Yes, says the general: Ground troops may be necessary

Here’s today’s lede story for The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal:

Dempsey opens door to combat troops in Iraq

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff raised the possibility Tuesday that U.S. troops could become involved in ground attacks against the Islamic State, despite repeated pledges to the contrary from President Obama.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee that U.S. military advisers are helping Iraqi government forces prepare for a major offensive to reclaim territory seized by the Islamic State in recent months. Although the advisers have been assigned primarily to assist with planning and coordination, Dempsey for the first time suggested that they eventually could go into the field on combat missions.

“If we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific [Islamic State] targets, I’ll recommend that to the president,” he testified….

Maybe we can degrade and destroy ISIL with only air power. But as I’ve said before, we don’t know that we can — which is why it is ill-advised, sinking to the level of “doing stupid (stuff),” to rule out using ground troops on the front end. (Saying you don’t want to do it is one thing. Saying on the front end that you won’t is another matter.)

Ground combat troops could become necessary. Which is why a senior general officer, who must have plans for all contingencies, would say what Gen. Dempsey said. And why the president shouldn’t have said what he said.

Going into a fluid military situation, you can’t know that it won’t become necessary to resort to ground combat. You just can’t.

50 thoughts on “Yes, says the general: Ground troops may be necessary

  1. bud

    Brad, rather than mix it up with you in a never ending battle of point counter-point let me just pose a few simple questions: What do you believe will happen if we simply pull all our troops and military assets out of the middle-east? Will we have more or fewer domestic terrorist attacks against the U.S. homeland? Will oil and gasoline prices rise? Will the American economy suffer? Will our way of life in any material way be degraded 5-10-20 years from now?

    1. Silence

      bud – nature abhors a vacuum. If the United States pulls out of an area, either militarily or economically, another country will come in to fill the void. In the case of the Middle East, it might be China, or Russia, or it might be a regional struggle for power. Pick your combatants, it could be Sunni/Shia, or Persian/Arab or Hashemite/Saud, or any number of permutations. It’s fairly unpredictable, but the smart money says it will also be very undesirable, and unstable. The situation with ISIS/ISIL is a great example of this, where the Iraqi army was weak, the ISIL forces were able to take control of a large swath of Iraq. None of the countries in the region trust each other much, leading to military buildups and tenuous alliances.
      Would we have more terrorist attacks against the US? That’s hard to say, but I don’t think that pulling out of the region will make them like us any more than they already do. If a pullback is perceived as weakness, or as us not having the stomach for war, then it’s highly likely they will be enboldened. We didn’t have much if any involvement in Afghanistan prior to 9/11/01, but they still decided to attack us.
      Would oil and gas prices rise? Probably, especially if foreign military or non-state actors threaten shipping lanes, oil producing regions or ports.
      Would our economy suffer? Hard to say. Maybe we’d get more reliant on domestic energy, or better at conservation, and spend less money on defense.
      Would our way of life be degraded? Depends on if you like worshipping God or Allah… j/k I doubt it would.

    1. Doug Ross

      Graham is our Rob Ford – comedy gold.

      I wish Hutto would run some ads showing that clip of Graham claiming we’re all going to be killed by ISIS.

  2. Bryan Caskey

    Ok, I’ll bite.

    What do you believe will happen if we simply pull all our troops and military assets out of the middle-east?

    I think we have a pretty good example of what will happen, since we just did that in Iraq when President Obama pulled all of our troops and military assets out of Iraq. The middle-east will become chaotic, unstable, and the most extreme and barbaric elements will rise to power over weaker people. There will be mass killings, torture, and rape on religious grounds. You know, basic “religion of peace” kind of stuff.

    Will we have more or fewer domestic terrorist attacks against the U.S. homeland?
    Huh. I would have to say that it might be more likely that Islamic jihadists will try to attack us if they thrive in the middle-east. Now, maybe they could just confine their mass killings, rape, and torture to their immediate neighbors, but the jihadists don’t really have a track record of doing that. Eventually, they’ll run out of infidels to kill, rape, and mutilate over there, and we happen have a large supply of infidels here in the USA.

