Theodicy and foreign policy: The U.S. is not omnipotent

God was finally going to believe
in a man both good and strong,
but good and strong
are still two different men.

Wislawa Szymborska,The Century’s Decline

Yesterday, National Public Radio’s All Things Considered had a segment debating U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war: “Analysts Divided on U.S. Arming Syrian Rebels.”

The guests were two people I wasn’t familiar with: Andrew Tabler, “senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy,” and Joshua Landis, “who directs the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.”

Landis argued that the U.S. should avoid getting entangled in the Syrian war because he doesn’t think this is a problem that America can solve:

I think the United States should stay out of this. This is a civil war, ethnic civil war, which America cannot adjudicate and we can’t solve. The Syrians ultimately have to figure out who they are, if they can live together and what their national identity is going to be. And if America jumps into the middle of it, we’re going to want to kill the extremists and we’re going to want to destroy the Assad regime and we’re going to be fighting a two-front war in Syria.

And we’re not going to get the outcomes we want and we’re going to spend a fortune doing it. And, you know, there’s got to be one of these wars we just don’t get involved in.

Tabler, on the other hand, is urging the U.S. to begin arming the rebels in Syria, and he’s disappointed that America didn’t get involved sooner:

If it had occurred earlier, it would have been easier, but unfortunately, now we have more extremists who have moved into different areas that are controlled by the opposition. So you can’t guarantee that every bullet would not make it into the hands of an extremist.

But overall, you could strengthen the mainline nationalist local and franchise battalions and it would help deal them back in. And the reason why I still think that’s a good idea, you know, with groups that we vetted and we can work with is because I just don’t think this conflict is going to end any time soon.

By the end of the segment, this disagreement got pretty nasty — in a very familiar way:

LANDIS: Could I have one rejoinder? Andrew just said that I’m a regime-supporter for making this argument and therefore trying to scare Americans away. I think that’s an unfair accusation. I’m an American.

TABLER: You’ve got to be kidding, Josh. You have been one of the biggest supporters of Bashar al-Assad for a long time, and look, that’s your position. And I think the argument you make…

LANDIS: That’s completely untrue. And I’m an American trying to keep us out of another Iraq-type of venture.

TABLER: I think that you are…

LANDIS: What you are saying is that Syria’s not like Iraq.

TABLER: I’m sorry I don’t agree with you.

LANDIS: And Syria’s exactly like Iraq. This is not about the regime. This is about America staying out of a quagmire, Andrew.

TABLER: Josh, I just think that your positions have come consistently on side of the regime.

It’s like a trip back in time to 2003.

Andrew Tabler is trying to revive one of the nastiest, most illogical of all the nasty, illogical arguments that misled America into the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq. He’s repeating Glenn Reynolds’ ugly, foolish slur that anyone who opposed invading Iraq was “objectively pro-Saddam.”

This accusation doesn’t make any more sense in 2013 than it did a decade ago, but I think I’ve finally figured out why people like Reynolds and Tabler trick themselves into thinking it does.

They’re not really talking about foreign policy. They’re talking about theodicy. They’re making a theological claim, with the United States in the role of God.

“Theodicy” refers to the problem of evil. I like Archibald MacLeish’s pithy summary of that problem in JB:

If God is God, He is not good,
If God is good, He is not God.

JB is a modern retelling of the story of Job, but MacLeish doesn’t have any better answers than the author of Job did. Here are the two seemingly incompatible ideas that story tries to reconcile:

1. God is “the Almighty,” or — as theologians say — “omnipotent.”

2. God is good (just, fair, loving, righteous, benevolent, etc.).

Now consider any evil, unjust, painful, horrible incident or context. Any will do, and you have an infinite array of choices: the Lisbon earthquake, the Boxing Day tsunami, 9/11, childhood leukemia, AIDS, a car crash, a drive-by shooting, tyranny, calamity, pain, disease, flood, famine — take your pick.

The existence of any or all of those seems to suggest that God cannot be both omnipotent and good. A God that was both omnipotent and good ought to have intervened to stop such horrors, or to reverse them. That’s what any of us would do if it were in our power to do so, even those of us who make no claim to be anything like as good as the ultimate goodness we attribute to God.

