The colonel didn’t have a clue how much the mission cost—six Blackhawks, two Apaches, all those Humvees. He didn’t even understand the relevance of my question. “No idea. I just ask for the assets I need, and they give them to me.” I stared at the small pile of captured weaponry and wondered whether the raid had been worth the expense.
The night before, the colonel had invited me to film an assault on suspected al-Qaeda safe houses in Diyala Province. So that morning before sunrise, along with 80 American and Iraqi soldiers, I lined up on an airstrip to board the choppers. Going by air would give us the element of surprise. Once we hit the targets, 200 more soldiers rolling up in Humvees would meet us.
Iraq, with its dun-colored landscape, is not a beautiful country, but dawn is gorgeous everywhere. We flew for almost 30 minutes, watching the sun rise over irrigated fields. A sergeant pointed out the targets: concrete houses by a stream. The helicopters landed, we jumped out and ran toward them. I made sure I was a safe distance behind the soldiers, but no rifle fire greeted our arrival. Perhaps we had surprised the enemy.
No. When we kicked open the doors, no military-aged males were there, only women and children. One of the kids had a cold, and our medic gave him antibiotics. We milled around, searching the houses and nearby fields, but found little of interest—a few rifles, some reels of electrical cable, bits and bobs that could perhaps be made into roadside bombs. The colonel seemed happy with the haul, but it struck me that the cost of gas for the two Apaches alone was worth more than the cache we unearthed.
I thought, not for the first time, that our high-tech military is not particularly cost-effective. We spend half a trillion dollars a year—more than the rest of the world combined—and what does it get us? We can’t hold the ring road in Afghanistan, and the increased tranquillity in Iraq is due more to jihadi hardliners alienating the secular population and payments to former insurgents than to our force of arms.
For most of human history, from Neolithic hunting bands up to the Franco-Prussian War, militaries were massively profitable enterprises. Genghis Khan’s soldiers were just poverty-stricken pastoralists until they got on their ponies and sacked more civilized folk. The Roman invasion of Egypt won the tribute of grain that fed Italy for more than 300 years. The return on capital for William of Normandy’s crossing the Channel or Hernán Cortés’s conquest of Mexico is incalculable. That all changed with World War I.
In 1910, in one of the grand moments of mistimed prophecy, Norman Angell published The Great Illusion, which argued that the intricate webs of international trade and financial credit made conquest worthless. “When Germany annexed Alsatia, no individual German secured a single mark’s worth of Alsatian property as the spoils of war,” he wrote. For Angell, the building of armies might have been appropriate in Alexander or Napoleon’s day, but had no place in the globalized capitalist world. No need to conquer Alsace when you can just buy her goods.
Of course, 1914 proved him wrong, and for years his book was trotted out as an example of how no one can predict the future. Yet from another perspective, World War I confirmed Angell’s thesis. The brutal expense of total war, its awful destructiveness, the fact that both sides in Flanders fields slaughtered not future slaves but their own customers, proved that victory could not be worth the cost. Angell was ahead of his time: the General Staffs in 1914 should have listened to him. But he underestimated the atavistic appeal of war.
Today, we live in the world Angell described. The destructiveness and brutality of the European civil war of 1914 to 1945, so costly in lives and treasure, changed our perspective. The spectacular expense of total war made it unprofitable. Even the victors were worse off postbellum. Today, thankfully, war between the great powers is unthinkable.
No matter what the dispute, Britain and Germany will not mobilize troops against each other. China will not invade America to force electronic goods upon us; America will not invade China to make it buy our Treasury bills. In an airport thriller, one can imagine a border dispute between Russia and China developing into a minor shooting war or even a Chinese army invasion of Taiwan. But an attack on the United States by a major power seems less likely than aliens from Alpha Centauri, inspired by Michael Bay movies, invading Washington, D.C.
The geostrategic truth is that the United States is the safest nation on earth: Canada to the north, Mexico to the south, oceans on both sides. England survived Hitler because it is an island. Russia defeated Hitler because it is the size of a continent. We are both continent and island. On our homeland, no one can take us. Terrorists can kill a few of us, but even the murder of thousands on 9/11 did not threaten our stability. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they diminished American naval power in the Pacific. North of Houston Street, all of the effects of Sept. 11 were psychological. Sharia law in America was no more likely on Sept. 12 than it had been the week before.
The dark secret about terrorism, the one self-proclaimed experts on television never talk about, is that it doesn’t work. Terrorism has no chance of bringing back the Caliphate. Blowing stuff up and killing soft targets is relatively easy. The problem for terrorists is that it is almost impossible to transform their violent acts into political influence. Killing innocent bystanders rarely convinces the general public to back your agenda. In Jordan, opposition to jihadists skyrocketed after the bomb attack at an Amman hotel wiped out a wedding party. The exception is in colonial situations. The FLN successfully used bombs in European neighborhoods in Algiers to drive the French out, but when Islamic groups used similar tactics in Algeria in the ’90s, they were eviscerated by the army and police. The Tupamaros in Uruguay, the ERP and the Montoneros in Argentina, al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia—all were crushed as soon as governments took the threat seriously.
In theory, the purpose of dramatic attacks is to incite such a level of repression from the government that it alienates ordinary citizens, convincing them of the justice of the terrorists’ cause. Unfortunately for the bomb-throwers, most of us hate mindless violence more than government repression.
