One early morning in late 2001, during the initial phase of the war in Afghanistan, I was astonished by an item on the network news. Sometime in the previous day, Taliban soldiers had succeeding in shooting down an American helicopter with a dozen or so men on board, killing them all. What astonished me was not that we had lost a few men, but that both the military spokesman the reporter covering the event seemed to be in a state of indignant shock. It seemed not to have occurred to either of them that if American soldiers engage in warfare, even against people fighting for an admittedly nasty regime, it’s understandable that the enemy will do their best to kill us. If I remember correctly, the military spokesmen even used the phrase, much used by President Bush at the time, that the enemy troops who shot down the helicopter would be “brought to justice,” – as though the mere act of killing American soldiers in battle were now a war crime.
Let us take a long look backward. On June 6th, 1944, American forces landing on the coast of Normandy suffered the loss of 1465 dead and several times that number wounded or missing. This was a bloody day for America, though not the bloodiest day in World War Two, and by no means the bloodiest in American history. America lost nearly 420,000 lives during the course of World War Two, an average of over 300 per day. While widespread hatred of our German and Japanese enemies was understandable and unquestioned, there is no evidence that the American public expected the slaughter to be altogether one-sided, or considered the fact that the enemy was killing American soldiers morally shocking in itself. We were shocked by the Holocaust, and by the mistreatment of prisoners, but not by the tragic consequences that have always been the nature of armed conflict. Between then and now, two important things have changed. The first is America’s attitude toward war. The second is the way in which America conducts war.
Americans now see wars differently for several reasons, but I believe that chief among those reasons has been that, over the last forty years or so, the media has gradually redefined our expectations.1 Ever since the Viet Nam War, wars have become TV shows. Television (and now the internet) brings the carnage of war into people’s living rooms in a way that overwhelms the purely military aspects of these events. The Normandy invasion, for example, was a military success – but if a TV cameraman had been there, walking down that beach and showing us hundreds upon hundreds of dead and mutilated men, any ordinary viewer would have thought it a disaster. War is horrific even in its success. The natural reaction of non-sociopathic people to witnessing violent, individually senseless killing is revulsion. If a hundred people die in a plane crash that’s a tragedy, and it naturally seems an equal tragedy if a hundred soldiers die in a battle. There is, however, a difference. It is not the purpose of airplanes to kill their occupants, so a plane crash is straightforwardly a tragedy. It is the purpose of warfare, however, to achieve some political end by typically lethal means. This is an ugly but irrefutable truth. Wars are not sporting events. When, as a society, we become too squeamish to accept more than a handful of casualties in war, we greatly limit the means by which we can conduct wars.
The direct consequence of the revulsion of Americans for paying for their government’s political ends in blood has been the contemporary focus using drones and other long range means of killing. Though spectacularly expensive and militarily limiting, long range weapons have the inestimable political advantage of reducing field casualties on our side. During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, America lost a mere 300 soldiers, largely because the Iraqi army (and more particularly its command structure) was broken in advance by tremendous numbers of smart weapons. The media, and the American public, came to assume this level of casualties would now be the norm. Smart bombs and cruise missiles, in the civilian mind, offered the promise of making war an almost one-sided affair. World War Two, and even Viet Nam, were now forgotten.
It would be a mistake to think that our technological prowess has made us any more peace-loving. Rather the contrary. As far back as the Reagan administration, American Presidents apparently stopped considering the bombing of other nations tantamount to going to war with them. Reagan bombed Libya, Clinton fired cruise missiles at Afghanistan and bombed Serbia, George W. Bush and Obama have both fired cruise missiles into Pakistan. None of these actions have been publicly acknowledged as acts of war, and, in general, the American public has taken little interest. What matters is simply that few if any Americans have been killed in such attacks. This stands in stark contrast to public reaction to the truck bombing in Beirut in 1983 and the helicopter shoot down in Somalia in 1993. Both of these incidents forced the withdrawal of US forces due to casualties well less than we incurred on an average day in World War Two.
