How Iraq, Afghanistan Have Changed The Military

Guests

John Nagl, president, Center for a New American Security
Greg Jaffe, military reporter, Washington Post

U.S. forces have left Iraq and a drawdown in Afghanistan is underway, but both wars have left an indelible impact on the U.S. military. The armed forces have altered strategy and tactics, and countless lives have been changed — including those of the families of service members serving multiple deployments.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. At long last, all U.S. forces are out of Iraq. What could be a long drawdown in Afghanistan is underway, and the U.S. military that emerges has changed over the past decade. Technology evolved, ours and the enemy's; a force trained, equipped and structured for high-intensity combat learned to adapt to counterinsurgency and counterterrorism; an all-volunteer force found itself isolated from much of the rest of America.

We see women, gays and lesbian in different roles, and the apparent endlessness of the commitment tested institutions and strained families in ways few anticipated.

If you've been in uniform these past 10 years, how did our wars change our military? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, what we need to get done before the year is out on The Opinion Page this week. But we begin here in Studio 3A with John Nagl. He helped institute some of those changes as one of the authors of the new counterinsurgency manual. He's now president of the Center for a New American Security, and nice to have you back on the program. Merry Christmas, and appreciate you being with us here in Studio 3A.

JOHN NAGL: Great to be back, Neal.

CONAN: If you had to point to one change over this past decade, what would it be?

NAGL: It would be the one that you highlighted. It was a military that was prepared for, focused on conventional high-intensity conflict against a peer or a near-peer, another state; a military prepared to fight fighter planes in the skies, ships on the seas, other tank armies on the ground.

And over the last decade, it has become a military that can confront non-state actors, terrorists and insurgents, on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, and inside a half-a-dozen or a dozen other countries around the globe, where terrorists are plotting, continuing to work their nefarious deeds.

And the military and the other agencies of the U.S. government, the relationship between Special Forces and the Central Intelligence Agency, for instance, has come together much more closely. So it's a very, very different military than it was a decade ago.

CONAN: How deep does this change go?

NAGL: We're waiting to find out, I think, as the war in Iraq comes to an end, at least for the United States, at least for now; as we continue to conduct a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, but one that we're increasingly handing over to the Afghans to fight for us, with us in a supporting role that I think is going to be the big change over the next several years in Afghanistan.

We are returning our military to preparing for the next war, and for, for instance, the Marines are doing a huge amphibious exercise off the East Coast of the United States in the month of January, the biggest they've done in at least a decade, maybe longer. So we are starting to move back toward becoming a full-spectrum force that continues to conduct low-intensity conflict and counterterrorism operations but simultaneously is re-honing its edge for conventional warfare.

CONAN: Let's bring Greg Jaffe into the conversation, military reporter for the Washington Post. He's the author, with David Cloud, "The Fourth Star: Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army." He joins us by phone from Avon, Colorado. Nice to have you with us today.

GREG JAFFE: Hey, thanks for having me.

CONAN: And just as John Nagl was describing, an army that began this conflict 10 years ago, just about, contemptuous of the idea of nation-building as it was described then, has emerged very different.

JAFFE: Yeah, I think that's right. I was - I agreed with just about everything John said there. The one thing I would add is it's just become a much more, sort of, intellectually nimble force. You know, there's a lot more vibrant debate among officers about the right way forward, about sort of different options, you know, counterinsurgency versus things like counterterrorism, which is more focused on hunting bad guys.

And it's a military that's much likely to reach out to, sort of, other parts of government, whether it be USAID, and folks kind of like anthropologists, and even reporters, to kind of try and understand their environment. It's much more conscious of their environment beyond just the maneuvering in battle.

CONAN: Even reporters, John Nagl was shaking his head.

NAGL: That's a little extreme, Greg. But Greg's point is well-taken, and I'm reminded of the counterinsurgency conference that David Petraeus hosted out at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in early 2006 - now more than five years ago - where he invited anthropologists and aid workers and human rights activists and even reporters like Greg Jaffe, as well as some good ones...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NAGL: To come together and pull everybody's thinking and understand that the military didn't have all the answers, and to succeed in the kinds of wars we were fighting then, are fighting now, are likely to continue to fight, the military mindset and the military tools and technology are part of the answer, but they're only part of the answer.

And so I think Greg is right to highlight the contributions that many people not wearing uniforms have made to the fights we've had, the successes we've had, and the future direction of the force.

CONAN: We want your contributions, as well. If you've served in uniform these past 10 years, how has the military changed as the result of our wars? This email, 800-989-8255 is the phone number, the email address that Dean(ph) used in Salem, Oregon is talk@npr.org.

