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Publications – military retirement “reform” is really sleight-of-hand

AOL Defense has run another story of mine on the military’s human capital problems, this one on the real agenda behind recent proposals to “reform” the military’s admittedly problematic retirement system:

The military’s retirement system is a mess. But the current proposals to fix it have a hidden agenda. No, I’m not talking about cutting benefits to save money. That’s the stated agenda, which is sure to get attention in this cash-strapped era. But cutting a benefit paid out over decades, throughout a beneficiary’s lifetime, won’t actually save much money in the next five years or even the next 10…. The real near-term impact of the proposed reforms would be to make the coming drawdown cheaper and easier to manage.

Click here for the full story. You can comment either over at AOL Defense or below.

P.S. My first major feature article for National Journal, back in 1999, was on military retirement reform. Since the story is no longer accessible on the NJ website, they’ve graciously given me permission to reproduce it here: Smart Salute – National Journal 1999-01-30

Commentary – killing Anwar al-Awlaki was justified

Today, the National Journal expert blog takes on the killing by a US drone of Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaeda leader in Yemen but also a U.S. citizen. My take may please the hardcore war-on-terror crowd more than last week’s criticism of Israel:

Imagine an FBI sniper who’s got a criminal in his sights. Law enforcement is in a high-stakes standoff with a deadly gang, negotiation is impossible, and use of deadly force is authorized. This particular target isn’t armed – at the moment – but he’s a known leader of the gang. Sending a team in to capture him is technically possible, but the gang is so well-entrenched and well-armed that the risk of casualties would be prohibitive. So the practical alternatives are kill him or let him go.

I’d say, take the shot.

Click here to see my full post in the context of the ongoing discussion on the NJ blog, but you’ll have to come back here to comment.

News – an honorable mention from Military Reporters & Editors

Yesterday, the Military Reporters & Editors Association – known by the unappetizing abbreviation “MRE” — announced its annual awards, including an honorable mention for my last year of work at National Journal: apparently my “range of reporting, from coverage of the air war in Afghanistan to analysis of the new Army tank systems, shows flair in writing while holding military strategies up for close, incisive analysis.” (I’ve won the MRE award in the relevant category in both 2008 and 2009). Much more impressively, my former colleague — and still my good friend — James Kitfield racked up top honors in two different categories.

Commentary – stop enabling Israel’s self-destruction

A decade studying America’s wars in the Islamic world have given me a different perspective on the Arab-Israeli conflict, one that probably wouldn’t be too popular in Tel Aviv — or many places in this country, either. My latest commentary on the National Journal “expert blog” lays out my strategic argument:

Here’s the strategic bottom line for Israel:

Six million people cannot continue indefinitely to piss off three hundred million without consequences.

Mahmoud Abbas is not Israel’s real problem. The problem is the Arab Spring. Israel has survived for sixty years because of Arab weakness. But Israel’s strategic advantage has been eroding since at least 1982 and will evaporate if the Arab countries ever gets their act even halfway together – which they are finally starting to do. Israel needs to cut a deal with Palestine soon while it’s still in a position to get tolerable terms.

As for our part, the United States needs to stop enabling Israel’s self-destructive intransigence before it’s too late. We should start by not vetoing Palestinian statehood when it comes before the Security Council.

Click here for the full post in the context of the ongoing discussion — but you’ll have to come back to this site to comment.

Appearances – “Hell and Back Again” documentary showing & discussion

This Wednesday, the 21st, I’ll be participating in a panel discussion of the Afghan war and its consequences for American veterans at American University, after a showing of the documentary Hell and Back Again. The event is free but places are limited, so click here to reserve online.

The filmmaker, Danfung Dennis, was embedded with a U.S. Marine Corps unit in Afghanistan when they came under fire and one of the Marines, Sergeant Nathan Harris, was badly injured. Dennis decided to follow Sgt. Harris’s return and recovery, combining footage shot in the U.S. and in Afghanistan to show both sides of one veteran’s story. Clips and more information about the film are available online.

Publications – Keeping faith with our veterans

The AOL Defense website has published another piece of mine on the human side of this war, entitled “The Next 10 Years: Keeping faith with our veterans“:

Americans are understandably weary of our nation’s longest war. But even when the last troops come home from Afghanistan – which they won’t for at least three years – their battles won’t be over, and they’ll still need our support. Just as there are almost three million World War II veterans still alive today, we will be dealing with veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq well into the 2080s….

(For the full story, click the words above.)

Quoted in the article are two participants from my oral history interviews: one anonymous to protect their family’s privacy and Matthew Wiese, US Air Force (whose story is told in detail here). There are also some words from Medal of Honor recipient Leroy Petry, US Army Rangers.

If you want to go into more depth, I’d recommend reading two past articles of mine on military families and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as other stories on the human cost of the past ten years of war.

