The Paradoxes of American Military Power

Strange new guidelines about the way we fight.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Critics now fault an American military that ripped apart Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait to Kurdistan in three weeks for its apparent inability to restore civilization in the sixth months after the demise of Saddam Hussein’s 30-year nightmare. It seems to mean little that fewer combatants have been killed in two years of fighting than were lost in an average week in Vietnam, that deposed enemies like the Taliban and Saddam Hussein were right out of the Dark Ages, that our efforts were incomprehensible without September 11, that we are promoting democracies, not installing tyrannical yes men, and that reconstructing Iraq 7,000 miles away seems to be going more quickly than the rebuilding on the crater in Manhattan.

Why? Because we are in a war that is not quite a war, but has an array of baffling rules all its own that we are only slowly grasping.

The unforgiving minute. Of course, well before our pass on storming Baghdad in 1991, it was true that the failure to destroy a doomed enemy could later prove near disastrous for a victorious force. Witness the German pause outside Dunkirk when a trapped British Expeditionary Army escaped to England largely intact, or the Allied laxity in closing completely the Falaise Gap in summer 1944 that allowed thousands of Germans to escape, regroup, and attack six months later in the Bulge.

Yet the conditions of the new warfare — instant and televised global media exposure, wide-scale pacifism, and postbellum terrorism — have made the need to destroy a reeling enemy before the shooting stops more critical than ever before. Conflicts proper — the period in which belligerents freely attack one another in conventional fighting — are now often brief, indeed more a matter of days or weeks than of months or years. And these windows of war per se constitute about the only time that Western forces are given transitory leeway to use their overwhelming military preponderance — without worries of censure — to finish off quite odious enemies.

Yet a false sense of morality, public-relations worries over gruesome images televised into the world’s living rooms, and the sheer arrogance engendered by rapid victory sometimes have stopped the full exercise of American power that would finish the job. The so-called “highway of death” of 1991 was not quite the massacre promulgated by the media, but the subsequent (and mostly unreported) butchery in Basra and Kurdistan most surely was — and was brought on by the cessation of American bombs that allowed thousands of Iraqi killers to flee and then regroup to kill.

The failure to annihilate the doomed Taliban and al Qaeda in Tora Bora meant that many terrorists fled to Pakistan and are now shooting their way back into Afghanistan. The inability to blast through the Sunni Triangle from the north in the first days of the war meant that Baathists surrendered rather than were killed or defeated — and now are shooting at soldiers of whom they would have been terrified a few months when the full array of American firepower might have been brought to bear.

This rule of postmodern war? Before the cameras, the auditors, and the UN converge, before terrified fleeing soldiers are reborn as emboldened terrorists, before embedded reporters leave and investigative journalists arrive, and before victorious and unapologetic soldiers are asked to be peacekeepers, sociologists, and humanitarians, the military must finish the destruction of enemy forces in the unforgiving minute. After all, a colonel who blows apart an Iraqi Baathist in April might win a medal, but if in October he shoots a round off near a terrorist suspect’s head to save the lives of his men, he can expect a court martial.

Casualties. In the pre-battle hysteria over Iraq, the world deprecated America as afraid to accept casualties, a bully frightened by the “body-bag” syndrome. What a funny charge for a country that endured awful carnage from Gettysburg to Okinawa, and took thousands of casualties monthly in Vietnam! Instead, the truth is that an affluent and often wildly free America more than any other Western country can still accept battle losses — if its citizenry feels that such sacrifices are worth it. The key is to ascertain what constitutes such a vague and seemingly amoral concept as “worth it”?

“National interest” and “a just cause,” of course, are necessary to accept losses, but often even those nebulous terms are not immediately discernable either to troops in the field or to the citizenry at home. Just as important in short shooting wars is movement, a sense of advance, and knowledge that our soldiers are inflicting far more damage on their enemies than they are on us.

American captains from Sherman to Patton grasped that simple fact that Americans are an impulsive, restless people, at home with machines and motion, bored with stasis and apparent immobility. And with 500 channels, the Internet, and 50 flavors of coffee, we are far more restless in 2003 than in worlds of either 1864 or 1944.

Under the conditions of contemporary warfare, if Americans sense that for every suicide bombing we suffer, we take out dozens of Baathists in return, or are finally waging a terrible war against the killers in Tikrit, or are bombing infiltrators on the Iraq-Syria border, then we conclude that there is a beginning and an end to the conflict. In turn, the fighting is then seen as finite and worth the terrible sacrifice — an assessment that is impossible when we are static targets of an insidious enemy that seems to have no home, no order of battle, and no clear distinction from civilians. We could deal with losses when Americans were fighting their way to Baghdad, but less so when they are living in Baghdad. Thus it is critical for our military to find ways in the chaotic climate of Iraq to reassure Americans that we are on the offensive, always moving, and always finding new ways to target our enemies.

Unpredictability. Conventional wisdom says that in fourth-dimensional, postmodern, asymmetrical warfare our overwhelming conventional power means little — not when a cheap RPG and a few illiterate teenagers can take down a $2 million chopper piloted by captains with MA degrees. The fear is that a parasitic non-West can import our weapons but not our costly military skills — and still obtain military parity of sorts, given our greater attention to human life, desire for peace, and disavowal of terrorism and other sordid tactics.