He writes: I served six years in the U.S. Army Reserves in PSYOPS, psychological operations, as an intelligence analyst and interrogator, working with the Seventh Infantry Division and in prisoner-of-war support. During the period '76 to '82, my fellow reservists and I helped improve the ways our military interacted with both military and civilian populations in war zones. It was a huge alteration in our military culture.

For me, as a former anti-war activist of the Vietnam era, it was very satisfying to play a role in improving the ways we did things and avoid the excesses of Vietnam. Then during the Bush administration, much of these gains were challenged, although they did and do violate our doctrine in the field manuals and in the schools in Fort Huachuca and Fort Bragg.

We made our military more human, more American and provided myself and others with genuine feelings of positive accomplishment. I wonder, John Nagl, if you would agree.

NAGL: Well, Dean's comments, I think, are well-taken. In the aftermath of Vietnam, broadly speaking, we moved away from many of the lessons that we learned in Vietnam - from focusing on the human terrain, on the integration of all elements of national power - and we decided that we weren't ever going to fight a Vietnam kind of fight again.

And we forgot, as we were making that decision, that the enemy gets a vote in deciding how he or she is going to fight us. And we had to relearn a number of those lessons that Dean learned and helped us as a military learn – now, I guess, 30 years ago.

I'd also like to highlight, though, Dean said he served as a reservist, how important the role of the reserve forces have been. We literally could not have succeeded to the extent that we have in Iraq without the reserve forces. At one point, I think they were 40 percent of the forces on the ground in Iraq and at one time.

And we've developed a much more capable, much more integrated guard and reserve force into the general military. To the extent that General Pete Corelli, the vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army whose service through this decade has been exceptional, has said publicly we simply cannot fight our next war without the Guard and Reserve. So I'd like to thank Dean for that service, as well.

CONAN: Greg Jaffe, I wanted to raise that point with you. After the war in Vietnam in 1975, a greatly demoralized, all-draftee or draft force was transitioned to an all-volunteer force. It was also determined the United States would never be able to fight a war again without the Reserves and the National Guard, as it did without the National Guard in Vietnam.

But the stress that was put on National Guard these past 10 years, nobody ever anticipated anything like this.

JAFFE: Yeah, I don't think they expected it at all, in terms of the repeat deployments that you'd see from guardsmen who were going on a rate of about once every five years - which is really disruptive both to your career and, you know, to your family life.

And I think what they found that's even more disturbing, you know, suicide has been a problem for the Army. And the Army's been able to do a pretty good job in terms of managing or at least making a small dent in suicides among active-duty troops because you can really control them much more when they come back.

You can make sure that they're kind of among peers who have been experiencing the same thing. You know, they're in a fairly controlled setting, which is a military base. With guardsmen, they often don't have that support. You know, they go home to communities that don't really understand where they were or what they've done, and I think the mental strain on them is much harder.

And it's much harder to sort of track them and to know how they're doing because they're much more dispersed.

CONAN: Communities that don't understand who they are, where they've been, what they've done, John Nagl, that could be broadly writ about the United States at large. We have a tiny fraction of our men and women in uniform, and with an all-volunteer force, that will remain the same. It is a very tiny subset of the American population, and most of us don't know anybody who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

NAGL: It's a tiny percentage of the population. It's likely to get even smaller as the military is already starting to downsize after the strains of the last decade. And I think it's worth highlighting the long-term costs that are going to be borne by those who have served repeatedly, over and over again.

Greg mentioned one year in five for the reserves. For a while during the surge, after the surge in Iraq, we had active-duty U.S. Army soldiers spending less than a year at home in between year-long combat tours on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the long-term costs, not just the thousands killed, the tens of thousands wounded, but the psychological costs and the cost on the families, the burden the families have borne for an all-volunteer that was never predicted, was never planned to take the kind of strain that the all-volunteer force has shown over the last decade.

And I think it's an extraordinary testament to the leadership of the armed services that the force has held together under this extraordinary strain, but it is worth highlighting the long-term responsibility the American people have to join forces with those who have borne the battle for them and to take care of them for what is literally going to be generations to come.

CONAN: And Greg Jaffe, major rethinks after Vietnam. Do you find the appetite to reconsider, fundamentally, the structure of the armed forces after Iraq?

JAFFE: No, I don't think so. I think we'll probably largely stick with what we've got. I mean, I do think that there's a rethinking of, you know, can we afford to, and should we continue to fight these kind of long wars in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where we're really looking to change society.

I think to the extent that there's a rethink, there'll be a rethink about the mission, not about the structure of the force fundamentally, although I do think, you know, as we downsize, we're likely to see some changes, that John actually and his think-tank have written about very compellingly in the last couple of months.