Notably too, during the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq, we kept our troop numbers to a bare minimum, and have expanded our deployments only very grudgingly. Our peak deployment in Iraq was 165,000. Our current deployment in Afghanistan is 98,000. By contrast, our peak deployment in Viet Nam was 537,000. Small deployments not only save money, but reduce the attritional casualty risk. The fewer Americans there are on duty guarding foreign street corners, the fewer there are to kill. Still, this policy has obvious consequences. In Viet Nam, the most favorable ratio of native civilians per American soldier was 37 to 1 – in a conflict we ultimately lost. In Iraq, that ratio never got any better than 182 to 1. In Afghanistan, the ratio is now about 306 to 1. It is hard to see how such a small commitment in troops can hope to control a hostile nation street by street.2
America’s new reliance on technology over soldiers has other serious consequences, both moral and military. Obviously, getting too comfortable with the notion of conducting foreign policy with cruise missiles and bombs alone has odious moral implications. That hardly seems to need elaboration. Less obviously, our preference for such means probably also makes the American civilian population a good deal less safe.
Consider the position of our enemies and potential enemies. Bombing cannot help but kill some number of non-combatants, especially if it is conducted anywhere near settled areas. The foreign soldier on your street corner might at least be seen as keeping the peace, but there is no such thing as a friendly cluster bomb. Everyone hates a faceless enemy who kills civilians from the sky. A desire for vengeance is inevitable, but who can serve as a target for such vengeance? American soldiers, if the enemy sees them at all, are few and far between. They patrol from one fortified base to another, protected by armored vehicles most of the time. Our enemies probably realize that if they could kill a hundred Americans in one fight at one time, they might drive us out of their country like the people did in Lebanon and Somalia. However, American soldiers have gotten remarkably good at killing while not getting killed themselves. Standup battles against American troops are losing propositions. While guerrilla warfare is an option, an enemy’s preferable choice, if he has the means, is to take the fight to our civilians. America’s weakest links are its open borders and its well-known intolerance for pain.
Historically, there seem to be only two workable methods of defeating the kind of guerrilla force we now have to face around the world. The first is to flood the enemy’s country with so many soldiers that you can isolate the guerillas from the non-combatants that support them. As the record makes abundantly clear, we have neither the political will nor the fiscal resources to draft a half million or more soldiers for such an undertaking. Our politicians know all too well that reinstating the draft for any overseas adventure has become political suicide. They no longer even suggest the possibility. The second method of dealing with guerillas is simply to wait them out. Sooner or later, the people of an occupied country may simply grow tired of the fight. This can take decades or more. Consider the British experience in Northern Ireland. This option, too, takes a patient stoicism Americans no longer have.
In practice, American military capabilities are now limited to the following. Using our impressive technological might, we can destroy the militaries and infrastructures of most other nations, at a high financial cost but a relatively low immediate cost in American lives. We can deter direct, large scale attacks on the US itself using both our conventional forces and the threat or nuclear retaliation. We can conduct small, convert, Special Forces operations. Anything further would risk too many casualties.
Despite what most of us would like to believe, America is an empire. We consume a disproportionate amount of the world’s resources, and we have, since World War Two, been willing to manipulate other nations by threats, embargos, espionage and occasional force to maintain that resource flow. Whatever one might feel about it, even a cursory examination of US foreign policy will reveal this to be a fact. Conflicts since the war in Viet Nam, however, have revealed that we are now an empire with a weakness. While we are militarily capable of destroying other nations, we have become quite incapable of occupying them effectively, whether for resource extraction or any other purpose. As oil becomes more scarce, it is always possible that Americans may decide that maintaining their lifestyle a few more years is worth the blood of their sons and a few of their daughters. Mass psychology is difficult to predict. At the moment, however, we appear to be trapped between our desire to maintain our imperial status on the one hand, and our refusal to accept the violent realities of war on the other.
1 Whether or not the media’s manipulation of our expectations has been deliberate or accidental is an interesting question, but one I cannot answer. It would be hard to say that it was deliberate without sounding like a conspiracy theorist. Personally, I believe the shift in expectations has been the result of underlying attitudes on the part of reporters and editors nationwide, most of whom came of age during the Viet Nam war. I would be surprised if such realignment were the result of a deliberate plan.
Americans, as a nation, have developed peculiarly incompatible attitudes toward war. On the one hand, we have gotten very squeamish about the loss of American lives. On the other, a certain preoccupation with the warrior image is beginning to permeate American society. We no longer have “soldiers.” We have “War Fighters.” I’m not sure who “War Fighter” is, but I think he is a friend of Superman and Spiderman. This is an interesting topic in itself.
2 It is not my intention to slight the role of our allies, but the preponderance of troops in all these conflicts have been Americans.
Some would argue that we have defeated the insurgency in Iraq. Let’s wait ten years and see. Let’s not forget that we declared victory in Viet Nam in 1973.