When I was a young lad, I was a fan, along with my father, Ernest Hemingway, and Winston Churchill, of C. S. Forester's rousing seagoing adventure tales, featuring Horatio Hornblower.
Hornblower was a fictional British Navy officer during the Napoleonic Wars. His exploits, I later learned, were based on real ones, primarily by Lord Cochrane, an astonishing fellow if there ever was one. I presume that Hornblower's entire fictional world likewise had its roots in reality. As a standard of comparison, far more so than reality TV.
One of the most striking features of the stories was that every time something went wrong—a ship sunk, a battle lost, even a victory won in a way that defied orders—Hornblower would be called up before a court martial. The term had less of the criminal connotation than it does today. It was more like a board of inquiry, but it was very stern and very severe.
So, although he was always right—and we, the readers, knew it—Horatio was always at risk of never having a command again.
Presuming this was an accurate portrait, it is also clear that these ruthless reviews and severe standards had to have been a vitally important factor in the success of the British Navy, one of the most successful forces in military history.
What about our heroes? The real-life ones, in real-life military actions today.
Jim Gourley, the military culture correspondent for Foreign Policy, wrote: "It is incontrovertibly evident that the US military failed to achieve any of its strategic goals in Iraq. Evaluated according to the goals set forth by our military leadership, the war ended in utter defeat for our forces. The cost of the war alone accounts for 10 percent of the current US national debt, and cost 176,000 lives by conservative estimates. Throughout, the military has repeatedly bungled the care of its service members and their families, wounded and otherwise."
Thank you, Jim, for stating that so clearly. He summed it up: "Our leadership can't figure out how to win a war."
What's the military done about itself?
The best military journalist we have, Thomas Ricks, wrote in the Atlantic, that "hundreds of Army generals were deployed to the field, and the available evidence indicates that not one was relieved by the military brass for combat ineffectiveness."
It must be noted here, that there is another narrative. Websites like America-wake-up.com and Standupamericaus.com, are alarmed, very alarmed, and you should be too, that an unprecedented 197 senior officers have been dismissed in five years! Actually, the list contains mostly commanders and captains, even a command sergeant major. It is a "purge" by Obama, who is "intentionally weakening and gutting our military." It portends "radical change," even preparation for Obama's war against the United States.
Almost all of them were dismissed for bits of misconduct—sexual indiscretions leading the tally, but also such oddities as using counterfeit chips at a casino and claiming it would be treason to criticize a particular aircraft to members of Congress. (These can't be the real reasons, according to right-wing websites.)
The list does reveal two officers relieved for "combat ineffectiveness," Marine Major Generals Sturdevant and Gurganus, both for failing to adequately protect their troops from a Taliban attack in Camp Bastion in Afghanistan.
But what of the greater failures?
We've had a 15-year war in Afghanistan. It appears to be in a greater shambles—in terms of US interests—than when it started.
Remember, the point of that war was primarily to get Osama bin Laden.
We've had great celebrations, including a major motion picture, over finally killing him. But wait, it took 10 years! Back in 2002, I offered the Beinhart challenge, give me $20 billion and I'll get the guy. This was something I was grossly incompetent to attempt, so the point was that anyone with $20 billion—and no consequence for their actions—should be able to kill anyone else.
Actually, it cost at least $400 billion, maybe even twice that much, over 1,000 US soldiers dead, over 9,600 wounded, before we "got" bin Laden.
Who are the people who spent so much, in money and blood, to accomplish so little?
Every few weeks there's a story about Iraqi troops collapsing when opposed by...well, anyone. They were American trained. By whom? Which general? Who signed off on them and said, "They're ready to go!"
Since both George W. Bush and Barack Obama accepted the idea of pulling US troops out of Iraq, it is fair to assume that their military advisers did not say, "Well, sure, but it's going to be good for Iran and good for some new radical groups, and expect the place to fall to pieces."
Going back further, what about the officers who thought you could have an invasion of Iraq without an occupation? And when it became painfully obvious that one was necessary, didn't know how to plan or carry one out, even though they have their own manuals on the subject from WWII.
The only senior officers I know of, beyond the two cited above, who have suffered any consequences for anything are David Petraeus, prosecuted for adultery (We're kidding, right? He of The Surge, the only Hero General of the two wars, dismissed for having sex! With someone who was both an adult and a female!); Stanley A. McChrystal, who spoke too frankly in front of a Rolling Stone reporter; and General Eric Shinseki, who told Rumsfeld, correctly, that the invasion of Iraq needed more troops.
This last, the dismissal of Shinseki for being right, by Rumsfeld, one of the crew of the Always Wrong, indicates that there is a complex overlap of the military, the intelligence industry, and civilian politics. So, yes, there's lot of blame to go around.
But does that mean that the military has no responsibility? That they must always be heroes no matter how egregious their failures? Horatio Hornblower must be rolling over in his fictitious grave. Or dying—all over again—of envy, to live in a system where there are no penalties for failure.
We will have a debate about the military. The Republicans will thump their chests, cry that Democrats are wimps about invading more countries, and say we must give the military more money. The Democrats will say they love our troops just as much and, yes, bombing people in foreign lands is justice and feels so good (though not as good as it makes Republicans feel).
The debate we should have is about what the military can accomplish. How can they effect different missions? Can we develop an officer class that can actually bring success? Or are we stuck with corporate social climbers?
But we won't have that debate.
Although, based on results, military intelligence is still the classic oxymoron, we, the people, love our military. According to Gallup, about 75 percent of Americans have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the military, while only 33 percent trust the medical system and a mere 7 percent trust Congress.
So, if you were a politician, would you criticize a group of people that the voters like 10 times more than they like you? So, incompetents rise through the ranks. Vast sums are spent. Much of it going to contractors who get richer and richer, producing nothing.
We, the taxpayers, love them and give them more and more money. Who's the moron?