The claim of God’s goodness makes such intervention necessary. The claim of God’s omnipotence means that such intervention would be guaranteed to succeed. The relentlessly evident lack of such divine intervention therefore suggests that one or the other of these attributes of God is wrongly attributed. Either an all-powerful God could intervene to prevent injustice, suffering and evil, but chooses not to — and is therefore not good. Or else a good God wants to intervene to prevent injustice, suffering and evil, but is unable to do so — and is therefore not all-powerful.

That’s the conundrum. (I would say that’s the crux of the problem, but the literal crux of the matter is something else entirely.)

I think the illogical logic of the Neo-conservative “objectively pro-Saddam” argument comes from taking this framework of theodicy and applying it to American foreign policy. In the framework of theodicy, goodness always entails an obligation to intervene. Interventionist foreign policy draws on that, I think. For interventionists, America is good and therefore America must intervene.

From this view, the evil, horror and injustice of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq — like every evil, horror and injustice — demanded an active response. Wouldn’t you have put a stop to it if it were within your power to do so? Of course you would have. And thus the U.S. was obliged to invade Iraq, because with its unrivaled military might, the U.S. did have the power to do so.

This isn’t a military or strategic argument. Nor is it a discussion of just-war theology. It’s an analogy from theodicy. Either the mighty U.S. could intervene to prevent injustice, suffering and evil in Iraq, but chooses not to — and is therefore objectively pro-Saddam. Or else the U.S. wants to intervene to prevent injustice, suffering and evil, but is unable to do so — and is therefore not mighty enough and needs to further increase the Pentagon’s budget.

The dilemma of theodicy has two horns — ultimate goodness and ultimate power. Both of those are problematic in this analogy. But here let’s set aside the problem of trying to equate the U.S. with ultimate goodness. And let’s set aside as well the host of other troubling factors, like the seemingly arbitrary choice of elevating one particular unjust context above all others as uniquely requiring intervention. Here let’s just focus on the simple and obvious fact that the United States military, while quite powerful, is not omnipotent.

I don’t simply mean that U.S. military firepower is finite, rather than infinite. That’s obviously true, but it’s not really the problem with this analogy.

The United States spends more on its military than any other country. It’s not even close. American politicians love to boast of the nation’s military prowess, and they’re not wrong. The U.S. has more and better weapons than any other nation on the planet. So even though U.S. military firepower is finite and limited, it’s so far beyond that of most potential military foes that those limits don’t matter much. America’s nuclear arsenal could destroy the entire planet several times over. If you can kill everyone on earth more than once, it hardly matters that you’re unable to kill them all an infinite number of times.

The main reason that the U.S. military is not omnipotent is that it’s military might is only that: military might. The U.S. military cannot cure cancer, end a drought or feed the starving millions. The U.S. military can solve only those problems that are exclusively military problems. And it can address the military aspects of problems that are partly made up of military aspects — but only those military aspects. It cannot solve every problem or correct every injustice.

To put it crudely, the U.S. military is very, very good at killing people. But many problems — most problems, actually — can’t be resolved by killing people. Some few, perhaps, can. The vast majority cannot.

That reveals the confusion of our interventionist friends when they make the leap from theodicy to foreign policy. The idea they draw from the discussion of theodicy is that goodness requires intervention — that to be good means one is obliged to intervene against evil, suffering and injustice. I think that’s right, but it does not mean that one is obliged to intervene by killing people. It does not mean that this specific form of intervention is the only specific form of intervention called for — or that it is the best, or the first, or the most effective form of intervention.

Just-war theory addresses this in at least two ways. One is the principle of last resort, which says that military intervention and the use of military force must never be used unless everything else has been fully and legitimately tried first. The second is the principle of “reasonable hope.” That doesn’t mainly have to do with the prospects for military victory, but rather with the question of whether or not such a victory would likely produce a just outcome. (Generals often understand the wisdom of this better than civilians do.)

Those two principles are among the most ignored and sorely abused of the entire “just-war” school. I think that’s true mainly because we spend so much money and time preparing for war that we’re unable or unwilling to imagine other, prior resorts — other ways of intervening that would likely have a more reasonable hope of achieving a just and desirable outcome.


