As thousands of Russian troops continue to mass along the border between Russia and Ukraine, an all-out armed attack remains an alarming possibility, and some U.S. lawmakers are already calling for direct military assistance. At the same time, China is growing increasingly bold in the South Pacific, threatening military action against Taiwan in direct defiance of U.S. calls to cease military exercises in the region.
In the face of such renewed aggression from America’s two chief adversaries, it’s worth asking how we got to this point. On paper, the U.S. military is the greatest fighting force in the world, with the biggest budget and the best equipment. Yet, as Donald Trump famously pointed out, the U.S. military does not seem to win wars anymore, and now for the first time in generations, the country faces the frightening prospect that we might not be able to even deter aggressors. Much of the blame for this can be laid at the feet of both establishment politicians and careerist military leaders who increasingly seem more concerned with winning good press and less concerned with winning wars.
The failures at the highest level of the U.S. military were on full display this summer as the world watched the disastrous American evacuation of Afghanistan, where President Biden and his military advisers oversaw the most humiliating American defeat since Vietnam.
The American people have noticed, too – according to a recent survey conducted by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, only 45% of Americans have a “great deal” of trust in the military, a steep drop from 70% three years ago. An additional 10% of respondents said they had “not much” trust in the military, compared with just 2% three years ago.
Even more striking, the results show an 11-percentage point drop in admiration for the military since February.
There are several possible explanations for this downward trend, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan occurred between the February and November survey. It’s also worth noting that, according to the latest survey, a majority of Americans — 52% — named China as the nation posing the greatest threat to the U.S. That’s up from 21% four years ago.
A military that lost in Afghanistan and doesn’t seem prepared to fight China isn’t going to inspire confidence in an American public that’s concerned about China and watched the Afghanistan debacle in real-time.
Of course, the Taliban was unable to defeat the U.S. on the battlefield – and in the last 18 months of President Trump’s tenure, not a single American lost their life in the country. In other words, American troops on the ground did their job. It was the political and military leadership that failed them and their country, a pattern that extends back years. The United States was, for example, handed a similarly embarrassing but far less catastrophic defeat in Iraq, and Obama’s bungled handling of the Arab Spring has directly led to much of the instability in the Middle East today.
Indeed, Washington never executed, let alone articulated, any real vision or strategy for winning in Afghanistan or the Middle East in general, which made victory ever-elusive — and ultimately impossible.
Still, defenders of Biden’s disasters argue that Afghanistan isn’t all that important to American interests, and losing there, while far from ideal, is a manageable, survivable event and will further allow a refocusing of resources on the malign actions of Russia and China. They’re right to an extent: being prepared for a war against China or Russia — so-called great powers — is far more crucial, because losing to either country in an armed conflict would pose an existential threat to the United States. America’s alliances would collapse, tyranny would thrive globally, and the U.S. economy would be at the mercy of a foreign entity. Freedom globally would be under severe threat.
But those arguing for such a re-allocation of military resources toward Russia and China in the wake of the Afghanistan disaster may be avoiding an uncomfortable question: If the United States can’t even defeat an untrained militia of backwards-minded terrorists hiding in the mountains, do we stand any chance against a real modern military power?
Indeed, for years, analysts and strategists have reportedly found in war game after game that the U.S. would lose resoundingly to both China and Russia in a major war over Taiwan or the Baltics, even with all of our material advantages. And a new paper from the U.S. Army War College concluded China no longer fears the U.S. in a fight in East Asia.
In this context, Russia and China’s growing aggression is easy to understand. Although they remain at a disadvantage to the United States in terms of pure military might, they seem to have recognized that they now hold the tactical upper hand, particularly if the Biden administration continues to bow to the demands of dictators like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.
However, the military can help restore both public confidence and its warfighting capabilities by addressing two key problems that are hampering its ability to wage war.
First, America’s war colleges and service academies, which were established to teach officers how to fight and win wars, no longer teach warfighting. As two professors and military historians at the U.S. Army War College noted earlier this year, the curricula at these schools have for some 50 years taught soldiers to be “a diplomat, an economist, a scientist, a historian, and a lawyer” — but not a warfighter (a change that was, ironically, implemented just prior to America’s first major military defeat in Vietnam). As another West Point professor has warned, the service academies that are supposed to teach officers how to win battles now operate in an “intellectual fog” that does not allow for adaptation to the changing realities of modern warfare. This needs to change in order for the military leadership to learn how to fight the wars of tomorrow.
Second, the leadership of the U.S. military must reverse its embrace of wokeness. In June, Army Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee that he wants “to understand white rage,” and defended the study and teaching of critical race theory within the armed forces. Meanwhile, West Point offers a seminar class on “white rage,” and the chief of Naval Operations recommends How to Be an Antiracist – one of the foundational texts of Critical Race Theory – on the official reading list of the United States Navy. The Navy’s reading list for sailors also includes The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and Sexual Minorities and Politics – hardly the type of thing that would inspire sailors to love the country they are risking their lives to serve. This type of identity politics will not only hurt morale within the ranks, but it will also likely act as a damper on recruitment, even as all the armed services are struggling to fill their ranks.
In short, the military – and specifically military leadership – is in something of a state of crisis. The job of our armed forces is to deter, train for, and, if need be, fight and win wars. The Pentagon isn’t doing that job well very well and is losing the trust of the American people as a result.
The U.S. military needs to get back to basics and relearn how to win wars before we find ourselves in a fight not with a 7th-century tribe, but with a powerful country armed with weapons of mass destruction. And it needs to do that soon – because America’s adversaries will not wait for us to be ready before they choose to act.
Simon Maas is the pen name of a writer living in Virginia.