Americans searching for leaders will find hope in a new generation of veterans shaped by service during the Global War on Terror (GWOT). Those who led, bled, and carried dead in America’s foreign wars understand what’s best about this nation and how to preserve it. I served in combat commands in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I have no doubt that America will find its future leaders among the talented young officers with whom I served.
Military service over the last two decades can do a lot to prepare someone for action in the public arena. But former service members must break free of the servile mindset pervading the U.S. military if they are to rise to the leadership challenges facing America. To advance in today’s military, asking questions, calling out problems, or being anything other than a yes-man is frowned upon, even outright punished. Loyalty to “the system” is valued above warfighting skill, leadership, and critical thinking.
And yet, look at the record of this “system” since World War II: failure to accomplish political objectives in Vietnam, Beirut, Kosovo, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria. Even worse, government has depleted economic, diplomatic, and information resources in pursuit of what turned out to be failed objectives. All the while, top generals have insulated themselves from accountability by deflecting blame toward politicians, adjacent foreign diplomacy departments, and junior service members.
Fear of blame-shifting leads most active-duty military members to remain silently and singularly focused on their compartmentalized jobs. Inept leadership across the entire military leads to confusion about its role in foreign policy. Political “experts” pontificate about how jobs, inflation, and domestic security impact voting more than foreign affairs. Despite what these so-called experts think, the military arm of foreign diplomacy is critical to preserving America’s prosperity.
Since Woodrow Wilson’s fourteen-point speech in 1918, America has served as the international system’s leader. But since Vietnam, American leaders have recklessly chased problems across the world without a long-term strategy for increasing national power. National power directly correlates to the amount of influence a nation can impose upon the international system. Thus, if American leaders want to maximize their ability to influence the international system, our foreign policy strategy should seek to increase our national power at a pace above or commensurate with competitors, without recklessly engaging in power-draining conflicts abroad. Ultimately, America’s influence on the global order determines its influence over all issues, including jobs, inflation, and domestic security.
America cannot afford another out-of-touch generation of senior military and civilian leaders, but here we are. As Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was advancing the idea that the greatest threat facing his department was COVID-19, Russia was staging forces on the border of Ukraine; America was preparing to exit the longest war in American history; and the Defense Department was decaying internally from procurement, promotion, and education problems. Due to misplaced priorities, the Afghanistan evacuation a year ago this month failed, and the global order deteriorated. Furthermore, when President Biden was asked about a military investigation that outlined a series of failures following the Afghanistan evacuation, he stated that he rejected conclusions in the investigation. When asked which parts he rejected specifically, he again summarily stated, “I reject it,” without further explanation.
The American people could demand accountability by applying pressure on their elected politicians. American taxpayers should not be incentivizing inept military leadership with annual blank checks of $750 billion. Americans were outraged and rightly traumatized when CEOs of large corporations received huge bonuses after the infamous bailouts during the 2008 recession. So why do we continue incentivizing ineffective military leadership?
All is not lost. Though we desperately need a new generation of leaders capable of working within the system to enhance, rather than squander, national power on the global stage, America retains historic advantages, including the largest national GDP and the resources of information and diplomacy around the globe. Most importantly, we have the best young military talent in the world.
Young officers who served this nation for the past two decades went off to war at the expense of lucrative business opportunities and professional accreditations. They chose a lifestyle of courage and sacrifice. Ironically, lucrative corporate positions and professional accreditations are what fill up the bios of our current career politicians. But reading, writing, and living foreign diplomacy for the past two decades provided the GWOT generation an education not found inside an Ivy League classroom. What they know cannot be bought with any corporate bonus.
And so, our country needs this courageous generation to serve again. We need young veterans and active military members to think critically and offer reasoned assessments about how the military’s approach to war has failed America. No excuses or justifications. Blindly following the footsteps of predecessors will only replicate their failures. Though previous foreign policy disasters have been absorbed and the system has continued functioning despite degradation to national power, this pattern ultimately will end in disaster. The most effective leaders in our military and civilian life will be those who see the problem, speak up, and break the cycle. Our warriors coming home should embrace this as their next mission.
Stuart Scheller served 17 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He deployed to combat in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Beirut, and was awarded for valor. He is the author of the forthcoming memoir, Crisis of Command (Knox Press, 2022). This piece originally ran at RealClearPolitics.