What’s Changed In The Military, And What’s Next

The Impact of War

3:57 pm  Mon June 24, 2013

What’s Changed In The Military, And What’s Next


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I’m Neal Conan. After the war in Vietnam, the U.S. military changed in profound ways. A conscript force became all volunteer. Congress changed the rules to force much more extensive use of the National Guard in any future conflict. Training and equipment emphasized fighting at night. And technology made blunt instruments like aerial bombing far more precise.

Scarred by the experience of a war lost in the jungles of Indochina, U.S. military focused on conventional combat. Then, many of the lessons of counterinsurgency had to be re-learned these past 11 years in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now two years after departure from Iraq and as the U.S. combat role diminishes in Afghanistan, what changes now?

We want to hear from those of you in uniform and from veterans, as well. Tell us what’s changed in your branch, 800-989-8255 is our phone number, email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That’s at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us here in Studio 42 Are Major General Mike Davidson, retired, former assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the National Guard; and John Nagl, non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and the Minerva research fellow at the U.S. Naval Academy. Also with us from member station WOUT in Knoxville, Tennessee, is retired Captain Rosemary Mariner, former naval aviator, resident scholar at the Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. And welcome to you all. Good to see you all again.

TIM: Hi, good afternoon. I’m a Naval Academy graduate, retired Navy captain, did eight years of active duty and been in the reserve 22 years. One of the things that makes this military that we have today much different than in previous generations is that we go to war today with many, many more contractors than we have ever in our history.

For example when – I’ve been in Afghanistan twice and Iraq once, and the first time I was in Afghanistan was in 2006. At that time there were only about 30,000 troops there. But we also had 30,000 contractors. The reason why I know that is that I’m a retired supply corps officer, and I was responsible for making sure everybody has enough to eat.

So that’s one of the things that makes this military much different than in previous generations.

CONAN: And that reliance on contractors, John Nagl, has caused again profound differences, changes.

NAGL: Absolutely. I just said a moment ago that we couldn’t have made it through this decade of war without women in uniform. We also couldn’t have made it without the contractors. And at times in both Iraq and Afghanistan, we were one for one, one contractor for one person in uniform.

The system I think has not adapted particularly well to that. We had accountability problems with the contractors. We had some training problems with some of the contractors. But overall…

CONAN: So did the NSA, but that’s…


NAGL: And that’s a good illustration of some of the kind of problems we faced. But just as with the women in uniform, without the contractors we simply couldn’t have made it through without reverting to a draft again, which brings huge problems with it.

CONAN: General Davidson, is this cost-efficient? Does this save money?

DAVIDSON: Enormously cost-efficient. It makes no sense to recruit, train and equip an infantry soldier and then have him build a latrine in Bosnia. And Brown & Root started building latrines for us. They do it extremely well. Most of those contractors are local, indigenous folks that are getting paid on the local wage scale.

CONAN: It’s not Halliburton people at great expense?

DAVIDSON: There are a few Halliburtons, but most of the people that do the work are locals.

MARINER: I like to be something of a contrarian here because I think we need to know that one of the things that is different is that these are armed contractors. We’ve always had combat support contractors in issues of war profiteering. But this time around, we’re talking about armed forces that can look like mercenaries. And without that accountability or the fact that they are getting paid a lot more than their military counterparts, we’ve had some very serious morale and discipline issues.

CONAN: And this came up, John Nagl, especially in Iraq.

NAGL: That’s right. Rosemary is absolutely correct. Actually, I did a study on this at CNAS. The armed contractors are a very small percentage of the total. And I think there are real questions about whether they are doing inherently governmental work that should really be the purview of uniformed government personnel. So I agree with Rosemary. I have some questions about arming contractors, but I think that for the vast majority, the logistical support roles, like the ones that General Davidson talked about, they are a very cost-effective answer, and they’ve done a phenomenal job. We were better supplied in Iraq and Afghanistan than any soldiers have ever been in the history of combat.

CONAN: Tim, thanks very much for the phone call.

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