Words matter, as candidate Barack Obama said in the 2008 election campaign. What to make, then, of President Obama's pep talk last month to US troops in Afghanistan in which he lauded them as "the finest fighting force that the world has ever known"? Certainly, he knew that those words would resonate with the troops as well as with the folks back home.
In fact, this sort of description of the US military has become something of a must for American presidents. Obama's predecessor George W. Bush, for example, boasted of that military as alternately "the greatest force for freedom in the history of the world" and "the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known." Hyperbolic and self-promoting statements, to be sure, but undoubtedly sincere, reflecting as they do an American sense of exceptionalism that sits poorly with the increasingly interconnected world of the twenty-first century.
I'm a retired US Air Force officer and a historian who teaches military history. The retired officer in me warms to the sentiment of our troops as both unparalleled fighters and selfless liberators, but the historian in me begs to differ.
Let's start with the fighting part of the equation. Are we truly the world's greatest fighting force, not only at this moment, but as measured against all militaries across history? If so, on what basis is this claim made? And what does such triumphalist rhetoric suggest not just about our national narcissism, but Washington's priorities? Consider that no leading US politician thinks to boast that we have the finest educational system or health-care system or environmental policies "that the world has ever known."
Measured in terms of sheer destructive power, and our ability to project that power across the globe, the US military is indeed the world's "finest" fighting force. Our nuclear arsenal remains second to none. Our air forces (including the Navy's carrier task forces, the Army's armada of helicopter gunships, and the CIA's fleet of unmanned aerial drones prosecuting a "secret" war in Pakistan) dominate the heavens. Our Navy ("a global force for good," according to its new motto) rules the waves—even more so than old Britannia did a century ago. And well should we rule the skies and seas, given the roughly one trillion dollars a year we spend on achieving our vision of "full spectrum dominance."
But this awesome ability to exercise "global reach, global power" hardly makes us the finest military force ever. After all, "finest" shouldn't be measured by sheer strength and reach alone. First and foremost, of course, should come favorable results set against the quality of the opponents bested. To use a sports analogy, we wouldn't call the Pittsburgh Steelers "the finest team in NFL history" simply because they annihilated Penn State in football. Similarly, we can't measure the success of today's US military solely in terms of amazingly quick (if increasingly costly and ultimately dismal) "victories" over the Taliban in 2001 or Saddam Hussein's Iraqi forces in 2003.
To carry the football analogy a few yards further, one might ask when our "finest fighting force" had its last Super Bowl win. Certainly, 1918 and 1945 (World Wars I and II) were such wins, even if as part of larger coalitions; 1953 (Korea) was a frustrating stalemate; 1973 (Vietnam) was a demoralizing loss; 1991 (Desert Storm in Iraq) was a distinctly flawed win; and efforts like Grenada or Panama or Serbia were more like scrimmages. Arguably our biggest win, the Cold War, was achieved less through military means than economic power and technological savvy.
To put it bluntly: America's troops are tough-minded professionals, but the finest fighting force ever? Sir, no, sir.
We're Number One!
Americans often seem to live in the eternal now, which makes it easier to boast that our military is the finest ever. Most historians, however, are not so tied to nationalistic rhetoric or the ceaseless present. If asked to identify the finest fighting force in history, my reaction—and I would hardly be alone in the field—would be to favor those peoples and empires which existed for war alone.
Examples immediately spring to mind: the Assyrians, the Spartans, the Romans, the Vikings, the Mongols, and the Nazis. These peoples elevated their respective militaries and martial prowess above all else. Unsurprisingly, they were bloodthirsty and ruthless. Unstinting ambition for imperial goals often drove them to remarkable feats of arms at an unconscionable and sometimes difficult to sustain cost. Yes, the Spartans defeated the Athenians, but that internecine quarrel paved the way for the demise of the independent Greek city states at the hands of Philip of Macedon and his son, Alexander (soon enough to be known as "the Great").
Yes, the Romans conquered an empire, but one of their own historians, Tacitus, put in the mouth of a Celtic chieftain this description of being on the receiving end of Roman "liberation":
"The Romans' tyranny cannot be escaped by any act of reasonable submission. These brigands of the world have exhausted the land by their rapacity, so they now ransack the sea. When their enemy is rich, they lust after wealth; when their enemy is poor, they lust after power. Neither East nor West has satisfied their hunger. They are unique among humanity insofar as they equally covet the rich and the poor. Robbery, butchery, and rapine they call 'Empire.' They create a desert and call it 'Peace.'"
Talk about tough love.
The Romans would certainly have to be in the running for "finest military" of all time. They conquered many peoples, expanded far, and garrisoned vast areas of the Mediterranean, North Africa, and what would become Europe, while their legions marched forth, often to victory (not to speak of plunder), for hundreds of years. Still, the gold medal for the largest land empire in history—and the finest fighting force of all time—must surely go to the thirteenth century Mongols.
Led by Genghis Khan and his successors, Mongol horsemen conquered China and the Islamic world—the two most powerful, sophisticated civilizations of their day—while also exerting control over Russia for two and a half centuries. And thanks to a combination of military excellence, clever stratagem, fleetness of foot (and far more important, hoof), flexibility, and when necessary utter ferocity, they did all this while generally being outnumbered by their enemies.
Even the fighting power of the finest militaries waxed and waned, however, based in part on the quality of those leading them. The Macedonians blossomed under Philip and Alexander. It was not simply Rome that conquered Gaul, but Julius Caesar. The Mongols were at each other's throats until Genghis Khan united them into an unstoppable military machine that swept across a continent. The revolutionary French people in their famed levée en masse had martial fervor, but only Napoleon gave them direction. History's finest fighting forces are associated closely with history's greatest captains.
Measure that against the American military today. General David Petraeus is certainly a successful officer who exhibits an enviable mastery of detail and a powerful political sense of how to handle Washington, but a Genghis Khan? An Alexander? A Caesar? Even "King David," as he's been called both by admirers and more than a few detractors, might blush at such comparisons. After all, at the head of the most powerfully destructive force in the Middle East, and later Central Asia, he has won no outright victories and conquered nothing. His triumph in Iraq in 2006-2007 may yet prove more "confected" than convincing.
As for our armed forces, though most Americans don't know it, within US military circles much criticism exists of an officer corps of "tarnished brass" that is deficient in professionalism; of generals who are more concerned with covering their butts than leading from the front; of instruction at military academies that is divorced from war's realities; of an aversion "to innovation or creativity… [leading to] an atmosphere of anti-intellectualism" that undermines strategy and makes a hash of counterinsurgency efforts. Indeed, our military's biting criticism of itself is one of the few positive signs in a fighting force that is otherwise overstretched, deeply frustrated, and ridiculously overpraised by genuflecting politicians.