James Fallows on “The Tragedy of the American Military”

By Elaine Magliaro

On Friday, I was talking with a friend when he suggested that I read James Fallows’s article about the American military that was published in The Atlantic magazine. In his article titled The Tragedy of the American Military, Fallows looks at the state of the U.S. military after it has spent well over a decade at war.  Fallows wrote about a “chickenhawk nation” that sent troops into combat “without clear strategies, weapons acquisition programs that are expensive and politically connected, and an American public that is largely disconnected from the wars.” He also reported “on the findings of a commission that President Obama requested in 2011 to examine how the Pentagon could best be reformed.”

‘An era of defeat’ for the best soldiers in the world? (PBS NewsHour)
James Fallows speaks with chief foreign correspondent Margaret Warner about his article that was published in The Atlantic magazine.

Fallows talked about Americans’ “reverent but disengaged attitude toward the military…” He said that “we love the troops, but we’d rather not think about them.” He added that that attitude had “become so familiar that we assume it is the American norm.” Fallows continued by saying that it hasn’t always been that way.


When Dwight D. Eisenhower, as a five-star general and the supreme commander, led what may have in fact been the finest fighting force in the history of the world, he did not describe it in that puffed-up way. On the eve of the D-Day invasion, he warned his troops, “Your task will not be an easy one,” because “your enemy is well-trained, well-equipped, and battle-hardened.” As president, Eisenhower’s most famous statement about the military was his warning in his farewell address of what could happen if its political influence grew unchecked.

At the end of World War II, nearly 10 percent of the entire U.S. population was on active military duty—which meant most able-bodied men of a certain age (plus the small number of women allowed to serve). Through the decade after World War II, when so many American families had at least one member in uniform, political and journalistic references were admiring but not awestruck. Most Americans were familiar enough with the military to respect it while being sharply aware of its shortcomings, as they were with the school system, their religion, and other important and fallible institutions.

Now the American military is exotic territory to most of the American public. As a comparison: A handful of Americans live on farms, but there are many more of them than serve in all branches of the military. (Well over 4 million people live on the country’s 2.1 million farms. The U.S. military has about 1.4 million people on active duty and another 850,000 in the reserves.) The other 310 million–plus Americans “honor” their stalwart farmers, but generally don’t know them. So too with the military. Many more young Americans will study abroad this year than will enlist in the military—nearly 300,000 students overseas, versus well under 200,000 new recruits. As a country, America has been at war nonstop for the past 13 years. As a public, it has not. A total of about 2.5 million Americans, roughly three-quarters of 1 percent, served in Iraq or Afghanistan at any point in the post-9/11 years, many of them more than once.

Is the U.S. military faced with impossible missions? (PBS NewsHour)
Judy Woodruff gets reaction to James Fallows’s article from former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey and John Ullyot, a former U.S. Marine Corps intelligence officer:

Click here to read the full text of The Tragedy of the American Military by James Fallows.


The Tragedy of the American Military: The American public and its political leadership will do anything for the military except take it seriously. The result is a chickenhawk nation in which careless spending and strategic folly combine to lure America into endless wars it can’t win. (The Atlantic)

‘The Tragedy of the American Military’ is the latest attempt to define the Pentagon’s troubles (Washington Post)


Readers on the ‘Tragedy of the American Military,’ No. 1 (The Atlantic)

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18 Responses to James Fallows on “The Tragedy of the American Military”

  1. Mike Spindell says:

    Thanks Elaine,

    The Fallows piece is brilliant.

  2. buckaroo says:

    That we are to stand by the president, right or wrong is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.

    ~Theodore Roosevelt

  3. rafflaw says:

    Good stuff Elaine. My son had a friend in the Marines that had 8 separate tours between Iraq and Afghanistan. I can’t even imagine what his family went through during those tours. My son’s one tour in Afghanistan was hard on him and his Mom and I.

  4. bettykath says:

    An insightful article like this, and the reaction to it, are good news from the standpoint of building opposition to ending the perpetual war.

  5. bettykath says:

    oops! I meant “building opposition to the perpetual war” or “building support for ending the perpetual war”.

  6. Oro Lee says:

    American Reicheousness?

    From Warner Brother’s 1965 movie, Battle of the Bulge –

    Col. Martin Hessler: Our column has made the farthest advance! We have outrun the other Panzers! The eyes of Germany are on us! The Fuhrer himself will decorate me. We have done it Conrad! We have done it!

    Cpl. Conrad: Then I was wrong. We have won the war.

    Col. Martin Hessler: No.

