NR Digital

Too Big to Win

by Mark Steyn
The United States should seriously rethink its way of making war

Why can’t America win wars? It’s been two-thirds of a century since we saw (as President Obama vividly put it) “Emperor Hirohito coming down and signing a surrender to MacArthur.” And, if that’s not quite how you remember it, forget the formal guest list, forget the long-form surrender certificate, and try to think of “winning” in a more basic sense.

The United States is currently fighting, to one degree or another, three wars. Iraq — the quagmire, the “bad” war, the invasion that launched a thousand Western anti-war demonstrations and official inquiries and anti-Bush plays and movies — is going least badly. For now. And making allowances for the fact that the principal geostrategic legacy of our genteel protectorate is that an avowed American enemy, Iran, was able vastly to increase its influence over the country on our dime.

Afghanistan? The “good war” is now “America’s longest war.” Our forces have been there longer than the Red Army was. The “hearts and minds” strategy is going so well that American troops are now being killed by the Afghans who know us best. Does being murdered by the soldiers and policemen you’ve spent years training even count as a “combat” death? Perhaps that’s why the U.S. media disdain to cover these killings: In April, at a meeting between Afghan border police and their U.S. trainers, an Afghan cop killed two American soldiers. Oh, well, wild country, once you get up near that Turkmen border. A few weeks later, back in Kabul, an Afghan military pilot killed eight American soldiers and a civilian contractor. On May 13, a NATO “mentoring team” sat down to lunch with Afghan police in Helmand when one of their protégés opened fire and killed two of them. “The actions of this individual do not reflect the overall actions of our Afghan partners,” said Maj. Gen. James B. Laster of the U.S. Marine Corps. “We remain committed to our partners and to our mission here.”

Libya? The good news is that we’ve vastly reduced the time it takes us to get quagmired. I believe the Libyan campaign is already in The Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest quagmire on record. In an inspired move, we’ve chosen to back the one Arab liberation movement incapable of knocking off the local strongman even when you lend them every NATO air force. But not to worry: President Obama, cooed an administration official to The New Yorker, is “leading from behind.” Indeed. What could be more impeccably multilateral than a coalition pantomime horse composed entirely of rear ends? Apparently it would be “illegal” to target Colonel Qaddafi, so our strategic objective is to kill him by accident. So far we’ve killed a son and a couple of grandkids. Maybe by the time you read this we’ll have added a maiden aunt or two to the trophy room. It’s not precisely clear why offing the old pock-skinned transvestite should be a priority of the U.S. right now, but let’s hope it happens soon, because otherwise there’ll be no way of telling when this “war” is “ended.”

According to partisan taste, one can blame the trio of current morasses on Bush or Obama, but in the bigger picture they’re part of a pattern of behavior that predates either man, stretching back through non-victories great and small — Somalia, Gulf War One, Vietnam, Korea. On the more conclusive side of the ledger, we have . . . well, lemme see: Grenada, 1983. And, given that that was a bit of post-colonial housekeeping Britain should have taken care of but declined to, one could argue that even that lone bright spot supports a broader narrative of Western enfeeblement. At any rate, America’s only unambiguous military triumph since 1945 is a small Caribbean island with Queen Elizabeth II as head of state. For 43 percent of global military expenditure, that’s not much bang for the buck.

Inconclusive interventionism has consequences. Korea led to Norks with nukes. The downed helicopters in the Iranian desert led to mullahs with nukes. Gulf War One led to Gulf War Two. Somalia led to 9/11. Vietnam led to everything, in the sense that its trauma penetrated so deep into the American psyche that it corroded the ability to think clearly about war as a tool of national purpose.

For half a century, the Cold War provided a kind of cover. At the dawn of the so-called American era, Washington chose to downplay U.S. hegemony and instead created and funded transnational institutions in which the non-imperial superpower was so self-deprecating it artificially inflated everybody else’s status in a kind of geopolitical affirmative-action program. In the military sphere, this meant NATO. If the rap against the U.N. Security Council is that it’s the World War II victory parade preserved in aspic, NATO is the rubble of post-war Europe preserved as a situation room. In 1950, America had a unique dominance of the “free world” and it could afford to be generous, so it was: We had more money than we knew what to do with, so we absolved our allies of paying for their own defense.