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  • aunursa

    I don’t know what the overall perspective is on the liberal side, but conservatives are quite divided over whether the U.S. should intervene in Syria if it’s proven that Assad’s forces used chemical weapons.
    See for example: The Only Red Line Should Be To Stay Out

  • Citizen Alan

    Tabler is a movement conservative. Which is to say, he worships Death, just like most die-hard Republicans.

  • Becca Stareyes

    I’d probably extend this to domestic policy, with people who jump to arming ‘the right people’, and tougher sentencing/increased jail time as a solution for any crime, rather than ask ‘what is the best way or combination of ways to solve this problem?’. It’s not to say that those aren’t possible solutions to be considered, but they are not the only solutions, and there is a difference between ‘We have good reason to think that solution will cause more problems than it solves’ to ‘We are in favor of the problem continuing’.

  • This is an incredible article Fred, thank you. I think you’ve really nailed it here. It really ties into that “theory of everything” someone posted in comments earlier this week, about this fundamental difference in mindset between authoritative types(and I think most conservatives fit into that type) and everyone else.

  • “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business”

    How charming.

  • This analysis might go some way to explaining how a refusal to intervene with our internal inequality could possibly square with an imperialist urge to intervene in other nations injustices. If the innate justness of US society is axiomatic, then the assumption that our own oppressed underclasses did something to deserve their oppression is not just comforting but a patriotic duty. It is also a patriotic duty to assume that other nations failings our of course caused by institutions and beliefs that are different from and therefore not as good as our own, and that simply having our own ways ‘given’ to them is of course the obvious solution to their problems.

    It is true that many if not most right-wingers see themselves as personally embodying the United States more than other Americans, and therefore tend to interpret any suggestion that we are not automatically strong just and good as personal attacks on themselves. It is also true that it is indeed very hard to be both strong and good at the same time. The most common way to try to pull off this trick is to display an extravagant willingness to punish evil. Punish the deserving underclass for their hedonism and laziness. Punish the foreign stranger for his infidelity.

  • Carstonio

    While I have a habit of overusing the term authoritarianism, it seems appropriate for the mentality that Fred describes, one that makes no practical distinction between god and country. There are few more concepts dangerous to world peace than the idea of one’s country representing ultimate goodness.

  • I believe that the use of chemical weapons is certainly an issue if we want a fully cooperative international intervention in Syria, considering that Russia is still tentatively their supporter on the U.N. Security Council, but they have made suggestions to the effect that they would consider chemical attacks crossing the line and would be willing to withdraw their support for Syria in such an event.

    That is admittedly my amateur understanding of the situation, and I might have been misinformed. Still though, I would rather have international support before military intervention is even considered, if we do not want to risk a bunch of diplomatic fallout (which potentially produces more problems in the long term.)

  • Carstonio

    Whenever I heard about someone’s medical or financial troubles through a third party (an important qualifier), I automatically fear something similar happening to me or to my loved ones. What you describe may be a very similar form of emotional immaturity. They take any criticism of the nation very personally, because they are heavily invested in a view of themselves as just and good.

  • Matthias

    I don’t think that you can compare the Situation in Iraq of 2003 to the one in Syria today. Iraq was a stable country without a civil war, while authoritarian, you could live there if you didn’t openly criticise Saddam.

    In Syria there is a civil war ongoing, cities are under siege, civilians are being guned down from helicopers and as it now appears chemical weapons have been used. It is hard to see how it could get worse. Additionally as Lybia has shown removing the air force and the tanks of a dictator doesn’t neccesarily lead to a theocracy.

  • SisterCoyote

    I sincerely don’t understand how anyone is actually making this argument. Doomed to repeat our history indeed. “Let’s arm the rebels!” Because that has NEVER TURNED OUT BADLY FOR US OR ANYONE ELSE.

    Seriously. How many times do we have to go through this? Go into a country that’s engaged in civil war, make a decision from an outsider’s perspective on who’s in the right, arm the rebels we think we agree with. Fast-forward twenty-thirty years. Man, where did these well-armed terrorist regimes that the people hate come from? Where the fuck do you THINK?

  • ohiolibrarian

    It wouldbe odd if one didn’t have a generally good opinion of one’s own country … witin reason. And that’s where some people go wrong.