CONAN: When we come back, more about how the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have changed the U.S. military. If you served, what changes did you see? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. We'll be back in just a minute. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Over the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the tools the military uses to do its job have changed. Take the MRAP, for instance, the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Troop Carrier. The first MRAPs arrived in Iraq in 2007 specially designed to protect troops from IED attacks.

Drones, too, changed intelligence, reconnaissance and war fighting. If you've been in uniform these past 10 years, how have you seen the wars change our military? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl is with us, also Greg Jaffe, military reporter for the Washington Post. Let's get a caller in on the conversation. We'll start with Rod(ph), and Rod's with us from Daytona Beach.

ROD: How is everybody today?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

ROD: One of the things that I saw - I was in Afghanistan theater for 2005, 2006, and 26-year retired Army veteran - one of the things that I saw that changed most importantly, I think, is training within the Army. We finally saw a combining of the training systems across active component, reserve component, National Guard component. Whereas before - the wars before Afghanistan and Iraq - there was a lot of difference in how those forces trained.

Now you see a lot of combined training, more of that total-Army concept, one-army concept, where you have your reserve forces, your National Guard forces training a lot more side-by-side with the active components. And I think that just brings along a much better, a lot tighter force, and I think that's one of the greatest changes that I've seen since I've been in the military.

CONAN: John Nagl?

NAGL: I agree with that completely, Rod, thanks for your service. The integration of the Guard and Reserve into what's now called the Operational Reserve, what used to be a strategic reserve, we would only go to the Guard and the Reserve if things got really, really, really bad.

And what we've done is, as Rod mentioned, is we've brought the Guard and the Reserve much more into the operations of the military in these wars, to the point that we literally can't do this without them.

I think one of the big questions we're going to have to decide - as we downsize the force, as defense budgets start to come down, as they already have - is how much are we going to depend on the Guard and Reserve for backups for what's called the second major regional contingency. Are we going to keep all of the forces we need for two wars on active duty, paying them every day, or are we going to save some of those capabilities in Reserve, in the Guard?

I think that's a decision that still has to be made, and a lot of people here in Washington are thinking hard about doing that in order to preserve our capabilities around the globe while saving some American tax dollars.

ROD: That's going to be a big decision to be made, as well, because from an instructor's standpoint, from a trainer's standpoint, that is definitely going to be - that's definitely going to be one of the big things taking us into the future. Thanks a lot, guys.

CONAN: OK, thanks very much for the phone call. Let's go next to - this is Alex(ph), Alex with us from New Haven.

DAVID: Actually, I am not Alex.

CONAN: Oh, I apologize.

DAVID: That's all right. That's not a problem. If you want to go to Alex, fine. Otherwise, my name is David(ph), and I'm here from St. Paul, Minnesota. Yeah, I just wanted to make the observation, I am active-duty Air Force, basically for five years during the late to the mid-'80s, and then I was a reservist both Army Reserve and the Army National Guard, got out in 2004.

I want to go back to your comments about the all-volunteer force because I think that the all-volunteer force, the term is a misnomer. It's actually a political construction. There was never meant to be an all-volunteer force. The so-called all-volunteer force was supposed to be the active-duty cadre around which the reserve forces and the Selective Service system would be built up in the contingency of a war in Europe or - specifically Europe and Korea.

There was never meant to be an all-volunteer force. That's why the selective service system still exists, and that's why, if you are an able-bodied, young, college male who decided that they want financial aid, you still have to register for Selective Service.

So, I don't like hearing that term all-volunteer force because having been to Europe a few times and been to Reforger, I know what is supposed to happen, and the problem is that our political leadership is, frankly, exacted or exercised cowardice around the activation of the Selective Service system, especially with regard to Iraq and Afghanistan. And that's why we have people doing, you know, half-a-dozen and more tours to combat zones, which is something that was absolutely unheard of even at the height of the Vietnam War.

CONAN: Greg Jaffe, our caller is factually correct, but he is also astutely correct in saying there is no way politicians are going to restore the draft at any conceivable point.

JAFFE: Yeah, I think that's right, and nor does the military want it. And while it would have been nice to have lots of - potentially to have lots - to be able to draw on a lot of civilian expertise in Iraq and Afghanistan, I don't think you would have been able to get away from the repeat tours.

And as big a strain the repeat tours put on soldiers and officers, they also paid huge dividends. You know, it was that third and fourth tour in Iraq where people really started to figure out what the heck was going on there, how these tribes worked. And to the extent that you continue to cycle through new people every year, everybody's kind of one and done, you just never learn anything.

