Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won. – Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington
Got into a little bit of a Twitter scrape with Tom Nichols (@RadioFreeTom). I’m afraid he took exception to a comment I made. The start of it was Nichols condemning Trump for his “we’ve lost our wars” comment. I put in that as a matter of fact, we haven’t won a war since World War Two.
I know, I know; I probably took that too far. I must repeat to myself again and again: never get into a Twitter argument as it is impossible to have an argument when you’re limited to 140 characters. And it can get a bit sticky if you say anything which can be construed as other than critical of Trump. Trump = bad. I dig that – and am in favor of that sentiment. I feel bad that I apparently angered Mr. Nichols as I hold him in high regard for his knowledge. But, still, a busted clock is right twice a day. To be fair to those who took exception to my comment, Grenada, Panama, the First Gulf War and Kosovo were victories. And the Iraq campaign until 2009 was also a victory. But Grenada, Panama and Kosovo are not the same scale of actions as, say, a Spanish-American War – even though that war was quite short and the loss of life was mercifully low. The First Gulf War was, in my view, an unfinished war – we did eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait (a worthwhile activity), but as long as Saddam was in power in Baghdad, a resumption of the war either in Kuwait or elsewhere was always in prospect. We could have compelled a complete surrender by Saddam, and we didn’t – we didn’t impose our political will on his regime in a permanent manner. As for the Iraq campaign – well, it was won, but then it was lost…it doesn’t matter that it was Obama who lost what Bush had won, it was still the United States losing.
In all of this, there has been nothing wrong with our military outside of the normal failures which can occur in any large, military force. In battle, we have almost uniformly beaten the enemy. There is no nation on Earth which the United States cannot meet in battle and defeat – and the nations of the world recognize this and thus tend to shy away from a direct confrontation with the American military. Enemy actors in the world prefer to rely on proxy forces, or exploit our unwillingness to apply the full measure of American power. And, of course, enemy actors have learned that when engaged in battle with the United States, the key to success is in propaganda – telling a story about Big, Bad United States and how cruel and rotten we are. Such stories gain ready acceptance around the world, and among many within the United States.
And therein lies what I mean by we haven’t won a war. I have no idea what Trump means, and I suspect he doesn’t, either. We won the Revolutionary War – we secured our independence. We won the War of 1812 – we forced Britain to fully recognize the American republic. We won the Mexican-American War – Mexico ceded about half it’s territory to us. We won the Civil War – the Confederacy was destroyed. We won the Spanish-American War – Spain surrendered it’s colonial empire in the Americas and in the Pacific. We won World War One – German imperial pretensions were brought low. We won World War Two – German, Italian and Japanese desires for conquest were ended. Take any of those wars and compare them to the military actions we’ve taken since World War Two and tell me where something we’ve done matches the results obtained in World War Two and before. A case can be made for Grenada, Panama, Kosovo and the First Gulf War, but I think such cases to be weak, as noted earlier – but even if we want to count them as wins, I don’t think they are wins in the same sense that, say, the Mexican-American War or World War One were wins.
When we expend the blood of our best and bravest – and the treasure of our people – I think it natural that we expect some good to come of it. World War Two started for us on December 7th, 1941 and ended (officially) on September 2nd, 1945. That isn’t even four years. In that time, we raised armies of millions, lavishly equipped them and sent them into battles as far apart as New Guinea and Morocco. In spite of initial defeats and many setbacks along the way, the general impulse was always forward for our forces as our enemies were continually defeated until crushed out of existence. Millions of people were freed from horrible tyranny by our efforts; as far as can be seen, any desire on the part of Germans, Japanese or Italians to disturb the peace of the world were permanently ended; American power reigned supreme on the oceans of the world and everyone knew that any attempt to challenge the United States in full-scale war was just a recipe for national suicide. That was a high return on what we spent to obtain it.