  • This is the best politics-related post I’ve seen from Fred in over half a year. My response to unwarranted intervention has, for the past five months, been “people can only accomplish what they know how to do”. Now, I can point out that what is good is not God.

  • Well, I don’t have a particularly high opinion of the US. I just don’t know where else I’d live if I had the choice, and I don’t have the choice.

  • Link, please?

  • Quoth Altemeyer:

    Authoritarian followers want to belong, and being part of their in-group means a lot to them. Loyalty to that group ranks among the highest virtues, and members of the group who question its leaders or beliefs can quickly be seen as traitors. Can you also sense from these items the energy, the commitment, the submission, and the zeal that authoritarian followers are ready to give to their in-groups, and the satisfaction they would get from being a part of a vast, powerful movement in which everyone thought the same way? The common metaphor for authoritarian followers is a herd of sheep, but it may be more accurate to think of them as a column of army ants on the march.

    If you are critical of your own nation, then you are shifted to the “out” group and not to be trusted. We see this in the epistemic closure Fred discussed before. In the end, all who are left are true-believes to thump the drums and march forward secure in the belief that their position is unassailable.

    Ironically, since the end of the Bush administration such people have become dismissive of the nation, but not the “real” nation to them. The only way that they can be critical of America is by invoking the No True American fallacy to rationalize their criticism.

  • I don’t really think Syria is a liberal/conservative divide. I say that mostly because I don’t think it has enough exposure to be a key talking point for anyone.

    That said, most of the liberal chatter I’ve noticed on Syria is basically, “Another war? Yeah, let’s not do that.” I also haven’t run in to that many arguments in favor of handing guns to the rebels, either. That never seems to work out too well.

  • Carstonio

    There’s a difference between loving one’s own country despite its flaws, wanting to make it more just, and viewing the country with childlike adoration, like it’s the bestest mommy in the whole wide world. As alfgifu once said, one is positive patriotism and one is exceptionalism.

  • Now, that I think about it wasn’t here, it was at Libby Anne’s LoveJoyFeminism.

    I’ll post it when I find it.

  • It can always get worse.

  • Ben English

    The American military knows how to kill people and blow shit up. There are people and more importantly hardware in Syria that we could take out that might help reduce civilian casualties. Extracting or neutralizing chemical weapons could save millions of lives. Nobody wants an invasion and arming the rebels is a bad idea, but there are people suffering, the situation is not stable, and, as Mathias said, taking out the military strength of a dictator doesn’t guarantee disaster.

    I’m not saying we SHOULD do any of this because that would require military intel and difficult judgements that we as civilians aren’t really equipped to make. But there are potential courses of action that don’t mean arming the rebels or invading the country.

  • Ben English

    It depends on what you mean by the word ‘representing’. America, as an ideal, represents liberty and justice for all, which to my mind seems like the ultimate goodness.

    We as Americans fail miserably to live up to that, but that doesn’t mean the idea isn’t worth striving for. The problem comes when ultimate goodness becomes something America is assumed to be by default, rather than something it aspires toward.

  • stardreamer42

    AKA “those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it”. And there’s been an awful lot of effort spent in the last 40 years to ensure that the American public in general has the attention span of a flea with ADD.

  • The_L1985

    Yeah, we saw how well that worked in Afghanistan…

  • Also, too, Iraq…

  • I would rather you not be so general with blanket statements like that. Yes, there are warmongers in the American political system, but given how broad each major party is (a two party system will do that) it is fallacious to say that most “die-hard” members of a party share an agenda (they may be die-hard supporters of agendas, just not all the same ones.)

  • Man, where did these well-armed terrorist regimes that the people hate come from? Where the fuck do you THINK?

    I remember the joke back from 2003-2004: “Why do we think Saddam has weapons of mass destruction despite all contrary evidence? Because we still have the receipts.”

  • Boidster

    Interesting post. I had always figured that “follow the money” was the answer to why the warmongers monger so much. Their political careers or their private “think tanks” are funded in whole or in part by people who stand to profit from endless war, so yay for endless war! There are ancillary benefits w.r.t. control of the populace and infringement on civil liberties when the country is “at war”; icing on the cake.