But 1950 ended. The Continental economies recovered, Europe got wealthy, and so did Japan and later the Asian tigers. And in Washington nobody noticed: We continued to pay, garrisoning not remote colonies but some of the richest nations in history. Thanks to American defense welfare, NATO is a military alliance made up of allies that no longer have militaries. In the Cold War, that had a kind of logic: Europe was the designated battlefield, so, whether or not they had any tanks, they had, very literally, skin in the game. But the Cold War ended and NATO lingered on, evolving into a global Super Friends made up of folks who aren’t Super and don’t like each other terribly much. At the beginning of the Afghan campaign, Washington invested huge amounts of diplomatic effort trying to rouse its allies into the merest gestures of war-making: The 2004 NATO summit was hailed as a landmark success after the alliance’s 26 members agreed to commit an extra 600 troops and three helicopters. That averages out at 23.08 troops per country, plus almost a ninth of a helicopter apiece. Half a decade of quagmire later, Washington was investing even larger amounts of diplomatic effort failing to rouse its allies into the most perfunctory gestures of non-combat pantywaist transnationalism: We know that, under ever more refined rules of engagement, certain allies won’t go out at night, or in snow, or in provinces where there’s fighting going on, so, by the 2010 NATO confab, Robert Gates was reduced to complaining that the allies’ promised 450 “trainers” for the Afghan National Army had failed to materialize. Supposedly 46 nations are contributing to the allied effort in Afghanistan, so that would work out at ten “trainers” per country. Imagine if the energy expended in these ridiculous (and in some cases profoundly damaging) transnational fig leaves had been directed into more quaintly conventional channels — like, say, identifying America’s national interest and pursuing it.

The Cold War casts other shadows. In Korea, the U.S. forbore even to cut its enemy’s Chinese supply lines. You can’t win that way. But in the nuclear age, all-out war — war with real nations, with serious militaries — was too terrible to contemplate, so even in proxy squabbles in Third World backwaters the overriding concern was to tamp things down, even at the price of victory. And, by the time the Cold War ended, such thinking had become ingrained. A U.S.–Soviet nuclear standoff of mutual deterrence decayed into a unipolar world of U.S. auto-deterrence. Were it not for the brave passengers of Flight 93 and the vagaries of the Oval Office social calendar, the fourth plane on 9/11 might have succeeded in hitting the White House, decapitating the regime, leaving a smoking ruin in the heart of the capital and delivering the republic unto a Robert C. Byrd administration or some other whimsy of presidential succession. Yet, in allowing his toxic backwater to be used as the launch pad for the deadliest foreign assault on the U.S. mainland in two centuries, Mullah Omar either discounted the possibility of total devastating destruction against his country, or didn’t care.

If it was the former, he was surely right. After the battle of Omdurman, Hilaire Belloc offered a pithy summation of technological advantage:

Whatever happens
We have got
The Maxim gun
And they have not.

But suppose they know you’ll never use the Maxim gun? At a certain level, credible deterrence depends on a credible enemy. The Soviet Union disintegrated, but the surviving superpower’s instinct to de-escalate intensified: In Kirkuk as in Kandahar, every Lilliputian warlord quickly grasped that you could provoke the infidel Gulliver with relative impunity. Mutually Assured Destruction had curdled into Massively Applied Desultoriness.

Here I part company somewhat from my National Review colleagues who are concerned about inevitable cuts to the defense budget. Clearly, if one nation is responsible for near half the world’s military budget, a lot of others aren’t pulling their weight. The Pentagon outspends the Chinese, British, French, Russian, Japanese, German, Saudi, Indian, Italian, South Korean, Brazilian, Canadian, Australian, Spanish, Turkish, and Israeli militaries combined. So why doesn’t it feel like that?

