Taking Stock: The U.S. Military a Decade After 9/11

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An Army medevac chopper outside the Pentagon, September 12, 2001 / DoD photo

The 10th anniversary of 9/11 closes in on us this week. Try as you might, you will not be able to avoid it. Amid the pathos and bathos, it’s time to take a knee and conduct a map check.

Just to cut to the chase: you can’t argue with success, and on 9/12 most Americans were petrified a second wave of attacks was likely. It hasn’t happened, and the U.S. military – despite its faults and snafus – has played a big role in that win. It could end up a more solid victory than we may see either in Afghanistan or Iraq.

The Army and Marines are justly exhausted after a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the Army, especially, deserves Hooahs! on two fronts: it adopted when it had to, and it did not break.

The stresses of war – the KIAs, severely wounded troops, suicides and broken families, among them – were made worse by the U.S. plunge into Iraq on March 19, 2003. The pressures of two wars led many to predict the Army was on the verge of breaking. Battleland asked Army General George Casey, before he stepped down as the Army’s top officer earlier this year, how come the Army bent, but never broke.

“If you had asked me five years ago could we as an Army sustain one year in combat, one year home for five years, I would have said, `You’re nuts,'” he said of the non-stop deployment cycles many Army units have endured.

He credited four things for the Army’s resilience:

— One, you cannot discount the courage and the commitment of this generation of young Americans. It is remarkable to me what they have done and what they have endured.

— Secondly, the support of the American people, the very vocal support of the American people and Congress for the men and women of the armed forces I think has played a huge part in helping us hold this force together.

— The third element…even after all the progress we made over my career, we still weren’t doing enough for families because we were asking them to endure a significantly greater burden than they signed up for. Spouses told me point blank. They said `General, the second deployment is harder than the first, the third is harder than the second. You’ve got to do something to help us out.’ So we doubled the amount of money we put towards family programs.

— We also, with [former] Secretary [Robert] Gates’ help, accelerated the growth of the Army…he gave us a couple more billion dollars to get it done by ’10…That additional growth has really helped us.

Today’s U.S. military is bigger and, at $700 billion a year, about double the cost of its pre-9/11 version. As perhaps it should be – it has been waging war nonstop since October 7, 2001, when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to oust its Taliban government for offering sanctuary to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda. But this was no conventional war: CIA agents and special-ops troops on Afghan soil were calling in air strikes from B-52s miles above.

The Air Force and the Navy have been key enablers in the two wars, except for the tens of thousands of airmen and sailors – who expected to be spending their tours on flight lines or ships – who found themselves pulling convoy or guard duty in the sandbox. It has been frustrating for them to sit on the sidelines and watch the focus shift from the skies – which did the heavy lifting in the first Gulf War and over the Balkans – to grunts on the ground.

The military – which viewed 1991’s Persian Gulf War against Iraq as the conventional tank-on-tank warfare it craved – finally got the message: 21st Century threats are not likely to come from nation-states eager to engage in armored clashes with the world’s last remaining superpower. Increasingly, U.S. foes are going to be terror groups, some affiliated with nation-states and some flying solo.

While there may be fewer armies to conquer, there will always be villages in strange lands offering succor to enemies of the U.S. The Army has shrunk its basic building block, from the 12,000-strong division to 4,000-member brigade combat teams, to better cobble together forces needed for such campaigns. Under the guidance of retired (I can’t believe I’m writing that) Army general David Petraeus, the service updated its Counterinsurgency Field Manual. It helped give young Americans – those so-called “strategic corporals” – the counter-insurgency tools vital to winning hearts and minds. But as we are now witnessing in Afghanistan, throwing seed (and billions of dollars) on barren land doesn’t always lead peace to flower.

It takes a different kind of force to hunt down and destroy such an enemy, and the U.S. military has taken big steps in recent years to deal with this new kind of war. But after a decade of guerrilla warfare, the U.S. military knows it needs to sharpen its “full-spectrum warfare” skills, too.

Special operations forces – nimble with the latest technology America and its allies can produce – grew from 45,000 on 9/11 to more than 60,000 today. Drones, many flown by the CIA, are killing suspected terrorists in undeclared wars inside Pakistan and Yemen. The lines between the U.S. military and the CIA have blurred, in ways both good and bad. It led to bin Laden’s demise, but also made troops’ missions more difficult as charges alleging torture were lodged against the agency. The sting of the failed Iranian rescue mission and its eight dead U.S. troops at Desert One in 1980, has been replaced with the SEAL mission four months ago that killed bin Laden deep inside Pakistan with only the loss of a single helicopter.

For the first time, the Pentagon created an entity responsible for defending the homeland: U.S. Northern Command got the military mission, while the Department of Homeland Security – an amalgam of many old federal agencies, including the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Customs Service, Secret Service, Border Patrol and the Coast Guard – handles the civilian side.

Perhaps we should have seen it coming: Vietnam was a flashing yellow light, letting us know that future enemies might be armed with sharpened bamboo sticks covered in buffalo dung instead of nuclear weapons or supersonic jet fighters. In fact, today’s enemy weapon of choice is what we used to call a roadside bomb, but which the Pentagon has renamed the improvised explosive device (you need a heftier name if you’re planning on spending close to $3 billion next year to defeat such a crude, but effective, weapon).

But here’s something worth pondering: IEDs can only be used against U.S. troops when U.S. troops are deployed overseas. There is no need for fallout shelters or missile defenses back home to handle that threat. In fact, that’s what made 9/11 so stunning to most Americans: the enemy hit us in our own front yard. The nation’s enemies have been unable to attack us like that for the past decade. They’ve been demoted to building roadside bombs for use against brave young Americans willing to serve overseas in harm’s way. On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, that counts as real progress.