“The Cost”: a military exchange between American and Israeli friends

June 09, 2009

* “That’s over 1,000 men and women in uniform who today are perfectly healthy and alive – just like the men under my command still in Iraq – who will likely be dead or wounded in August 2010, that would not otherwise have been had we started the redeployment a few months ago.”

* “I am sure you don’t like the notion of being an empire – even the term ‘empire’ makes you feel uncomfortable – but that’s exactly what makes the U.S. such a great empire.”

* “In a way, the world is less safe than in the Cold War. It is less safe than during the Cuban missile crisis. The Soviets were, at the end of the day, a European, Christian nation, that read the same books and listened to the same music as we do (they wrote much of it). Paraphrasing Sting’s song, they loved their children too. The Soviet block was centralized, Westphalian, rational. It was cold and calculated. So you could deal with it, even in a nuclear crisis. MAD worked. The Jihadi threat is quite different.”

* “It’s not fun, it’s not good, all those tours of duty are bad for your family – but the alternative is worse. It’s better to have you patrol tonight on the Iraqi-Iranian border than a nuclear 9/11.”



1. Not mere armchair commentary
2. Heartfelt reactions from fighting men
3. An American soldier writes: The cost of staying in Iraq
4. The Israeli responds: No going back to pre-Pearl Harbor days
5. The American replies: Either we ought to be in or we ought to be out

[Note by Tom Gross]


This dispatch is a little different from my regular “Middle East dispatches”. I attach below, with their permission, email correspondence which took place last week between a U.S. Army Major currently stationed on the Iraq-Iran border, and a LTC (Res.) in the IAF (Israeli Airforce). The two have become friends. Both are subscribers to this email list. I have removed their names to protect their privacy.

The American writes late at night, asking what is the point of staying in Iraq until the end of August 2010 (the date by which President Obama has promised to withdraw most troops), since nothing will be gained strategically for the U.S. by staying another 15 months if the Americans are going to leave then anyway. Yet he says that although nothing will be gained, more American troops will be killed and injured and another $168 billion of American tax-payers’ money will be spent.

The American raises some very thoughtful points, based on frontline observations and long experience.


The Israeli then responds with particularly powerful answers that go to the very heart of America’s role in the world. He sets America’s role in a deeper historical perspective, and I think his arguments are well worth reading in full for those of you who have time.

I then attach a third email in which the American replies to the Israeli, making more good points.

This isn’t the end of the debate of course, and I know that this Israeli, indeed most Israelis, would dispute the idea that Iran would most likely not use or threaten to use a nuclear device. For Israel, a nuclear Iran and the resultant nuclear arms race throughout the Middle East and beyond, is an existential threat.

These are serious, thoughtful men who are actually living through the situation they discuss. This is not mere armchair commentary. These are the reflections of men who are involved body and soul in the issues at stake.

-- Tom Gross


From: [U.S. Army Major – name removed]
To: [LTC (Res) in the IAF – name removed]
Sent: Thursday, June 4, 2009 11:27 PM
Subject: the cost

Just something that occurred to me tonight as I was sitting in front of my computer...

Here is a prediction: if you took a snapshot of the strategic condition that exists in the Middle East today – specifically as it relates to the United States vis-a-vis Iraq – and then compare it again with what's going to exist on August 1st, 2010, I would venture to guess that the two snapshots will be virtually indistinguishable.

If you could choose five or six different significant categories to measure or capture as of 1 June 2009, and then run them again on 1 August 2010 I'm guessing you'd find something very near the same thing exists in both snapshots (this assumes, however, that Israel doesn't attack Iran or no other major regional war breaks out in the interim) – except for one major category: the cost to the United States.

Here are some major sub-categories that would be very different between the two dates:

1. money. One can assume that despite announced troop withdrawal numbers through the rest of the year (which, though unbeknownst to most people are not significant reductions), we will still be spending something close to $12 billion/month. So that means we'll have spent roughly another $168 billion. Additionally, we currently spend about $17 billion a year on recapitalizing old equipment to keep rebuilding the stuff we wear out; we'll have to continue that refurbishing the old stuff for the foreseeable future because of the continued pace. Total price tag: $185 billion.

