when academics try to take on military history

October 27, 2010

There are few things more bizarre than watching academics trying to decipher military policies though a lens of philosophy and sociology, where rather than focusing on a chain of events and trying to walk through all the possible conclusions along that chain, they try to put entire ideologies on the couch. The result, as seen in a pair of essays on American ideas about the military and its use, comes off as convoluted to someone who isn’t interested in obtuse philosophical ruminations, and patronizing to the ideologies they try to analyze. In an effort to play therapist and throw around trendy geopolitical terms with which far too many pundits like to lard a particularly vague piece on foreign policy, they tend to miss some very obvious issues and flail in search of an answer they find satisfactory. Same goes for those who take their treatises and use them to weave elaborate webs of conspiracy theories which too often culminate in New World Orders ran by the Illuminati, or alien and human hybrids who secretly ruled the world for eons, or the vast, amorphous military-industrial complex.

Actually, I’ve lost count as to how many times Eisenhower’s warning about the power of the defense industry has been trotted out in the last six months, and consider it somewhat ironic when used by bloggers who will quote unnamed experts suggesting that the military could cut a trillion dollars from its budget, despite the fact that this proposed cut is about twice what the military actually spends in a given year, because under his reign, military spending in America was over half the national budget. Today, it’s about a quarter, and yet we’re being told that the United States has constantly growing military budgets and numerous alternative estimates inflate the numbers by rolling any agency which deals with law enforcement, aviation, space, and research of any kind under the military umbrella, in effect cooking the books to stick to the narrative. But then again, if you were to go by people’s budgetary estimates, you’d think NASA’s budget was $500 billion even though it’s not even in the same order of magnitude with $18 billion a year. Still, all that said, American military expenses are thought to account for anywhere between a third and half of all global defense spending, depending who does the number crunching, and no matter how you look at it, that’s an awful lot. But how did that happen?

Well, let’s go back to the often cited turning point in American military policy, the end of World War II, when the fate of entire nations lay in the hands of two superpowers which knew very little about each other and spent a few decades demonizing one another in their newspapers and radio shows. All they really knew with certainty was that their military might was nothing to be taken lightly, that both had found Nazi V2 rocket factories, that it was a near certainty that one side would use them to launch its newly developed nuclear arsenal at the other with its future long range missiles, and that the other side was building its own nukes and working on its own stockpile of future ICBMs. This is why they set about trying to carve out buffer zones and secure alliances and treaties that sought to extend their reach and put missiles and turrets closer to their enemies to make crucial, possibly deciding nuclear blows easier. The vast military build-up during the Cold War was the conclusion a pair of superpowers deeply suspicious and fearful of each other made. The bigger the military, and the more nukes, the greater the deterrent to direct warfare. Instead, the superpowers warred by proxy, requiring a new wave of military expansion during each conflict to warn the other not to take the proxy wars global.

Of course if we knew then what we know now, history may have been very different. But the real world doesn’t work in hindsight, and at the time, the only thing the superpowers could really do was to arm themselves for a potential World War III and hope it would never happen. Than, as the Cold War ended when the USSR finally imploded after decades of corruption, ineptitude, and terrible decisions by its paranoid gerontocracy, the U.S. found itself with a huge military, a booming voice in global affairs built by its investments and alliances, and a lack of an enemy against which to use all this clout. Or in other words, it was all dressed up but had nowhere to go. So, ask critics of military spending, why not just draw down the armed forces? Well, it’s not that easy to do that because once you set up a giant organization with hundreds of thousands of people on its payroll, it’ll take decades just to unwind it. Its weapons have to be fueled, maintained, and supported. Its veterans and all its employees must be paid. Its current apocalyptic stockpiles of horrifying nukes have to be watched. To use an IT term here, the American military is a legacy system and one that can’t be scaled down or phased out as easily as it seems on paper or in a blog post. Just cutting its costs is an expensive process in itself because someone will have to pay all those transitional expenses. Until another war comes along that is…

And that’s really the core of the issue. Over half a century of constant sparring and military buildup, the U.S. is now left in command of a vast military that its politicians have gotten used to presenting as a deterrent in the best of times, and sending off to unleash its firepower in the worst. And while we all too often assume that an immense war machine designed to level entire nations in weeks could easily handle insurgencies in a Third World country, that’s really not true. In fact, politicians and many commanders are finding out that you have to fight against superpowers and guerillas with very different militaries, and are now in the process of taking the existing structure of the armed forces and retooling them for different wars while creating another big wave of military buildup in the process. And this is when we start hearing the cries of imperialism, conspiracy theories about New World Order sponsored warfare, and academic over-analysis to fully explain why Americans keep maintaining its armed forces at such expense by pundits who for some reason think that once the Cold War’s end was finally here, we could’ve just dismissed half the military and thanked the soldiers for their service. In the post-Cold War world, as the political landscape was still uncertain and potentially threatening, Americans wanted to keep a vast military to safeguard themselves. And today, as the mistakes of the Cold War’s twilight days have returned as a new global menace, that military, originally intended to fight nation-states, is fighting new and different wars, and trying to retool itself for what it never really prepared.

