War Stories

Fort Bragging Rights

Who Won the Pentagon’s Other War?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

One question you’re not asking yourself today is “Who won the war?” But then again, you don’t work at the Pentagon. There that question is a burning one because there it doesn’t mean “Which side won?” It means “Which service branch won?” The first time I ever set foot in the place, during the Cold War, I saw in a Navy office a wall sign stating, “Never forget our true enemy: The U.S. Air Force.” To a degree that few lifelong civilians appreciate, service rivalry is a huge part of military culture, and at the Pentagon—despite much official yadda yadda about joint operations and teamwork—this is further intensified because the reputation of a service branch directly affects its budget and recruiting.

I was reminded of this mind-set recently when a Pentagon Army person expressed his concern about his service’s very restrictive stance about allowing reporters to accompany units in the field: “If this keeps up, the public is going to think the Marines won the war.”

So, who did win? I would speed-handicap the services’ achievements this way. Huge points to the (mostly Army) special operations soldiers who were able to get into the boondocks and effectively support the Afghan anti-Taliban forces, especially by designating targets for airstrikes. Big points to the Air Force and Navy for executing those airstrikes with unprecedented accuracy. Medium points to the Marines for putting extra pressure on retreating Taliban forces at a crucial moment. Take away a few points from the Air Force for killing several U.S. troops with an errant bomb.

A simple way to gauge the dominance in the public mind is to check brand-name media mentions. When I ran “United States Army” on the New York Times Web site search engine, I got back 37 articles from the past 30 days. For “United States Air Force,” it was eight. For “United States Navy,” the yield was but five. For “United States Marine Corps,” it was three. But when I put in “special operations” I got 73 hits. That tells me that the true winners in the public’s mind are probably those Delta Force (Army), Green Beret (Army) and SEAL (Navy) commandos. This marks a real change for these types of soldiers, who are used to operating in the political as well as the actual shadows, one that may pay off big-time when the next defense appropriations bill gets drawn up.

Of course, there’s a difference between a service’s actual performance and the general consensus about it. And make no mistake—in the Pentagon, it’s the latter that really counts.