2. spread. By keeping the Army spread out throughout Iraq and Afghanistan, we'll continue to limit our strategic responsiveness by tying down virtually the Army's entire maneuver force in either Iraq, Afghanistan, or in the US/Germany (where some units coming back; others preparing to go). Only time will tell, but this dangerous situation only gets more dangerous with the recent bellicose statements of North Korea after their successful nuclear test and missile launches; Russia's continued warnings over Georgia; Israel's ominous statements towards Iran and Iran's bellicose statements and actions toward the West; and then the 'normal' Pakistan, India, China, and a host of smaller possibilities. Bottom line: we incur more strategic risk because some or many of the above-mentioned states might be more tempted to take action because they know we're tied down than they might otherwise be.

But to me, the most important subcategory that would cost us more in snapshot #2 is:

3. blood. How many more American men and women will be dead in August 2010 than will be dead in, say, August 2009? If, as I strongly believe, we have a virtually undistinguishable strategic snapshot in the two time periods mentioned, then whatever the number of American killed and wounded in this category will have been wasted blood. How many men must be killed, how many more widows must we create, how many more fatherless children must be made – how many more flag-draped coffins must we off-ramp at Dover? In 2008, the average was 18 dead per month. Thus far in 2009, the average is down to 'only' 7.2. If we use 'only' the lower numbers, that would produce in the next 14 months a new total of about 101 killed, and 949 wounded/injured.

That's over 1,000 men and women in uniform who today are perfectly healthy and alive – just like the men under my command still in Iraq – who will likely be dead or wounded in August 2010 that would not otherwise have been had we started the redeployment a few months ago.

To sum: we are going to spend $185 billion dollars, accept a greater strategic vulnerability, and throw away the lives or health of 1,000 American men and women – for no strategic gain to the United States.

This makes me so mad when I see it in print, but the facts are what they are and things are what they seem. Until we actually begin the redeployment process (not expected to begin in earnest until sometime in February next year), the loss of life, the open-ended nature of the financial outflow, and the strategic risk remains open-ended and enduring. So my premise stands: if we do nothing between now and August 2010 (and we are still saying we're going to leave 60,000 or so there between August 2010 and December 2011 – thus increasing the cost for all three sub-categories), the costs specified above will be spent, the strategic threat will exist, the 100 Americans will be dead and another 900 of their buddies will be wounded/injured.

How can anyone justify such a cost with no associated benefit?

-- [name removed]



Hi [name removed],

Good hearing from you. Interesting email as well.

In 1946 the US decided it wasn't going back to its pre-Pearl Harbor "minding my own business" policy, and that it would accept being an empire.

It was the world's first empire that accepted that role and did not crave for it. It was the world's first ever benevolent empire.

It was and still is a constructive, balancing power. The world should thank the US for being an empire. (I am sure you don't like the notion of being an empire – even the term "empire" makes you feel uncomfortable – but that's exactly what makes the US such a great empire). Don't believe what your enemies are saying about you – you are the good guys.

But being an empire has its toll.

I served and still serve in reserve in a regional military organization of a regional/small power – definitely not an empire. The longest I've been away from home was 5 weeks. As a fighter pilot, I took a C-130 home every day at 1730. As a staff officer, I slept in my bed every night. With the exception of one-night operations, I've never served more than 250 miles from home.

But being an empire is different. By definition, you have expeditionary forces, you have engagements in far away places due to high politics – places whose name you can't even properly pronounce. And yes, you lose men and women who die horribly in a remote corner of the world, for reasons that the National Security Advisor can understand but not the grieving family. You lose men in places you've never heard of before, called Khe Sanh or Golf of Tonkin or Yalu River or Jipyeong-ri or Al Anbar or Abu Hishman or Kandahar or Badghis or ... Berlin.

As a man in uniform myself (today only 45-60 days a year), I do not feel it’s fair pitching to what I do not practice myself.

Today, I took a day off and as I write this email on my laptop, my wife is next to me practicing Pilates and my two daughters are watching Dora. Soon we will take the Jeep and go to have a pizza. You, on the other hand, must have slept with another dozen snoring smelly guys in the same room, must have blisters for legs and don't know if you are going to be in a body bag by sunset (though as Israelis, we may also be in body bags by sunset even though we only went for a pizza in the nearby shopping mall).

So, I can't look you in the eyes and tell you it’s worth it – but guess what – it is.

Going into Iraq was a mistake. I said that to my friends at the US embassy before OIF.

Every organization – as professional, benevolent, and serious as it may – sometimes makes mistakes.

The US means well most of the time, and so did President Bush. But OIF happened and now there is a new reality we must manage (we no longer have the options we had in 2003 – no point re-living it).

The math we need to do now is the contemporary one – not that math of February 2003.

And today's math is that there is a clear and imminent danger to US hegemony in the mid east.

