For a country which takes excessive pride in flags, uniforms, and marching bands and spends more than the rest of the planet combined on its military, the record of America’s forces since World War II is depressing. In dozens of quickie invasions against weak opponents, Americans indeed have prevailed, but when faced with tough and determined enemies, they have remarkably often been defeated or stalemated.
The failure of America’s military could be explained by the notion that failure is only what happens when you seek the wrong success. A poorly-governed people, as Americans certainly are, keeps being sent to wars in which they have no vital interest or commitment. Whatever the reason, the record is unmistakable.
It includes Korea after MacArthur’s insane march to the Chinese border.
It includes Vietnam, where, despite the slaughter of millions, the US left in shame, abandoning desperate associates clinging to helicopter undercarriages.
It includes America’s smaller-scale but long and vicious war on Cuba. The US was embarrassed by failure time and again, shamefully resorted to the terror tactics it now claims to despise, and wasted immense resources supporting thousands of hangers-on. Fidel Castro outlived two generations of American presidents and over six hundred assassination plots.
The record of failures includes the American military’s confusing its humanitarian-assistance role in Somalia with Gary Cooper facing down the bad guys in High Noon, an error which gave it an ugly surprise and saw America turn and go home.
The record includes Reagan’s poorly-considered landing of Marines in Lebanon. A base blown up by resisting guerrilla forces, the Marines left with a battleship hurling sixteen-inch shells into the hills, killing who knows how many innocent civilians and having achieved nothing.
Of course, in battles or war generally, victory is not always easy to determine. There were many battles in history where victory was claimed or loss assumed in error.
Higher casualties don’t always mean losing a battle or even a war. The sacrifice of great numbers sometimes improves a strategic or tactical position, as General Grant in America’s Civil War well understood. Vietnam’s General Giap understood this also, for despite a horrific slaughter of his people, America suffered defeat.
It was an early sign of the coming defeat when body counts began to dominate American news. It is easy to kill large numbers of people, especially when you have complete air superiority and high-tech weapons, but constant killing may mean little progress against a serious opponent. Often, as in the Blitz, bombing people is completely counter-productive.
In recent weeks, body counts re-appeared in Afghanistan, much the same way opium poppies re-appeared after America’s claim to victory over the Taleban (who had suppressed opium). The bodies are supposed to be Taleban, but who can tell whether a dead villager is Taleban?
Even when the body is Taleban, how do we regard that as a victory? The Taleban is a loosely-knit organization, a kind of political party and anti-invader guerilla force, bound to conservative traditions in a hardscrabble land of tough mountain people. Death does not intimidate where people typically live to forty-seven.
Except in the bizarre mind of George Bush, the Taleban is not a terrorist organization,. So when one of them is killed, does it really represent a victory? Or is it viewed by many in Afghanistan as murder by unwelcome foreigners? Clearly, this is the view of many because the Taleban is becoming stronger, surprisingly so according to expert observers.
The recent refusal of NATO countries to commit more troops and resources to Afghanistan was telling. Pressure from the US must have been immense, but the response was virtual silence. Of course, most NATO countries are simply looking after their own best interests. Many of them understand terrorism far better than does the US, having lived with it for decades, and none of them are exhibiting death-wishes or dementia.
They know Al Qaeda has been scattered to the four winds–anything but an achievement from a security point of view–and they see little point in trying to occupy Afghanistan for years. They understand the impossibility of significantly changing so ancient and poor a land. They are not taken in by American Potemkin village projects for bettering life there, after having bombed the hell out of the place. NATO countries in general do not accept Bush’s tale about everyone’s security depending upon success in Afghanistan for the very good reason that it is false.
On the other hand, those supporting the US in Afghanistan are following Bush’s interests, whatever those are, for I’m not sure Bush ever has had a clear grasp of what he is doing himself.
The other lost war is, of course, Iraq. American efforts there have done little but kill civilians and destroy the economy and now threaten to destroy the country itself. Even in Washington, the reality of civil war is dawning. America’s real goals in the war are not going to be achieved, the major one of which was to establish a regime friendly to American policy, especially as that policy pertains to Israel. Instead, years of bloody chaos lie ahead. The outcome, who knows? Three separate warring rump states, each willing to do almost anything to gain an advantage, including taking assistance from those most hostile to American policy?
But the American loss in Iraq is far greater than this. The illegal and unjustified invasion has muddied America’s reputation, aroused suspicions of its intentions, and put new geopolitical forces into play only dimly perceived at this time.
When are we going to learn how stupidly unproductive war is? And when is the US going to learn how bad it is at war despite its monstrous expenditures preparing for it?
JOHN CHUCKMAN lives in Ontario.