Well, for exactly that reason: If you outspend every serious rival combined, you’re obviously something other than the soldiery of a conventional nation state. But what exactly? In the Nineties, the French liked to complain that “globalization” was a euphemism for “Americanization.” But one can just as easily invert the formulation: “Americanization” is a euphemism for “globalization,” in which the geopolitical sugar daddy is so busy picking up the tab for the global order he loses all sense of national interest. Just as Hollywood now makes films for the world, so the Pentagon now makes war for the world. Readers will be wearily familiar with the tendency of long-established pop-culture icons to go all transnational on us: Only the other week Superman took to the podium of the U.N. to renounce his U.S. citizenship on the grounds that “truth, justice, and the American way” no longer does it for him. My favorite in recent years was the attempted reinvention of good ol’ G.I. Joe as a Brussels-based multilateral acronym — the Global Integrated Joint Operating Entity. I believe they’re running the Libyan operation.

An army has to wage war on behalf of something real. For better or worse, “king and country” is real, and so, mostly for worse, are the tribal loyalties of Africa’s blood-drenched civil wars. But it’s hardly surprising that it’s difficult to win wars waged on behalf of something so chimerical as “the international community.” If you’re making war on behalf of an illusory concept, is it even possible to have war aims? What’s ours? “[We] are in Afghanistan to help the Afghan people,” General Petraeus said in April. Somewhere generations of old-school imperialists are roaring their heads off, not least at the concept of “the Afghan people.” But when you’re the expeditionary force of the parliament of man, what else is there?

War is hell, but global “mentoring” is purgatory. In that respect, the belated dispatch of Osama bin Laden may be less strategically relevant than the near-simultaneous exposé by 60 Minutes of Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea. This is the bestselling book the Pentagon gives to Afghan-bound officers, and whose celebrity author has met with our most senior commanders on multiple occasions. And it’s a crock. Nevertheless, it’s effected a profound cultural transformation — if only on us. “It’s remarkable,” an Indian diplomat chuckled to me a while back. “In Afghanistan, the Americans now drink more tea than the British. And they don’t even like it.” In 2009, remember, the Pentagon accounted for 43 percent of the planet’s military expenditures. At this rate, by 2012 they’ll account for 43 percent of the planet’s tea consumption.

Nation building in Afghanistan is the ne plus ultra of a fool’s errand. But even if one were so disposed, effective “nation building” is done in the national interest of the builder. The British rebuilt India in their own image, with a Westminster parliament, common law, and an English education system. In whose image are we building Afghanistan? Eight months after Petraeus announced his latest folly, the Afghan Local Police initiative, Oxfam reported that the newly formed ALP was a hotbed of torture and pederasty. Almost every Afghan institution is, of course. But for most of human history they’ve managed to practice both enthusiasms without international subvention. The U.S. taxpayer accepts wearily the burden of subsidy for Nevada’s cowboy poets and San Francisco’s mime companies, but, even by those generous standards of cultural preservation, it’s hard to see why he should be facilitating the traditional predilections of Pashtun men with an eye for the “dancing boys of Kandahar.”

Which brings us back to those Three Cups of Tea. So the Global Integrated Joint Operating Entity is building schoolhouses in Afghanistan. Big deal. The problem, in Kandahar as in Kansas, is not the buildings but what’s being taught inside them — and we’ve no stomach for getting into that. So what’s the point of building better infrastructure for Afghanistan’s wretched tribal culture? What’s our interest in state-of-the-art backwardness?

Transnational do-gooding is political correctness on tour. It takes the relativist assumptions of the multiculti varsity and applies them geopolitically: The white man’s burden meets liberal guilt. No wealthy developed nation should have a national interest, because a national interest is a selfish interest. Afghanistan started out selfishly — a daringly original military campaign, brilliantly executed, to remove your enemies from power and kill as many of the bad guys as possible. Then America sobered up and gradually brought a freakish exception into compliance with the rule. In Libya as in Kosovo, war is legitimate only if you have no conceivable national interest in whatever conflict you’re fighting. The fact that you have no stake in it justifies your getting into it. The principal rationale is that there’s no rationale, and who could object to that? Applied globally, political correctness obliges us to forswear sovereignty. And, once you do that, then, as Country Joe and the Fish famously enquired, it’s one-two-three, what are we fighting for?

