The biggest bully on the block doesn’t always win.

#1
The biggest bully on the block doesn’t always win.

By Tom Streithorst


The colonel didn’t have a clue how much the mission cost—six Blackhawks, two Apaches, all those Humvees. He didn’t even understand the relevance of my question. “No idea. I just ask for the assets I need, and they give them to me.” I stared at the small pile of captured weaponry and wondered whether the raid had been worth the expense.

The night before, the colonel had invited me to film an assault on suspected al-Qaeda safe houses in Diyala Province. So that morning before sunrise, along with 80 American and Iraqi soldiers, I lined up on an airstrip to board the choppers. Going by air would give us the element of surprise. Once we hit the targets, 200 more soldiers rolling up in Humvees would meet us.

Iraq, with its dun-colored landscape, is not a beautiful country, but dawn is gorgeous everywhere. We flew for almost 30 minutes, watching the sun rise over irrigated fields. A sergeant pointed out the targets: concrete houses by a stream. The helicopters landed, we jumped out and ran toward them. I made sure I was a safe distance behind the soldiers, but no rifle fire greeted our arrival. Perhaps we had surprised the enemy.

No. When we kicked open the doors, no military-aged males were there, only women and children. One of the kids had a cold, and our medic gave him antibiotics. We milled around, searching the houses and nearby fields, but found little of interest—a few rifles, some reels of electrical cable, bits and bobs that could perhaps be made into roadside bombs. The colonel seemed happy with the haul, but it struck me that the cost of gas for the two Apaches alone was worth more than the cache we unearthed.

I thought, not for the first time, that our high-tech military is not particularly cost-effective. We spend half a trillion dollars a year—more than the rest of the world combined—and what does it get us? We can’t hold the ring road in Afghanistan, and the increased tranquillity in Iraq is due more to jihadi hardliners alienating the secular population and payments to former insurgents than to our force of arms.

For most of human history, from Neolithic hunting bands up to the Franco-Prussian War, militaries were massively profitable enterprises. Genghis Khan’s soldiers were just poverty-stricken pastoralists until they got on their ponies and sacked more civilized folk. The Roman invasion of Egypt won the tribute of grain that fed Italy for more than 300 years. The return on capital for William of Normandy’s crossing the Channel or Hernán Cortés’s conquest of Mexico is incalculable. That all changed with World War I.

In 1910, in one of the grand moments of mistimed prophecy, Norman Angell published The Great Illusion, which argued that the intricate webs of international trade and financial credit made conquest worthless. “When Germany annexed Alsatia, no individual German secured a single mark’s worth of Alsatian property as the spoils of war,” he wrote. For Angell, the building of armies might have been appropriate in Alexander or Napoleon’s day, but had no place in the globalized capitalist world. No need to conquer Alsace when you can just buy her goods.

Of course, 1914 proved him wrong, and for years his book was trotted out as an example of how no one can predict the future. Yet from another perspective, World War I confirmed Angell’s thesis. The brutal expense of total war, its awful destructiveness, the fact that both sides in Flanders fields slaughtered not future slaves but their own customers, proved that victory could not be worth the cost. Angell was ahead of his time: the General Staffs in 1914 should have listened to him. But he underestimated the atavistic appeal of war.

Today, we live in the world Angell described. The destructiveness and brutality of the European civil war of 1914 to 1945, so costly in lives and treasure, changed our perspective. The spectacular expense of total war made it unprofitable. Even the victors were worse off postbellum. Today, thankfully, war between the great powers is unthinkable.

No matter what the dispute, Britain and Germany will not mobilize troops against each other. China will not invade America to force electronic goods upon us; America will not invade China to make it buy our Treasury bills. In an airport thriller, one can imagine a border dispute between Russia and China developing into a minor shooting war or even a Chinese army invasion of Taiwan. But an attack on the United States by a major power seems less likely than aliens from Alpha Centauri, inspired by Michael Bay movies, invading Washington, D.C.

