Tag Archives: military policy

Working in an era of turbulence

This Veteran’s Day (also called Armistice Day), I think it’s important to recall what I said last year at this time: that the conversations about and even by veterans in US politics are often detached from reality. In light of that, I think it’s useful to talk about an often overlooked group of current and former military service members, who we not only don’t use in combat but ideally hope to never need to call on. While admittedly far from the risks of combat, the members of the US military that manage our nuclear stockpiles shouldn’t be overlooked. Today of all days it seems worth asking whether our society is meeting their needs.

If Rachel Maddow’s still intriguing 2012 book on the emerging issues within the US military is to be believed, we aren’t successfully supporting those service members, and consequently are leaving our entire society vulnerable to accidents and other nuclear hazards. The problems noted by Maddow are various, but she focuses on one key issue for those that guard the nukes. New recruits assigned to managing nuclear weapons systems generally left the service at their first chance because, as one officer explained, “standing alert duty in missile silos is not considered ‘deployed,’ and ‘if you are not a ‘deployer,’ you do not get promoted.'”

In essence, as one 2008 military self-assessment noted, “We need a nuclear career field”. The lack of an established meritocratic ladder for the military members who control our nation’s vast (I’d argue too vast) reserves of weapons of mass destruction isn’t just a simple matter of not giving these service members stability and security – it impacts our military’s know-how. As Maddow reported, we as a country have multiple 1970s-era nuclear weapons that need a special chemical component (code name: Fogbank) replaced in its trigger. The unique chemical mixture was classified at the time of its development and due to the constant coming-and-going of nuclear technicians “no one today remembers the exact formula for making it.” Our institutional memory is shot and we’re paying the price for it.

Ultimately, this isn’t an issue that’s really restricted to the military, although the risky outcomes there are quite dramatic. As the Digital Arts Service Corps – one of the many smaller subsidiaries of the Americorps program – notes on their website that the new and by most measures modestly successful Americorps system is “not a career path” but “a one year commitment that you can re-up for a few years, but that’s about it”. The situation is even less rose-y if you realize that these subdivided parts within Americorps aren’t even directly connected to the work many volunteers do as a part of getting established in the public sector. They’re more analogous to the obamacare insurance exchanges – as sites where volunteers can connect with projects, rather than the institutions directly hiring them and ostensibly trying to pass down their knowledge about their position. The current system does work fairly well, but it has a weakness in how it fails to efficiently retain useful information.

Arguably, this failure to invest in these positions as even potentially long term positions is reflective of a growing trend that Al Jazeera covered at the beginning of this month. Jobs that last for a few years are something of a dying breed in the US, which is reflective of a number of factors, not least among them the comparative privilege of a well-educated workforce and the less wholesome growing disinterest within powerful corporations and even government to provide both job security and the possibility for at least mild advancement or accruing of seniority.

This common cause among military, public sector, and even private sector workers seems like the elephant in the room that few corporate media sources or powerful people will acknowledge. This experience of finding advancement out of positions that barely qualify as employment difficult seems to be widespread. Within the context of various minimum wage workers protesting for better working conditions, it’s even begun to crop up. Most recently, a protest last week among Walmart employees interested in addressing a number of concerns prioritized three demands: “a living wage, higher and more frequent merit raises, and clear path to career advancement free of favoritism and based on merit and not personality tests.”


In other words, yes underemployment is increasingly its own phenomenon, separate from unemployment, from here.

The spate of protests against a number of fast food franchises and the similar on-going rebukes of Walmart and other corporate stores have attracted most of their media attention with the focus firmly fixed on changes to the minimum wage or greater union rights (with the aim of then negotiating higher wages). That’s ultimately just one part of a larger problem – that most wages are stagnant and that accessing stable and secure employment is increasingly difficult.

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Drones are cheaper – I mean, save lives

TW: drone strikes

Apparently I wasn’t the only one that noticed President Obama’s understated reference to drone strikes during his State of the Union address on Tuesday, as Professor Lisa Hajjar provided an excellent analysis of the issue over at Al Jazeera. There’s a number of different issues that she covers, but I think one of the cores of Hajjar’s argument is that while the security improvement for US soldiers is obvious, the ostensible reduction in civilian casualties is little more than hypothetical. She explains-

What distinguishes drones from other killing technologies employed in war is that drones are unmanned. For proponents of drone warfare, that is their greatest advantage. They also tout that drones are highly accurate, precision weapons capable of taking out targets and nothing else. That contention, while popular in the halls of power in Washington, manifests as the disputable claim that civilian casualties are rare.” (link and emphasis in original)

She’s written this as a direct retort to how the initial concern driving the switch to drone strikes is presented as reducing the risks to US personnel. She quotes Obama from Tuesday, who said, in the talking-about-drones-without-saying-drones section of the address:

We don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations. Instead, we will need to help countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali. And, where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.

