Thursday, October 18, 2012

Stay in your lane: IAVA and CMR edition

I'm a big fan of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and veteran service organizations (VSO) in general. I haven't always agreed with IAVA, such as their push a while back to have a ticker-tape parade for Iraq vets and their obsession with getting face time with Secretary Shinseki, but they are passionate advocates for my generation of veterans. During this election season, they have been vocal about both candidates' failure to address the war in Afghanistan or veterans issues in anything beyond platitudes. But when it comes to policy prescription or analysis of war itself vice veterans issues, VSOs have proven woefully inadequate.

Case in point is from an Atlantic article from earlier this week where author Heather Maher laments the candidates avoiding Afghanistan in speeches and debates and provides some explanation for why this is happening (h/t to Josh Foust for linking to it on Twitter). I'm going to skip past the bits that quote Michael O'Hanlon (who thinks this lack of discussion is good because silence prolongs the war - seriously) and get to the last section that deals with veterans and votes. Here Maher quotes IAVA policy guru Tom Tarantino who is correct on the lack of specifics on how each candidate would address veterans issues. Tarantino then proceeds to step in it when he talks about the war.
Tarantino says veterans don't care that Obama and Romney aren't talking about war policy. That's better left to military commanders, he believes. 
His belief couldn't be more wrong. While military commanders should have most of the say on the conduct of the war at the operational and tactical levels, the issues left to be decided over the coming years in Afghanistan should never be left to military commanders: what are our goals, when do we stop conducting offensive operations, when does everyone come home. These are presidential concerns, not issues to be left to our uniformed leadership and I imagine that is obvious to most of our readers here. Tarantino continues with the erroneous statement that we could "send everyone home tomorrow -- we could do that", a statement that is also incorrect. With significant effort we might be able to redeploy two brigades (approximately up to 5000 personnel each) a month, but that would be an optimistic guess. It would take a good year to pull our troops and their equipment out if the President said to start movement now. But this is small potatoes compared to the "left to military commanders" remark.

Tarantino isn't alone in this view and I do not expect IAVA or other VSOs to be more than cursorily conversant in civil-military relations or the conduct of war and warfare. Yet they are often asked and quoted on these issues because the public isn't aware that they can't actually address these issues. The effects can, however, be detrimental if de facto spokesmen for veterans provide and shape opinions that are contrary and unhealthy to CMR norms.  So no, Tom, this veteran does care that Obama and Romney aren't discussing war policy, because that is their job and it's not best left to military leadership.

A veteran is not by default an expert on war or warfare. Any time they as an individual or as spokesperson for VSOs swim out of their veterans-issues lane, take a hard look at what they say and take it with a grain of salt.


  1. I couldn't agree more on this. The general public does not make hard distinctions between "veteran" and "service-member." There's a general ignorance to how the military works and those who work on veterans issues are often asked about their views on military issues. Us, in the veteran or military community know and respect the distinction (usually!). But the general public and the media often see the two different realms as the same.

    It is service in the military that gives veterans their status, but there is definitely a line that should be drawn.

    When I was just a veteran (before I came back into the Army) and I was working on veteran issues, I was often asked my opinion about current operations in Iraq or military policy. I always tried to get away from that stuff, because I didn't feel like it was my role to discuss it. I can understand why someone might be curious what I - a veteran - might think, but I also understand that what I think carries more weight than it's worth because of the general ignorance I mentioned before.

    Good post.

    1. Thanks Don and thanks for your comment. I get a lot of the "you're a veteran, what do you think?" from people, too. It's difficult to balance veteran-status induced street cred with actual expertise in a way that you don't oversell the weight of your opinion. Or undersell it either if you do have actual expertise on the issue. Always a fine line.

  2. Sorry for being a dirk diggler but the oft-misused phrase is actually 'case *on* point'

    1. Interesting, I had never heard that before. Googling the two tells me "case on point" is a legal term drawing upon precedence. "Case in point" is an idiom indicating an example which is the term Merriam-Webster has that they say was first used in 1722. It doesn't have "case on point" at all. But I'm not married to M-W, so if you have a source for "on" I'm willing to mend my ways.

  3. Nevertheless, great article.