- The American Conservative - https://www.theamericanconservative.com -

America Goes Jousting

If the whole United States active-duty military, excepting strategic nuclear weapons, disappeared tomorrow in a puff of smoke, would Americans be less secure, more secure, or about the same? That the answer is not self-evident points to the biggest military secret of our time: conventional armed forces are following the knight’s road.

Knights in shining armor lasted for several centuries after they had become militarily obsolete. In fact, the armor got ever more splendid (and expensive). What was it for? Show. It was worn for tournaments, which remained a popular form of entertainment at court. It was donned for portraits of kings and noblemen well into the 17th century. To the public, nothing said “military might” quite so loudly as a parade of men in beautifully engraved and ornamented suits of armor.

My city of Cleveland, Ohio was honored by just such a grand entertainment in early June in the form of “Marine Week.” Each year, the Marine Corps picks a lucky city to host it. Uniformed Marines, all looking good, paraded about the town. Public Square was full of tanks, artillery pieces, and Light Armored Vehicles. Fighter planes screamed overhead, and for the grand finale the Marines did a full amphibious assault on Burke Lakefront Airport. Cleveland enjoyed the Marines, and to judge by those I talked to, the Marines enjoyed Cleveland.

But against non-state opponents, those Marines are 0-4. They, along with the rest of our armed services, lost in Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, a war that is decided if not yet over.

Advertisement

Real wars with important outcomes are now fought and won by ragtag militias, gangs, and tribes. They fight not for raison d’état but for God, honor, loot, tribal pride, women—war’s age-old, pre-state causes. They define the Fourth Generation of modern war.

In a fair fight, the U.S. Marines would beat any of them, except perhaps Hezbollah. But what we think of as fair fights are jousting contests, tank against tank, fighter plane against fighter plane, preferably staged where we get it on video for the folks back home. Of course we want jousting contests: we’re knights. Not being knights, nor possessing suits of armor, the forces of the Fourth Generation avoid them. We are left to tilt at windmills—or Burke Lakefront Airport.

Military theorists began to perceive this change in the conduct of war, the greatest since the state asserted a monopoly over conflict in the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, sometime in the late 1980s and early ’90s. As usual, Washington didn’t get it—and still won’t talk about it. But subtle signs suggest that the Establishment is slowly coming to recognize reality.

One such sign, a phenomenon for which we should all give thanks, is a growing reluctance to commit the U.S. military to overseas conflicts. (This applies more to the Army and Marine Corps than the Navy and Air Force, but the latter are irrelevant to Fourth Generation war.) Reasons include cost and fear of casualties, but the biggest reason may be the one that is never spoken: the Establishment knows we will almost certainly lose.

Another sign is the push to open all positions in the military to women. The Army recently decided to allow women to serve in some jobs in infantry battalions, though not the infantry itself—yet. The Marine Corps now lets women attend Infantry Officers School, even though there are no infantry billets for them when they graduate—yet. No state that took its military seriously as a fighting force, as opposed to an “equal opportunity” jobs program, would put women in combat units. Not only does their presence damage unit cohesion, which is vital for military effectiveness, but in combat the men will abandon the mission to protect the women. Of course, if the armed forces are really just for putting on displays, why not have women?

The almost total orientation of U.S. defense policy toward equipment also points to an unconscious acceptance of military irrelevance. As the first slide from the briefing of the congressional Military Reform Caucus in the 1980s said, “For winning in combat, people are most important, ideas come second, and hardware is only third.” That reflects the lessons of history. But on Capitol Hill, in the White House, and in the Pentagon, equipment comes first, people are a long way second, and ideas about war aren’t even on the list. That is one reason why we keep doing the same things over and over, even though they never work.

[1]That fact points in turn to what may be the clearest sign that our armed services are following the knight’s road: a failure to reform. The Military Reform Caucus said its goal was reform without defeat. Left unspoken was the assumption that defeat would bring reform. But we have suffered one defeat after another, and within the Establishment there is not so much as a whisper about military reform. What could say more clearly that our armed forces no longer exist to fight and win wars?

And so Cleveland and other fortunate cities enjoy Marine Week. The tournament was splendid. It left all the gawkers well entertained. But I couldn’t help thinking about the time the commander of the Strategic Air Command invited me to lunch in his Pentagon office. He was the rarest of birds in jobs like his, a realist. He asked me, “What the hell am I supposed to do with 18 B-2 bombers?” I replied, “Tow them around to county fairs and charge admission.” Have we reached the point where that is all our active-duty forces, except the nukes that keep the peace, are good for?

William S. Lind is director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation.