    I find Fred’s hypothesis slightly more comforting than my cynical one, though I’m not ready to accept it as the primary motivator of these chickenhawks. I might even be more inclined to believe “base hatred of brown/Muslim people, plus a sick desire to throw small crappy countries against the wall from time to time” as a motivation for these folks before “we believe that America is Good and therefore must intervene – using guns and missiles – on behalf of the poor repressed brown people”.

    It is food for thought, though.

  • Mark Z.

    I wish I could find the comment*, but a few months back, someone posted here about 1 Kings 11:19:

    “Perhaps the point of the still small voice is that fire from heaven has its limitations.”

    * Because Disqus, that’s why.

  • Alix_A

    Not only that, but, well. From my perspective there’s also a huge issue of sovereignty involved. It’s easy to support the rights of people to self-determination and the right of nations to their own national sovereignty when things are going well, but it’s situations like this civil war that really test those rights.

    It would be one thing if Syria was engaging in warfare with us. It would be one thing if Syria or its people requested international peacekeeping help (I’m not entirely up to date on this – have they?). It’s another thing to just decide to jump in to an internal matter in another nation.

    I know this then leads to the thorny questions about moral good and saving lives and human rights and all of that, but I am not so sure we’ve got a good track record on any of those issues, and I don’t think the answer to any of them is to have one giant superpower playing bully-on-the-block and policing the actions of every other nation on the planet.

  • I find the Theory of Everything quite possibly true and useful.

    Here is the Theory of Everything, as I conceive it:

    The characteristic view of liberals is that human beings are born into the world basically good and equal and are corrupted by questing for superiority over the common person.

    The characteristic view of conservatives is that human beings are born into the world basically bad and that those who are in poverty are those who remain in this original state, and, thus, rightfully deserve their punishments, while those who have moved beyond that original state are the righteous and successful, who rightfully deserve their success.

  • Jenora Feuer

    The version of it that I heard was a little more blunt: “Why is George W. Bush so certain that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction? Because his daddy kept the receipts.”

    Then remember that George H.W. Bush was director of the C.I.A. for a year or so back in 1976.

  • The thing is, it seems like our choices here are “do nothing”, “pick a side and help them win” or “conquer Syria” (Honorable mention: Nuke it from orbit; it’s the only way to be sure).

  • Jurgan

    Jon Stewart: So the only hope is to convince Vladimir Putin that it’s bad to poison people. Good luck with that.

  • 19:11, not 11:19.

  • Martin

    Great post, but a point that i really hate:

    “America’s nuclear arsenal could destroy the entire planet several times over. If you can kill everyone on earth more than once…”

    this is not and has never been true.

    1. we don’t have enough firepower to destroy the planet (The entire (imperial) starfleet couldn’t destroy the whole planet. It’d take a thousand ships with more fire power than Han Solo has ever [seen])

    2. a back of the envelope calculation suggests there are 250,000 large settlements in the world. All of these would have to be totally destroyed to eradicate the human population (there are provisos, but in essence, we can’t eliminate ourselves though nuclear war – not that i think we should try the experiment!!!!(!!!!))

  • Well, let’s see. We have 5113 warheads (down from nearly 10K in 2006 and from 30K in the ’60s). The blast radius of a 340 kt nuclear weapon (which is apparently the one the US keeps the most of) generally kills anyone within ~30 miles and has a not too shabby chance of killing people within ~60 miles. So carpet bombing with our current arsenal could obliterate ~306780 square miles of terrain… yeah, that’s not even enough to completely destroy the US itself. Our 30K arsenal wouldn’t even have done it. It would, however, do a pretty good job of ruining quite a lot of days.

    Mythbusters extreme argument time! What if, instead of using 340 kt weapons, we used 30K clones of the experimental 100 mt Tsar Bomba? That would do an excellent job of cancelling vacation plans for anyone within 18,656 miles, and 30K of those destroys 559,680,000 square miles of land — completely obliterating every inch of the entire Earth almost three times over and leaving one confused pilot with very little to do with his weekend off (not to mention no place to land).

  • P J Evans

    You don’t have to actually destroy the planet to kill (almost) everything. Fire off enough bombs and you can have a pretty good ‘nuclear winter’.

  • Mary

    Of course I bet a lot of people don’t believe that any more than they believe in global warming, or maybe they think the two would cancel each other out? Hey I just figured out how to stop global warming! ;)

  • Mary

    Sorry I meant this for PJ

  • Mary

    Also many habitable areas would be contaminated with radiation.