All readers are welcome to comment below.

Appearances – I explain 9-11 to Romanians

Our Romanian friends at have once again posted an interview with me, this time on the anniversary of 9/11. Since most of you probably don’t speak Romanian — I certainly don’t — their translated version is probably less useful than my English original, here: Freedberg on 9-11 anniversary – 2011-09-14.

A brief excerpt (from the English version):

As I kept going to my office, I heard someone on his cell phone talking about some kind of plane crash in New York. I believe the second plane had hit even before I got to work. My colleagues and I watched the first tower fall on live TV: I remember the television reporter saying that a cloud of dust had suddenly blocked his view of the south tower, and one of my colleagues said, “It’s gone.”

We had an editorial meeting on how to cover the attack before the second tower fell. I remember saying, panicked, “Do you think they aren’t having their own meeting to plan their next attack, right now?” (I was wrong). By 1:30 that afternoon, I was on the phone to a ex-CIA source of mine. His voice shook audibly: “I don’t understand…I don’t think there’s any excuse for missing this.”

Publications – how the Army mismanages its people

The good folks over at AOL Defense have posted another article of mine about the future of the Army, this one about the human dimension:

America’s soldiers have learned a lot over the last 10 years, most of it the hard way, but that irreplaceable expertise could walk out the door in the coming drawdown if the Army doesn’t figure out how to manage its people better. Despite everything else that’s changed since September 2001, the ugly reality of 2011 is that the Army still trains its personnel, assigns them jobs, and promotes them through a centralized, bureaucratic system that was already dysfunctional in World War II and that Donald Rumsfeld was trying to reform back in 2001, before he got distracted…..

(Click above for the full story).

Rumsfeld, in fact, cited a National Journal story of mine on the subject at a press conference – back in August 2001. A month later, his mind was on other things, but the Army has still (mostly) solved one of the two big problems I wrote about in ’01. Unfortunately, the other half of my story remains just as relevant ten years on. While the Army personnel bureaucracy no longer routinely sabotages teambuilding (kind of important in combat) by shuffling individuals from unit to unit, it still tries to micromanage military careers in ways that make it hard to develop skills in, say, foreign cultures. National Journal has graciously allowed me to reprint the text of that 2001 piece here, since it’s no longer accessible on their site: Reforming the Ranks – National Journal 2001-08-08.

The current story quotes three servicemembers who participated in oral history interviews with me: Maj. Trent Gibson, US Marine Corps; Capt. Paul McCullough, US Army; and former Army major Christopher Cummings. Also relevant are the personnel (mis)management misadventures of another soldier I had the honor to interview, Army Maj. Shaw Pick; click here for his story.

Readers are encouraged to comment below.

Commentary – Optimistic about Libya, Pessimistic about Syria

The Arab Spring’s turn towards bloodshed remains, rightly, topic number one over at the National Journal security blog. I’ve commented lately on both Libya and Syria. 

Today’s optimistic post on the fall of Qaddafi:

Certainly it’s a mess. Certainly, everyone involved screwed up in ways that cost human lives – but war is like that even when you win. Certainly, Libya is just beginning a long and dangerous journey that could lead to chaos or renewed tyranny – but revolutions are like that, including ours in 1775. And frankly even a new authoritarian regime would be an improvement on Qaddafi as long as the new strongman met the minimum standards of (1) not sponsoring terrorism, (2) not gunning down crowds of protestors, and (3) not being batshit insane. But I think Libya can do a lot better than that…

Last week’s pessimistic comment on the endurance of the Assad regime:

Whoa, slow down. We’re “preparing for a post-Assad Syria”? Contingency planning is a good idea – look what a mess we made of Iraq when we didn’t plan – but Assad’s exit probably won’t come soon, if it comes at all. Whether, how, and when he falls, furthermore, has very little to do with what any outside power says or does, and arguably least of all what the U.S. might do….

For my full posts in the context of the moderators’ questions and other contributors’ responses, go to this week’s ongoing discussion on Libya or last week’s on Syria – but as always with the NJ blog, you’ll have to come back here to comment yourself.

Commentary – the Tea Party has a point (but)

My latest over at National Journal’s expert blog:

I can’t stand the Tea Party, but I give them points for consistency. There’s always been a bizarre bifurcation in the Reagan Republican mind that all government programs are a waste of money and should be cut, except for the military, which in this worldview miraculously avoids the problems of waste, fraud, abuse, and bureaucracy that afflict, say, Food Stamps or Head Start. …. The Republicans’ newfound willingness to address the defense budget is frankly sensible in the context of our ongoing economic mess.

For the full post in context of the ongoing discussion, go to this week’s thread on the NJ blog – but you’ll have to come back here to comment.