Chickenhawk Responses No. 7: Winning Battles, Losing Wars

"Our armed forces have generally been successful on the battlefield. But with an important qualification..."  

The story so far: My piece on "The Tragedy of the American Military" is here; the "Gary Hart Memo" is here; an extra reading list is here; and for previous reader responses see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, and No. 6.

Now, for No. 7, some responses on the question of "winning" and "losing." The magazine presented the article in a deliberately provocative way, asking on the cover "Why Do the Best Soldiers in the World Keep Losing?"

Anyone who reads the article will see that it places responsibility mainly on all of us. That is, on the chickenhawk American public that "will do anything for its military except take it seriously," and on leaders who know that most voters are willing to "honor" their heroes but will not pay attention to how, where, and why they are sent to fight.

But people who didn't read the article could misunderstand the headline, as some manifestly have, to be casually dismissive of U.S. troops as losers. This kind of misunderstanding, inadvertent or purposeful, goes with the territory of public debate. It foreseeably leads to a kind of tribally minded angry response. Tribal? As in: 1) this guy seems to be against us; 2) since he doesn't like us, we don't like him; 3) therefore whatever he's saying is probably wrong.

That's a minority response; I'm touched and overwhelmed, in a good way, by the volume and sophistication of the submissions I continue to receive. Today's installment No. 7, like No. 4, is on meanings and responsibility for victory and defeat.

1) The truest sign of a strong military is not having to use it. From a reader in California:

Your article that should have been written, and perhaps you did write it, during the Reagan era when the military started to become a sacred cow. [JF note: In 1980 I published several Atlantic articles on this theme, and the next year my book National Defense came out.] It is singularly bizarre to spend a trillion dollars a year on national defense. This money, invested in other ways (e.g., health, education, transportation, technology) could have dramatically transformed society. We might indeed have been better off burning that money.

It is even more bizarre to spend so much and then find the military entangled in, and often actively creating, one unwinnable quagmire after another. Even after the debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq, we still found a way to screw up Libya in a manner that was so clearly boneheaded that you'd think someone would have pointed out the only way this could unfold.

Another panel from "Are You Doing Your Part?"

The mistakes are so unoriginal, and it is definitely not academic for the people who actually live and die in these places. Getting played repeatedly by Pakistan has cost the U.S. (and several other countries) an incredible amount of blood and treasure, but we have yet to reorient our relationship with this terrorist state. As recent books by Carlota Gall and Anand Gopal illustrate, the U.S. itself has done much more harm than good by blundering into conflicts that could have easily been handled with diplomatic skill and political finesse.

Politicians appear to have discovered that chickenhawkery checks all the boxes. You get to take money away from deserving causes to direct them toward the well-connected. You have genuinely righteous people take on the bullets and bombs so you can laugh all the way to the bank. You get to accuse people who are prudent, brave, and wise, of cowardice. And the voters fall for the chest-thumping, flag-waving displays of jingoism a lot of the time.

The main point that I would've wanted your article to make is that if you have such a powerful military, you should rarely ever have to use it.

2) Winning battles, losing wars. A reader writes in response to James Jeffrey's argument that U.S. military engagements have been much more successful than I claim:

I think Jeffrey redefines "winning" so restrictively that it becomes meaningless. By his definition, the Wehrmacht "won" World War II in the sense that it defeated the enemies it faced in all the principal tactical battles for the first two years or so of the war, and only "lost" when strategic considerations that the army wasn't responsible for, such as the United States entry into the war, led to changes that made it impossible for Germany to win.

And a reader in Michigan piles on:

1) Mr. Jeffrey comments that our armed forces have generally been successful on the battlefield. Yes, but with an important qualification. It's been over a century since the U.S. armed forces were unequivocally successful on their own, in the Spanish-American War, fighting against the decrepit Spanish Empire, and arguably in the subsequent insurgency in the Philippines.

