Requiem for our dead

The Taliban succeeded in downing an American helicopter a few days ago, killing 30 American soldiers and seven Afghans. It is the costliest single engagement of our war in Afghanistan. Their deaths will likely occasion renewed questioning of the mission in Afghanistan; this is both right and proper. For the best way to honor the sacrifice our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines make for us is to be extraordinarily stingy with their lives and to make the purposes for which they died worth the cost to our country.

Generally, when our military talks about the war dead, they do not use the terminology of lives lost. That gives too little honor to the dead. Our military describes their dead as having sacrificed their lives. It is a poignant distinction, emphasizing that the men and women in our military volunteer for service. They are not required to put their lives at risk. They choose to risk their lives for us.

We have a tendency now, when less than 1 percent of Americans are in military service, to treat them either as pitiable victims or as our society's avengers. The victim caricature comes through media focus on casualties rather than stories of the vast majority of veterans who are proud of their service and living normal lives. It comes through in shameful condescension like Senator Kerry suggesting our warriors are in the military because being poorly educated, they have no alternative.

The other extreme is the lionization of service members as comic book heroes rather than men and women we all know and can relate to. By casting them as impossibly strong and virtuous it makes them different from us. It excuses the rest of us from making our contributions.

The men and women of America's military are heroes, but mostly not in the leaps-tall-buildings-in-a-single-bound variety; instead they demonstrate the everyday heroism of doing what needs doing.

Our military go out on missions day after deadly day in Afghanistan. The fight in Helmand and now in the east of Afghanistan is especially fierce. Violence has increased, as should be expected when the enemy is determined, as they are, and we are pressing into their territorial strongholds, as we are.

The most appropriate way for us to honor their sacrifice is to appreciate that they risked their lives purposefully and to make those purposes worth all they paid for us. Lives risked and sacrificed are only part of the right way to judge war aims. We must consider not just costs, but also what the cost achieves. Capturing Iwo Jima cost our country more than 26,000 American casualties, 6,800 dead in the course of the battle. As tragic as those numbers are -- and the individual griefs they represent -- it was necessary to winning the war in the Pacific.

There will be a temptation as we discuss the war in Afghanistan to weigh only the costs, and not the purposes. This is both bad analysis and bad memorializing. The 30 American servicemen killed in the recent helicopter crash -- like the other 90,000 Americans and 43,000 allies fighting in Afghanistan -- were doing very dangerous work for a reason, and that reason was to make our country safe. We owe them not just sorrow but determination. Determination to see the fight through. Determination to make competent the "whole of government operations" on which our strategy depends. Determination to find another way to achieve our aims if the current course won't succeed or a less costly way can be found.

Abraham Lincoln put it best, writing of "the solemn pride that must be yours to have placed so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom." As we mourn our dead, honor them by always making the reasons they risk their lives worth the cost.


Shadow Government

Slinging it from Singapore

As I posted earlier, I have been in Singapore for a series of lectures and meetings with strategic studies specialists inside and outside of government, courtesy of the wonderful people at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. This was not my first visit to Southeast Asia, but it was my first (and hopefully not last) visit to Singapore.

I usually gain more from these exchanges than I give out, and that was the case this time. For folks who like to talk strategy -- and who like to sample extraordinary cuisines while doing so -- there is no place better than Singapore. Singapore is a tiny country, essentially a city-state, that punches well above its weight in international affairs both because of its record of economic success and because it takes seriously the need to think and act strategically. And, Singaporeans love to dine.

American visitors like myself get asked lots of tough questions and, since my visit coincided with the gruesome spectacle of the debt crisis, my answers often left me (and perhaps my audiences) second-guessing American power and purpose.