And I think that's the problem we had to a certain degree in Vietnam, and it's something we've been able to correct for her. You know, the average soldier or officer or Marine in 2007 in Iraq, knew so much more than the average soldier or Marine in 2003. The average, you know, person in Afghanistan today, on his third or fourth tour, understands the environment in which he's operating so much better.

And, you know, there's just no other way to get that experience other than to live it repeatedly. And so, you know, while a draft is nice and could bring some helpful skills to the table, I don't think it helps us in the long run.

CONAN: Speaking of repeated tours, this from Jennifer(ph), a captain in the Kentucky Air National Guard: Most Air Guardsmen that I know - and being in the Guard myself - deploy every 18 months. Our deployment lengths are up to four months now. It's very difficult for members and families. We do not even get the same benefits as our active-duty counterparts.

John Nagl, that's undoubtedly correct and undoubtedly a strain and makes life really, really hard.

NAGL: It does, and it highlights one of the differences, I think, between the Air Force and the Army in particular. The Air Force has integrated its reserve forces into the operational force far more effectively than the Army has.

CONAN: Air tankers, for example, vital to any operation, can't fly without the Reserves and the Guard.

NAGL: Absolutely right, and so folks like Karen(ph) who deploy over and over again, on shorter tours admittedly, and no one would say that - I mean, it's not easy being in the Air Force, it's not as tough as being on the ground, but the Air Force can't do what it is able to do, providing absolute air superiority for the United States over the entire globe, essentially, without the contributions of people like Karen.

And this point really gets to the same point that David raised. I smiled when he mentioned Reforger, the reinforcement of Germany, the good old days, back when we used to send large forces to prepare for the war against the Soviet Union that thankfully never came.

But we have asked an extraordinary amount of those who serve in uniform - active, Guard, Reserve - over the last decade. And although the demands are going to go down over time, inshallah, we hope, we have relied very, very heavily on a very small number of the American people to bear this strain.

And it is incumbent, then, I think, upon us, to take care of them to help them get civilian careers when they get out, to find better ways to integrate their military service and their civilian jobs better than we've figured out so far.

CONAN: Ten years ago, I think, everybody in the military would have raised an eyebrow at the word, inshallah, now nobody does. But Greg Jaffe, another point about the Air Force, it is undergoing a major transformation at the moment as more and more unpiloted aircraft are integrated into the system, and that's not going to change.

JAFFE: Yeah, no, I think you'll continue to see the numbers go up, and you'll see different kind of unmanned planes. You know, right now the workhorse is this thing called The Predator and its slightly larger cousin called The Reaper, but you're going to see more sophisticated things, stealthier drones, which we've already seen used.

Recently one went down in Iran - that was a CIA drone. You're going to see potentially, you know, drone bombers and drone fighter jets that will go long distances and will be used more in conventional wars. So I think it will become - it will really start to take over the culture in interesting ways.

It's tough for the Air Force because it really starts to redefine a lot of the - just everything about the service's sort of culture. I mean, can you be valorous - you know, valor is so important to our military in terms of how we reward and recognize people - can you be valorous when you're sitting in an air-conditioned trailer in Nevada flying a drone over Afghanistan?

And, you know, how do you recognize those people? What kinds of awards do you give them? Because the traditional military reward built around bravery don't really seem to fit that context.

CONAN: And do those people, can those people suffer from PTSD?

JAFFE: I've heard it, but I just don't buy it. Sorry to throw a blanket on - a wet blanket on that one. I just - I think they can probably suffer from things like guilt, you know, to the extent that you make a mistake, you kill friendly forces, or you kill civilians. I'm sure that has an emotional impact on them, and that that's something they need to deal with. In terms of struggling with PTSD, I'm not sure - I don't buy it. I don't think so.

CONAN: John?

NAGL: I'm not as willing as Greg is to say absolutely not, but I do think that the psychological problems folks like that face who literally are fighting a war during their duty day, eight hours, 10 hours, 12 hours, and then they go home to the kids' soccer game, the transition that they make on a daily basis, I think, is very psychologically jarring. I agree with Greg that the nature of combat, at least a part of combat, is starting to change. And I think it's worth pointing out that the technology advancements that we've talked about so far today aren't only happening inside the United States.

And so one of the big things we need to think about, the military needs to think about is how does it responds to the challenge of other countries developing drones. One of the drivers behind the increased prevalence of drones over the next 10 years, I think, is going to be the extraordinary what's called anti-access area denial capabilities that China is developing, which essentially push out the range at which we can launch airplanes from carrier decks and are going to necessitate that we move to unmanned systems that have greater ranges, and that can operate in contested airspace.