Certainly, there’s something to be said about what sixty years of military-centric policies shaped by an always near-violent, or violence-by-proxy political turmoil does to a nation’s culture. But to squeeze the latest chapters of American history through the prisms of 19th century philosophers and not even mention the Cold War and its enormous influence on shaping the United States’ foreign policy and national identity, or discounting it for another exciting conspiracy theory, or elaborate sophistry that glosses over it, assuming that dismantling half a century of work and complex political entanglements can be done in just a few years, is just sloppy at best, and alarmingly inept at worst. And certainly not something that should be considered an academic thesis.

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  • Bruce Coulson

    Actually, the United States went imperial after the Spanish-American War; a fact noted at the time, and decried by more than a few (Mark Twain wasn’t the only one; respectable members of the political establishment, some Republican, were against the idea). (Well, to be fair, the United States went imperial outside their continent post Spanish-American War.)

    The Monroe Doctrine became the blueprint for major American intervention in Latin America, just as the Phillipines became our forward base for Asian trade.

    The major change post-World War II was the retention of a large military. Before then, the American armies were disbanded rapidly after the guns stopped firing, and military service was marginalized. (There were riots on military bases post World War II concerning continued service; although most of the vets were discharged, the threat of Communism helped keep the ranks full.) Our military intervention remained global in nature, along with our intelligence services (no more claims that ‘gentlemen do not read other peoples’ mail’.) All of this was done to protect American interests and lives; but also with the full knowledge that in a nuclear exchange, everyone would lose.

    So, the idea that our military interventions are somehow ‘new’ and unprecedented in history doesn’t hold up. You are correct that any large bureauracy, once established, is difficult to dismantle, or even reduce; they gain a life of their own, along with entrenched interests who wish to see the money, and their power/authority, continue, and will use both to retain them. There’s nothing especially sinister about the U.S. military doing so.

    The key problem is information. When the catholic Phillipinos were put down in the name of Christianizing them (and retaining control of the naval bases) most the details of the insurrection were simply not reported, and not available to most Americans. When the Marines were controlling a fair chunk of the Carribean, the messy details of what exerting that control required never saw newsprint. Nowadays, it’s virtually impossible to keep the ugly necessities of empire quiet and under the rug. Americans, who have been taught that we’re the ‘good guys’ in any conflict, are understandably confused and upset at the realities of warfare and imperialism. (Americans have never had a good grasp of history.)

  • Greg Fish

    “So, the idea that our military interventions are somehow ‘new’ and unprecedented in history doesn’t hold up.”

    The interventions themselves are not new, no. But what is relatively new is fighting enemies who aren’t in uniform and organized by a nation state, but who are actually very nebulous and constantly changing groups of pious guerrilla warriors interested in advancing a whole myriad of different, and often self-serving causes.

    “Nowadays, it’s virtually impossible to keep the ugly necessities of empire quiet and under the rug.”

    Again, I’m going to disagree with the idea that Iraq and Afghanistan are American imperial conquests. Politicians’ failure to understand that they were actually a set of tribal and ethnic alliances in the same territory brought together by colonial powers that drew their borders on a map and called them such and such, is what led to full blown occupations. Instead of being able to tear down a corrupt or dangerous government and let these nations form new ones requires a strong national identity, something many Iraqis and Afghans lack.

    Consequently, they spend more time fighting with each other than forming a new government because they’re used to a government just being there, or appointed by someone and quietly ignored rather than creating a formal power structure from the ground up.

    But I’ll agree with your point that today’s access to so much information is making it very hard to pretend that wars are just good guys vs. bad guys like in a video game.

  • Brett

    Actually, I’ve lost count as to how many times Eisenhower’s warning about the power of the defense industry has been trotted out in the last six months,

    What’s particularly annoying about it is that they often just use the “warning about military-industrial complex” without the whole quote, which was that Eisenhower thought that a military-industrial complex was necessary* – he was just worried about the influence it would have on politics.

