Yesterday, General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS), appeared as a witnesses in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing to talk about the military plan to put the hurt on the Islamic State (a.k.a. ISIL). The testimony spawned a ton of coverage and commentary.
And if that coverage and commentary is anything to go by, the political-media complex is hardwired to react to the words "Iraq" and "US soldiers" like a cat reacts to a laser pointer.
If one were inclined to go by the headlines alone, one might think the Pentagon is on the verge of sending tens of thousands of US soldiers to fight in Iraq tomorrow — or at the very latest, sometime next week. One might also think the Pentagon is going to try to overrule President Barack Obama and send in ground combat forces. Or that Dick Cheney is kidnapping children for a Satanic ritual as a precursor to a nuclear attack on Tehran.
Confusion seemed to set in right off the bat, as Dempsey began his prepared remarks by pointing out that "if we reach the point where I believe our advisors should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I will recommend that to the President."
That is clear-cut, black-and-white evidence that the CJCS, the nation's highest-ranking uniformed officer, might go so far as to make a recommendation. That's right, folks. If the CJCS thinks he should recommend sending advisors into combat, he would recommend sending advisors into combat.
Which makes sense, considering the job of the CJCS is to make recommendations on military matters. It's all spelled out in 10 US Code § 151, Subsection (c)(2): "the Chairman shall, as he considers appropriate, inform the President… of the range of military advice and opinion."
The confusion appears to involve the difference between the presence of non-combat advisors and engaging in actual ground combat. The reality is that many, many armies — the Iraqi army included — are terrible at the parts of fighting a war that go beyond firing weapons. And those non-shooting activities — like communications, coordination, and logistics — are things that the US is comparatively awesome at. Any time the US says it's using advisors in foreign army units, they're usually handling a lot of those sorts of things.
Dempsey noted in testimony and in later questioning that if he thinks it would be necessary or worthwhile to have US advisors tag along and keep the Iraqis company as they engage the Islamic State in combat, he would recommend that the President go along with that idea. The astute observer will quickly note that providing communications, coordination, and logistics isn't engaging in combat.
There are possible futures in which Dempsey (or his successor) may recommend to Obama (or the next president) that it's high time to start thinking about major ground combat operations in Iraq. But that's true of any theoretical conflict.
And in future, if circumstances demand a change in how the US is advising the Iraqis, then at some point the President's military recommendations guy would recommend something military-related to the President. Dempsey clearly stated that he would recommend that if a need to alter the way we advise Iraqis arises, US soldiers who aren't engaged in combat would continue to not engage in combat.
The senators on the panel took time to clarify that, yes, pilots bombing Islamic State targets are, in fact, performing a combat role. And Dempsey's answer revealed that if a combat pilot on a combat mission ends up crashing during combat, and that pilot is wearing boots, then technically, yes, there will be "boots on the ground." A right one and a left one, in fact. And if some search-and-rescue people are nice enough to whisk that downed pilot back to safety, that mission might involve even more people walking around on the ground. And they might be wearing boots. Further, if bad guys shoot at those people, those people may shoot back; this mutual exchange of bullets and ill will is generally known as combat.
This does not, as far as I can tell, entail committing Brigade Combat Teams of 4,000 soldiers to a massive ground invasion of Islamic State territory. But, for the more easily agitated and innumerate, one downed pilot walking around is apparently close enough to merit panic.
All of this eventually prompted Dempsey to point out something I wouldn't have thought needed saying, and that still hasn't sunk in for a lot of folks: Military people are in the military. That means that any soldier in uniform is expected to have some basic ability to engage in combat. The idea that soldiers are expected to have the know-how to shoot at people shouldn't really be that much of a surprise. Nonetheless, Dempsey felt compelled to state:
Everyone should be aware when we talk about combat forces, that's all we grow. When we bring a young man or woman in the military, they come in to be a combat soldier or combat Marine. We don't bring them in to be anything other than combat capable. But that's different than how we use them and in the case of our contributions in Iraq right now, the airmen… are very much in a combat role. The folks on the ground are in very much a combat advisory role. They are not participating in direct combat.
To reiterate: The nation's top-ranking uniformed soldier had to inform the United States Senate that people in the military are expected to be capable of engaging in combat. And that bombing things counts as combat. And that military personnel not engaged in combat are not engaged in combat.
There are possible futures in which Dempsey (or his successor) may recommend to Obama (or the next president) that it's high time to start thinking about major ground combat operations in Iraq. But that's true of any theoretical conflict. And if the CJCS were to get up and announce that he would never consider recommending major ground combat operations, then he should be fired immediately. Because that would be exactly the opposite of informing "the President… of the range of military advice and opinion."
And yes, there are Special Forces operators bouncing around all over creation, and that probably includes Iraq. In fact, there are likely a fair number of them flitting around the Islamic State's caliphate right now. There have been reports of Special Forces hanging out with the Kurdish peshmerga in northern Iraq, offering friendly advice. And there are likely Special Forces scooting around Jordan and Saudi Arabia, trying to figuring out if there's a way to make the good Syrian rebels less terrible at war.
But it is the accepted convention that Special Forces don't count as major ground combat operations. And their presence certainly doesn't merit the drama that resulted after yesterday's testimony.
So put your pants back on — there's no imminent, massive ground invasion in the near future for the US military. The CJCS hasn't gone rogue. And the Pentagon isn't on the verge of staging the world's largest Iraq War re-enactment.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan
Photo via Department of Defense