Now, on September 26th of this year, it will be 15 years for the United States in Afghanistan. The war was officially declared over in 2014, but we can see that the fighting still goes on, and there is increased risk that over the next couple years, the Taliban regime might re-impose itself on Afghanistan. The bottom line is that we’ve spent nearly four times the years in Afghanistan than we did in World War Two and decisive victory still eludes us; and even if the Taliban doesn’t return to power, most of what we can tell about the Afghan regime indicates that it is not exactly up to American standards on rule of law, democracy or respect for human rights. At best, we’ll get an Afghan regime which is barely tolerable; at worst, we’ll get an enemy just as bad as that we found in 2001.
I happen to think that decisive victory eludes us primarily because we don’t face just what we’re actually fighting in this war – we aren’t going after the source of our problem. One of the central supports of enemy activity against us is Iran and yet not only have we sworn off any possibility of military action against Iran, but we’ve concluded a deal which will de-facto have us helping to increase the power of the Iranian government. This is astonishingly stupid – it is laying up tears for our future. A stronger Iran is an Iran which will just cause us more trouble – and if we ever get to the sticking point of fighting the Iranian regime, then a stronger Iran means a longer, more costly war to get rid of that regime.
We did win the Cold War. In fact, we won it decisively. And we won it when we at last got a President – Reagan – who tackled the central issue: that there was a Communist regime in Moscow. All that happened in terms of war from 1945 to 1991 was because of this fact – that Communists ruled in Moscow. Had they not ruled in Moscow, we wouldn’t have fought in Korea. Wouldn’t have fought in Vietnam. Wouldn’t even have fought in Grenada. Wouldn’t have had to deal with revolutions that threatened our interests; wouldn’t have had to deal with the rise of State-sponsored terrorism as a political tool; wouldn’t have had to deal with an endless succession of guerilla wars; wouldn’t have had to maintain a massive military force; wouldn’t have had to have a draft. In short, a lot of things would have been a lot better if Churchill and Truman had met with Prince Lvov’s successor in Potsdam rather than Lenin’s. But, also, a lot of thing would have been better if between 1945 and 1981, one of the Presidents in office had decided to tackle the central issue.
To be sure, tackling the central issue was fraught with the gravest risks – including, after 1949, of a nuclear war. And it was this fact which inhibited us in our actions – why we decided not to press the issue in Korea, and decided from the get-go that our effort in Vietnam would be limited in nature (in Korea we at least had the idea, for a short while, of ending the Communist regime in North Korea – in Vietnam, we never envisioned a unified Vietnam under a non-Communist regime). But by refusing to deal with the central issue, we opened ourselves up to an endless series of challenges which the Communist regime in Moscow orchestrated against us. None of them, taken separately, a mortal threat to our nation but collectively threatening our existence. And made doubly bad for us with the use of clever propaganda to make it appear that our defense of freedom and decency was the exact opposite.
I’m no military expert. I’m just a guy who has read a lot about military affairs and has thought for a very long while on the subject. But I will assert without fear of contradiction that in war you must go for decisive victory. You must have some clear, quantifiable result in mind. Is there anyone living today who can tell me how we finish the fighting we’re currently engaged in? Suppose we eventually defeat ISIS as we defeated al Qaeda in Iraq – what does that get us? ISIS is, in large measure, a successor organization to al Qaeda in Iraq – what actions can we take against ISIS which will ensure there won’t be a successor to ISIS?
It is my view that the current war will not and cannot be won until we tackle the central issue – which is direct State sponsorship of enemy forces. On one hand by the Iranian regime, on the other via financial support for enemy actions/propaganda by elements in Saudi Arabia and some Gulf States. While Saudi Arabia and Iran are opposed on what sort of settlement they want in the Middle East, the end result of either getting their way would be detrimental to the United States, the world and, most especially, to the people of the Middle East. We actually have a built-in advantage that Iran and Saudi Arabia are opposed to each other; we can exploit that. But until we make a world where there is no State sponsorship for groups like ISIS or Hezbollah or Hamas, we can’t win. And getting rid of such State sponsorship means going after the States (and actors within States) doing the sponsoring.