Without attention, the terrorist is nothing. George W. Bush’s response to 9/11 was everything an al-Qaeda recruiter could have wished. By pretending these terrorists posed an existential threat, he elevated a relatively insignificant group of middle-class pseudointellectuals into the biggest danger to America since the Wehrmacht. Imagine if, after 9/11, Bush had noted the obvious: despite their dramatic murder of our fellow citizens, the jihadis had no chance of overthrowing our government, influencing our policy, bringing back the Caliphate, or accomplishing their goals. Their crimes, while photogenic, were ultimately impotent. Such a response would have undercut the appeal of becoming a suicide bomber. Without a global war on terror, the terrorist is an insignificant criminal.
But today, since war with other great powers is unthinkable, our young majors expect that the war on terror will keep them busy throughout their careers. And our military, they tell us, is too small for that “long war.” Officers in Iraq have informed me repeatedly that we need a draft and larger budgets to ensure that the Army can complete its missions.
So every year we spend over $500 billion on “defense”—and that is not enough. Warfare against those much less powerful than we should be easy, but it isn’t. Americans in Vietnam, Soviets in Afghanistan, and Israelis in Gaza were all incalculably more powerful than their enemies, yet none won. War no longer goes to the bigger battalions. When Lord Kitchener deployed his Maxim guns against the Mahdi’s men near Khartoum, Western technological superiority translated into victory. No longer—in part because we in the West are unwilling to take casualties, in part because we are somewhat less brutal toward noncombatants than we used to be, but mostly because winning is much more important to the other side.
The winner in a bar fight is not necessarily the bigger, stronger guy, although that helps. It is the crazy guy, who can get hit, get hurt, and not care, who focuses not on his injuries but on hurting his opponent. He gets punched, he grabs a bottle. A knife comes out, he fires his gun. A dog fights more fiercely at his doorstep than halfway around the world. The control of some valley in Afghanistan is more important to a man who grew up there than to a soldier just passing through from Kansas. The American Army won just about every battle in Vietnam, our soldiers killed hundreds of NVA for every casualty we took, but the Vietnamese won the war. The NVA wanted it more, so they were able to absorb more pain. Fifty thousand dead was more than victory was worth to us; to them, a unified Vietnam was worth two million bodies.
Violence is a tool. A mugger threatens you with a gun to get your wallet, an army marches into Iraq to compel Iraqis to do its bidding. But today our military is an ever more expensive instrument unequal to the real tasks before it. It is a hammer looking for nails. All of our military might won’t stop banks from dangerous trading practices. It won’t lower healthcare costs or rebuild Detroit or educate our children. It won’t convince Shia to trust Sunni. And it certainly won’t persuade Afghan peasants to renounce the burka or stop growing poppies. The problems of the modern world are impervious to the tools of force.
Imagine the Swat Valley once again a tourist attraction. Imagine South Waziristan tranquil, calmly accepting the rule of Islamabad. Imagine Kurds and Arabs happily sharing Kirkuk. How much better does that make your life? Why should you care? Why should your sons risk their lives for those goals? Why should your tax dollars pay? Those whose business is war have sold us a bill of goods. We have been told that the security of the United States is dependant on the security of everyone, everywhere. This is absurd. If Iran bombs Israel—which it won’t—does that really matter to a small businessman in Indiana? If North Korea fires a missile, that is a much bigger problem for Tokyo or Seoul than for Seattle.
America isn’t good at being an empire—and being an empire has not been good for us. For my entire life, we have had the world’s strongest military, yet my generation has witnessed the decline of American power. When I was born, in 1958, a single Marine Corps brigade could impose the government we favored in Lebanon. American steel, cars, manufacturing, and high-tech were state of the art. We were the world’s greatest creditor. The world still wanted to buy what we made. The losers in World War II, Germany and Japan, have managed for 60 years to have us pay for their defense. Their savings enabled them to invest in factories and infrastructure. Both enjoy huge trade surpluses. We have a huge military. Who won?
Our obsession with the military is the natural residue of millennia of history. Until the creation of Goldman Sachs, war gave men the best chance to transform their lot, to make their fortune. War could turn a brigand into a lord, a queen into a serving girl. That is why the soldier remains sexier than the merchant. The symbolism of warfare remains powerful even as it becomes ever less effective.
The best explanation I have heard for our tragic adventure in Iraq was from columnist Jonah Goldberg, quoting Michael Ledeen: “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.” We invaded Iraq for symbolic reasons, hoping that then the world would fear and obey us.
If we wanted cheap oil, we could have made a deal with Saddam, letting him stay in power as long as he opened his fields to U.S. oil companies. If we wanted democracy in the Middle East, we could have recognized Hamas’s victory in free elections in Palestine. We invaded Iraq to look tough. It didn’t work out. Even if it had, isn’t that a silly reason to go to war?
The educated elites of the Western nations rarely get into bar fights. Our experience of violence is generally mediated through Hollywood, our desire for a strong military more symbolic than practical. Back when we were the richest, most productive nation, when the rest of the world still owed us money, perhaps we could afford that luxury. When Soviet tanks were still massed across the German plains, perhaps we needed it. But today, the real dangers we face cannot be dealt with by military means, and we can no longer afford to waste resources on a huge military when we face no military threat.
One can argue that I am being optimistic, that by focusing on the last 60 years of Great Power tranquillity I am ignoring millennia of war. Maybe a large military is like an insurance policy: you hope you never need it, but it helps you sleep at night. But one shouldn’t spend more on insurance than the value of one’s goods. If we fear a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, let us keep our Navy strong in the Pacific. If we decide, for whatever reason, that stability in Baluchistan is important to our well being, let’s teach our Special Forces to speak Balochi. But we can no longer afford to assume that the stability of the entire world is vital to U.S. national security or that it can be maintained by our overpriced military. __________________________________________
Tom Streithorst writes from London.
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