Still I had some takeaways:

Geostrategic tragedies happen when leaders hesitate to act and cling to beliefs in the face of all evidence. Prior to World War II, the British were confident that Singapore was an impregnable fortress, a "Gilbratar of the East." If the Japanese were foolhardy enough to attack it, the big guns on Singapore's hills would destroy the naval armada before it could reach the shore. And so they might have, if the Japanese had attacked from the sea. Instead, the Japanese launched an attack on the northern part of the Malaya peninsula and fought a bloody advance through the jungle in order to attack Singapore from Johore to the north, not, as the British expected, from the sea to the south. This strategic disaster unfolded over two months, so there was plenty of time for the British to adjust their defensive plans. But they didn't. Of course, the British also missed an opportunity perhaps to block the Japanese attack from the outset, if only the Brits had executed their planned preemptive raids to seize more advantageous terrain. But they didn't. And slowly, inexorably, the Japanese advanced until they trapped a very sizable British force in a tiny perimeter with limited water supplies. I kept asking myself as I visited those sites: are U.S. strategists clinging to mistaken beliefs that will come back to haunt us? Have we, through hesitation and uncertainty, ceded the initiative to forces that are not as complacent as we are?

The rest of the world does not want U.S. lectures but it does welcome U.S. leadership. I heard many trenchant critiques of U.S. foreign policy, but very few centered on U.S. action. Most centered on U.S. inaction. Perhaps this is an artifact of the time of my visit, coming when Obama seems more wedded to winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than to waging them. Given my résumé, I heard some ritual complaints about "unilateralism in the Bush era," but they sounded more perfunctory than impassioned. Indeed, the unilateralism that seemed to worry people the most was the United States unilaterally ceding global responsibilities and initiative -- in this part of the world, especially to China. No one I talked to wants the United States to start a Cold War with China, but nor does anyone want the United States simply to abandon the region to Chinese influence. The local economies are intricately bound up with China's (as, for that matter, is the U.S. economy, but the linkages here are obvious to the naked eye and more on the tip of the tongue). Everyone wants to keep making money from those relationships. Yet, many people I talked to wanted to better diversify relations so as to minimize dependencies that China could exploit, which brings me to….

The Obama administration gets high marks for showing up, but lower marks for showing up empty handed on trade. Secretary Clinton was visiting the region at the same time I was and her visit was very well received. People here still talk about the perceived snub they received when Secretary Rice failed to make several major regional meetings. More than one interlocutor quoted Woody Allen's aphorism to me: "90 percent of life is showing up." But they were hardly satisfied with Americans just showing up and seemed especially concerned about the other 10 percent which, truth be told, was really the lion's share of what they thought they needed: expanded trade. Obama and Clinton have talked a good game but, as Phil Levy has argued, the administration has badly fumbled the trade issue at home. It is doubtful Obama has the stomach or the muscle to advance the trade file much if at all in what remains of his first term. And whether he would do so if he got a second term is anyone's guess.

Regional powers concentrate on their region, a luxury global powers do not have. Most of the strategic conversations focused on southeast Asia -- China's big-footing around the South China sea, developments in Malaysia and Indonesia, etc. -- with the occasional foray into broader Asia-Pacific concerns like the contrast between India and China's strategic evolution. Issues that preoccupy NSC staff discussions in the White House -- such as the Arab Spring, the (non)war in Libya, the backsliding on U.S.-Russian relations, or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- are not central to the strategic conversation here. This might be an unfair impression -- Singapore has played an out-sized role contributing to both the Iraq and the Afghanistan missions, as well as commanding the multinational anti-pirate mission off the cost of Somalia, so they really have impeccable credentials as a global, vice-regional player. Yet the strategic orientation is certainly more focused here than one finds in Washington, D.C. And given the power disparities, how could it be otherwise? 

Lest Daniel Drezner accuse me of suffering from "Friedman's Disease," I will forgo comment on other aspects that struck me: the clever and efficient way Singapore collects traffic tolls and parking fees; the extraordinary vitality of local churches and the remarkable feeling of being the only Caucasian in a several thousand person (very loud) worship service; the apparent fact (it was told to me by numerous people) that Singapore's two casinos now generate more profits than does Las Vegas; and, returning to an earlier theme, the national preoccupation with dining coupled with the almost total absence of obesity. Even in that short and incomplete list, there are enough mysteries to keep me puzzling until next time.