Thursday, January 15, 2015

Losing the Wars

The hot item right now is James Fallows' The Tragedy of the American Military, in The Atlantic.  This post isn't intended as a review; it's a long article and I haven't finished it.  I'd like to explore the general theme, however, as I heard it discussed on the PBS News Hour this afternoon (that's January 15 if you want to chase it down; it won't be available on line until tomorrow).

Basically, James Fallows says that although we have the best military in the world and our soldiers have performed superbly, we've lost the wars we fought over the last 13 years, at the cost of billions of dollars - Afghanistan, Iraq, and our current involvement in Syria. If you look back to Vietnam, we lost that too, even though in all cases we were fighting a ragtag insurgency.  How can this be? said the reviewers.

Do you people not read your history?  (I absolve Mr. Fallows, I think he gets it.) The United States, in its early incarnation as an 18th century British colony, wrote the book on the ability of a ragtag insurgency to defeat a standing military, as long as the people who lived in the insurgent country supported their fighters.  In 1775, when the "shot heard round the world" was fired at the North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts, the British Army was the finest military in the world, in charge not only of North America but of empires in India and the Caribbean.  And yet, over the next 6 years, the ragtag insurgency built into a real army and kept the redcoats from victory (sometimes very narrowly), eventually standing them down at the battle of Yorktown.  And so was born a nation, even though a sizeable number of colonials supported the British!

The Brits used our techniques themselves, one generation later, during the Peninsular Wars with Napoleon - who at that time had the finest military in the world.  Wellington's tactics depended as much on his irregular Spanish supporters, and the fact that the Spanish peasants hated Napoleon, as they did on his trained regulars.

Frankly, we should have known, in 1964, that we couldn't defeat a guerrilla insurgency (in a jungle, yet) supported by the local people.  But we were scared to death of the "Commies" and afraid if Vietnam went Communist, the whole of southeast Asia would follow, like dominos.  Remember the domino theory?  It was wrong, wasn't it?  We also thought, after World War II, that we were invincible and could win any war we took on.  Also wrong.

But we don't learn from our own history.  So after the attacks on the World Trade Center, we sent our military roaring into - Afghanistan, a country about which we knew nothing and where we spoke no local languages.  And since no one knew where "Al Qaeda" was, we took on the Taliban, a former local insurgency which at that time was the government, in a country, that (frankly) neither the British Army nor the Soviet Army could subdue.  And nor could the U.S.  We're now out of Afghanistan, and the Taliban are still there.  They aren't currently the government.  Yet.

I will not discuss the Iraq war except to say that it was a stupid action, based on a whole series of lies, which turned a stable country run by a competent dictator into the mess it is today.  Everything that was wrong about going into Afghanistan was also wrong about going into Iraq.  Saddam Hussein was not a nice man, but if he was anything, he was a secularist, and he could have been a useful ally against Al Qaeda - and much more ruthless than we are.

Barack Obama has taken a great deal of flack for his unwillingness to get involved in the mess in Syria.  He got involved only after the Islamic State thugs beheaded a couple of American journalists on video.  His initial response to stay out was correct - Syria is a hell-brew civil war of faction fighting faction, and the air strikes we're running in have a good solid chance of landing on someone we would support, if we knew they were there.  My heart breaks for the Syrian people but there is no solution to this except for someone else to come in, defeat all comers, and run the place himself.  President Obama refuses to be that person, and I support him; Syria would be a classic case of an organized military taking on not one but multiple insurgent factions.  We'd be there for decades.

I know of one case where a standing army defeated a local insurgency, and it was 21st century Sri Lanka, where the Rajapaksa military machine rolled over the remains of the Tamil Tigers and established military rule over the north of the country.  I believe this exception proves the rule, because the Tamils were a minority in the country, and in that case the majority of the population supported the government troops.  One hopes the newly elected President Sirisena will be able to begin mending fences between the Tamils and the Sinhalese.


  1. You might be interested in reading Human Smoke, by Nicholson Baker. Baker, who normally writes essays on smaller subjects for The New Yorker, decided to write a defense of pacifism through an anecdotal history of Allies policy during WWI and the Nazi build-up, during the terror against Jews in Europe. Baker's argument is that we could have bartered a truce with Hitler, BEFORE the "final solution" was implemented, which could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. It's an argument with a lot of holes, but the history he discusses is fascinating. America sat by with the full knowledge of the Holocaust, when it was convenient politically and militarily to do so, when it might have acted, more responsibly, to save those victims from extermination.

    Since Vietnam, I've become something of an isolationist. I don't think we had any business going into Iraq or Afghanistan, in force. A lot of people argue against drones, but we could have achieved a great deal with them, that whole armies on the ground couldn't have accomplished. We basically got Osama bin Laden with a SWAT team, for god's sake. Once that was accomplished, a lot of steam went out of the military balloon.

    Dubya, of course, needed bin Laden, in the same way bin Laden needed Bush. They're two parts of a corrupt bargain to go to war. And each got what he needed and wanted. Bush became a "war President" and bin Laden drew the U.S. into two pointless wars of attrition in "the steppes of Central Asia." God what a lot of spent money, lives, dignity and wasted time!

    We can't win these "desert" wars. They have no tradition of democracy, and won't have for the foreseeable future. "Regime change." What a lot of claptrap.

  2. Thanks for the link to Human Smoke, I’ll take a look at it; I’m always interested in history. I agree with you that his argument is full of holes; we know Hitler was crazy, and crazy men can’t be reasoned with. For another look at the Nazis, try City of Shadows, a suspense thriller by Ariana Franklin set in Berlin from 1922 on – the plot climaxes on the day Hitler assumed the Chancellorship. I’ve read other books by Franklin and her historical research is impeccable. Her individual Nazis are terrifying. I may not get to it for awhile, though – I just started Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century!