Additionally, the longer we allow this thing to drag out, the harder it will get for us to develope the political will to win. You see, as long as the enemy is out there able to survive our half-hearted efforts (directed, in any case, against proxies rather than the actual enemy) and spin propaganda in favor of themselves and against us, the less will be the popular support for energetic and decisive actions. Such propaganda from the Soviet Union nearly ensured against vigorous American action against the USSR, after all. We were lucky that Reagan had the guts – and the communication ability – to stand up to that. Younger people might not know just how massive the anti-Reagan effort was in the United States and around the world. Reagan had to stick to his guns when nearly everyone – including many political supporters – were urging him to cave in to Soviet-inspired political pressure in the United States and Europe about confronting the USSR. This is a weakness of democracies and it can’t be escaped – any free people can be subjected to enemy propaganda, and the more clever it is, the more the free people in question will figure it is home-grown rather than enemy-inspired. The need to move as quickly as possible and put an end to things is just part of living in a democratic republic – as it turns out, this is a mercy because the faster you move, the shorter the war and thus the less suffering involved.
I’ve said in the past I favor two course of action:
1. Get the heck out of there.
2. Go all the way in.
The reason I back “get the heck out” is because I believe that our mistakes have already set up a situation where decisive military action is not politically feasible. The national unity and determination fueled by 9/11 has long since evaporated. Part of this I do blame on President Bush’s actions, but mostly I lay the blame on partisan, political actors in the United States who cynically decided that scoring points against Bush was more vital than ensuring American victory. Be that as it may, we simply do not have the political will at the moment to do what will be necessary to win. So, get out. And then wait for it – because the enemy we face will strike us again, thus rekindling national unity and the will to victory.
And that leads us to “all the way in”. If we are to fight, we must fight right down to the ground. No half measures. No limited campaigns. No “overseas contingency operations” via a denounced “authorization to use force”. War. Declared war. War until the enemy is suing for peace on our terms. You know, like the Germans and Japanese did. It can be done – and when done, it is rather done for good.
I know some will object at this point that the Germans and French fought an endless series of wars; that there was no end to Franco-German wars as each of them just lead to another until a world divided into US and Soviet camps under the shadow of nuclear destruction forced an end to such conflicts. That is fine, except for one small fact: it wasn’t like that, at all. The French and Germans – as France and Germany – fought three wars, and only one was exclusively Germany against France (the Franco-Prussian War of 1870). A lot of people probably don’t know that Germany wasn’t a unified nation until that war in 1870 – and various parts of Germany fought alongside or against France (and a host of other nations) as circumstances seemed to warrant for centuries (the Bavarians, for instance, were allied with France against the German Holy Roman Empire – of which Bavaria was a member, by the way – and England in the War of the Spanish Succession).
Some wars do end in an inconclusive manner and thus invite a resumption – such as the War of the Austrian Succession pretty much ensuring that the Seven Years War would happen (and, of course, the unfinished nature of Gulf War I setting the stage for our 2003 Iraq campaign). But usually that sequel is very quick. When a war ends in a decisive manner, then that particular reason for war is usually done for good. The Prussians fought France in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo and in 1870 at Sedan – but the issues which brought French and Prussian armies to fight were entirely different. Prussia in 1815 was fighting to prevent a resumption of Napoleon I‘s rule in France – Prussia in 1870 was fighting (at Bismarck‘s direction) to cement German national unity under Prussia, and Bismarck didn’t give a darn what happened to Napoleon III as a result of the effort. Just because the combatants are the same – or similar – doesn’t mean that one war is an outgrowth of a previous war.