All of what are perceived as subsequent successes, such as those in WWI and WWII, were as part of coalitions. In WWI, our largest contribution was economic, not military, and in WWII, the Soviet Union was arguably the most substantial contributor to the conquest of Germany.

Our public discourse is served poorly by our failure, unfortunately highly prevalent, to recognize these facts and our tendency to overestimate the historic impact of the U.S. armed forces. I don't doubt that Mr. Jeffrey knows this but his comments, probably inadvertantly, are consistent with the unfortunate triumphalism that surrounds a great deal of the discussion of the U.S. armed forces.

Doing your part?

2) Mr. Jeffrey comments on the general failure of conflating tactical success with strategic success. The most extreme example of this phenomenon is the Bush administration's use of torture in interrogations. As an example of substituting physical force for clear thinking and planning, this is tough to top.

3) Finally, an additional point about the U.S. armed forces and counter-insurgency. A number of critics point to the Vietnam experience and tend to present the Army's subsequent focus on conventional warfare as a kind of post-traumatic repression of the Vietnam experience.

But, the truth is that we were heavily involved in insurgencies in the post-Vietnam era, both supporting insurgencies (Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Southern Africa), and supporting counter-insurgencies (El Salvador). This was generally done through proxies but our involvement was deep and durable. In the Salvadoran Civil War, an estimated 75,000 people, mainly innocent civilians, were killed over the course of a decade. In a country with a population of only 4.5 million, this was an enormous casualty rate, and our proxies in the Salvadoran military and their paramilitary allies were responsible for the great majority of the deaths. We weren't directly involved in the horrible civil war in Guatemala but quite a few of Guatemalan officers who committed genocidal crimes were trained in the U.S.A. Our support of the Afghan insurgencies contributed to what can only be described as the destruction of Afghan society. These facts were well described and well known at the time. If you were an intelligent American officer in the late 1970s and 1980s looking at conflicts around the world, what would you conclude about the nature of insurgency and counter-insurgency? Given the alternative of focusing your career on the tactically and morally straightforward objective of fighting the Soviets, what would you do?

3) Imagine, for a moment, the possibility of a loss. I mentioned in my article that the current "success" of U.S. drone-warfare policy could prove to be Pyrrhic. We won't like these weapons as well when other people have them. A reader in Canada writes:

Your mention of the acquisition of global drone technology by other nations touched on a concern I think needs more discussion: an understanding of the decision to undertake any military operation in terms of reciprocity.

Before invading another country, Americans need to imagine T-72s parked in the White House lawn and on the National Mall, with foreign flags on their aerials and the devices of another army painted on their turrets, and ask: How bad would it have to get in this country for us to look at those tanks as rescuers rather than invaders? To put it another way, how badly would our government have to behave, one way or another, before we looked at the sight of those tanks and had to admit we brought them on ourselves?

Germany, Japan, Italy, and France, among other countries, have gone through that process in recent enough memory that they can incorporate the memories into their policy debates; they can ask themselves if the government they propose to defeat has behaved badly enough to justify the national humiliation that will result. Americans would need to make an effort of imagination to accomplish the same thing.

Thirty-three years ago, in his book Illiterate America, Jonathan Kozol made a chilling prediction concerning the fate of an America struggling with the legacy of government acceptance of mediocre American educational performance. He wrote that Americans as a whole would lack the knowledge and understanding of other countries and other cultures, would not appreciate their perspectives, concerns, or grievances. He predicted American decline in these chilling sentences, which I have never managed to forget: “America will grow into a tougher, taller, more tormented fortress. We will be more lonely.”...

I fear the problems the United States faces with foreign military engagements need far broader solutions than mutual civil military understanding or the reform of the contracting system.

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Thanks to Dan Perkins, creator of the wonderful This Modern World by Tom Tomorrow cartoon strip, for allowing me to use these images from one of his recent panels. One of my great if transient pleasures as editor of US News in the 1990s was getting his cartoons into the magazine. You can find out more about supporting his work here.