February 22, 2016

The war we lack the will to fight

America has developed an unrealistic aversion to losing soldiers.  I do not mean to undervalue, in any way, the people on whom our freedom ultimately depends.  I am saying that, as a nation, we’ve forgotten what a real war is.  On an average day in World War II, America suffered the deaths of 302 combatants.  Not on D-Day or during the battle of Iwo Jima, but on an average day during the conflict.  The current general conflict with Islamic fundamentalism has cost the US about 1.5 combatants on an average day.  If you consider the difference between these two wars on a per capita basis, the ratio is not 200-to-1, but closer to 500-to-1 – since we now have more than double the population.  Nevertheless, the comparatively tiny number of deaths in the current conflict (along with a somewhat more substantial number of wounded) has left America fatigued and gun-shy.  Even conservatives complain bitterly about any hint of “more American boots on the ground.”
We are also much more sensitive to enemy civilian deaths than we were during World War II.  The number of civilian dead the US is responsible for is hard to determine for a variety of reasons, but the qualitative policy differences are plain.  During World War II we heavily bombed both German and Japanese cities with very little political backlash.  Now, we hear public outcries at the occasional smart-bomb that finds its way – quite accidentally – onto a group of non-combatants.  We bomb ISIS oil trucks with reluctance because they might be driven by civilians.
The origins of these changes in the public tolerance for bloodletting would be interesting to examine, but for my purpose it is enough to simply understand that these changes have occurred.  Together, these two essentially sociological factors have forced us to fight our wars the way we do – using tactical air power almost to the exclusion of other means.
Bombing a technologically inferior enemy from sophisticated tactical aircraft has to be one of the safest forms of warfare ever devised.  Drone attacks are even safer.  Though the financial costs of these methods are spectacular, the personnel losses are minimal.  Likewise, compared to the mass, unguided bombing campaigns in World War II, modern tactical bombing kills a minimum of enemy civilians.  The “bad-guy-to-bystander” ratio is quite high, the obvious trade-off being, again, the astronomical cost of smart munitions.  A variable imbedded in the equation is the use of special forces teams to locate targets for the planes.  More teams = more dead soldiers (on both sides).  Fewer teams = more dead bystanders (and lower overall effectiveness).  The overriding consideration in employing air power this way is not the age-old goal of military victory, but the goal of avoiding incidents that journalists might publicize as atrocities.  War, the planners imagine, can be conducted without the mess.  The lives that are wasted through the unnecessary prolongation of the fighting do not seem to bother journalists or politicians as much as individually bloody events.  Their concern is about today’s news cycle, not the retrospective view of history.
Unfortunately, our enemies are rarely either as stupid or as sensitive as our politicians or our press corps.  The experienced jihadist knows perfectly well that the safest place to deploy a rocket launcher is in a populated area – preferably next to a school.  Hamas has used the heightened sensitivities of the western world against Israel and ISIS uses them against us.  Moreover, our enemies also know that the second-tier anti-aircraft weapons they are stuck with don’t have much chance of downing American aircraft.  Unable to fight American soldiers or shoot down American planes, terrorism against our population is the only option left.  It seems to be their preferred option in any case.  I am sure that whatever fraction of our officer corps that has eluded political castration knows all of this and more.  I am equally certain that the progressive politicians now in power consider professional officers untrustworthy and think of warfare as a dirty subject – unworthy of study by sophisticated people like themselves.  We have only to look at the Obama administration’s prisoner exchange policies, their unjustified faith in their own diplomatic effectiveness, and their penchant for releasing militarily significant information to the press, to see their cold contempt for military considerations.  Making war has always been a tragic, wretched business – but many contemporary politicians seem to think the new millennium has somehow made warfare an entirely optional undertaking.  It is not.
No amount of air power is capable of occupying even enough land for the skinniest of diplomats to stand on.  Aircraft, broadly speaking, can only perform two operations.  They can find potential targets and they can destroy them.  The cannot search houses or occupy streets.  The continual call, from presidential candidates of both of our political parties, for a gaggle of Arab allies to do the dirty work of dying for American national interests is a frank admission of our national impotence.  From a foreign policy perspective, it is also desperately shortsighted.  The people that do the dying have an understandable expectation of getting victory on their terms.  Their aspirations and ours are not the same.  Even with our ground troops present, neither Afghanistan nor Iraq showed much interest in rebuilding themselves as modern, democratic, western nations.  Culture has never been that conveniently malleable.  Afghanistan and Iraq are the same tribal, corrupt, politically and morally backward places they have been for centuries.  Eliminating ISIS with a group of proxies will not put an end to Wahhabism, but will merely disturb its focus temporarily.  History has let the caliphate out of the bag, and the destruction of one provisional Islamist state is not going to put it back again.  Unless we are driven to the level of public outrage necessary to either occupy the entire Muslim world or reduce it to a depopulated smoking ruin, the jihadists will continue to rise from their own ashes with a new name and the same old 7th century objective.  Campaign rhetoric is unlikely to arouse that kind of public will.
Donald Trump, to be fair, has a different bad plan from all the others.  He wants to “take the oil.”  There is no way to do this without a massive ground operation.  One cannot exactly fly off with the oil in a special forces helicopter.  “Taking the oil” would mean permanently occupying not only the oil fields themselves, but also enough secure territory to run a pipeline to the closest defensible port – without any pretense of ever leaving.  The “Trump pipeline” would indeed rob the enemy of considerable wealth, at the cost of a slow trickle of dead American soldiers for a very long time.  It is militarily possible but politically unthinkable.
Despite what you might think, I am not a defeatist.  I believe that war and air power have a valid role, it just doesn’t happen to be the role of playing king-maker between competing tribal nations.  It is not a good thing when one tribe of barbarians butchers another, but we have neither the public will nor the responsibility to stop them.  The role of the American military ought to be the protection of the United States.  In our time that should probably include the suppression of nuclear weapons programs in hostile nations, and hard but measured retaliation against the known state supporters of terrorist acts.  It should not concern itself with maintaining familiar borders on middle eastern maps.  In a sane world, nations that chant “death to America” or hold our citizens for ransom ought to be considered enemies.  If they declare themselves at war with us – we ought to take them at their word.  They should be punished – they should not be managed.  If tactical air power is the only tool the public will let our military use, we should at least employ it effectively – more against nuclear facilities and valuable enemy assets, and less against illiterate fanatics with Kalashnikovs. 

While we must react forcefully in the international sphere to re-establish our credibility, the larger problem of terrorism cannot be solved with high explosives or American troops on foreign soil.  The idea of Jihad is simply too widespread.  The greatest supporters of terrorism against the US are not Saudi princes or the Islamic Republic of Iran, but the weepy, hand-wringing advocates of open borders and multiculturalism.  Neither the 9/11 bombers, Major Hasan, the Tsarnaev brothers, nor the San Bernardino shooters lived in places one could use a Hellfire missile against.  Through the power of self-destructive immigration policies – they all lived right here.  That is where our present focus should be.

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