Mission First, Troops Always

Ray Kimball is one of the founders of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and he’s also an insightful observer of the political scene. Conspicuously nonpartisan, befitting a serving member of the armed forces, Kimball has also been pretty critical of many aspects of U.S. national security strategy. He writes on occasion for the Huffington Post, and I’ve just come across his latest post in which he argues, in an Eisenhowerian vein, that the military is in danger of becoming a self-licking ice cream cone.

What both candidates have gotten wrong here is the old adage of “Mission First, Troops Always.” This is a hard and necessary lesson learned and internalized by military leaders, from the most junior NCO to the most senior general and admiral. Simply put, it’s the idea that no matter how much you want to take care of those under your command, your unit’s assigned mission has to come before their personal well-being. It’s one of the toughest lessons of military leadership to internalize, but it’s also essential to a professional force that contains a core identity of Servant of the Nation. We’ve already lived through a previous period where this mantra got reversed – during our missions in the Balkans, when deployed forces were told repeatedly that force protection was to be the number-one priority of the force. The illogic in this is not hard to spot – if the top priority here is taking care of our soldiers, then the easiest way to do that is to not deploy them into harm’s way. In the words of an old saw, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what a ship is for.”

Want a better way? Rather than sending out feel-good platitudes about “honoring those who serve”, let’s create a strategy that’s worthy of their sacrifice. Rather than build an elaborate construct where we shower our troops with praise and benefits even as we ask them to take on more ill-defined missions, let’s give them, as I put it during the primary season, a “coherent, consistent vision of American power.”

Kimball is referring to a national security strategy that puts our resources in line with our commitments, and, more importantly, a wide-ranging public conversation that seriously addresses the strategic and moral basis for our commitments — and that weighs whether or not these (extraordinary) commitments are justified. As Kimball put it in his earlier post,

I want to hear if that candidate believes that it is necessary for our prosperity and survival that we continue to provide robust support to fledgling representative governments abroad, or if they believe we are better off focusing that time and energy within our own borders.

I actually think John McCain has done a reasonably good job at the first and that Barack Obama and other Democrats have at various points tried to do the second. But it’s true that polemical arguments about the troops often take the place of these deeper questions. This is no surprise — they connect with voters at a gut level. But we should have some sense of when, and some wariness when, candidates are trying to bypass our brains to connect directly with our guts.

My own view is that it is necessary for our prosperity — though not our survival, perhaps — that we support representative governments and encourage their spread. To some extent, this can happen through the instrument Paul Collier identified.

The European Union has a long tradition of setting minimum standards of political decency for its members, who must protect their minorities and defend basic rights. A collective E.U. withdrawal of recognition from the Mugabe or Shwe regimes would be an obvious and modest extension of the values that underpin the European project. Making any such suspension of recognition temporary — say, for three months — would present potential coup plotters within an army with a brief window of legitimacy. They would know that it was now or never, which could spur them to act.

Then there is the Poggean notion that we should aggressively question the right of repressive governments to trade and borrow in their country’s name. I realize that this introduces a lot of dangerous complications. As a theoretical matter, though, it holds some attraction. The trouble is that we are very far from a consensus on this matters. It will take a political transition in China and about thirty-forty years.