For anyone who is not acquainted with the work of Mark Steyn, you have an awful lot of catching up to do on a treasure trove of witty, insightful and provocative reading.
I have been a huge fan of Steyn for years but this piece, originally appearing in National Review, is, perhaps, his best, at least in regards to the current predicament of America in the 21st Century.
For any American who is knowledgeable about the extraordinary capabilities of the U.S. military, it is a constant source of frustration to contemplate the consistently mediocre results we get from employing those forces. It is a classic case of underpeformance. It is like, well, the Miami Heat: stocked with arguably the NBA’s best talent, they cannot manage to roll over the Dallas Mavericks in the recent NBA championship series. This was the team that was supposed to dominate like the Chicago Bulls of the Michael Jordan era.
But, to be fair to the Miami Heat, this is a poor analogy. A more accurate one would be to imagine the College Football National Champion Auburn Tigers going up against the Rec League, Ellicott City Patriots B-Team. Comprised of 11-year olds. That’s how stark the difference is between the U.S. military and the kind of adversaries we have been going up against since the end of World War II. When the Auburn Tigers can’t seem to put away the Patriots’ B-Team and it is dragging into overtime and a possible tie-game, the Auburn fans are understandably frustrated.
Or as Steyn puts it:
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.
After summarizing Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, he remarks:
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.
Steyn exactly identifies the source of the problem. It is not that our military is incapable of decisive victory, the problem lies with our national leadership. To return to the sports analogy, it is as if the Auburn coaches decided that it would not look good to grind those 11-year olds into the dirt, so the Tigers go to unbelievable lengths to not win but not lose either. That may be fine when it is simply a game of football, but when it involves a deadly contest where Americans are being killed or maimed, handicapping yourself in such a way is criminal. Or as Steyn puts it:
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:
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.
This is it precisely. The U.S. has, for whatever reason, decided that winning is unacceptable. This is Barack Obama in the 2008 campaign stating that he does not like to use the word victory. For all practical purposes, the U.S. has unilaterally disarmed. Sure, we still have all those weapons and sophisticated arsenals of death lying around, and we may parade them about and fly them over the heads of Taliban fighters to try to put a good scare into them, but we have decided that actually using those weapons in the way that they were designed to be used, in the national interest of the U.S., is unacceptable.
Instead, Steyn points out, the U.S. has given in to what he terms, “Transnational do-gooding.”
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.
The worst news, however, is that we are such a divided nation in our sense of national purpose that I do not see any way that “the American way of war” will get anything like a “reinvention” as Steyn prescribes. The American people are living in a fantasy world where we can continue to lavish entitlement spending on ourselves (and heap more on top of that with Obamacare) while contemplating a substantially reduced military, as if evil does not exist and America will never be threatened (and anyone who raises that specter is simply trying to scare the public for the benefit of the military-industrial complex).
But we know how these things end. The Dot Com Bubble was created by the fantasy that internet companies with no revenues were, nonetheless, worth ridiculous share prices. That Bubble burst. The Housing Bubble grew from the fantasy that trillions of dollars could be lent to persons with bad credit and little prospect for repayment. That Bubble burst. The current fantasy about the nature of the world and America’s invulnerability will end, too. And when it does we will finally regain the will to win. I pray that we will still have the means.