Myths About the US Military
There is often voiced pessimism about our current military, to such a degree that it is termed broken or exhausted. But how true is that?
The traveler to Iraq is struck not by dearth, but opulence—everything imaginable from new SUVs to Eskimo Pies. Internet Service there was far faster than from my home in rural Fresno County.
So far recruitment levels are being met. No one in the military has warned that it is a bad idea to create more brigades of ground troops. Such a caveat about the current proposed expansion we would expect if we could not even meet our present manpower targets.
We have a tripartite military—air, sea, and ground. While the Marines and Army have rough going in Iraq, there have been very few Air Force and Navy material or human losses. Surely our air wings and ships are not “worn out” from patrolling in Iraq. There might be thousands of trashed humvees and worn out Bradleys, but not frigates, F-16s, or carriers. This is not 1943 when the US military was fighting in Sicily, as B-17s fell from the sky, as our merchant marine was under U-boat attack.
After Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia, and Afghanistan, the mantra was that the Army and Marines were not getting their fair share of service in Rumsfeld’ revolution in military affairs that envisioned Special Forces on donkeys zeroing in GPS bombs from 20,000 feet onto clueless Taliban. But suddenly after a little more three years in Iraq, we are supposed to believe that a few thousand insurgents have “ruined” what until 2003 was an underused force? It would be interesting to trace the origins of this pessimism that now appears in the columns of op-ed pages: does it arise from tired and demoralized officers, or anti-war critics eager to see something again like the 1976 American military?
Does Experience Count for Anything?
But more importantly, few have asked more existential questions: are our ground forces better or worse prepared to fight jihadists than they were on September 11? At some point, the millions of hours of experience fighting Islamists from the Hindu Kush to Anbar Province must count for something. William Tecumseh Sherman’s frightening Army of the West that tramped through Washington DC in April 1865 made any Union force of 1861 seem pathetic by comparison—despite he tragic losses of thousands during the war.
Ruined and Then There Is Ruined!
In the past, there have been modern divisions of the American army that have been nearly ruined, but nothing of the sort has transpired in Iraq. Here one thinks of the 6th Marine Division that did the most gruesome fighting on Okinawa and suffered over 8,000 killed or wounded in less than 90 days—nearly half its original combat strength attrited in a single battle.
After 24 hours of fighting in the first day of the Bulge, the US 28th and 106th infantry divisions ceased to exist as effective combat units, with nearly half their soldiers killed, wounded, or captured. The 7th and 2nd infantry divisions that retreated from the Yalu River under attack by hundreds of thousands of Chinese communists were nearly decimated. To say that the American military is ruined after fighting in Iraq is preposterous by both present and past standards of combat losses.
So What’s Wrong?
What then is the problem since we are still fighting in both Afghanistan and Iraq after brilliant victories over the Taliban and Saddam Hussein?
Most obvious is the inability of our conventional forces to translate amazing tactical success in Afghanistan and Iraq into rapid strategic victory, a transition of establishing a stable postbellum government that requires everything from winning hearts and minds to inspired counter-insurgency. These questions about the transition from conventional to asymmetrical warfare always have nagged—why did the armies of Sherman and Grant who crushed nearly half-a-million Confederate soldiers in a little over a year from summer 1864 to spring 1865, not secure Reconstruction in 12 miserable years of failure, in the face of a few thousands Klansmen, and assorted night riders?
In the case of Iraq, when the easier conventional war ceased in victory after a few days, our generals (cf. Tommy Franks) simply retired. Political restrictions (pulling back from first Fallujah or allowing Moqtadar Sadr to be freed from his encirclement) hampered military options and projected a sense of perceived weakness. Too often retired generals simply blamed the present problem in establishing security on “too few troops”, as if Donald Rumsfeld alone had drawn up the plans of the invasion, or that an army that defeated Saddam Hussein in three weeks was inherently unable to squash an insurgency of far fewer combatants. And it is always easier to shoot a uniformed Republican Guard marksman than to pick out a terrorist from his ten brothers and sisters after his bomb attack on a US squad stringing telephone wire or painting schools.
It is now a cliché that there “is no military solution” in Iraq. But, in fact, the political solution—three successful elections and a constitutional government in place—has outpaced the military effort. What we need is a massive clamp-down on militias and terrorists to give the government confidence and public support, and that can’t be accomplished when we do not crush the terrorists, whether inside Iraq or flowing in from Syria and Iran.
The Same Old, Same Old.
Nothing that we see in Iraq is unique by any historical standards. Generals always rue that they have too few combat troops. Go back and read about Dwight D. Eisenhower’s complaints in late 1944, and the controversy over a “broad” and “narrow” front in approaching the Rhine. Patton raged about political constraints that stopped the 3rd Army from taking Prague, and the 1st from targeting Berlin. MacArthur was relieved over his inability to widen the war to target Chinese troop build-ups in Manchuria. Secretary of War Stanton interfered with Sherman’s administration of Savannah, despite the culmination of a brilliant March to the Sea. No need to mention Vietnam and the micromanaging of campaigns from the White House.
In short, the history of American ground operations is that troops are often sent into battle complaining of too few numbers, too many political constraints, and too vague objectives. We know all that is the unfortunate price to be paid in a democracy that reluctantly musters its forces, and has too many would-be military geniuses behind the lines that hamper smooth operations at the front. It has never been an American tradition to say, “There is the enemy, go do what you wish to win,” but rather “There is the enemy, these are the parameters under which you must operate to win.”
So what we do not need now is any more furor over the should’ve/could’ve/would’ve troop levels in 2003. Even when we talk of a “surge” the present disagreement is really over only about 30,000 additional troops in a coalition of nearly 180,000, that, along with Iraq Security Forces, reaches a total force of almost 500,000.
An Existential Question.
Thus the better question is why haven’t a half-million Iraqi and coalition troops been able to defeat at most 20,000-30,000 insurgents, especially when over 11 million Iraqis voted for their own democratic representatives? The answer is that the restrictive rules of engagement, the open borders to Iran and Syria, and the perception of American impotence have all combined to suggest to most Iraqis that the radical beheading/IEDing/kidnapping/assassinating minority within their midst will be running things in their neighborhood once the far larger, more static, far nicer, and far more restrained coalition troops dissolve or leave. People in advance always make the necessary adjustments to popular perceptions.
Avoir de l’audacité, toujours l’audacité, encore une fois l’audacité?
At some point it would be stunning for a US military official to step forward, and assure victory. No more acrimony over what should have, could have or might have been. No more retired generals talking to reporters at midnight “off the record”, or appearing as “unnamed senior military official” in the footnotes of the latest journalistic expose about Iraq. No more complaints about had Paul Bremmer not, had Donald Rumsfeld not, had Tommy Franks not, but rather something instead like: “Here is how we are going to defeat the jihadists”.
Most Americans do not want to hear any more suggestions from the Iraqi Study Group, anymore meae culpae from John Kerry or Hillary Clinton about how they were brainwashed by faulty intelligence, or any more assessments of the war from moralists and geniuses like Donald Trump and Bill Maher.
Instead, we need to hear from the very top echelon of the American military, that despite all the roadblocks put in their way, and the difficulty of the present task (it isn’t easy to secure a democracy in the heart of the ancient caliphate surrounded by Khomeinist Iran, Wahhabist Saudi Arabia, and Baathist Syria), that they will defeat these insurgents—and here’s how they plan to do it.
Somewhere in the US military right now is a Grant, Sherman, Patton, Ridgeway, or Abrams, who has been shouting and we haven’t been listening. Now is the time to let them come forward—as they have always arisen from obscurity in past American wars when their nation’s hour of need has come.