    Cpl. Conrad: You mean we have lost?

    Col. Martin Hessler: No.

    Cpl. Conrad: I don’t understand. If we have not won, and we have not lost, then what is happening?

    Col. Martin Hessler: The best thing possible is happening – the war will go on.

    Cpl. Conrad: For how long?

    Col. Martin Hessler: Indefinitely. On, and on, and on!

    Cpl. Conrad: But it must come to an end.

    Col. Martin Hessler: You’re a fool Conrad. Those of us who understood knew in 1941 that we could never win.

    Cpl. Conrad: You mean Colonel for three years we have been fighting without any hope of victory?

    Col. Martin Hessler: There are many kinds of victory. For the German Army to survive, for us to remain in uniform – that is our victory. Conrad, the world is not going to get rid of us after all.

    Cpl. Conrad: But, when do we go home?

    Col. Martin Hessler: This is our home.

    Cpl. Conrad: And my sons? When do I see them? What will become of them?

    Col. Martin Hessler: They will become German soldiers, and you will be proud of them.


    Col. Martin Hessler: Conrad, do you still have any of those delicacies left you offered me at Ambleve?

    Cpl. Conrad: Yes, sir.

    Col. Martin Hessler: Prepare them for me. I’m in very good appetite!


  7. Oro Lee says:




  8. Oro Lee says:

    BK is right — counting the dispossession of Native Americans, this country has engaged in near constant warfare or military and/or CIA operations, often covert, for over 300 years. Maybe a broken military might be a good thing — let the !%ers, the primary movers and beneficiaries of conflict, pay for it themselves.

    Here is the rest of the conversation between Col. Hessler and Cpl. Conrad —

    Cpl. Conrad: The truth… is that I’m a fool. I believed in you, but all that you believe in, is the war. You have the war, you like the war. And all I have are my sons and I don’t want to lose them.

    Col. Martin Hessler: I am not responsible for your children.

    Cpl. Conrad: You are. You would make them soldiers.

    Col. Martin Hessler: Yes, and they will fight.

    Cpl. Conrad: And they will die?

    Col. Martin Hessler: If necessary.

    Cpl. Conrad: Necessary for who? For you?

    Col. Martin Hessler: You are not only a fool, you are a traitor.

    Cpl. Conrad: And you are a murderer! You would murder my sons. You would murder my country. You would murder the whole world, to stay in that uniform.

  9. bron98 says:

    those are good lines from a good movie.

    But the reason has nothing to do with the uniform or Hessler’s desire for glory. It is the idea that the individual is only a cog in the machinery of state and has no reason for life outside his identity as a member of society.

    It is the same sickness that infects our country.

  10. Mike Spindell says:

    “It is the same sickness that infects our country”


    You really need to wake up and understand that it isn’t the State that runs our country, It is a cabal of extraordinarily rich people who run it and whose representatives reflect your chosen Randian philosophy.

  11. buckaroo says:

    I think I’m hearing “one must go along, to get along” – I think I’ve rather be a Jeremiah Johnson since I’m woefully unequipped for the task at hand. But we shall see …….

  12. bron98 says:


    I guess we are just going to have to disagree on that one. Which rich people are Randian?

    I think you have us mixed up with Neo-Cons. We like to trade and screw, we arent into fighting.

    Give us free trade and free love, we are just free market hippies who dont like the man. Well maybe not hippies.

  13. You don’t see the very common threads between neoconservatism, Rand and the Austrian school?

    You’re kidding, right, B?

    Also, technically speaking, free trade (a foreign policy stance) and free market capitalism (an economic system that minimizes government intervention and maximizes the role of the market) are not the same thing. A laissez-faire free market based free trade policy, for example, would allow one to sell nuclear weapons or nerve gas or whatever the way to kill people in huge numbers de jour might be as freely as dictated by market forces with minimal tariffs. A rational and regulated free trade policy would allow you to trade non-restricted goods to friendly states with minimal tariffs (this kind of policy is the international norm in free trade policies regardless of the partner nation’s domestic economics).

  14. bron98 says:

    no one I know is advocating for the sale of atomic weapons. Got to have a few rules and anyway we need some government to protect our lives and property.

  15. bron98 says:

    “We have spent the prime of our lives in procuring them the precious blessing of liberty. Let them spend theirs in shewing that it is the great parent of science and of virtue; and that a nation will be great in both always in proportion as it is free.”

    Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Willard, March 24, 1789

  16. pete says:

    Ain’t many beaver left. Watch yer topknot.

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