  • Eric

    Speaking as a member of the US military, who’s in a unit that might be singled out to go to Jordan to possibly intervene-

    I’m not terribly thrilled at the prospect. Assad’s totalitarian dictatorship on the one hand and al-qaeda backed rebels on the other. We cannot truly go to war in support of either side and know we’re in the right.

    The only victory condition for us is to dismantle assad’s regime, excise the extremist factions among the rebels without alienating the rest, rebuild the country with a strong economy and restore public works lke schools and roads and so on. I also think that that will not happen.

    At the end of the day, it’s not our problem. The only reason to go there is the chemical weapons charge, and even then, let the UN take the lead with that. After all, why does the UN even exist if not for stuff like poison gas attacks?

    We’ve spilled oceans of Americna blood and Americna treasure in two wars over the last 12 years. Now should be the time when we look for reasons not to deploy, not making excuses to get involved.

  • Mary

    I remember the old slogans such as “My Country Right or Wrong.” and “America Love It or Leave It.” My father was just a few years shy being drafted into WW2. He can’t understand the difference between the war then and our incursions into other countries such as Iraq. I haven’t asked him yet about what is going on now. But his attitude is that since WW2 was a just cause that going into Iraq was just, also. I am no war history buff, but I think the difference was that Hitler was trying to take over the world and he probably would have come after us sooner or later. We have no evidence that with Iraq that we were in any kind of danger plus we have pissed off enough Muslims that we are probably IN MORE DANGER, than we would be if we had left them alone!

    Not only can we not fix everything in the world, we have our own problems to deal with. Simply put, our country is in bad shape with the economy and that should be our priority.Spending billions of dollars on warfare means that we cannot help our own people. Of course I guess that many conservatives think that all unemployed people are leeches on the government, so they don’t care. I don’t know the numbers of people who are hard-working people that can’t find jobs, but I am sure it is steep. I am disabled and I can’t even afford to get dental work done, even though I get both Medicare and Medicaid. Niether one of them will pay for anything except having a tooth pulled in an emergency.

    Why the hell is it that we think that we can solve the world’s problems if we can’t solve our own?

  • If you’re willing to wait, you don’t quite have to hit everybody: there are varying estimates of a Minimum Viable Population but if you irradiate all the farmland and get the pop to under a million I think you’d just have to wait a few turns/years.

  • smrnda

    I think it was Orwell who said “My country right or wrong” is about as sensible as “My mother, drunk or sober.”

  • Mary

    Excellent article, but there is one thing you left out. The religious right believes that we are in the end times, so they think that the book of Revelations is describing what is going on now. So it is us against the Muslims because “God said it, so I believe it.” Never mind the fact that it used to be the communists that they thought Revelations was talking about. Go back further and it was Hitler that was the Antichrist. I am not saying we shouldn’t have gone after Hitler, this is just an example of people reading into scripture something that wasn’t there. In fact most bible scholars think that Revelations was a revenge fantasy against the Roman Empire. It was apparently so controversial that it almost didn’t make it into the bible at all. There is also the fact that that scholars have determined that books that are attributed to John cannot have been written by the same author because the writing styles and the comprehension of Greek, varied too much. Of course that won’t make a bit of difference to the inerrant crowd but I see the huge danger in presuming that our interpretations of Revelation somehow justifies aggressive warfare

  • Mary

    Yikes! What an awful article! Scary too.

  • Mary

    ‘The only victory condition for us is to dismantle assad’s regime, excise the extremist factions among the rebels without alienating the rest, rebuild the country with a strong economy and restore public works lke schools and roads and so on. I also think that that will not happen.”
    Your conclusion makes sense. This is what we tried to do in Iraq and look how well that turned out!

  • Rhubarbarian82

    The “receipts” joke goes back to the original Iraq War and George HW. Bill Hicks had a bit on it in his standup:

  • Justme

    Whether we get involved or not, relying on the UN to do something about Syrian use of chemical weapons is sort of wishful thinking. The UN won’t do anything without a Security Council vote, Russia’s on the Security Council, and Russia backs and is supplying Assad with weapons.and military advisors.