Magazine | October 29, 2012, Issue

The Volunteer Military

If you seek an epitaph for America’s longest war, consider one bleak, pitiful sentence from an Associated Press report a few weeks ago:

Kabul, Afghanistan (AP)  –  A newly recruited Afghan village policeman opened fire on his American allies on Friday, killing two U.S. service members minutes after they handed him his official weapon in an inauguration ceremony.

In the old days of the Great Game, the Pashtun warrior was known for his low cunning. There’s still a market for that: Just ask the chaps who broke into the pathetically misnamed Camp Bastion last month, killed a Marine commander, and destroyed a squadron’s worth of Harriers in the most devastating attack on U.S. airpower since the Tet Offensive. But, for the most part, devious wiles are superfluous to requirements as America and its allies enter their twelfth year in Afghanistan. The village policeman is more typical. No cunning, no plotting required. The Americans fly to your country, come to your village, train you, and pay you. And then they give you the gun. And then you shoot them.

Until the Benghazi debacle, 2012 was an election campaign entirely free of foreign policy. Even after the fiasco, Mitt Romney contented himself with the conventional wisdom of national-security Republicans: Protect the Pentagon from budget cuts, order up another carrier. Nobody seriously argues we haven’t spent enough money in Afghanistan: Western military and aid spending accounts for 97 percent of the country’s GDP. The Hindu Kush has been carpet-bombed with dollar bills — almost all of them entirely wasted, as were whatever American taxpayers paid to train that village policeman and buy him a gun. A new carrier won’t change the central reality of the situation — that the most lavishly funded armed forces on the planet, of a country that outspends China, Britain, France, Russia, and all second-rank powers combined and accounts singlehandedly for over 40 percent of global military spending, can’t win any wars.

In my book America Alone, I quote the great military historian and strategist B. H. Liddell Hart. The point of war, emphasized Sir Basil, is not to destroy the enemy’s tanks but his will. That’s what victory requires: “the subjugation of the opposing will.” The Allies bombed Dresden and nuked Hiroshima in order to shatter not German and Japanese buildings but German and Japanese will. But that was long ago. America hasn’t nuked anyone in two-thirds of a century. It hasn’t tested a nuke in over 20 years. And whatever deterrent effect such awesome firepower might have had on the Soviet Union, it doesn’t seem to have any on inbred goatherds with fertilizer or any of the other enemies we’re actually fighting. They seem to grasp a central truth — that, behind the nukes and the cruise missiles and the body armor, we don’t mean it. And they do.

If we can’t subjugate the opposing will, we do a pretty good job of subjugating our own. America wages war like the world’s biggest NGO — a do-gooding non-profit for which armed conflict is not the sharp end of a nation-state’s interest but an act of global stewardship. It’s war as the ultimate NPR pledge drive: For a pledge of $12 billion, we’ll open a schoolhouse in Kandahar and a women’s-health clinic in Shah Joy and give everyone copies of Three Cups of Tea. Six months after the last NATO soldier leaves, there will be no women at the women’s-health clinic and no schoolgirls at the schoolhouse. We came, we spent, we left no trace.

#page#The Left now wants to focus on what Obama calls “nation-building at home” — to marginally less disastrous effect, one hopes. A significant segment of the Right takes the Ron Paul line that getting mixed up with foreigners is a fool’s errand — a position that would be slightly more persuasive were not everything in America made by and (increasingly) owned by foreigners. Everyone in between shrugs and buys a yellow-ribbon “We support our troops” sticker — part of the never-quite-stated but very palpable evolution of America’s soldiery into yet another victim group. Victims of what? Of a political class and a broader national culture that knows how to start wars but not how to win them.

At some point, the Right needs an honest conversation about this — not just because in an ever broker America a money-no-object military will be unsustainable, but because in a more basic sense nobody needs a too-big-to-fail Pentagon that loses to goatherds. A few years ago, in a conversation about falling support for the Iraq War, President Bush said to me offhandedly that 25 percent of people won’t support any war — or, presumably, at least any war short of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry crossing the Montana border and the Royal Bahamas Defence Force shelling Miami. But, for any of the wars that America is likely to be called on to fight in the years ahead, that 25 percent has grown. Millions of loyal patriotic Americans now think soldiering is honorable but a waste of time — that, however it starts out, it will slowly bleed like Afghanistan and all the others into just another entry in the long two-thirds-of-a-century roll call of America’s unwon wars. That’s another casualty of the hyperpower’s half-hearted warmongering: It’s not just that it fails to destroy the enemy’s will, but that it saps our own.

– Mr. Steyn blogs at SteynOnline (

Mark Steyn — Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist. That’s to say, his latest book, After America (2011), is a top-five bestseller in ...

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