and I’m glad that they’re toasted, and that I had a part in it. To stop there and claim satisfaction would be short-sighted, though. For all our efforts, we seem to be attracting new enemies as fast as we kill the old ones.

I have sympathy for our leadership on this score, as they’re caught in a pretty gnarly pickle. If they continue throwing miscellaneous air assets and a smattering of ground troops into a country (pick one, we have plenty of options), very few good guys will die and they will retain support from a public grateful for our service in defense of the homeland. If they attempt to plunge deeper into a given hot spot, more good guys will die — and if recent history is any guide (it is), we risk another road to hell paved with good intentions and IEDs. Both those options, though, are infinitely preferable to any semblance of withdrawal. Military power is intoxicating to those that wield it — it can be delivered rapidly, globally, and in spectacular fashion. We tried eating soup with a knife, and are now eating soup with a bowling ball.

So, about the law of diminished returns: Since 2001, the global war on terrorism has seen effort to keep evildoers from U.S. shores that cost approximately $2.4 trillion, 3,500 U.S. servicemen and women, and over 100,000 Iraqis and Afghans. As of today, we are squeezing worldwide, every day, in a never-ending search for those who would do us harm. We’ve accelerated an already aggressive air campaign and are killing bad guys in the Islamic State group and Syria in greater numbers than ever before. We are also killing more civilians. Yes, I am endlessly proud of my country for taking extraordinary measures to limit civilian casualties. But I also am painfully aware that our efforts mean less than nothing to a guy digging his family out from the remains of his house. We are ruthlessly efficient at stamping out symptoms, and clumsy oafs at combating the disease. Arguing a hypothetical is difficult, but I feel comfortable in asserting that if we had stopped squeezing after a few weeks in Afghanistan, we’d have a good deal more juice today.

So, what to do about the treadmill? At the very least, the Department of Defense and Congress would be well-served to reexamine the assumptions undergirding our current strategy of “attacking them there before they attack us here” rather than accepting it as a given. Are our efforts truly wearing down the enemy, or is our aggressive approach simply inflaming the region and creating more adversaries? And if so, how much are we willing to pay for it? There is no war tax, so the public at large is not invested in the strategy. DoD budget requests are regarded as self-evidently justified, despite substantial evidence that the Pentagon has difficulty accounting for the mountains of money poured into it. With no philosophical or financial skin in the game, the taxpayer can limit their involvement in the nation’s defense to supporting the troops without the burden of knowing what they’re actually doing. Absent a renewed debate or mechanism to increase public awareness of the DoD’s overseas exertions, I expect to be running awhile longer.

Meantime, I’ll be pulling another deployment. The silver lining is that I can use the downtime to knock out another module of PME.

“Tred Mill” is a mid-career Air Force officer and aviator. This article reflects his own views and opinions, which are not those of the United States Air Force or the Department of Defense.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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