After all, we are wealthy and have much to live for; our enemies are poorer and have little to lose. Thus Israel ponders trading 300 incarcerated terrorists for the life of one Israeli businessman. The world accepts that none of the former will be abjectly murdered in custody, while the latter of course could and probably will be. American prisoners are raped and shot with impunity; their Iraqi Baathist counterparts cannot be so much as frightened. We cannot and should not change our values; nor can we do much about the fact that we use technology and education to protect our soldiers while our enemies use fundamentalism and ignorance to expend theirs.

But cultural fault lines do not mean that we cannot at times seem a little unhinged ourselves. If the citizens of Tikrit choose to murder, or condone killing, Americans, then perhaps electrical power from their proud city can be mysteriously diverted to Kurdistan and the south. If Syria sends in assassins to kill Americans, then perhaps our pilots can become confused about where its border with Iraq actually begins and ends. If France publicly castigates the United States, then perhaps recently purchased French rockets in Baathist depots can be used as backdrops at press conferences. If munitions are found in the houses of killers, then perhaps such houses can be cordoned off and, of course with due notification, blown to smithereens. The point is not to showcase our own unpredictability but rather, quietly and with genuine nonchalance, slowly to get the message out that a very humane and civilized military is, well, sometimes quite crazy itself. In this new war, the worst sin of a Western military is quite simply to be predictable.

Politics. Military operations are not merely an extension of politics, but themselves inseparable from politics — from the moment the bombs fall to the final withdrawal of peacekeeping troops. For the foreseeable future, the narrow parameters in which the American military can operate without Pavlovian condemnation are becoming pretty clear. The cause, the conditions of battle, the nature of the enemy — all these once-critical considerations are now not quite as critical as the particular party that conducts the war. Increasingly the Democrats seem to be self-proclaimed pacifists and neo-isolationists who profess an abhorrence of war — and thus in turn are granted the legitimacy to conduct military operations (with purported reluctance).

Consider Operation Desert Fox of December 1999. While mired in an impeachment scandal, President Clinton ordered four days of bombing against supposed WMD facilities in Iraq. Few claimed that he had bombed to divert domestic attention from his own political troubles, much less that the absence of any proof of destroyed weapons facilities suggested there was none there to begin with. President Clinton was not pilloried for either preemption or unilateralism — although he did not go to the Senate for approval; did not seek U.N. discussions; and he did not make the case that Saddam had first attacked us — and of course he sought no multilateral resolution. Nor was NATO or Europe involved. General Zinni oversaw operations and in a press conference confessed that perhaps as many as 4,000 Iraqis could have been killed, including some civilians. There were no peace marches, no condemnatory European editorials, and very few Republican allegations that in a year before a national election the United States had unnecessarily and cynically aimed bombs at facilities that were neither proven to have made weapons nor later destroyed. No retired general accused General Zinni of unnecessary war making or inflicting collateral damage — or called Clinton a “chicken-hawk.”

The same scenario was played out over the 1970s and 1980s. Compare the invective that Reagan earned for going into Grenada, and the senior Bush for Panama and Kuwait, with the pass given to Carter for attempting to use guns to rescue the hostages in Tehran, and with Clinton’s missile strikes in Africa and the weeks-long bombing of Serbia.

In the future, the American military must accept that if it is asked to go to war under a Republican administration, its public-relations problems will pose as much a dilemma as the campaign itself — as the New York Times, National Public Radio, the campuses, the major networks, and the Europeans will almost immediately seek to oppose and caricature America’s efforts. In contrast, in our contemporary therapeutic society that gives currency to lip-biting, publicly feeling pain, and professions of utopianism, Democrats can pretty much use the military as they wish — secure they will always be seen as sober and judiciously using force only as a “last resort.”

Such generalizations have little to do with history: In both World War I and World War II, Democrats were seen as engaged internationalists, Republicans as shrill isolationists. Nor are these fault lines necessarily permanent trends, given that there is nothing in Democratic ideology that inherently rules out the use of force in a necessary cause.

Nevertheless, the present public perceptions and political realities will likely persist, since recent popular ideologies like multiculturalism and utopianism have become embedded in the postwar Democratic party. Both notions tend to characterize the American military not as a force for good, but as an extension of American pathology that legitimizes if not promotes an oppressive globalism, racism, sexism, colonialism, and economic oppression.

If one finds that stereotype unfair, remember the pathetic scene of a Gen. Clark during the recent Democratic debate, who castigated the president of the United States at a time of war while deferring to the wisdom of Al Sharpton. Take out a mass murderer, free 26 million, and you will earn charges of incompetence if not treason; slander a DA, fabricate a crime, and fan the flames of riot and racial hatred, and you will win respect from a Democratic frontrunner. For Republicans who must resort to war, the primary challenge will not be the fighting itself, but rather the perception that the United States was inherently wrong to have fought in the first place.

©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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