The geostrategic truth is that the United States is the safest nation on earth: Canada to the north, Mexico to the south, oceans on both sides. England survived Hitler because it is an island. Russia defeated Hitler because it is the size of a continent. We are both continent and island. On our homeland, no one can take us. Terrorists can kill a few of us, but even the murder of thousands on 9/11 did not threaten our stability. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they diminished American naval power in the Pacific. North of Houston Street, all of the effects of Sept. 11 were psychological. Sharia law in America was no more likely on Sept. 12 than it had been the week before.

The dark secret about terrorism, the one self-proclaimed experts on television never talk about, is that it doesn’t work. Terrorism has no chance of bringing back the Caliphate. Blowing stuff up and killing soft targets is relatively easy. The problem for terrorists is that it is almost impossible to transform their violent acts into political influence. Killing innocent bystanders rarely convinces the general public to back your agenda. In Jordan, opposition to jihadists skyrocketed after the bomb attack at an Amman hotel wiped out a wedding party. The exception is in colonial situations. The FLN successfully used bombs in European neighborhoods in Algiers to drive the French out, but when Islamic groups used similar tactics in Algeria in the ’90s, they were eviscerated by the army and police. The Tupamaros in Uruguay, the ERP and the Montoneros in Argentina, al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia—all were crushed as soon as governments took the threat seriously.

In theory, the purpose of dramatic attacks is to incite such a level of repression from the government that it alienates ordinary citizens, convincing them of the justice of the terrorists’ cause. Unfortunately for the bomb-throwers, most of us hate mindless violence more than government repression.

Without attention, the terrorist is nothing. George W. Bush’s response to 9/11 was everything an al-Qaeda recruiter could have wished. By pretending these terrorists posed an existential threat, he elevated a relatively insignificant group of middle-class pseudointellectuals into the biggest danger to America since the Wehrmacht. Imagine if, after 9/11, Bush had noted the obvious: despite their dramatic murder of our fellow citizens, the jihadis had no chance of overthrowing our government, influencing our policy, bringing back the Caliphate, or accomplishing their goals. Their crimes, while photogenic, were ultimately impotent. Such a response would have undercut the appeal of becoming a suicide bomber. Without a global war on terror, the terrorist is an insignificant criminal.

But today, since war with other great powers is unthinkable, our young majors expect that the war on terror will keep them busy throughout their careers. And our military, they tell us, is too small for that “long war.” Officers in Iraq have informed me repeatedly that we need a draft and larger budgets to ensure that the Army can complete its missions.

So every year we spend over $500 billion on “defense”—and that is not enough. Warfare against those much less powerful than we should be easy, but it isn’t. Americans in Vietnam, Soviets in Afghanistan, and Israelis in Gaza were all incalculably more powerful than their enemies, yet none won. War no longer goes to the bigger battalions. When Lord Kitchener deployed his Maxim guns against the Mahdi’s men near Khartoum, Western technological superiority translated into victory. No longer—in part because we in the West are unwilling to take casualties, in part because we are somewhat less brutal toward noncombatants than we used to be, but mostly because winning is much more important to the other side.

The winner in a bar fight is not necessarily the bigger, stronger guy, although that helps. It is the crazy guy, who can get hit, get hurt, and not care, who focuses not on his injuries but on hurting his opponent. He gets punched, he grabs a bottle. A knife comes out, he fires his gun. A dog fights more fiercely at his doorstep than halfway around the world. The control of some valley in Afghanistan is more important to a man who grew up there than to a soldier just passing through from Kansas. The American Army won just about every battle in Vietnam, our soldiers killed hundreds of NVA for every casualty we took, but the Vietnamese won the war. The NVA wanted it more, so they were able to absorb more pain. Fifty thousand dead was more than victory was worth to us; to them, a unified Vietnam was worth two million bodies.

Violence is a tool. A mugger threatens you with a gun to get your wallet, an army marches into Iraq to compel Iraqis to do its bidding. But today our military is an ever more expensive instrument unequal to the real tasks before it. It is a hammer looking for nails. All of our military might won’t stop banks from dangerous trading practices. It won’t lower healthcare costs or rebuild Detroit or educate our children. It won’t convince Shia to trust Sunni. And it certainly won’t persuade Afghan peasants to renounce the burka or stop growing poppies. The problems of the modern world are impervious to the tools of force.