    Will oil and gasoline prices rise?
    An unstable, chaotic, and war-torn middle-east controlled by Islamic jihadists doesn’t seem like a good factor for low oil prices to me, but I’m just spit-ballin’ here.

    Will the American economy suffer?
    Maybe. I don’t know. More expensive oil isn’t conducive to a booming economy. But don’t worry, I hear Solyndra is doing great things.

    Will our way of life in any material way be degraded 5-10-20 years from now?
    If the Islamic Jihadists just leave us alone, probably not. If they decide not to leave us alone, then being killed is kind of a bad thing for the person who gets killed. It really ruins your whole day. Right now, jihadists are threatening to “drown us in our own blood”, they’re calling for lone wolves to bomb cities, they’re claiming they are at “war” with us because we are infidels, and they’re hoping for a glorious martyrdom. Either we take them at their word, or we ignore them.

    1. Doug Ross

      “The middle-east will become chaotic, unstable, and the most extreme and barbaric elements will rise to power over weaker people. There will be mass killings, torture, and rape on religious grounds. You know, basic “religion of peace” kind of stuff.??

      When did this description NOT apply to the Middle East?

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yeah, I just didn’t even know where to start on answering Bud’s question. Bryan did fine. Probably the best part was this: “I think we have a pretty good example of what will happen, since we just did that in Iraq when President Obama pulled all of our troops and military assets out of Iraq. ”

      But then, if you would ask a question like the one Bud asks, you don’t really give a damn what happens in Iraq or anywhere else after you leave. The presumption that underlies his question, that underlies even his ability to conceive of such a question, is that what happens outside the U.S. borders doesn’t matter….

  3. Phillip

    If we are going to send ground troops into combat, let us re-establish the draft immediately. If we are truly on the verge of “all being killed here at home,” as our terrified-out-of-his-wits Senator says, then the only just thing is for the burden of sacrifice to be shared absolutely equally by all sectors of American society. The children of the well-to-do, middle-class, and less-well-off should all be the ones whose lives we have decreed must go on the line, if this threat is what some purport it to be.

      1. Doug Ross

        I think Phillip’s point is that if the country wants to go to war, let’s prove it by making everyone buy into it. I think a draft would cause more people to question the wisdom of our policies. It’s what got us out of Vietnam. My father, a Coast Guard and Korean War veteran, made it clear that he would send my older brother to Canada to live with relatives had he reached draft age during Vietnam. There hasn’t been a “war” worthy of a draft since then.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Right. And we don’t need another Vietnam.

          My instinct is to be for a draft. It just fits with my communitarian urges. Only a draft that would have allowed ME to serve, instead of one in which I would have been 4F.

          But we don’t need what happened in Vietnam — an Army full of conscripts with bad attitudes (which is why military people tend not to want a draft), and the antiwar movement on American campuses back home tearing the country apart.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            You’ll note that when I say “we don’t need another Vietnam,” I mean something different from what antiwar folks — who see Vietnam in every armed conflict — mean.

          2. Brad Warthen Post author

            Here’s another problem with a draft — I like the idea of EVERYBODY doing their national service, which is why I say I want “a draft that would have allowed ME to serve, instead of one in which I would have been 4F.”

            But if you step away from what I want and look at practicalities… One of the great advantages of a draft is that the SELECTIVE Service would be able to choose from the whole population, and could choose the fittest, most able recruits, thereby filling all of the berths with the best possible candidates.

    1. Silence

      “let us re-establish the draft immediately” – That’s easy for a 53 year old classical pianist who’s in no danger of ever being drafted to say….

      1. Doug Ross

        Same applies to a 59 year old Senator who’s battlefield experience amounts to a paper cut suffered during the Xerox Paper Loading Offensive of 1982.

          1. Silence

            You mean the one who is a full-bird Colonel in the Air Force Reserve, and who volunteered to serve in the Air Force after he graduated from law school? That tells me that if Uncle Sam had ever wanted to send him anywhere, he was ready to go.

            1. Doug Ross

              Yeah, that guy. You mean he never had an opportunity to put himself in harm’s way during his military career?

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      I’ve sort of answered Phillip elsewhere in this thread, but let me pull it all together here.

