Winning Battles, Losing Wars

Off the Table

Then there is the question of restraint—the inability to use our full forces to their full effect, in the manner that we did in World War I or World War II. From 1945 to 1989 the Cold War defined and limited the rules of engagement, given the nuclear arsenal of the Soviet Union and its various trouble-causing clients who hid behind it. In Vietnam and North Korea there were certain options that were off the table because of fear the Soviets or Chinese might strike elsewhere or the fighting could descend into a nuclear exchange. “Limited” wars are now the new normal when so many countries can claim a nuclear patron.

Law, not War

But in the last twenty years there is an even greater restraint to operations—a moral, if not smug, self-restraint that has turned fighting from a quest for victory into a matter of jurisprudence in which how we fight a war is more important than what we actually achieve. The old Neanderthal formula -- we will level your cities, defeat and humiliate your military, impose our system of government upon you, and then give you our aid and friendship as you reinvent yourself as a free-market capitalist democracy -- certainly worked with Germany, Japan, and Italy.

But does anyone believe that we could have bombed Saddam as we did those in Hamburg? The country that tore itself apart over waterboarding three confessed terrorists who had an indirect hand in the murder of 3,000 Americans seems ill-equipped to inflict the sort of damage on enemies that in the past made them accept both defeat and redemption. War is now a matter of legality, or nation-building before, not after, the enemy is fully defeated, and that means, given the unchanging nature of man, that it is very difficult to win a war as in the past. Note, in this context, Obama’s drone campaign, which he expanded seven- or eight-fold upon inheriting it from Bush. Is it not the perfect liberal way of war? There is no media hand-wringing over collateral damage; no burned faces, charred limbs, headless torsos on the evening news; no U.S. losses; no prisoners at Guantanamo. There is only a postmodern murderous video game and a brief administration chest-thump that “we’ve take out 20 of the top 30 al-Qaeda operatives.”

Wars of Choice

We are forgetting yet another wild card: since World War II, all our serial fighting in Asia, Central America, the Pacific, and Africa has involved optional wars—fighting that did not question the very existence of the U.S. Other than a few stand-offs with the Cold War Soviets at places like Berlin or Cuba, the United States had not faced an existential threat since the end of World War II. September 11 might have posted such a challenge, since had bin Laden or his epigones been able to repeat the initial attacks, then air travel as we know it would have ceased, along with the idea of an open, modern commercial economy.

But other than the efforts to go after al-Qaeda, most of our fighting has been optional—whether in Somalia or Libya—and that makes it hard to galvanize the American public. (Which also explains why administrations try to hype WMD, or Saddam, or al-Qaeda, or Gaddafi, or the monstrous Assad in order to turn these peripheral threats into existential enemies.) In optional wars, the public can disconnect, as fighting can be conducted without disruption of the civilian economy. Victory or defeat does not immediately either please or endanger the public at home. And the result is that our leaders do not necessarily wage these wars all out, with the prime directive of winning them. (Note how the monster-in-rehab Gaddafi, whose children were buying off Western academics and putting on art shows in London, by 2011 was back in our imaginations to the 1986 troll, and how the Assads of Vogue magazine are once again venomous killers.)

Too Rich to Fight?

Then there are classical symptoms of Catullan otium: societies that become leisured like ours grow complacent (otium et reges prius et beatas perdidit urbes). They see military activity of all sorts coming at the expense of social redistributive programs: each dollar in aid campaigning abroad comes at the loss of one less new expansion in Medicare or Medicaid. Why then spend money overseas, when we could redistribute it for bread and circuses at home? A cruise missile is not seen as a wise investment in deterrence, but as a boondoggle that means one less Head Start center.

In postmodern America, we are all removed from mayhem, the killing of game for dinner, the sight of blood altogether. War is something “they” do, not our far more sophisticated selves, who have far greater claims on the federal treasury. Given that the therapeutic society of iPhones and Facebook believes that human nature has transcended violence, and no longer is prone to Thucydidean irrationality like fear, honor, or perceived self-interest, we believe that Libyan rebels are sort of like errant protestors of Occupy Wall Street, or the sometimes corrupt Chinese communist apparat that can be persuaded to be nice to Tibetans. That means war no longer involves good and evil, much less the elemental dirty means of using the former to destroy the latter.