Imagine the Swat Valley once again a tourist attraction. Imagine South Waziristan tranquil, calmly accepting the rule of Islamabad. Imagine Kurds and Arabs happily sharing Kirkuk. How much better does that make your life? Why should you care? Why should your sons risk their lives for those goals? Why should your tax dollars pay? Those whose business is war have sold us a bill of goods. We have been told that the security of the United States is dependant on the security of everyone, everywhere. This is absurd. If Iran bombs Israel—which it won’t—does that really matter to a small businessman in Indiana? If North Korea fires a missile, that is a much bigger problem for Tokyo or Seoul than for Seattle.

America isn’t good at being an empire—and being an empire has not been good for us. For my entire life, we have had the world’s strongest military, yet my generation has witnessed the decline of American power. When I was born, in 1958, a single Marine Corps brigade could impose the government we favored in Lebanon. American steel, cars, manufacturing, and high-tech were state of the art. We were the world’s greatest creditor. The world still wanted to buy what we made. The losers in World War II, Germany and Japan, have managed for 60 years to have us pay for their defense. Their savings enabled them to invest in factories and infrastructure. Both enjoy huge trade surpluses. We have a huge military. Who won?

Our obsession with the military is the natural residue of millennia of history. Until the creation of Goldman Sachs, war gave men the best chance to transform their lot, to make their fortune. War could turn a brigand into a lord, a queen into a serving girl. That is why the soldier remains sexier than the merchant. The symbolism of warfare remains powerful even as it becomes ever less effective.

The best explanation I have heard for our tragic adventure in Iraq was from columnist Jonah Goldberg, quoting Michael Ledeen: “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.” We invaded Iraq for symbolic reasons, hoping that then the world would fear and obey us.

If we wanted cheap oil, we could have made a deal with Saddam, letting him stay in power as long as he opened his fields to U.S. oil companies. If we wanted democracy in the Middle East, we could have recognized Hamas’s victory in free elections in Palestine. We invaded Iraq to look tough. It didn’t work out. Even if it had, isn’t that a silly reason to go to war?

The educated elites of the Western nations rarely get into bar fights. Our experience of violence is generally mediated through Hollywood, our desire for a strong military more symbolic than practical. Back when we were the richest, most productive nation, when the rest of the world still owed us money, perhaps we could afford that luxury. When Soviet tanks were still massed across the German plains, perhaps we needed it. But today, the real dangers we face cannot be dealt with by military means, and we can no longer afford to waste resources on a huge military when we face no military threat.

One can argue that I am being optimistic, that by focusing on the last 60 years of Great Power tranquillity I am ignoring millennia of war. Maybe a large military is like an insurance policy: you hope you never need it, but it helps you sleep at night. But one shouldn’t spend more on insurance than the value of one’s goods. If we fear a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, let us keep our Navy strong in the Pacific. If we decide, for whatever reason, that stability in Baluchistan is important to our well being, let’s teach our Special Forces to speak Balochi. But we can no longer afford to assume that the stability of the entire world is vital to U.S. national security or that it can be maintained by our overpriced military. __________________________________________

Tom Streithorst writes from London.

http://www.amconmag.com/article/2009/oct/01/00029/
 

Andy_S

LE
Book Reviewer
#2
Very interesting article. Some comments/critiques:

RE: Until Franco-Prussian War, militaries were profitable entereprises:
Armies/militaries are not necessarily profitable: INVADING armies/militaries were. And only if they were successful.

RE: For my entire life, we have had the world’s strongest military, yet my generation has witnessed the decline of American power.
America is arguably MORE powerful now than in the 1950s. That is due to the influence of popular culture (disseminated via mass media, a relatively recent channel), American universities which are the best in the world (and so attract the most foreign students, many of whom then become naturalized Americans), and the fact that the country is a trendsetter in the majority of technologies. This is soft power. Sure, manufacturing in America is dying, but that does not prevent America being the largest economy on earth. Moreover, US military power is further ahead of the rest of the world today than any other empire I can think of. Even the Romans lost battles; It is difficult to see America today losing anything more than a skirmish.