      I’ve always thought we should have a draft, and a fully inclusive draft (for males), so that I would have been able to serve. We would be a better country if that were the case. We WERE a better country when we had a draft before. I have this sort of Unified Field Theory of politics, which holds that our politics got really nasty, partisanship got really out of hand, when young men who never had to face the draft (or who pulled strings to get out of it when we had it) started to get to the point that they were in key positions in our political system.

      Nowadays, our politics is dominated by people who see those of the other party as “the enemy,” to be defeated at all costs. The couple of generations before them knew better than that. They had been part of something larger than themselves and their little circles of people who viewed the world the way they did. They were thrown together with other guys from every possible demographic and point of view, they all had their heads shaved and wore the same clothes and learned that the greatest sin in the world is to call your rifle a “gun.”

      But the main thing they learned was that they were all Americans, and petty differences such as whether you were a Democrat or Republican mattered very little when stacked against that.

      We don’t have that today. We haven’t had that great equalizing and unifying experience in our formative years.

      So yeah, I really like the idea of a draft.

      But then, there’s this problem: In terms of what the country needs militarily, do we need a draft? Not according to the people who run the military. They want people who are motivated to be there, not sad sacks who spend their time sneaking away and smoking dope rather than getting the job done. Military officers greatly prefer commanding the troops we have now, compared to what we had in Vietnam.

      And if we DID have a draft, and configured it in a way that made it of the greatest military utility, it would be SELECTIVE. The one advantage of having a draft, from the standpoint of having an effective military, is that you have the whole population to choose from, and can pick the strongest, healthiest, smartest, most adaptable recruits.

      So they still wouldn’t want me and my chronic asthma and weird food allergies. Hey, they might even be so selective as to reject me for wearing glasses.

      Anyway, it’s a complicated issue.

      Of course, the biggest argument against a draft is that many of the people who advocate it do so because they wish to cripple us militarily. They are opposed to military action in general, and believe that having a draft would prevent us from using our military.

      I don’t think they’re right, but if they are, well, there’s a big reason not to have a draft…

      1. Norm Ivey

        I volunteered Navy (nuclear) and was rejected because of color-blindness. I applied for a waiver and was rejected for all services because I wore (really thick) glasses. It happens.

        I wouldn’t mind a draft with options that allowed you to choose to serve in the Peace Corp or Americorps or in some other service to the public field (or the military).

    3. Brad Warthen Post author

      Oh, and let me answer that “our terrified-out-of-his-wits Senator” comment.

      Do you think Lindsey Graham is gripped by fear? I see no indication of that. I see a guy who is elected to a position that requires that he think about the security and interests of the United States. And he sees certain actions as being necessary to preserve that security and advance those interests.

      I see no indication whatsoever that he, personally, is “terrified.”

      That idea that people who believe in acting aggressively to counter terrorism are motivated by fear is one of the more absurd canards that I have heard over the past 13 years. If you’re in charge of a country, you have certain obligations to act to preserve the security of that country and its people and its interests. You don’t act out of “fear,” but out of a sober assessment of threats to the country of which you are a steward. You can’t help the fact that some of your countrymen engage in magical thinking and think those threats are nonexistent. You have to go ahead and advocate for the actions that you believe are warranted.

      And you should be able to do so without people going around calling you a coward, without any justification at all.

  4. Phillip

    What, you want to make it personal, Silence? I don’t bring whatever it is you do or your age into these comments. Are any of us draft eligible here on the blog? Isn’t just “as easy to say” for anyone here on the blog to advocate the use of troops against ISIS if there is NOT a draft?

    Anyway, I have a 7 year old son and in Lindsay Graham’s dreamworld, we’ll be at fully-mobilized war in the Mideast well into the time he would be draft-eligible. Still, if these threats are as stated, wouldn’t it be just and equitable if the burden were spread across society equally? It would make us have to decide “for real,” and not just on the basis of headline-news-hysteria, the depth and extent of an actual threat to the United States.

    1. Doug Ross

      Lindsey’s lucky in that he’s never found the right woman to settle down with and have a family, so he’ll never have to face the decision of sending a son or daughter to war.