A lot of people hold to the opinion that because Bismarck’s new Germany took Alsace and Lorraine from France, World War One was inevitable. I can’t see any evidence of that. The two provinces did provide a bone of contention between the two nations, but I’ve yet to find any indication that any French military or political leader was contemplating a French offensive stroke to recover the lost provinces. The French military plans all through the period 1870-1914 supposed a German attack and a French riposte. That France hoped such action would result in German defeat and a return of the lost provinces is natural – but it’s a massively far step from a hope of victory in defensive war to a plan for offensive war. Maybe if things in 1914 had gone differently – you know, like Franz Ferdinand’s driver not taking a wrong turn – then France and Germany would have just come to blows over some other issue at some later date. We’ll never know. But absent a German attack on France, there would be no French war to reconquer the lost provinces as far as we can see from the evidence of the time.
I bring that up because I want to firmly point out that decisive victory tends to settle matters – at least as far as human affairs can ever be settled (which means, not at all, really – but if we can rest assured that for the next 40 years, there will be no war over the issue we just settled, then we did our job right). France and Germany didn’t go to war in 1914 because of a crisis over Alsace and Lorraine – there was no French demand for a return of the provinces followed by German refusal and then war. War started because a peculiar set of circumstances convinced German military and political leaders that an offensive war could be conducted against the Franco-Russian alliance with swift victory as the result (German calculations were heavily influenced by revolutionary ferment in Russia and the fact that Britain was within an ace of Civil War over the Irish Home Rule issue). The result of the 1870 war played no role; the fact that Germany held Alsace and Lorraine played no role. France, herself, might not have gone to war had not the Germans invaded, even supposing Germany went to war against Russia over Serbia (that Franco-Russia alliance, like most alliances, was defensive in nature…and it wasn’t clear that if Germany rose to Austria’s defense against Russian attack that France was treaty-bound to go to war against Russia…they might well have, but there is room for doubt that they would). Also little noticed is how fluid the whole political situation in Europe was just a few years before World War One – we’re mentally used to the idea of France, Britain and Russia being allied against Germany, but there was a real chance that Britain would have been allied with Germany against France and Russia. It could have happened had the Germans, well, not been so German about things.
And in that I’d like to point out that the biggest mistake anyone can make about history is to assume that because it happened the way it did it must necessarily have happened that way. Any one of a million variables working out differently could have caused a complete shake up of events. You know, like Franz’ driver – but in a larger sense, suppose General Stopford hadn’t dawdled at Suvla Bay and had energetically pushed inland? We can’t know what would have happened – but just that failure to move quickly probably doomed forever the British effort at Gallipoli in World War One. Had Stopford moved fast, the Gallipoli campaign might have ended in a decisive British victory – Turkey out of the war, easy communications with Russia re-established, the Austro-German alliance forced, at the least, to send massive reinforcements to the Balkans, thus weakening their forces in France and against Russia…the world might have been a massively different place today. World War One might have ended in 1916 with an allied victory before the Russian Revolution…and perhaps no German revolution which opened the path to Hitler. As I said, we don’t know what would have happened…but it is good to keep in mind on how things can turn on a dime. Just because things that happened since 1945 went as they did doesn’t mean they had to – and just because someone can call an event between 1945 and today a success doesn’t mean it was the sort of success we could have had.
I’ll close here by saying that while I’m always in favor of a large Navy and Air Force (because they keep enemies at a respectful distance from the United States), I’d much prefer to live in an America with a small army. And I’d also like it if our troops were at home, rather than scattered all over the world, live trip-wires for enemies to attack. I’d like it very much if we weren’t committed to come rushing to the defense of other nations. I know that in 2016 we need a large army and need our troops overseas and that we must commit ourselves to defending other nations – but I would have it otherwise, if I could. But the key to getting anywhere close to full peace – meaning, a situation where the prospect of war is not immediate – is to win the war (or wars, if you prefer) we’ve currently got (even if we don’t want to call it a war). And winning the war means identifying clearly who the enemy is, working out a plan for that enemy’s undoing and then energetically carrying it out. I can’t for the life of me imagine at the moment how we get from here to there – as I said, I think the political will to win is simply not extant at the moment – but unless we get there, we won’t get anywhere.