When people ask me what to read to find an historical parallel with America’s situation today, I usually recommend J.H. Elliott’s splendid history of Spain in the first half of the 17th century, The Count-Duke of Olivares: A Statesman in an Age of Decline. One of the features of the Spanish court in that period was its increasing disconnection with reality. At one point, Spain was trying to establish a Baltic fleet while the Dutch navy controlled the Straits of Gibraltar.
A similar reality gap leapt out at me from a story in the May 3 Washington Post, “Wars Strain U.S. Military Capability, Pentagon Reports.” Were that the Pentagon’s message, it would be a salutary one. But the real message was the opposite: no matter what happens, no one can defeat the American military. According to the Post,
The Defense Department acknowledged yesterday that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have stressed the U.S. military to a point where it is at higher risk of less swiftly and easily defeating potential foes, though officials maintained that U.S. forces could handle any military threat that presents itself . . .
The officials said the United States would win any projected conflict across the globe, but the path to victory could be more complicated.
“There is no doubt of what the outcome is going to be,” a top defense official said. “Risk to accomplish the task isn’t even part of the discussion.”
It isn’t, but it certainly should be. The idea that the U.S. military cannot be defeated is disconnected from reality.
Let me put it plainly: the U.S. military can be beaten. Any military in history could be beaten, including the Spanish army of Olivares’s day, which had not lost a battle in a century until it met the French at Rocroi. Sooner or later, we will march to our Rocroi, and probably sooner the way things are going.
Why? Because war is the province of chance. You cannot predict the outcome of a war just by counting up the stuff on either side and seeing who has more. Such “metrics” leave out strategy and stratagem, pre-emption and trickery, generalship and luck. They leave out John Boyd’s all-important mental and moral levels. What better example could we have than the war in Iraq, which the Pentagon was sure was over the day we took Baghdad? Can these people learn nothing?
The Post article suggests the reality gap is even greater than it first appears. It quotes the Pentagon’s classified annual risk assessment as saying “that the risk is increased but is trending lower” – – as we prepare to attack Iran. It reports that the Army obtained less than 60% of the recruits it needed in April. Most strikingly, it says that so far in fiscal 2005, which is more than half over, the Army has trained only 7,800 new infantrymen. Fourth Generation war and urban warfare are above all infantry warfare. My guess is that our opponents in Iraq alone have probably recruited 7,800 new fighters in this fiscal year.
Why do our senior military leaders put out this “we can’t be beaten” bilge? Because they are chosen for their willingness to tell the politicians whatever they want to hear. A larger question is, why do the American press and public buy it? The answer, I fear, is “American exceptionalism” the belief that history’s laws do not apply to America. Unfortunately, American exceptionalism follows Spanish exceptionalism, French exceptionalism, Austrian exceptionalism, German exceptionalism and Soviet exceptionalism.
Reality tells us that the same rules apply to all. When a country adopts a wildly adventuristic military policy, as we have done since the Cold War ended, it gets beaten. The U.S. military will eventually get beaten, too. If, as seems more and more likely, we expand the war in Iraq by attacking Iran, our Rocroi may be found somewhere between the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers.
WILLIAM S. LIND, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation