Military Discipline, Political Pressure, and the Post-Cold War World

By Casey, P. C. | The World and I, August 1999 | Go to article overview

Military Discipline, Political Pressure, and the Post-Cold War World


Casey, P. C., The World and I


No one wants to contemplate what would happen if America were to send its soldiers into a situation that they were unprepared to meet. We have done that more than once in our history. We do not care to do it again. Yet, we may be risking exactly that--not just through the usual comparisons of the growing Balkan conflict with Vietnam's gradual escalation--but more insidiously through having dismantled the means by which our forces control lethal violence.

We are accustomed to discussing military readiness in material terms. But what about that which Sun-tzu and Maj. Gen. Carl von Clausewitz both emphasized as first among the factors in war? What about moral influence and its by-product, military discipline? Are the American armed forces capable of matching the dedication-to-cause that the Serbs are demonstrating? Can we sustain a slogging ground war against an enemy capable of going to extreme lengths to achieve its objectives?

The case is dubious at best.

Over the last ten years, PC politics and entrenched Cold War survivalism have prevented America's defense leadership from refitting military philosophy to meet the very different military environment of the post--Cold War world. Instead, these leaders have clung doggedly to total war premises, arguing from the familiar and failing to appreciate the true implications of communism's collapse. As a result, senior military leaders have caved in to domestic pressure for sweeping force structure changes to keep funding for high-cost weapons systems that have difficulty discriminating between trucks and tractors. In the process, the principles beneath military discipline have been attacked, maligned, and in many cases, completely discarded. Stripped of many of those principles that classically provided restraint within war's violence, the All- Volunteer Force now struggles along without effective replacements, making moral influence and military discipline highly questionable.

Ironically, at the same time, the post--Cold War environment has rendered the highest levels of military discipline essential. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, U.S. military missions have increased astronomically in both number and complexity. From patrolling in the war against drugs to humanitarian relief in Somalia to political stabilization in Haiti to peacekeeping in Bosnia to conventional containment in Iraq and Korea to the current attempt to stop genocide from the air, we demand that our forces be ready for anything. Yet, none of these contingencies involve the "survival" rationales that make the use of deadly force relatively straightforward for soldiers.

To make matters worse, the international press corps seems determined to hold NATO forces to an astronomically high standard for behavior on the battlefield. Just witness the NATO briefing of the convoy bombing in southwest Kosovo and its aftermath. If the politicians governing the crisis become even more reactive to criticism over collateral damage while pressure to eject the Serb army from Kosovo increases, then NATO will have to send in ground forces.

All this means that we are likely to send our soldiers into an enormously complex moral environment. To understand this point better, consider that as today's high-tech forces have put tremendously destructive firepower into the hands of increasingly junior leaders, the changing nature of their missions has elevated these same young leaders to the level of semi-independent instruments of foreign policy.1 More and more, they find themselves having to assess morally complex situations and act instantly in ways that will not only accomplish the mission but do it without damaging the international status of the United States. America's reputation often comes to lie in a corporal's hands. One morally false step may have a profound impact as live television broadcasts that corporal's actions around the world via satellite.

With operational areas saturated in civilians and missions grounded in political rather than survival justifications, the potential for disaster is extreme. …

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