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The Economist recently published an article with the curious title, “Brains, not bullets: How to fight future wars.” The essay’s theme is intriguing because it implies that with enough brains in the right places it’s possible for the United States to get things right, to immunize America’s use of force against bad policies, the wrong senior military leadership and the impact of special interests on an uninformed American public.
If this were true, it would be a revelation. Unfortunately, in open ended conflicts with weak opponents, against people with no armies, no air forces, no air defenses and no naval forces the mental and moral qualities of senior military leaders which are all important in war are suppressed in favor of compliant and obsequious personalities.
After 9/11, the willingness of senior officers to endorse the fiction that the wars of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan were progressing well, that liberal democracy was sinking deep roots in the Middle East was always far more important than demonstrated character, competence or intelligence for promotion to three or four stars. Put differently, having sex with the wrong person or involvement in legally questionable activities could and will destroy careers, but the readiness to go along with policies and plans that made no military sense was and still is career enhancing. Today’s bench of senior leaders are a product of the last 15 years.
After 9/11, the political appetite inside the Washington beltway for intervention and the massive defense spending it justified went off the rails. The use of American military power against weak opponents in Haiti, Somalia, the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan lulled American politicians into a false sense of superiority to the point where the conflict’s strategic outcome no longer mattered to policymakers. Conditioned to respond to clichés, slogans, uniforms and digital images, Americans went along for the ride, at least until the bill, at least three to four trillion dollars and the human cost, at least 45,000 casualties finally hit home.
Fast forward to the present and history is repeating itself. The judgment of America’s national political and military leadership is yielding to rosy expectations of American military success in the Middle East that are not justified. Throngs of retired senior officers and former appointees are on television encouraging Americans to forget that National Military Strategy must comply with the demands of geography, culture, economy and military capability; that the application of military power demands a single directing mind imbued with clarity of purpose.
When there is no clarity of purpose battles can still be won, but wars are far more likely to be lost. Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) and George Bush initiated military action they hoped would be decisive and successful, but they failed to provide realistic answers to the questions of strategic purpose, method and end-state before and during military operations. President Obama and his advisors have embarked on a similar course. They are about to rediscover how hard it is to figure out what is being accomplished from 30,000 feet.
Equally disturbing is the revelation that Obama, like LBJ, will personally approve targets in the former territory of Syria and Iraq for air strikes. General “Tommy” Franks did that in Afghanistan in November 2001 and thousands of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters escaped while he dithered with his legal advisors. Today, the unwillingness of the Arab States and Turkey that border Mesopotamia to commit ground forces to fight the Islamic State makes matters worse. It means that Americans will spend billions of dollars to kill thugs in pickup trucks and bounce rubble for months, even years with doubtful effect. Thanks to Washington’s duplicitous friends in Ankara, Doha and Riyadh that provide money, arms and recruits to the Islamic State’s fighters, the Islamists will are likely to survive and regroup around new fanatics.
C.S. Lewis described the road to hell as a gradual descent, a soft, moderate slope that is hardly noticeable until the destination is reached. Mr. Obama is on his way.
If Americans are to turn Mr. Obama away from the hell that awaits us, Americans must abandon the illusion that precision guided munitions obviate the requirement in war for the lethality that springs from disciplined, physically and psychologically hardened men inside highly trained ground combat units to kill effectively. Americans will have to rise up and collectively drive a stake through the heart of the late Secretary of Defense Les Aspin’s concept for the use of American military power; the task of “punishing evil doers.”
Finally, Americans will have to demand a national military strategy that focuses on protecting Americans, American territory, and core American commercial interests rather than attempts to breathe new life into the comatose body of failed American military interventions that litter the Eastern Hemisphere. As the Cold War alliance structures wither and die because the threats that supported them no longer exist; the importance of clarity in American national military strategy cannot be overstated.
U.S. Army Colonel (ret) Douglas Macgregor is a decorated combat veteran and the author of five books. His most recent, Margin of Victory, will be published next year.