      If you have kids, you should be able to say “I would send my own child to fight this battle” if it is that important.

    2. Silence

      Sorry! I did not mean to touch a nerve! I think there’s a few here who are still “draft eligible” if we go by WW2 standards (18-45, later reduced to 38). Despite my advanced age and frail nature, I’ve come under enemy fire in both Iraq and Afghanistan, working in support of OIF/OEF. I’m certainly not scared to do my part, and I’m sure you aren’t either, but it’s easy for folks who aren’t eligible for a draft to advocate one.
      Would I rather my children not go to war? You bet. Any day of the week.
      Isn’t having a volunteer military an equal burden? Nobody is being forced to sign up, therefore nobody has to go live in Canada. Hopefully our leaders are making decisions based on facts, and not getting caught up in any headline-news-hysteria. I’m sure that there are things that Obama or Lindsey Graham are privy to that we are not.

      1. Doug Ross

        So when Graham says they are going to kill us all, you think he’s speaking from a position of having information that supports that claim? Is he the only one with access to that information? Because I’m not hearing the same claims from our other lawmakers.

        1. Silence

          I think most or all of the members of congress and the administration have access to the same facts. I think there’s a difference of opinion about what the appropriate interpretation is. I happen to think that Graham is correct in this case. I think if there’s a good chance that even with American air strikes, our regional allies will be unable to reverse the gains that ISIS/ISIL has made. I also agree that they will strike us here (or wherever else) if and when they are able.

          1. Mark Stewart

            Which is why the military action side of this is so much less important than the political and social marginalization of the extremists. And that is why the entire region is such a toxic mess – there are no allies over there, and no real enemies either.

            A big step forward would simply be to stop calling a group ISIS – or anything with “State” in it. Why have we bought their propaganda? Why has the world not reframed the naming of them?

          2. Doug Ross

            @Silence – so you honestly believe that ISIS has the capacity to kill us all? ALL OF US. Not some random terrorist act like 9/11 or the Boston bombers. ALL OF US.

            Because that’s what Lindsey said. Now, if he said that about Russia, I might believe him a little bit.

            1. Silence

              All? Did he say all? That just might be hyperbole. Certainly they would if they could. I think random (or less random, well coordinated) acts are more likely.

            2. Doug Ross

              “”Our strategy will fail yet again,” he said. “This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed here at home.” “

    3. Brad Warthen Post author

      Phillip, it’s not “in Lindsay Graham’s dreamworld” that we would be at war with ISIL years from now.

      That’s what President Obama said — that this will take years.

      And of course, he’s right. And that won’t stop the average inattentive American from going “are we there yet?” from five minutes after the first air strike.

      Oh, by the way — in reply to all the scorn heaped on Graham for saying ISIL is a threat, who said this?

      If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States. While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies. Our intelligence community believes that thousands of foreigners, including Europeans and some Americans, have joined them in Syria and Iraq. Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.

      Right. Barack Obama

  5. Bryan Caskey

    Well, since y’all got all off-topic, let me bring this back around and answer my own question.

    “Still, if these threats are as stated, wouldn’t it be just and equitable if the burden were spread across society equally?”

    No, it wouldn’t. The US Military is not where you practice social justice for the sake of socializing military service across society. The US military has the primary mission of killing people and breaking things. Yes, I know we send them to do other things (to help with Ebola and such), but the primary mission is to kill people and break things. Accordingly, anything that makes the military less effective at the primary mission is not a policy we want to enact. When you send men into harm’s way, you want motivated and intelligent young men who want to be there, who have a bond of service. It takes time to build cohesiveness in a close combat infantry unit.

    Close infantry combat is where soldiers in the US Army take the most casualties. It’s not the Navy, it’s not the Air Force. It’s the infantryman in the Army who have to engage in close combat. That’s where you’d be sending these draftees.

    Sending a unit comprised of draftees who presumably do not want to serve (or they would have already volunteered) is sending a unit of amateurs. They can “learn on the job”, but the price of that lesson is measured in dead and wounded soldiers. We learned that in WWII.