    The vast military build-up during the Cold War was the conclusion a pair of superpowers deeply suspicious and fearful of each other made. The bigger the military, and the more nukes, the greater the deterrent to direct warfare. Instead, the superpowers warred by proxy, requiring a new wave of military expansion during each conflict to warn the other not to take the proxy wars global.

    That’s an over-simplification. I think you could more properly put the Cold War into several phases:

    1. Early 1950s to early1960s: The Soviets had a significantly larger conventional army (but still smaller than the one they’d had in World War 2), but their nuclear striking ability was pretty weak. During this period, the US could have nuked the crap out of Russia, and they couldn’t have done much more than lob a few missiles at Western Europe. Conversely, the US conventional military was very weak in this period (on purpose – Eisenhower’s “New Look” strategy involved cutting the Army down to being largely a nuclear tripwire in central Europe), but its nuclear striking power was strong.

    2. Mid-to-Late 1960s to Late 1970s: The US builds up a significantly larger conventional Army under McNamara, which gets ravaged by Vietnam into the “hollow Army”, while moving towards ICBMs (a bad idea in hindsight). Meanwhile, the Soviets finally build up significant nuclear striking capabilities, and also start up a massive conventional military build-up that lasts throughout the entire Breznev Era.

    3. Late 1970s/Early 1980s to End of Cold War: The US reforms and re-builds its conventional military with volunteers and many elements of the Revolution in Military Affairs, with drastically more effective power, while also expanding its missile and submarine deterrent. The Soviets run headlong into economic and political problems from their prior build-up, and have to start scaling down once the Afghanistan War starts failing.

    So, ask critics of military spending, why not just draw down the armed forces? Well, it’s not that easy to do that because once you set up a giant organization with hundreds of thousands of people on its payroll, it’ll take decades just to unwind it.

    To be fair, Bush Sr. and Clinton did some major draw-downs and cutbacks in military expenditures. The problem was that they didn’t redefine the strategic goals and alliances that underpinned the old system, so it was more or less inevitable that we’d be drawn back towards it.

    To be more specific, the problem was that the US didn’t change its strategic goals towards a less interventionist mission, and then re-shape the military’s capabilities to follow – something we could have done following the end of the Cold War, and which has been done before (Eisenhower did it with the “New Look” strategy following the Korean War). Instead, we adopted an even more interventionist strategic outlook, and the attempts to reform the military to fight quasi-imperial COIN wars is part of that (a bad idea, too, since you can train a conventional military to do COIN, but the opposite is frequently much more difficult).

    The major change post-World War II was the retention of a large military. Before then, the American armies were disbanded rapidly after the guns stopped firing, and military service was marginalized.

    The large military of World War 2 was drastically cut before being re-expanded for the Korean War, and then drastically cut even more during the Eisenhower Presidency, so that’s not entirely true.

  • Bruce Coulson

    Actually, the United States has a lot of history fighting irregular forces. From the early Indian Wars (both pre and post-colonial, and pre and post Civil War), to the Phillipine ‘Insurrection’, and various conflicts in South America all the way to Vietnam and now.

    The problem is that we’ve forgotten most of the lessons of those conflicts and how to win them, and seem to be adamant about refusing to learn, despite excellent modern books detailing guerilla conflicts, and the ways they’ve been won (and lost).

    The primary lesson is that they can’t be won solely through military action. Bluntly, the civilian population has to have a reason to support the conventional forces; a positive reason, not a negative one. This can only be supplied through political means. Land grants, a voice in local political affairs; something. Crude bribes won’t do. Otherwise, you must move/displace or eliminate the local population, or accept a constant low-level conflict. If the latter, you must prosecute the war in a manner to keep losses acceptable to civilian support back home.

    The British method involves finding a minority group within the country, propping them up with arms and training, and letting them take the brunt of fighting and maintaining order. You just come in and take what you need, since the ‘rulers’ are completely dependent on your military support for survival. Losses for the actual ruling country are minimal, in terms of soldiers. The trick is in finding a minority group strong enough to hold power with your support; but not capable of gaining independence from your support.

  • Anonymous

    The real issue of budgeting military spending (the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been off budget – which seems mostly a Republican party propaganda ploy) has always been local development. We establish a base at Podunk Junction, Texas and twenty years later some rational person says, “We don’t need the base at Podunk anymore.” There is an immediate and probably nonpartisan or bipartisan reaction in Congress. “Hold on there you communist. There are thousands good folks in my district who have devoted their lives to defending this nation, working at Podunk. We cannot abandon these patriots nor the God-fearing American communities they’ve built.” Real clout prevents the issue from even coming up.

