AIDAN TUREK ’20
The United States armed forces are fighting a long and costly war—with themselves. Our armed forces have undergone a sea change in the 20th century. The moralistic crusade begun by Woodrow Wilson to “make the world safe for democracy” evolved into Truman’s policy of ‘containment.’ The sharp edge of that policy was the American military. Military planning from 1945 onward focused on a third world war—conventional militaries fighting in Europe against the Warsaw Pact. However, the Vietnam War challenged those projections. A war fought on a small scale in the jungles of Southeast Asia against informal military units was not the war the U.S. intended to fight. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara proposed a bold departure from the traditional conceptions of battle by proposing a war fought small and fast. Counterinsurgency became the vogue for much of the armed forces—specialists working closely with locals to fight a war fought not on the battlefield so much as over the “hearts and minds” of the populace.
The competing roles of the military as a tool to fight armies or insurgents is at the core of an ongoing debate concerning the future of the American military raison d’etre. The first major conflict fought after Vietnam was Operation Desert Shield as part of the Gulf War in 1990. Victory was achieved against conventional Iraqi forces. But the 2003 war in Iraq, fought again against Saddam Hussein, resulted in a protracted conflict that continues to this day. The first war saw big battles between armies, whereas the second invasion was fought, after the defeat of the Iraqi army, against Fedayeen militias, in an unnerving parallel to Vietcong insurgents forty years prior. American casualties, in both Iraq and in Afghanistan, where a similar counterinsurgency war is being waged, have been caused in great part by ambushes and IED attacks—the guerrilla conflict for which conventional militaries are underprepared. Last week, the Senate voted to withdraw American support for the Saudi-sponsored coalition in Yemen. The arguments against these long, bloody, and costly counterinsurgency conflicts are legion. Most critically is the argument that was made in Vietnam against McNamara’s glamorous special forces-based war—American armed forces are not trained, equipped, nor prepared, to fight a war around civilians. Underlying this concept is the notion that the armed forces are not a political tool that can be used to achieve goals defined by politicians. It is unfair, in this school of thought, to make a company of riflemen protect civilians and hand out humanitarian aid—it is not a war the soldier is good at fighting. Furthermore, as was true during the conflict in Vietnam, focusing on counterinsurgency creates an institutional myopia that distracts from wider strategic concerns.
The current Secretary of Defense, former USMC General Jim Mattis, underlined in the Dept. of Defense National Defense Strategy concerns along this line. To quote, “we are emerging from a period of strategic atrophy, aware that our competitive military advantage has been eroding.” Mattis and the D.o.D. focus on the changing geo-strategic order that seriously challenges the counterinsurgency war model. “China and Russia,” the report continues, “are now undermining the international order from within the system by exploiting its benefits while simultaneously undercutting its principles.” Too much of the armed forces have been focused on elite operations predicated around a war with counterinsurgents—a war the U.S. won’t be fighting.
The adventuristic weapons schemes concocted to fight this elite war have undermined American fighting potential. Programs like the F-35 fighter project, which has cost the U.S. over 400 billion dollars while next to 20% of our air fleet is grounded for lack of parts, have sapped at the conventional military strength that our armed forces will depend upon in a future conflict—a conflict not against ISIS insurgents but Russian armored divisions in the Donbass or Chinese mechanized units in Korea, and it is this reality that Sec. of Defense Mattis has made apparent. The consequences of continued military intransigence are serious—we are losing not only our ability to fight the next war, but the credible weight of deterrence to avoid that conflict, a pursuit in everyone’s interest. The United States has never been in a weaker military situation than the one we currently face.