    Moreover, in today’s military, you have to be more intelligent to use the hardware that close combat ground infantry units use. This isn’t 1914 anymore, where you get a bolt-action rifle and a uniform. Sending soldiers who are not properly trained, who aren’t bonded well, and don’t really want to be there is perfect recipe for getting them killed – especially when you send them into the face of a brutal, savage, and battle-hardened enemy like ISIS.

    There is ONE reason you have a draft. The only reason you have a draft is when you actually do not have enough men to get the job done. It’s not imposed on the US Army to “make a social point” about the seriousness of war. Proposing the draft to make that point is a fundamentally un-serious proposition that disregards the unnecessarily death toll that would be the inescapable result.

    Oh, and you don’t think that powerful politicians and other rich and powerful folks couldn’t game the draft to get deferments or plum positions for their chosen few? Just look back at the draft during Vietnam. That’s what happened. So you end up getting more men killed than necessary, and you still don’t achieve your misguided goal of socializing the burden of military service.

    It would make us have to decide “for real,” and not just on the basis of headline-news-hysteria, the depth and extent of an actual threat to the United States.

    No, it wouldn’t. There is one person in the United States government who decides “for real” about when to use military force. He’s the Commander in Chief of the United States Military a/k/a The President. If the President is given to committing the US military on the basis of “headline-news-hysteria” then he’s not fit to be President. Fortunately, our Presidents (the current one included) take this power with great seriousness.

    1. Silence

      All that aside, it takes a lot longer to train modern warriors than it did to train our forefathers back in the olden days. In anything short of a full-scale mobilization or a protracted occupation, the fighting would be over before you got the first class through basic training, AIT, etc. If we wanted to reinstate a draft, we’d need to build up our professional officer corps, NCO corps, training bases, etc. It would take years if we did it during peacetime, or removed from the threat of invasion.
      Plus, soldiers are expensive. You can hire contractors to do things far more cheaply. Things like: Fix chow, clean latrines, fix airplanes, repair computers, etc. Things that soldiers either don’t want to do, or can’t be trained to do well or quickly. Then you aren’t supporting a 5-million person army for the few occasions you need to go fight.

  6. Phillip

    Bryan, you make some good points there on the advantages of a volunteer vs. draft army. As for the fitness of the current President on the basis of the seriousness with which he takes the decision of having troops on the ground overseas or not, score one for Obama on the basis of his (to date) conservatism on that front, in spite of the call from many to send troops hither and thither. (Or to keep them in harm’s way when a host country does not even want them there). (Granting Brad’s point that it is probably unwise and purely an act of political convenience to rule out using ground troops ahead of time, though I’m sure that promise won’t necessarily hold).

    Silence, apology accepted. But I still don’t understand the logic of the point (repeated in your reply) that “it’s easy for folks who aren’t eligible for a draft to advocate one.” Yes it is easy, but no easier than for those not going to fight against ISIS to advocate for ground troops or major American military involvement into what is still primarily a inter-Muslim civil war, with or without a draft. It’s not an argument either way, for or against a draft, for or against war.

    Brad, there’s no comparison between Obama’s nuanced and balanced assessment you quoted about the seriousness of the ISIS danger and Graham’s completely unhinged ravings. I think even a Graham defender like yourself can recognize that he’s starting to “jump the shark.”

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Well, Phillip, I can feel his frustration. I happen to look at national and collective security issues much the way he and John McCain do, and if you see things that way, you’re frustrated.

      It made no sense to pull out of Iraq. Having fought and sacrificed American lives there, we should have maintained a significant military base there, like the ones we have all over the world, to act as a local deterrent to the likes of ISIL. Yet we live in a world in which that was not going to happen, because of the political atmosphere in this country. If George W. Bush were still president, we still would have pulled out of Iraq — which is one reason why I get tired of President Obama constantly bragging on himself for pulling out, like that wasn’t going to happen anyway. I’d like to think Bush would have found a way to maintain a residual force there, but there’s no guarantee that he could have made it happen.

      And that’s frustrating, because I believe that leaving such vacuums behind is dangerous — ISIL has demonstrated that.