61 Comments (Open | Close)

61 Comments To "America Goes Jousting"

#1 Comment By Toddy Cat On August 3, 2012 @ 4:30 pm

With all due respect, a lot of this business about “4th Generation Warfare” is a bunch of crap. Guerilla warfare and irregular war have been around for millenia, it’s nothing new. Sometimes, ragtag groups of irregulars do win, but that’s not the way to bet. Generally, speaking, the insurgents lose, and that’s just as true today as it was back in Caesar’s time. When insurgents do win, it’s almost always because they have the backing of a great power, or because of political divisions on the anti-insurgent side, or because the definition of “victory” set was unattainable (I mean, did anyone really think that either Iraq or Afghanistan was going to suddenly become a Western-style democracy?). In the insurgent struggles of the post-war era, insurgents were usually defeated – the British defeated the Communists in Maylaya, the Philippine Gov’t defeated the Huks, and insurgents lost in Thailand, Burma, Bolivia, Congo, Brazil, Honduras, El Salvador, India, Pakistan, Oman, Kenya, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Peru, Jordan, Mexico, Poland, Ukraine, and Colombia. Lebanon not withstanding, last time I checked, Israel was still there, stronger and more prosperous than ever, despite the best efforts of Hamas, Hezbollah, and the PLO. Hell, the U.S. and ARVN actually suceeded in destroying the Viet Cong – South Vietnam fell to a conventional NVA Assualt, not an insurgency. Yes, insurgencies have won successes too, they usually result in dirty, nasty wars, and I hope that the U.S. stays the Hell out of any such wars in the near future – but the idea that insurgencies are unbeatable, or that there’s anything new about them, is nonsense.

#2 Comment By Andrew On August 3, 2012 @ 5:39 pm

@Jack Reynolds. Van Creveld’s book is along and successful attack on Clauzewitz. Andrew should read it.

I may, but I also reserve the right to pass the judgement on how “successful”(c) attack on Clauzewitz is. I cannot say one way or another until I read the book. Thanks for info though.

#3 Comment By Andrew On August 3, 2012 @ 8:26 pm

@Toddy Cat. Guerilla warfare and irregular war have been around for millenia, it’s nothing new.

Agree completely. One comment, however, should be made. Pop-media definition of tactics ranges from the art of war (small bow to Sun Tzu) to the art (with emphasis, for some unknown reason, on art)of something else entirely. Reality, however, is very down to the earth, tactics is a SYSTEM of measures designed to maximize the effectiveness of the weapon systems in the unit (be it squad or, even, a brigade). The main objective of tactics IS to provide for the advantage of the weapons in the unit against the weapons of the opponent. I still cannot come to grips with the issue of “fair fight”. Most Combat Manuals and Tactical Manuals in the world are written with one thing in mind–to maximize the effect of own weapons, and to reduce the effect of enemy’s weapons on oneself–what a “fair fight” concept!! Enough to take a look at famous Schwerpunkt–sure, that was a “fair fight” with the massing of the troops on weak points, achieving sometimes many-fold advantage in force, but, somehow this whole concept was adopted by every single modern military, no problemo!! Is it fair to mass own troops on the weak points of enemy’s defenses?? Sure is not, then Zhukov, Rokossovsky and Bradley are the biggest cheats in the history of the warfare (sarcasm).

#4 Comment By Dar On August 4, 2012 @ 5:19 am

Andrew: “Any modern ground force relies on the close air support…”

But that’s the point, the US military doesn’t just use air power as support, but many times to practically do most of the fighting.

To go back to Fallujah, the US bombed that destroyed half that city for weeks before ground forces went in to face whatever few opponents were left. Should the resulting victory be seen as proof of the US Army and Marines’ prowess then?

It’s easy to say that Western armies will always win because they have better training and the like, but in the end it comes down to brains and the will to fight, and that US forces have better training doesn’t mean they will always use that superior training better.

That a military group is non-Western doesn’t mean it can’t be well-trained in tactics that can, in a given circumstance, beat Western armies.

As for the Israeli military, I agree it is often too over-praised, but nonetheless, it is (or was) well-trained because it has to be to carry it Israeli expansion and defend it. Like all colonial enterprises Israel fears failure in a way that the surrounding indigenous nations don’t, so it pushes for the best military it can have.

#5 Comment By Andrew On August 4, 2012 @ 1:16 pm

@Dar But that’s the point, the US military doesn’t just use air power as support, but many times to practically do most of the fighting. To go back to Fallujah, the US bombed that destroyed half that city for weeks before ground forces went in to face whatever few opponents were left. Should the resulting victory be seen as proof of the US Army and Marines’ prowess then?