RE: But today, the real dangers we face cannot be dealt with by military means, and we can no longer afford to waste resources on a huge military when we face no military threat.
Indeed, engaging in counterinsurgency with the military being such a primary focus is almost certainly a mistake. The wider battle against Islamic fundamentalism has as much to to with mass communications as it does to do with 5.56mm. Whether America can afford such a vast miltiary is another question: Bearing in mind that it is American educational institutes and American factories that produce so much of their weapons and equipment, IS the military really that expensive...?
 
#3
Andy_S said:
Very interesting article. Some comments/critiques:

RE: Until Franco-Prussian War, militaries were profitable entereprises:
Armies/militaries are not necessarily profitable: INVADING armies/militaries were. And only if they were successful.

RE: For my entire life, we have had the world’s strongest military, yet my generation has witnessed the decline of American power.
America is arguably MORE powerful now than in the 1950s. That is due to the influence of popular culture (disseminated via mass media, a relatively recent channel), American universities which are the best in the world (and so attract the most foreign students, many of whom then become naturalized Americans), and the fact that the country is a trendsetter in the majority of technologies. This is soft power. Sure, manufacturing in America is dying, but that does not prevent America being the largest economy on earth. Moreover, US military power is further ahead of the rest of the world today than any other empire I can think of. Even the Romans lost battles; It is difficult to see America today losing anything more than a skirmish.

RE: But today, the real dangers we face cannot be dealt with by military means, and we can no longer afford to waste resources on a huge military when we face no military threat.
Indeed, engaging in counterinsurgency with the military being such a primary focus is almost certainly a mistake. The wider battle against Islamic fundamentalism has as much to to with mass communications as it does to do with 5.56mm. Whether America can afford such a vast miltiary is another question: Bearing in mind that it is American educational institutes and American factories that produce so much of their weapons and equipment, IS the military really that expensive...?
Good points as usual. Clearly, our COIN strategy must effectively balance and modulate use of kinetic military force as an adjunct to other aspects of military and other components of the effort.
 
#4
Thats the first time I have heard a yank call the US action in Vietnam a war. Normally they state it was a "Police Action". Suprisingly enough he also stated that they lost the war. This was an interesting article and has points in it that I would not believe a yank would see. Is it really a yank?

What is he on about a European civil war?
 
#5
Cabana said:
Thats the first time I have heard a yank call the US action in Vietnam a war. Normally they state it was a "Police Action". Suprisingly enough he also stated that they lost the war. This was an interesting article and has points in it that I would not believe a yank would see. Is it really a yank?

What is he on about a European civil war?
As you may not ein other posts I have put up, I have called it a war and also acknowledged that the US lost it. I also was wounded there.
 
#6
jumpinjarhead said:
Cabana said:
Thats the first time I have heard a yank call the US action in Vietnam a war. Normally they state it was a "Police Action". Suprisingly enough he also stated that they lost the war. This was an interesting article and has points in it that I would not believe a yank would see. Is it really a yank?

What is he on about a European civil war?
As you may not ein other posts I have put up, I have called it a war and also acknowledged that the US lost it. I also was wounded there.
Unfortunatly I have not been able to peruse this forum much in the past and have not seen any of your posts regarding Vietnam. I have spoke to a few "Vietnam vets" whilst in service in Bosnia (amazingly there were quite a few) and watched a number of documentaries about it and some on veterans returning years later. The ones I spoke to just did not feel it was a war, but seemed to take the US propaganda line also stating that the war was not lost and indeed stating that the US had never lost a war, which is a line that most US troops I speak to state.
Anyway, do you think that the US should have gone into Vietnam in the manner it did?
 
#7
Cabana said:
jumpinjarhead said:
Cabana said:
Thats the first time I have heard a yank call the US action in Vietnam a war. Normally they state it was a "Police Action". Suprisingly enough he also stated that they lost the war. This was an interesting article and has points in it that I would not believe a yank would see. Is it really a yank?

What is he on about a European civil war?
As you may not ein other posts I have put up, I have called it a war and also acknowledged that the US lost it. I also was wounded there.

Anyway, do you think that the US should have gone into Vietnam in the manner it did?
More later.


I have a very early day tomorrow and your question deserves a more fulsome answer but for now the short answer is a resounding no.
 
