Well, this is one area where i’d be more than happy to be proven utterly wrong, because what I’ve seen has been truly disturbing. The Cold War era, my era, at least had the benefit of a strong moral aspect to our military mission and foreign policy. Yeah, the USSR was far from the stereotypical “Red octopus” and in hindsight it’s pretty clear that post-Stalin at least they were less interested in world domination than in simply holding their own shit together, but during that era we could with justification situate ourselves as the good guys moreso than not. This made it much easier to inculcate a more responsible and positive approach to the mission, as it was pretty clear that we had to “win” but not in a way that would undercut our moral position. It didn’t always work, by any means, but it was generally there.
Post 9-11, though, I think the lack of the combination of a clear-cut moral position and a clear-cut organized foe has eroded that certainty. This I blame on the civilian and high ranking military leadership, not the rank and file or even the mid-level really. It’s easy to grasp the concept of national security when you’re facing a nation like the USSR with nukes, and a world-wide military presence at a level that could give us at least a run for our money. It’s very hard to do so when your foe is a few guys with AKs and bombs living in fly-speck villages, or even a bunch of loosely-organized bandits with a big social media presence and a penchant for ultra-violence, but whose actions vis a vis the USA are more in the line of criminal activities than the military actions of a nation state.
This is a tough mission environment, to be sure. And I fault the military and defense leadership, civilian and military, for not, well, leading. Democrat and Republican, they resorted to vague generalities alternating with stereotypes and exaggerations designed to inflame and enrage rather than craft actual, you know, policies and guidance for the nation or the armed forces. It seems like a version of the old Army saying “do something, even if it’s wrong” became our sole national military strategy, and our civilian leadership seemed to forget about any other type of responses to complex world issues.
Well, twenty years down the road almost what do we have? Perpetual wars that have accomplished very little, the worst image abroad perhaps in our history, and IMO at least a military that, from the evidence we see on a too regular basis, is moving in a direction that is definitely not positive. Meanwhile, because we have not identified our essential goals and have not developed actual policies, countries like Russia can pretty much make inroads into areas we used to think were vital, and because we’ve abdicated any policy other than war, and we can’t go to war with the Russians, we’ve backed ourselves into a corner. Same thing with China. There’s zero reason to be on any sort of collision course with Beijing in terms of military conflict, and every reason to be working with them as healthy competitors and sometimes partners in reinforcing each other’s economic positions; it’s not a zero-sum game IMO, but because we seem to have no vocabulary other than a war one (trade war, etc.) there’s no room for maneuver.
It is this climate that, to me, has shaped what I perceive as the rot in the military establishment. YMMV.