I am keenly aware of the American obsession with the technological dimension of war, very often to a horrendous detriment of operational issues. These are not my thoughts–many first-rate American military scholars arrived to it from Howard to Stansfield Turner, from Boyd to Macgregor. This is a cultural thing in the United States, not that Russia did not have a somewhat, albeit on much lesser scale, technological military toxicosis–she did and still does. Aviation here takes the lead since it represents, in many respects, America’s vision of herself. Any developed nation worships technology to a degree, but in the United States that worship went the furthest. In the words of one scholar: “Technology became the new secular God and American society soon came to refashion its own sense of self in the image of its powerful new tools”.(c) Airplane is an embodiment of America’s self and nowhere this manifested itself more than in the armed forces, enough to take a look at US carrier-centric Navy, which, while being the strongest Navy in the world is also one of the most dis-balanced in terms of its combat stability. A totally ridiculous idea (among some) that aviation alone can win the war was born partially out of this vision, partially from the aversion to own casualties and, as Richard Pipes noted “indifference to the casualties inflicted on enemy”(c). Easy, albeit impressive, combined arms warfare victories against incompetent and weak enemy (Iraq) in the ideal terrain only reinforced this philosophy until the….urban combat against determined (sometimes fanatical) enemy. Some relatively minor clashes during, for the most part, rolling into largely abandoned Baghdad were not exactly the hostilities of the scale which Fallujah presented.

There is a “book” written on the modern urban combat in a major urban center–it is called Russians taking Grozny (twice). And unlike the “fair fight” Hezbollah analogy, which still gets me fuming, here we CAN and it is warranted to model (as much as the armchair allows) USMC (and whatever other ground forces) of taking Grozny instead of Russian ground forces. While I would expect a fewer American casualties than what Russians sustained, especially in the first war, which should be attributed to a dismal Russian training and morale, the outlook of Grozny (that is an utter devastation) would still be pretty much the same upon cessation of the hostilities. The reason for that is simple–urban environment IS the environment which precludes the use of any of the expensive toys like F-22s (for the sake of argument) and calls for the most inglorious warfare with a lot of casualties, destruction, blood, dirt and the list goes on. The role of aviation in this type of the combat is limited to a close ground support and transportation with SR, period. Well, one, of course, can plan and drop (for the consumption of the CNN, or FOX, TV audience) some super-pooper SMART bomb from B-2 bomber from stratosphere (and why not–looks beautiful) but it will not change the fact that serious, and I might add, real wars are fought with grunts on the ground and it is they, who define the operation with aviation taking subordinate, support role. But this leads us into the another, extremely important, doctrinal field.

#6 Comment By Oacter On August 8, 2012 @ 1:57 am

America cannot fight itself out of a paper bag. It can’t even keep illegal aliens out. Why would anyone risk his life for a nation that does not have a language, religion, ethnic group, etc. There is nothing worth fighting for. Does anyone really want to risk his life for abortion and gay rights?

#7 Comment By Alex On August 8, 2012 @ 12:42 pm

In 2006, Israel, despite having overwhelming air power and super tanks, got beat by Hezbollah. Hezbollah blew up their tanks and defeated it’s unprepared Army. Israel was banking on it’s technological expertise to win. Next, regarding the U.S. and lack of will to get down and dirty and do the necessary killing, look at the military channels on TV and the emphasis on Snipers! They want to engage the enemy at 800 yards with one shot. The Army doesn’t issue bayonets any more. So the U.S is not serious about war, borders, culture, language, not anything, that’s why we are going down.

#8 Comment By Dashui On August 8, 2012 @ 6:03 pm

4th gen means people fighting for something besides control of the state. Such as the cartels in mexico co-opt or ignore the government. If u lived in Mexico, which would u obey?

#9 Comment By Dashui On August 8, 2012 @ 6:12 pm

Even beter is that wall street/corporations are busy deindustrializing America ,no matter who is president. Conquered without firing a shot!

#10 Comment By jsallison On August 10, 2012 @ 9:45 pm

Democracies do not have a great tolerance for casualties in non-existential (for us) conflicts. Thus we try to substitute firepower for manpower. As a guy who used to be on the pointy end, I’mna not seeing a major problem, here. 😉 What we seem to have lost is the will to use it like we mean it.

The chimera of precision guided munitions is that one can tailor one’s response with exquisite surgical precision. This causes the point to be lost on your target audience. You’re not really fighting the animated target on the other end of your sights. Your fighting the will of the population that supports said target.

We have become so mindful of the so-called ‘noncombatants’ of our adversaries that we pull our punches to excess and fail to get the message across to the sea that the fish swim in that opposing us is the trail to fail.

We keep looking to influence the fictional ‘moderate muslim’. There ain’t no such animal. There are only muslims that haven’t taken up arms against dar al Harb, yet.

Wherever dar al islam (the world of islam) borders up against dar al harb (the world of war, their word, aka anyone not islam), there is blood. By their own admission there can be no other result. Belmont Club’s Three Conjectures more and more seem to me to be a best case scenario.

#11 Comment By Andrew On August 14, 2012 @ 6:04 pm

@jsallison Democracies do not have a great tolerance for casualties in non-existential (for us) conflicts. Thus we try to substitute firepower for manpower. As a guy who used to be on the pointy end, I’mna not seeing a major problem, here. 😉 What we seem to have lost is the will to use it like we mean it.

Agree. Especially on will to use.

We keep looking to influence the fictional ‘moderate muslim’. There ain’t no such animal. There are only muslims that haven’t taken up arms against dar al Harb, yet.

Agree again.