#8
If we wanted cheap oil, we could have made a deal with Saddam, letting him stay in power as long as he opened his fields to U.S. oil companies. If we wanted democracy in the Middle East, we could have recognized Hamas’s victory in free elections in Palestine. We invaded Iraq to look tough. It didn’t work out. Even if it had, isn’t that a silly reason to go to war?
A very interesting article and he hits home with a lot of points. As quoted above, this might be the way of the future. Business delegations rather than military attaches leading the way forward. Doing deals that would be beneficial to boths sides, with the implicit 'warning' that should the West be screwed behind their backs, then the consequences would be painful for the offending party. In the meantime, let's make a deal.

However, there are a lot of people in the political/military/industrial complex who make careers out of chaos who would resist any changes to the way things are done now.

Perhaps, too, the US should stop thinking of itself as the world's policeman, that they have to live up to their ideals all the time and show the rest of the world the error of their ways.

I think the quote encapsulates it very well:
But today our military is an ever more expensive instrument unequal to the real tasks before it. It is a hammer looking for nails. All of our military might won’t stop banks from dangerous trading practices. It won’t lower healthcare costs or rebuild Detroit or educate our children. It won’t convince Shia to trust Sunni. And it certainly won’t persuade Afghan peasants to renounce the burka or stop growing poppies. The problems of the modern world are impervious to the tools of force.
 
#9
jumpinjarhead said:
Cabana said:
jumpinjarhead said:
Cabana said:
Thats the first time I have heard a yank call the US action in Vietnam a war. Normally they state it was a "Police Action". Suprisingly enough he also stated that they lost the war. This was an interesting article and has points in it that I would not believe a yank would see. Is it really a yank?

What is he on about a European civil war?
As you may not ein other posts I have put up, I have called it a war and also acknowledged that the US lost it. I also was wounded there.

Anyway, do you think that the US should have gone into Vietnam in the manner it did?
More later.


I have a very early day tomorrow and your question deserves a more fulsome answer but for now the short answer is a resounding no.
I very much look forward to it.
 

Andy_S

LE
Book Reviewer
#10
SNIP
But today our military is an ever more expensive instrument unequal to the real tasks before it. It is a hammer looking for nails. All of our military might won’t stop banks from dangerous trading practices. It won’t lower healthcare costs or rebuild Detroit or educate our children. It won’t convince Shia to trust Sunni. And it certainly won’t persuade Afghan peasants to renounce the burka or stop growing poppies. The problems of the modern world are impervious to the tools of force
SNIP

A lot of this is "duh." Of course the military will not provide oversight of the banking system - the banking system, BTW, has cost the UK, US and Eurozone one sixth of GDP (according to this week's "The Economist"), rather more than the military. Likewise healthcare and education - though a significant past of the US manufacturing economy IS tied to military sales.

To say the problems of the modern world are impervious to the use of force is a breathtakingly broad assertion. While I agree that terrorists can never 'beat us' in the sense of invading us and overthrowing our institutions, they can 'beat us' by outlasting us. Moreover, certain groups within the Taliban may be weaned over to our side, but for AQ, I see no solution BUT force. The more important question is winning the overall Muslim street.

I certainly agree that that particular challenge requires a much larger range of tools than are available in the military toolbox.

As for 1914-1945 as a "European Civil War"... big 'hmmm.'
 
#12
It is a good article which gives some good insights and raises some valid points. It does however show that it is quite possible to do some good analysis yet still come out with the wrong conclusions.

Terrorism cannot win in most democracies, but the deduction is not that the legal government can be inactive. The primary duty of government is to protect its citizens, if they fail to do so then the terrorists in a perverse way start to claim moral authority - look at how PIRA and the Taliban claim to be the protectors of the people in lieu of an effective government.

The trick of democratic government is to react in a proportionate manner to protect the population. Over-react and you feed the terrorist cause. The USA are finding their way with this issue just as we Brits did in NI and various post-colonial conflicts.

Should the US (and others) have got involved in Vietnam? Well it depends on whether you view the war with hind-sight. Now, having looked at the horror of the cost, of course the answer is no. But the view back then was very different and few could or did predict the quagmire that Vietnam became. Yes, the war was lost but you could argue that the war slowed down the feared domino effect of a Soviet and Chinese backed Communist take-over of the whole region.