    Alternatively, government has funneled billions (more?) in subsidies for cutting edge high-tech development thru DOD. The beauty of this approach is that high-tech almost always has some component of military applications, so Congress can avoid the label socialist, while nevertheless financing whole industries.

    But I do agree that one can’t just pull the plug and walk away without facing costs that were unknown a few decades ago. And/or that may only be revealed as catastrophic consequences thereof when the lights are turned off. Mining is the quintessental case in point.

  • Greg Fish

    “The trick is in finding a minority group strong enough to hold power with your support; but not capable of gaining independence from your support.”

    Yeah, see, the problem with that idea is the current concept behind how to end the wars is to find a group that can take power on its own and which we no longer have to prop us, buying their cooperation with our policies by trade agreements. And the British method of subduing guerrilla warfare you described? Sure it worked in the short run, but thanks to this approach, there are hundreds of millions of people across the world trapped in civil wars and sectarian violence. Places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

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  • Bruce Coulson

    Which the British are no longer administering, or taking serious combat responsibility for. And British citizens continue on blissfully unaware (for the most part) of the tragedies engendered by nearly two centuries of colonialism. So, from a political leadership point of view (in Great Britain), things worked out. (It would have been nicer from their POV if the Brits could have stayed in charge, but two World Wars put paid to that idea.) So, the British System worked fine…for the British.

  • http://gpwillard@gmail.com RaggMopp

    Actually the only thing the Bush administration got wrong with its imperialistic designs for Afghanistan and Iraq was the idiotic notion that they could occupy and subdue these lands and populations on the cheap. The northern alliance with some SF A-Teams for control of air attack, about 150,000 GI’s for a population of 25,000,000 Iraquis and we’ve got it made. Pipelines across Afghanistan and undeveloped oil reserves in Iraq. Woohoo!

    Oh, Bruce! Simple retention of a large standing force was a contributing factor in Viet Nam, but the real pisser of late is the “all volunteer army” (now you didn’t hear me say mercenary army.) The real charm of a professional army is that the folks back home can be expected to be nonchalant about the lives of these persons. What about if Blackwater is asked to raise an army? What if Blackwater were expected to raise an army without herds of retired (at 40 years of age,) US Army trained (at approx. $500,000/ ea.) personnel? Where would they go? Somalia? Chechnya? Uzbeckistan? Where else?

    PS: In “The Graveyard of Empires,” the Pashtun/Pathan Taliban is not likely to be subdued by an army of a million men. Not in a thousand years. One may pass through Afghanistan with impunity. One may occupy Afghanistan for a while. One may continue this occupation for as long as one has enough money and enough blood, but there will never be day when one can say it is done.

  • Greg Fish

    “Actually the only thing the Bush administration got wrong with its imperialistic designs for Afghanistan and Iraq…”

    And again I’m going to note that Iraq and Afghanistan are hardly imperial assets for the U.S. As to the second part of that sentence, I would also disagree since the biggest mistake was in thinking that one could build a nation out of a population that doesn’t identify itself as one.

    The Bush doctrine was based on the idea that nationalism works the same way in Iraq and Central Asia as it does in the U.S. However, we know that’s really not the case and people there are far more often to tribal elders and their local warlords than to a central government. Nation building World War II style, in which very strong national identities allowed for a top-down process breaks down in these states.

    Note that the Iraq surge worked not just because there were 30,000 more troops in the country, but because tribal elders declared they had enough bombings and shootings, and were willing to help the American military clamp down on al Queda and sectarian terrorist groups and militias.

  • http://gpwillard@gmail.com RaggMopp

    “Note that the Iraq surge worked not just because there were 30,000 more troops in the country, but because tribal elders declared they had enough bombings and shootings, and were willing to help the American military clamp down on al Queda and sectarian terrorist groups and militias.”

    Not to sauggest that the Bedoin tribal leaders weren’t sick of al Queda. But the “surge” is a farcical myth. Thirty thousand troops made the same difference as dropping a large stone into a tub of water. Yes, it does create a hole in the water, for about 0.8 milliseconds. What worked in Iraq was not the “surge,” but paying the Bedoin tribal leaders enough money to put them back in the driver’s seat in their own tribes.

  • http://gpwillard@gmail.com RaggMopp

    Oh and by the way: Since we’ve been paying the Taliban to not stop our convoys in Afghanistan. And since when we threatened to quit there immediately appeared a hundred miles of burning tankers on the road into Afghanistan at the Pakistani border. It would seem a small leap to simply pay the Taliban to let us win for a while; then we’ll withdraw in good order, and let them have the whole SOB back.

    Everyone knows about bribery as diplomacy. General Betrayus has invented bribery as a military tactic; twice!