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 “You know, putting a yellow sticker on the back of your car and ‘I support your troops’ – I could care less. What I want you to do is educate yourself and vote.

And don’t cry the crocodile tears for Mike Martino who sucked up a MANPAD over Ramadi and is now a name on a wall. Spend those lives wisely. I’m an instrument of the executive branch of the United States and I execute foreign policy.” 

- Major Kris Faught, United States Marine Corps

oral history interview 13 February 2009, originally published in The National Journal 14 March 2009

 

this website is

dedicated to the memory of

Major Michael Martino, USMC

of Fairfax, Virginia

killed near ar-Ramadi, Iraq, 2 November 2005, age 32

 

 LEARNING FROM VETERANS: In brief

No one knows war like those who fight it. Since 2004, I have spent hundreds of hours interviewing more than 200 veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq. Many have deployed multiple times. Most are still on active duty or on call in the National Guard and Reserves; others have returned to civilian life; and some are struggling with disabling injuries to body and mind. They range in rank from corporal to lieutenant general, but I have sought out, above all, the career sergeants and mid-grade officers who form the professional core of the American armed forces.

The men and women I interview are more than human interest items. They are not victims to be pitied or plaster saints to be venerated from safe distance. They are experts. They have hard-won knowledge of what it takes to implement national policy at the sharp end, where big ideas meet ugly reality, and their voices must be heard.

These military professionals have urgent lessons-learned to share on everything from counterinsurgency to computer networks, from rural development to urban warfare. Their expertise applies not just to the specific circumstances of Afghanistan and Iraq but to a wide range of future conflicts, because—barring an all-out clash with China in the air, sea, and cyberspace—the next war will be a vicious hybrid of high technology and medieval brutality. We will need to combine, in a single operation, hearts-and-minds appeals to neutrals with precision strikes on enemies, local informants with unmanned drones, tribal militias with heavy tanks. In such complex conflicts, our military’s greatest asset is not its hardware but its human capital.

Preserving and enhancing our military’s human capital should be central to our national security policy. My interviews have convinced me that the nation faces both a danger and an opportunity:

        —Not since the aftermath of Vietnam have we had a military so exhausted by years of fighting and so isolated from the society it serves.

        —Never in our history have we had a military so experienced, professional, and adaptable.

That we have reached these two extremes at the same time is no coincidence. In every previous protracted war, America mobilized masses of short-term volunteers and conscripts. Since 9/11, we have sent the same small cadre of long-serving professionals into battle again and again. That cadre has gotten very skilled and very tired. We cannot address these two facts in isolation from each other.

The current discussion about “resetting” the force emphasizes repairing the damage done rather than building on the experience gained. This is a mistake. Hundreds of conversations have convinced me that people join the military for countless individual reasons, but they stay because they believe they are doing important work in a great cause. When they feel thwarted, they leave.

Of course, pay matters for morale. So does time with family. So does decent healthcare. But even generous benefits are not enough if our dedicated military professionals feel unable to do their best. A generation raised on the urgency, independence, and constant adaptation of the past decade will not take well to peacetime bureaucracy, make-work, or drift. To keep these skilled professionals in the force, we must offer them not only benefits but also the opportunity to further develop their skills. Preserving our human capital and enhancing it are not two separate tasks. They are inextricably linked and require an integrated policy approach.

Based on my six years interviewing post-9/11 combat veterans, thirteen years covering national defense, and a lifetime studying military affairs, I believe we must answer four critical, interdependent questions:

        1) How can we empower the rising generation of military professionals to institutionalize their hard-won knowledge of counterinsurgency, rebuild disused skills for large-scale maneuver operations, and synthesize these historically opposed approaches into a hybrid way of war?

        2) How can we reform the military’s rigid personnel bureaucracy into a system that rewards servicemembers for their unique experiences—actively encouraging, for example, study abroad or service as an advisor to foreign forces—instead of punishing those who stray from the traditional career paths?

        3) How we can better integrate the generous but disjointed array of services for servicemembers, former servicemembers, their families, and above all those wounded in body or in mind, weaving the current patchwork of military, VA, state, local, and non-profit programs into a seamless network?

        4) How can we bridge the gap between America and its military, one person at a time, for example by boosting programs like ROTC, the G.I. Bill, and military fellowships that bring future, former, and current servicemembers onto civilian campuses?

I plan to research these four areas, develop policy recommendations for each, and publish my findings online, in a series of monographs, and in a book tentatively titled A Citizen’s Guide to the Next War.

I am currently seeking both an institutional home and financial support for Learning from Veterans. Please do not hesitate to call email me at contact@LearningFromVeterans.com with questions or suggestions.