Conventional or assymetric warfare is a costly but necessary business. The article seems to suggest maintaining or using armed forces to tackle terrorism is too costly and doomed to fail. It is that deduction that I find as flawed as the argument that major powers will never again wage war on each other - they said that in 1918, 21 years later we were at war again in Europe. Many historians and military experts believe we were within a whisker of open war between NATO and the WP in the Balkans not that long ago. Who really trusts their crystal ball when predicting where the next war is going to be?
 
#13
Powerslave said:
Perhaps, too, the US should stop thinking of itself as the world's policeman, that they have to live up to their ideals all the time and show the rest of the world the error of their ways.
Should we also? While we had the balls to say "No Thanks" to Vietnam, that is not the case anymore.
 
#14
JJH,

Good article and thanks for the post. Enjoyed the comment about not spending more on your insurance policy than the value of your goods.

whf
 
#15
afcass said:
Powerslave said:
Perhaps, too, the US should stop thinking of itself as the world's policeman, that they have to live up to their ideals all the time and show the rest of the world the error of their ways.
Should we also? While we had the balls to say "No Thanks" to Vietnam, that is not the case anymore.
My comment was made with the article in mind, as it's mainly about US policy.

We in the UK can't even police ourselves let alone the rest of the world!
But, of course, that never stopped Liarbour from having delusions of grandeur.
 
#16
Nice article but I don't think the author is including all factors into the equation.
How much is a holocaust or a little genocide in Rwanda worth? In terms of national security for the US obviously nothing but...?
Rational isolationism is cost effective but what are the hidden costs for an enlightened society?
 
#17
para_medic said:
Nice article but I don't think the author is including all factors into the equation.
How much is a holocaust or a little genocide in Rwanda worth? In terms of national security for the US obviously nothing but...?
Rational isolationism is cost effective but what are the hidden costs for an enlightened society?
Good point and also the reality as proven in numerous unfortunate situations such as Somalia and the Balkans that the US can be led into these situations either intentionally or unintentionally by other nations and groups in various ways such as the so-called "CNN Effect" that was at work in Lebanon in the early 80s, and Somalia and the Balkans in the 9os where graphic and repeated images of "Mad Max" social disintegration and even worse, starving children were shown to the American public.

It is a very interesting and revealing study (as I have done) to review the official pronouncements of the US regarding its "national interests" being insufficient to warrant any intervention by US forces in these cases and chart the steady erosion of this position in the face of the compelling imagery and reporting of human suffering and societal collapse. As the latter increased, the former eroded to the point we had boots on the ground in spite of the objective reality there were no sufficient "national interests" at risk to justify (both Constitutionally and politically) such intervention.

All too often in such cases, as was tragically demonstrated in Beirut with the Marine barracks bombing and Somalia with "Blackhawk Down," this "incrementalist" foreign policy (I hold my nose when dignifying it to that extent) is reflected in the military deployment itself, to the shame of the uniformed leader show should have known better and resisted it. Too often, forces are initially configured and deployed in a "peacekeeping" or "humanitarian" manner rather than for war fighting. Then the inevitable "mission creep" occurs as the threats move down the conflict spectrum toward insurgency or conventional war fighting. We have unfortunately responded with the same incrementalism whereby the original force structure (and to some extent mindset) remains but is augmented with more and more kinetic capability. This usually results in tragedy since what is needed (IF a conscious decision is then made by our policy makers that we should remain at all in the changed environment--this is a sine qua non that has been observed more in the breach) is a rapid and complete transformation of the force to shift it to COIN or warfighting structure, command and capabilities.

While our capabilities in modern warfare are certainly more refined and nuanced than in previous times, we deceive ourselves if we think (as too many of our political masters seem to) we can modulate violence in the manner of a thermostat. Certainly we can control things in a macro sense but the fog of war makes it impossible to reliably and predictably manage violence in the micro sense like the unrealistic plots in "Mission Impossible."

As we grow more and more technical we run even greater risks of believing our own rhetoric that our sophistication somehow overcomes this immutable principle of war. I liken use of military force (not including specific missions by special forces) to performing brain surgery with a mallet. We can get it done but it is very messy and the results are by no means predictable.
 
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