Part of the problem with that argument is the way it prioritizes the safety of US service members to the eclipsing of the safety of civilian non-combatants in the assorted countries whose skies the United States evidently now patrols. Hajjar excellently breaks apart that whole argument, and I recommend that anyone interested in the use and impact of drone strikes should read her analysis. That being said, that argument that this is for the troops, is honestly quite the distraction.

It’s been part of the conversation, but less obviously that drones are, from a certain economic perspective, much cheaper than the use of ground troops and other alternatives. The reasons for that are complex, from the fact that nation-wide occupation requires far more people to be involved (and hence, paid) to the almost nonexistent risk of US service members who pilot drones to become injured on the job compared with actual soldiers on the ground (and thus, the injured compensated in addition to the training and fielding of a replacement).

In fact, the Democrats have long touted the use of drones, since the Clinton era actually, because of that politically useful combination of benefiting service members while cutting costs. As far back as in his 2003 book, now Senator Al Franken defended Clinton’s military spending and policies, explaining, that his administration had “invested so heavily” in these new technologies which collectively could be “called Network Centric Warfare” and which Clinton “brought to fruition”. He treated that as (in addition to the end of the Cold War) the explanation for why the Clinton era had seen militaries with fewer high-cost military investments. Franken explained, that for a typical drone strike “take a look at how many tanks were involved: 0. Ships: 0.”

Franken went on to compare on the same page the purportedly “$100,000 each” missiles typically used during the first Gulf War with the missiles used by the Clinton administration as part of their new military strategy which were typically a fifth of that cost. The overall message was thrift, and any additional security for US troops as a result of using drones was pretty much incidental.


(A US drone that crashed in Djibouti before reaching the US base there, in 2011. Fortunately, no one was harmed by its crash into a vacant lot. From here.)

To his credit, Franken does mention the use of drones and related technologies as having benefited the troops, but in the context of having given them “a foundation in ‘stability support ops'”. He specifies that that means avoiding the worst impacts from paramilitary forces and similar combatants in asymmetrical warfare, but he doesn’t exactly explain the causality. Presumably, training in how to dispose of non-state combatants while in the Balkans proved useful to our troops who needed to dispose of non-state combatants in Afghanistan and later Iraq (and subsequently throughout the world). A decade ago, this technology was already impacting warfare, but no one felt the need to present it in terms of preventing casualties among our troops – instead it was merely efficient and cost effective.

The ramifications of drones in terms of our troops security seems to have been invisible until it started to be pointed out that it had a clear impact on the safety of civilian non-combatants throughout the world. Why could we only perceive of that ethical benefit only after the technology’s major ethical failings were made apparent?

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Romney is ensnared in militarism and he doesn’t even know it

TW: Afghanistan war, Iraq war, militarism, refugee detention, forced relocation

Romney’s performance at the third debate jarred nearly everyone. He used the words “peace” or “peaceful” 12 times, while President Obama and the moderator Bob Schieffer didn’t use either at all. Needless to say the so very objective media noticed and thought Romney was profound for making statements like, “America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed them from dictators.” Still, even if Romney is obviously picking up obviously nationalistic arguments from the Obama administration, can’t we take him at his word?

No, actually, we can’t because of the magic of militarism.


(Image from The Rachel Maddow Show, showing different plans for future military spending compared to historical amounts, controlling for inflation and excluding the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which were “emergency spending”.)

If Romney is to be assumed as always telling the truth, which is quite the assumption, he wants us to not be at “war” or in “conflict” (however those terms are defined) but still wants a mushrooming of military spending. Taking those are separate parts of an internally cohesive proposed policy, Romney wants the US to have beyond unmatched military capacity (or failing that “investment”)  for use as a determent. It’s not for use, unless absolutely necessary.

Unfortunately, from recent analyses of US military history to commonplace explanations of how World War I came about, this strategy has proven flawed. Emergency military powers easily become commonly exercised. Sizable military forces created solely to serve as a liability should another nation attack frequently become a reason and tool for preemptive war.

Simply look to Israel today, in fact, and the same process appears to be playing out, as the Interior Minister Eli Yishai wrote a lengthy complaint about the new idea of not forcibly detaining thousands of mainly Eritrean refugees. He insisted that the camps the ethno-religious minority would forced into “weren’t built in vain in order to be ghost towns,  [but] rather, as facilities to house infiltrators before they are removed from the country”. A plan that should be antithetical to the principles of a state founded in the wake of the Holocaust has become unthinkable not to implement, since it’s already ready for action. That’s the power militarism can have if not grounded.

Do you trust Romney to place strict limits on the military, even while showering them (or contractors?)  with previously unimaginable wealth?

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