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The End of (Military) History?

A retired Army colonel turned history professor discusses the United States, Israel, and how the western way of war failed.

| Thu Jul. 29, 2010 3:42 PM EDT

Trailing a decade or so behind Israel, the United States military nonetheless succeeded in duplicating the IDF's experience. Moments of glory remained, but they would prove fleeting indeed. After 9/11, Washington's efforts to transform (or "liberate") the Greater Middle East kicked into high gear. In Afghanistan and Iraq, George W. Bush's Global War on Terror began impressively enough, as US forces operated with a speed and élan that had once been an Israeli trademark. Thanks to "shock and awe", Kabul fell, followed less than a year and a half later by Baghdad. As one senior Army general explained to Congress in 2004, the Pentagon had war all figured out:

"We are now able to create decision superiority that is enabled by networked systems, new sensors and command and control capabilities that are producing unprecedented near real time situational awareness, increased information availability, and an ability to deliver precision munitions throughout the breadth and depth of the battlespace… Combined, these capabilities of the future networked force will leverage information dominance, speed and precision, and result in decision superiority."

The key phrase in this mass of techno-blather was the one that occurred twice: "decision superiority". At that moment, the officer corps, like the Bush administration, was still convinced that it knew how to win.

Such claims of success, however, proved obscenely premature. Campaigns advertised as being wrapped up in weeks dragged on for years, while American troops struggled with their own intifadas. When it came to achieving decisions that actually stuck, the Pentagon (like the IDF) remained clueless.

WINLESS

If any overarching conclusion emerges from the Afghan and Iraq Wars (and from their Israeli equivalents), it's this: victory is a chimera. Counting on today's enemy to yield in the face of superior force makes about as much sense as buying lottery tickets to pay the mortgage: you better be really lucky.

Meanwhile, as the US economy went into a tailspin, Americans contemplated their equivalent of Israel's "demographic bomb"—a "fiscal bomb". Ingrained habits of profligacy, both individual and collective, held out the prospect of long-term stagnation: no growth, no jobs, no fun. Out-of-control spending on endless wars exacerbated that threat.

By 2007, the American officer corps itself gave up on victory, although without giving up on war. First in Iraq, then in Afghanistan, priorities shifted. High-ranking generals shelved their expectations of winning — at least as a Rabin or Schwarzkopf would have understood that term. They sought instead to not lose. In Washington as in US military command posts, the avoidance of outright defeat emerged as the new gold standard of success.

As a consequence, US troops today sally forth from their base camps not to defeat the enemy, but to "protect the people," consistent with the latest doctrinal fashion. Meanwhile, tea-sipping US commanders cut deals with warlords and tribal chieftains in hopes of persuading guerrillas to lay down their arms.

A new conventional wisdom has taken hold, endorsed by everyone from new Afghan War commander General David Petraeus, the most celebrated soldier of this American age, to Barack Obama, commander-in-chief and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. For the conflicts in which the United States finds itself enmeshed, "military solutions" do not exist. As Petraeus himself has emphasized, "we can't kill our way out of" the fix we're in. In this way, he also pronounced a eulogy on the Western conception of warfare of the last two centuries.

THE UNASKED QUESTION

What then are the implications of arriving at the end of Western military history?

In his famous essay, Fukuyama cautioned against thinking that the end of ideological history heralded the arrival of global peace and harmony. Peoples and nations, he predicted, would still find plenty to squabble about.

With the end of military history, a similar expectation applies. Politically motivated violence will persist and may in specific instances even retain marginal utility. Yet the prospect of Big Wars solving Big Problems is probably gone for good. Certainly, no one in their right mind, Israeli or American, can believe that a continued resort to force will remedy whatever it is that fuels anti-Israeli or anti-American antagonism throughout much of the Islamic world. To expect persistence to produce something different or better is moonshine.

It remains to be seen whether Israel and the United States can come to terms with the end of military history. Other nations have long since done so, accommodating themselves to the changing rhythms of international politics. That they do so is evidence not of virtue, but of shrewdness. China, for example, shows little eagerness to disarm. Yet as Beijing expands its reach and influence, it emphasizes trade, investment, and development assistance. Meanwhile, the People's Liberation Army stays home. China has stolen a page from an old American playbook, having become today the preeminent practitioner of "dollar diplomacy".

The collapse of the Western military tradition confronts Israel with limited choices, none of them attractive. Given the history of Judaism and the history of Israel itself, a reluctance of Israeli Jews to entrust their safety and security to the good will of their neighbors or the warm regards of the international community is understandable. In a mere six decades, the Zionist project has produced a vibrant, flourishing state. Why put all that at risk? Although the demographic bomb may be ticking, no one really knows how much time remains on the clock. If Israelis are inclined to continue putting their trust in (American-supplied) Israeli arms while hoping for the best, who can blame them?

In theory, the United States, sharing none of Israel's demographic or geographic constraints and, far more richly endowed, should enjoy far greater freedom of action. Unfortunately, Washington has a vested interest in preserving the status quo, no matter how much it costs or where it leads. For the military-industrial complex, there are contracts to win and buckets of money to be made. For those who dwell in the bowels of the national security state, there are prerogatives to protect. For elected officials, there are campaign contributors to satisfy. For appointed officials, civilian and military, there are ambitions to be pursued.

And always there is a chattering claque of militarists, calling for jihad and insisting on ever greater exertions, while remaining alert to any hint of backsliding. In Washington, members of this militarist camp, by no means coincidentally including many of the voices that most insistently defend Israeli bellicosity, tacitly collaborate in excluding or marginalizing views that they deem heretical. As a consequence, what passes for debate on matters relating to national security is a sham. Thus are we invited to believe, for example, that General Petraeus's appointment as the umpteenth US commander in Afghanistan constitutes a milestone on the way to ultimate success.

Nearly 20 years ago, a querulous Madeleine Albright demanded to know: "What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?" Today, an altogether different question deserves our attention: What's the point of constantly using our superb military if doing so doesn't actually work?

Washington's refusal to pose that question provides a measure of the corruption and dishonesty permeating our politics.

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