Once you leave, Iran will become the dominant force in Iraq. Iran has already become the dominant force in Lebanon, Gaza and to an extent Syria. Iran gained a military foothold in Eritrea, Sudan, and other places in the Horn of Africa. Iran is threatening Bahrain, Yemen and other gulf states. It is attempting to topple the Egyptian government. And they meddle up in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

And once it goes nuclear – Iran will be untouchable.

Iran is trying to replace the US as the hegemoneous force in the region.

I do agree that if the US sticks to SOFA's dates, every additional marginal day carries a price and does not carry a benefit.

Once you have a departure date, your enemies only need to outlast you. They only need not to be utterly and irrevocably defeated until the next winter, and then they can have Iraq for themselves. This is the inevitable outcome of a strategy driven by dates. The same thing had happened when we declared in the summer of 1999 that we will be out of Lebanon by the summer of 2000. It was a failure waiting to happen. You can’t fight against attritionists when you are bound by dates.

But should you be bound by dates?

President Obama's "lets-be-nice-to-them-and-they'll-be-nice-to-us" doctrine is not working. It’s blowing up in our face. You can see it in N Korea, and you can see the ripple effect with Japanese generals now talking about preemption and a nuclear Japan. You can see it with the Iranian rejection of the "double freeze" proposal (freeze the nuclear program and we will freeze the sanctions).

The nice way will not work. You have in essence two bad options:

Either continue your military commitment and be willing to expand it (including immediate military action with Iran).

Or return to the pre-Pearl Harbor policies and say you don't care (hoping the problem doesn't hunt you back to the US as 9/11 did).

In case of the second option, Israel will (I hope) take independent military action against Iran.

I do not see another American splendid isolationism as a viable option. The world changed since Pearl Harbor, and the ocean is no longer a great barrier from trouble. When the economy is globalized, the missiles from North Korea have longer and longer ranges, terrorists show up in downtown Manhattan and the Pentagon, and nuclear proliferation reaches the lunatics of N Korea, Iran and a host of non-state actors – isolation is not an option.

The ocean is no longer the high fence that guarantees good neighbors (and BTW – Iran and Hezbollah now operate in the western hemisphere from Venezuela to Equator to drug trafficking via Mexico).

In a way, the world is less safe than in the Cold War. It is less safe than during the Cuban missile crisis.

The Soviets were, at the end of the day, a European, Christian nation, that read the same books and listened to the same music as we do (they wrote much of it). Paraphrasing Sting's song, they loved their children too.

The Soviet block was centralized, Westphalian, rational. It was cold and calculated. So you could deal with it, even in a nuclear crisis. MAD worked.

Today, we are dealing with more dangerous enemies. They are incoherent. They lack a structure. They are not centralized. They are a fluid ameba. You can't really know where they start and where they end. Iran doesn't invade countries. It creates deniable non-state proxies and destabilizes and turns countries. Why invade a country if you can reach the same outcome using proxies and mafia-like methods?

Hezbollah can do something and Iran would say "that wasn't me". During the Cuba crisis, no Soviet sergeant would shoot a pistol without an OK from the Kremlin (so none shot). Today, someone would shoot and you wouldn't know who, if any, gave the order. And tomorrow it will happen with nuclear weapons.

Even the bunch of "Dr. Evils" that run N Korea and Iran have already proved that they can wipe out a whole generation of their own people without thinking twice.

Iran is a nation state but it works using non-state and indirect means. Let it do its own thing, let it get nuclear, and you will see the Straits of Hormoz becoming an Iranian lake, you will see Iraq, Bahrain and then the rest of them fall under Iranian influence. You'll find it impossible to sail through the Straits of Bab Al-mandeb (between the Horn of Africa and the Saudi Peninsula), you'll find them in central Asia. You will find an Iranian mid east, you will find Europe covered by Iranian nuclear ICBMs.

This is something you can’t hide from.

The US doesn't have good options, and I hope it makes the right choices. When it does, the policies are physically manifested by honest patriotic soldiers such as yourself sleeping in a place whose name you can't properly pronounce.

But that's the way it is. The physical expression of a correct, balanced, stabilizing policies are that flaks such as yourself sweat on a dusty desert road.

It’s not fun, it’s not good, all those tours of duty are bad for your family – but the alternative is worse.

It’s better to have you patrol tonight on the Iraqi-Iranian border than a nuclear 9/11.

Keep safe and keep the valor.

