Fulcrum Ruminations

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Can America Still Win Wars?

Not a rhetorical question. Do we, as a nation, have the will to win wars any more?

Since the VietNam War ended, we have recast our military into a supremely lethal and effective force. The US Military is superbly designed and equipped for the task of shredding opposing militaries with frightening speed and efficiency. It's no exaggeration to say that our current armed forces probably constitute the most effective military in human history.

But what that describes is a force that wins battles, not one that wins wars. It's not enough to destroy opposing military formations. To win, one must seize and hold the enemy's territory, destroy the will to resist, and build some form of government in the defeated nation which can then maintain order. The classic example is what was done at the end of World War II, when massive armies of occupation garrisoned the defeated Axis powers as civil authority was restored and the nations were turned from enemies into allies.

Iraq is not working out that way. We kicked apart Saddam's armies easily enough (relatively speaking, of course . . . the victory was "easy" only by comparison to previous conflicts). But the force we sent was too small to effectively garrison the country once we'd destroyed the existing authority. As the conventional wisdom has it, mistakes were made. Assumptions were overly optimistic.

Now, the press would have you believe that the situation in Iraq is an unmitigated disaster, with chaos around every corner and failure the only sure outcome. But the commanders on the ground there report that efforts are succeeding, by and large, to contain the insurgency and restore the ability of self-governance. It's going slowly, there are setbacks, but the trend is towards success.

And yet the American public is turning against the effort. We're deciding that the cost in blood and treasure is too great, and the momentum for the cut-and-run continues to grow. What's needed is a larger number of troops to control the situation, continued infusions of aid in rebuilding civilian infrastructure, and training for Iraqi police and military units so that they can assume the normal duties of such organizations. All of this is in short supply.

At the end of the Cold War in the early 90s, we made the classic post-war mistake of democracies: we drew down our military too far and too fast. The result is a force that is relatively small given the size of our country and the missions we ask it to perform. As I noted above, it's an astonishingly capable force, but for the job of capturing whole countries, it's simply too small. We can destroy enemy militaries, but we can't impose order on the nations we have defeated. We have a force that wins battles and loses wars.

This is a perfectly fine arrangement so long as the missions undertaken are things like the Gulf War, or defeating a North Korean invasion of South Korea. However, when you engage in what amounts to wholesale conquest (and let's not be coy, that's what we did in Iraq and Afghanistan) you need a very large number of foot soldiers so that you can effectively police the country you've conquered. Previous empires have done this by co-opting the conquered into becoming members of the empire and policing themselves. The US, which despite the claims of the reality-impaired is in no way an empire, prefers to simply destroy or otherwise mitigate threats and then engage other nations with primarily economic means. Basically, we want to sell them our stuff and we want to buy their stuff. We tie our "empire" together with trade and mutual profit, not with armies of occupation.

Then there's our media. In the last fifty years, the world has gone from a model in which a newspaper account a day or more after the fact was the primary source of news to a model of the instantaneous communication of multimedia presentations that's omnipresent and always on. If General Patton slapped a soldier today, it would be on CNN and Fox News by lunchtime at the latest, with a variety of talking heads second-guessing every aspect of the incident and telling the rest of us what to think about it.

There's a telling statistic out there - something over eighty percent of the American press supposedly votes Democrat every election. It's therefore difficult to believe that they can be "fair and balanced" when reporting on a Republican-dominated government. However, the main game for the press is "Gotcha!" This supercedes even the most virulent partisan impulses. Witness, for example, the unprecedented feeding frenzy surrounding the Bill Clinton / Monica Lewinski story. This seems to stem from the Watergate era, when the Washington Post led the way in bringing down President Nixon. The reporters directly involved (most famously Woodward and Bernstein) viewed this not only as an extraordinary bit of journalism but as a demonstration of the power of the press. If the press collectively decides it doesn't like a politician, the press feels not just allowed, but obliged to destroy that politician. Journalists have assumed a position of tremendous arrogance, deciding that they know what's best.

The twenty-four-hour news cycle is also destructive in that it presents instant, or nearly instant, feedback on all government actions, both civilian and military. Witness the cries during the invasion of Iraq that the whole thing was a failure when a sandstorm held up the coalition advance for a few hours. Quality of reporting is sublimated to speed of reporting - it's more important to report it right now than to report it right. Fox doesn't want CNN to beat them to a report, after all, so accuracy is sacrificed to immediacy. Corrections may appear after more information comes in, or more experts are able to provide analysis, but often the first impression is the lasting one.

Military personnel in Iraq are reportedly developing an extreme dislike of the press. This is due to the perception that the press is only reporting the bad news, exaggerating it at that, and not reporting positive developments. Indeed, in some cases (the "six Sunnis burned to death" story leaps to mind) the press is actually manufacturing stories from whole cloth. There was, and is, a huge controversy around the Associated Press publishing falsified photographs of incidents that either happened differently than alleged or didn't happen at all.

This is poison to the informed debate needed to sustain a democratic government.

Then there's the blogosphere. While on one hand offering an entirely new means of reporting and commentary, blogs also allow anyone, no matter how biased or deranged, to put forth their version of an event. One has only to consider the insane conspiracy theories about the 9/11 attacks to see the horrific potential of this. A non-trivial segment of the American populace supposedly believes that our own government is responsible for 9/11. This is madness.

Blogs on the left have been beating the anti-war drums loudly and continuously since it became apparent that President Bush was going to take military action in Iraq. Although it now seems clear enough that the war was launched on false pretenses, the left is not satisfied with this and campaigns tirelessly for a cut-and-run strategy that would have disastrous long-term consequences. In opposition, you have blogs on the right that seem willing to support or excuse any action on the part of the administration in the name of "patriotism." The long-term consequences of blind obedience, although different from those of the cut-and-run, are no less disastrous to western liberal democracy.

But the upshot of all these matters is the fostering of a climate which is corrosive to the sort of sustained national unity necessary to win a major war. There must naturally be debate about the course of the effort and what constitutes victory. This is so obvious that it shouldn't need to be said. But the ultimate long-term goal, that of the survival of liberal democracy, must not be lost in the short-term struggle for political position. The essential civil liberties that make America what it is must not be sacrificed on the altar of expediency. This is what makes things like the so-called Patriot Act so unpalatable to so many people. We suffer certain tactical disadvantages from having a society as open as ours is, but closing things up takes away our national soul one little piece at a time.

Fulcrum Ruminations does not pretend to be a news blog. This blog is not about reporting specific events. This blog is nothing more than the opinions of one person, reflecting on the issues of the day. And what I see emerging from the chaos of Iraq, gentle reader, is a future in which America can destroy an enemy with devastating speed but is unable to address the longer, much more difficult issue of preventing new enemies from gaining a toe-hold. We can bulldoze entire nations but we cannot stop the next generation from going right back to the same behaviours that led to the bulldozing. We know how to win battles. We do not have the patience to win wars. Not when half of our population is more interested in portraying the other half as evil or stupid than they are in assuring the long-term survival of the social order which makes the debate possible at all.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

As you debate, thousands are dying. Typical war monger.

7:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the previous anonymous poster clearly did not read any of the post before they commented. There is no war mongering anywhere within this post. Debate is the stuff of rational society. Knee-jerk reactions like anonymous makes show a certain low-brow lack of insight.
-rob

3:32 PM  

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