Major General John Batiste, USA (Ret.)
As we observed the anniversary of September 11th, we all experienced very mixed emotions. On the one hand, we remember those whose lives were taken in the cowardly attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. As Americans, we continue to grieve with their families and loved ones. We are resolute and angry. We are incredibly proud of our troops and are grateful for their unimaginable sacrifices and selfless service. On the other hand, most of us do not feel any safer. The notion that the war in Iraq is over is disingenuous. There is no functional Iraqi government, the police force is corrupt and ineffective, the army is weak and focused on police missions, and the forces of sectarian violence are alive and well. The only thing that has changed in Iraq is the mission, but rest assured that our troops can and will transition back to combat at a moment’s notice. We wonder where it is all going in Afghanistan and how the mission fits within a greater strategy. We have lost confidence in our elected leaders.
Our Veterans answered the call to serve, but America is letting them down. Americans were never mobilized in support of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some speak about a “Sea of Goodwill” of American support, but the truth is that there is no unity of effort or synergy between Federal, State, local, and community efforts in support of Veterans and their families. From the perspective of the Veterans Administration (VA), this is a huge opportunity lost. As the chair of the New York State Veterans Affairs Commission, I can tell you that there is an enormous gap between resources and the needs of Veterans in these wars. The VA system is seemingly overwhelmed and work to synchronize Federal, State, local, and community efforts is in need of serious attention. The cost of today’s wars is staggering. We have spent over a trillion dollars and that number will multiply as the cost to care for our wounded is tallied over the decades to come. Over 5,500 Americans have given their last full measure in Iraq or Afghanistan and over 50,000 have been wounded. The number of Veterans suffering from traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder is in the hundreds of thousands. Far too much in support of our Veterans is simply not getting done. As I have said many times before, how we treat our Veterans defines our national character. How does it feel to receive a failing grade?
There is a void between the VA Central Office, the range of VA medical centers and regional State offices, and local Veteran service organizations. Federal and State Governments are not aligned to serve Veterans and their families. I believe that the VA Central Office should lead by promoting community participation and involvement in its outreach efforts and developing competitive grant-based opportunities for community service providers specializing in Veteran services. As it has been suggested, it will take a “Sea of Goodwill” with Federal, State, local, and community efforts working in unison. The VA desperately needs community participation as an extension of its programs. To make this happen, leadership is needed to mobilize communities in support of VA objectives.
From the State perspective, the New York State Division of Veterans Affairs is underfunded during a period of time when Veteran support requirements are exploding. The State is short the required county Veteran counselors and existing counselors lack training and certification. Some counties are doing a great job supporting their Veterans, but most are not. A major portion of the challenge is information sharing. A web-based portal for all of New York State would go a long ways towards informing our Veterans and reducing costs such as unused services, unsupported Veterans whose problems multiply in expense and complexity, and Veterans and their families who do not know about job, education, and career opportunities. Connecting all Federal, State, local, and private sector resources should be a top priority.
In his address to the nation on August 31st, 2010, President Obama rightly recognized that “...one of the lessons of our effort in Iraq is that American influence around the world is not a function of military force alone. We must use all elements of our power—including our diplomacy, our economic strength, and the power of America's example—to secure our interests and stand by our allies." Sadly, the president is not walking the talk. Our government’s decision making process is not capable of developing a comprehensive national strategy to synchronize the elements of national power that the president described. The truth is that our government’s interagency process is not capable of developing such a strategy. No one is in charge, there is no strategic planning process, and our government’s 18 departments and agencies, to include the VA, are not unified with a common purpose. There is no teamwork with a bias for action. We do not have a government-wide strategy to deal with global terrorism or Islamic extremism, whatever we decide to call it. Without such a strategy, how can we put the sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan into context? How do Iraq and Afghanistan fit into the global context? How do we define success? How do we organize to better support our returning Veterans and their families?
Many people I talk with confuse our defense strategy with a national strategy. Rest assured that our Department of Defense has a great planning process and routinely develops defense strategies and operational plans. The problem is that there is no overarching government-wide national strategy with all departments and agencies engaged, resourced, and committed to achieving a common goal. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the Department of Defense is carrying the lion’s share of the load without the benefit of the entire team. This is a huge failure of both the Bush and Obama administrations. If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there. Along the way, the military industrial complex, incompetent and corrupt elected representatives, and zealous officials in and out of uniform have taken us in the wrong direction. At the end of the day, our Veterans and their families suffer for this failure.
I believe the root cause for our disconnected ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our failure to properly care for our Veterans returning from war, is that America went to war in 2001 without a national strategy to deal with global terrorism with clearly defined ends, ways, and means. Indeed, such a strategy does not exist today. The president and elected representatives in Congress are expected and empowered to fix this. My recommendation is that Congress enact legislation to force upon our government’s interagency process what the Goldwater Nichols Act did for the Department of Defense in 1986. Congress can force the interagency process to organize for success with clearly defined authorities, responsibilities, and a strategic planning process with trained planners in every department and agency. We expect and deserve a government that is capable of developing and executing serious strategic plans with a focus on teamwork and unity of effort. Short of this, we will continue to spin our wheels in responding to natural disasters, leaking oil wells, peak oil, controlling the integrity of our borders, properly attending to the needs of our Veterans and their families, and global terrorism. America can do better.
Why are Americans indifferent today that we are a nation at war? Why are we less safe today than we were on September 11th, 2001? Why are we failing our Veterans and their families? Why are we introducing legislation to create a Veterans Trust Fund nearly nine years after commitment of troops into these wars? Part of the answer is that our government’s interagency process is broken. Part of the answer is that our Federal Government lacks the process and trained planners to develop a real national strategy.
Thank God that America is resilient, but let’s not confuse resiliency with purpose.