      And yeah, the vacuum exists because of what people like Graham and McCain and Lieberman and I advocated — we got rid of Saddam (accomplishing a goal that had been the official policy of the United States since 1998, a fact most Americans like to forget). But because our nation did that, our nation has a greater obligation not to leave that vacuum for ISIL or Iran or some other unsavory options to fill.

      We have a biggish military, in spite of all the budget cuts (and in spite of not having a draft). It has to be somewhere. The best places for it to be is in places where its presence has a stabilizing effect — Germany ever since 1945, the Balkans since the 90s, and Iraq would have been another excellent place for our forces to maintain a foothold.

      But no. We had to pull out. And that’s frustrating. So I kind of understand when an edge creeps into Graham’s voice…

      You could see my frustration in my disgust at Americans being “tired of war

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Oh, and speaking of Lindsey’s tone…

        I am more than tired of Jon Stewart putting on his “silly gay Southerner” voice to mock our senior senator.

        What’s that all about anyway? Why is it OK to mock someone with such a vicious caricature in an era in which gay-bashing is socially unacceptable?

        We heard some of it in the clip Burl linked to above, but at other times it’s been far more extreme. Look at this clip from a year ago. The offensive part starts at about 1:40.

        Stewart has this thing where he likes to mock the sexuality of Southern men with voices that he regards as less than fully masculine. Remember when he did that to Larry Marchant when he was alleging a relationship with Nikki Haley? (“That guy seems flamingly Southern to me. Like Truman Capote Southern, or Tennessee Williams Southern…”) I found that offensive, too.

      2. Phillip

        “we should have maintained a significant military base there, like the ones we have all over the world, to act as a local deterrent to the likes of ISIL.”

        —you mean like the way the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s acted as a local deterrent to those 20 guys, mostly Saudis, who crashed planes into the WTC in 2001. Or the way that our troops in Iraq in the 2000s prevented the creation of something called Al Qaeda in Iraq, the forerunner of ISIS?

        1. Silence

          There’s a large contingent of military and similar folks who think we should have never left certain operating locations in South-West Asia.

  7. bud

    What evidence is there that our continued, ongoing presence in the Middle-east makes it BETTER for civilians in the middle-east? I think we make it worse. We act as a sort of catalyst for the extremists. Once we leave things will gradually settle down.

    1. Silence

      bud, I think that’s naive and ignores about a thousand years of Middle East history. Things will probably never “settle down” there until one side is obliterated. It’s sort of like saying “Well, eventually the Nazi’s will stop killing Jews if we just ignore them.” Technically, the statement is correct, but ignores the fact that they’d not have stopped until they ran out of Jews.

      So yes, eventually the Sunni’s or the Shia’s or the twelvers or seveners or someone would wipe out or dominate the other sects/tribes/nations, and then things would settle down. In the meantime, things would be pretty nasty.

    1. Doug Ross

      Short answer: no.

      Longer answer: Please explain how the U.S. government can degrade and destroy any terrorist organization to the point where there are fewer than 15 members. 9/11 was carried out by 20 guys with box cutters. For lack of a lock on a cockpit door, thousands were killed. There is nothing that can be done to prevent those types of attacks. It’s easy to fight a war against an army. It’s impossible to eliminate terrorism.

      Considering the ease with which people can cross our borders without detection, it isn’t difficult to imagine scenarios where small bands of terrorists enter the U.S. and wreak havoc with targeted attacks on unprotected assets (bridges, water supplies, stadiums, or just small scale bombings like Boston that put fear into the minds of people).

      1. Bryan Caskey

        Considering the ease with which people can cross our borders without detection…

        If only there was some way we could construct a physical barrier to prevent this. Maybe one day an advanced technology can solve this problem. Until then, I guess we’ll continue with our strategy of “hoping we continue to be lucky”. That’s worked so far. Maybe it will continue to work.

        1. Doug Ross

          Rather than building a wall, my idea is to dispatch a fleet of drones with live feed cameras patrolling the borders… then open up the feeds to anyone who wants to spend the time monitoring them. See something suspicious? Click a button (sort of like upvoting posts on Redditt).. Enough clicks generates a message to law enforcement. We’ll hold off on arming the drones with laser beams til later.

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