When you’re responsible for half the planet’s military spending, and 80 percent of its military R&D, certain things can be said with confidence: No one is going to get into a nuclear war with the United States, or a large-scale tank battle, or even a dogfight. You’re the Microsoft, the Standard Oil of conventional warfare: Were they interested in competing in this field, second-tier military powers would probably have filed an antitrust suit with the Department of Justice by now. When you’re the only guy in town with a tennis racket, don’t be surprised if no one wants to join you on center court — or that provocateurs look for other fields on which to play. In the early stages of this century’s wars, IEDs were detonated by cell phones and even garage-door openers. So the Pentagon jammed them. The enemy downgraded to more primitive detonators: You can’t jam string. Last year, it was reported that the Taliban had developed metal-free IEDs, which made them all but undetectable: Instead of two hacksaw blades and artillery shells, they began using graphite blades and ammonium nitrate. If you’ve got uniformed infantrymen and tanks and battleships and jet fighters, you’re too weak to take on the hyperpower. But, if you’ve got illiterate goatherds with string and hacksaws and fertilizer, you can tie him down for a decade. An IED is an “improvised” explosive device. Can we still improvise? Or does the planet’s most lavishly funded military assume it has the luxury of declining to adapt to the world it’s living in?

In the spring of 2003, on the deserted highway between the Jordanian border and the town of Rutba, I came across my first burnt-out Iraqi tank — a charred wreck shoved over to the shoulder. I parked, walked around it, and pondered the fate of the men inside. It seemed somehow pathetic that, facing invasion by the United States, these Iraqi conscripts had even bothered to climb in and point the thing to wherever they were heading when death rained down from the stars, or Diego Garcia, or Missouri. Yet even then I remembered the words of the great strategist of armored warfare, Basil Liddell Hart: “The destruction of the enemy’s armed forces is but a means — and not necessarily an inevitable or infallible one — to the attainment of the real objective.” The object of war, wrote Liddell Hart, is not to destroy the enemy’s tanks but to destroy his will.

Instead, America has fallen for the Thomas Friedman thesis, promulgated by the New York Times’ great thinker in January 2002: “For all the talk about the vaunted Afghan fighters, this was a war between the Jetsons and the Flintstones — and the Jetsons won and the Flintstones know it.”

But they didn’t. They didn’t know they were beaten. Because they weren’t. Because we hadn’t destroyed their will — as we did to the Germans and Japanese two-thirds of a century ago, and as we surely would not do if we were fighting World War II today. That’s not an argument for nuking or carpet bombing, so much as for cool clear-sightedness. Asked how he would react if the British army invaded Germany, Bismarck said he would dispatch the local police force to arrest them: a clever Teuton sneer at the modest size of Her Britannic Majesty’s forces. But that’s the point: The British accomplished much with little; at the height of empire, an insignificant number of Anglo-Celts controlled the entire Indian subcontinent. A confident culture can dominate far larger numbers of people, as England did for much of modern history. By contrast, in an era of Massively Applied Desultoriness, we spend a fortune going to war with one hand tied behind our back. The Forty-Three Percent Global Operating Industrial Military Complex isn’t too big to fail, but it is perhaps too big to win — as our enemies understand.

So on we stagger, with Cold War institutions, transnational sensibilities, politically correct solicitousness, fraudulent preening pseudo–nation building, expensive gizmos, little will, and no war aims . . . but real American lives. “These Colors Don’t Run,” says the T-shirt. But, bereft of national purpose, they bleed away to a grey blur on a distant horizon. Sixty-six years after V-J Day, the American way of war needs top-to-toe reinvention.