-- [Name removed]



From: [U.S. Army Captain – name removed]
To: [LTC (Res) in the IAF – name removed]
Subject: RE: the cost
Date: Fri, 5 June 2009 04:43:06 -0500

[Name removed],

Thanks ever so kindly for the thorough response; I enjoyed reading it greatly (plus, as it's almost lunch time, it made me strangely hungry for pizza!). I do have a slightly nuanced view, however, from your perspective.

Much of what you believe I hold to just as strongly. But my particular view on the issue you cite is that there is more than just "splendid isolation" or having my hand in everyone's pockets as I see fit. Particularly in the case of Iraq, either we ought to be in or we ought to be out. This something-in-the-middle thing we're doing now is a waste of American blood, and that is what gets me seething. I and my fellow Soldiers have often made this comment on this tour: during Desert Storm (or even the initial stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom), we knew what was at stake. We knew the mission. We knew what we had to do, and were prepared to do it, knowing some of us would be wounded and others would be killed. Maybe me. We knew that and readily accepted it. What we (I) can not accept, however, is when we are deployed and: we don't know what's at stake (because the political leaders and/or senior military leaders either tell us nothing that makes sense, or gives us empty rhetoric that we know is rhetoric), we don't know what we're supposed to accomplish, and we don't know what we die for.

That is a crucial problem. If the fighting men don't even know why they are there – but they very much know that their fellow service members are killed in action virtually every day – motivation and morale goes lower and lower by the day. But of far greater significance than whether or not I'm motivated, is the issue of our senior military and civilian leaders bleeding our force and wasting it on a field where it will not serve the nation's interest, but perversely drains it of both men and fighting spirit. This is irresponsible and must be stopped.

If there are issues of empire that affect the vital national interests of the United States or her allies and a case can be made to show that the spilling of our blood is worth it to our way of life, then so be it. If you can give me a rationale that is reasonable to our culture and history, then you will have no complaint from me in doing a job that could deprive me of my life. It will then be my patriotic duty and there would be no shortage of such men in this country willing to perform such duty.

Ultimately, I think it is a high crime to piss away their lives, however, for no return to the nation. Our senior military and civilian leaders, in my view, only expose their remarkably low ability to find complex solutions to very complex problems. Instead, they take the easy way out and make the non-thinking decisions – which result in the type of condition about which I railed in my previous message!

So in the final analysis, I agree with you without hesitation that there are indeed things worth fighting, bleeding, and dying for, and believe that the defense of one's way of life (not simply the physical boundaries) is a 24/7/365 job...

Regarding Iraq and the break-role it plays vis-a-vis Iran: this is also a tricky issue. First, there is a signed, legal document that says we're going to be out entirely by the end of 2011 – whether we want to be or not. Now there is much debate as to whether the Iraqi leadership will suddenly discover the need to "request" that some of our forces remain beyond that point, but even in that case it will be small-ish numbers. The civilian population in neither Iraq nor America will allow either government currently sitting to keep their jobs if that requirement is bypassed in too strong of numbers.

Iran isn't the only global consideration we've got to concern ourselves with. Frankly, I think the consideration that Iran would flex its influence-muscles in lieu of invading someone else is something that can be dealt with. Most countries want to have influence in other nations without having to resort to physical force (Sun Tzu said the most excellent form of fighting is to bend your foe to your will without having to fight), and all try to one degree or another. The ones I worry about, however, are the ones that might consider using physical force to get what they want.

Israel obviously has a very different viewpoint on Iran than anyone else does, including us. I can sit here and give you a logical stream lasting dozens of pages explaining why I believe the facts support a contention that Iran will never use a nuclear weapon on Israel. But in the end, there only has to be that one tiny chance that I am wrong and Israel as I know it ceases to exist. It won't matter that there would be massive retaliation and automatic counter-strikes to bring down Iran: none of that would bring back Israel as a single bomb would wipe most of you out. That’s an argument for which I have no meaningful counterargument.

So where does that leave us? If Israel launches an attack on Iran, it will almost certainly be viewed, without pausing for investigation, as a joint US-Israel operation by Iran (and indeed most of the world; possibly correctly), and we'll be just as much in the retaliation cross hairs as the IDF. Depending on how big the attack and how painful the retaliation strikes, no one can predict where such a war would go. if the retaliation is too severe, or strikes a school house of children, for example, the counter-counter strike would be likewise severe, and escalation begets escalation – where it stops no one knows – and then all kinds of ugly possibilities come into play where nations join nation and the violence spreads and grows until... well, you see where this is going.

Bottom line to all this mess:

Yeah, I haven't figure out the bottom line yet...

-- [name removed]

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.