So that we're seeing big, big changes, I think, in how we think about war, the advance of robots, not just in the air but on the sea, under the sea and on the ground, is going to be, I think, one of the big stories of the next decade.

CONAN: We did manage to find Alex. I think we did, in New Haven. Are you there?

ALEX: Yes. Yes, I am.

CONAN: I apologize. Go ahead, please.

ALEX: No problem. I've been a military reservist and active duty both for the last 12 years now. And when speaking to the changes that I've observed personally, I have to go straight to the educational backgrounds of most of our soldiers. When I first joined in '99, it was pretty rare for enlisted soldiers to have Bachelor's degrees at all, let alone advanced degrees. And serving Iraq in 2008 and to this day, I served with many privates and sergeants that have Bachelor's degrees, Master's degrees, both in area studies, math, physics.

I think that that shows a lot of the evolution of our force, and it shows that it's coming in line too with the American populace as a whole. You can see it today, and the opening of Yale University at New Haven and Harvard recently signing ROTC contracts. The education of our soldiers are changing, and it's only going to make for a stronger force in the future.

CONAN: And those standards for recruits, John Nagl, in part a result of the economy but in part a result of the greater percentage of America's youth who do go on to college.

ALEX: Right.

NAGL: Absolutely right. And I have to give a shout-out to my brother Mark who, like Alex, had a college degree and enlisted as a soldier, served in Iraq as an enlisted soldier and then came back and commissioned and is now a better officer for having served as an enlisted soldier. But the force we have composed entirely of people who want to serve, who - many of whom have these multiple combat tours, which is an extraordinary wealth of knowledge that literally can't be gained any other way.

And one of the things that I worry about as we do start to downsize the force is how do we keep that talent somehow engaged, if not in full-time military reservists then part time in the Guard or reserves or somehow connected with the national security of the United States, because we're going to continue to need their help and the experience that they've purchased at such a high price for many, many years to come.

CONAN: John Nagl, retired lieutenant colonel, now president of the Center for a New American Security. Also with us, Greg Jaffe, military reporter for The Washington Post. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go to Linda, and Linda is on the line from East Brunswick in New Jersey.

LINDA: I am. And thank you for taking my phone call. I'm going to be really short. We lost a son to suicide following his second tour of duty in Iraq. The first, he served with the 173rd Airborne. The second, he served with a unit of the Maryland National Guard. We learned following his death that there's a tremendous gap in mental health services available to members of the Guard and Reserve. And we were really heartened earlier this month when Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Representative Rush Holt announced a new peer hotline service available across all 50 states and American territories to all members of the Guard and Reserve and their families.

That hotline is accessible at - oh, I'm so sorry. I don't have the number right off the top of my head. I'm sorry. I'm on my cellphone. But it is Vets4Warriors, and it is staffed by paid veterans, all trained through the University of Dentistry and Medicine from New Jersey. All of them are folks who have served, and the program is expected to be a huge help to folks who can't or won't use DOD or VA mental health services...

CONAN: Linda...

LINDA: ...so if - I'm sorry?

CONAN: Excuse me. I don't mean to cut you off and - so sorry for your loss. And I know you're making an important point. I just wanted to give John Nagl a chance to respond. The awareness of PTSD and mental problems caused by service and combat is enormously changed, very far yet to go, but big changes have taken place.

NAGL: Linda, like Neal, my condolences on your loss. My thanks for the service of your son. And many soldiers, Marines I've known have suffered greatly when they came back from their service. They were able while - to hold it together while they were fighting, but the fight got to them later when they got home. And it's a horrible story, and it happens much too often. And there are great steps being taken. You've talked about some of them to try to deal with this national crisis of those who have served, falling at their own hand when they return. But I also want to - hate to say this - but family members also are bearing this strain, the strain that you're bearing, but we've seen military spouses also fall.

LINDA: Well, you're exactly right. And I'm sorry to interrupt...

NAGL: No, ma'am.

LINDA: ...but I just want to give one more pitch for this great service that's now available to all Guardsmen and all members of the Reserve. The program is called Vets4Warriors. I wish I had the phone number. I don't. I'm so sorry.

CONAN: We'll find it and put it up on the website, Linda.

LINDA: Oh, that would be great.

CONAN: OK.

LINDA: But it's available 24 hours a day, seven days a week...

CONAN: Got you.

LINDA: ...all trained peer counselors, and it is also...

CONAN: Linda, I'm afraid we are out of time, but we will get that number and put it up on the website. Thank you very much for your phone call. And our thanks to Greg Jaffe and John Nagl as well. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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