America's Victories: Why the U.S. Wins Wars and Will Win the War on Terror
It is my general observation that most books published about the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan tend to fall into either the ‘optimistic’ or ‘defeatist’ category, with a handful of small exceptions. America’s Victories takes a different tack by juxpositining modern-day operations in the War on Terror against the background of American history and using it to illustrate the author’s central thesis; that the US has unique strengths that are not duplicated by any other country.
The author’s central belief, one that I tend to support, is that the US armed forces are shrouded in a mist of lies, deceptions and half-truths. ‘Facts’ that everyone knows about Vietnam were anything, but, leaving the odd picture of the US having won every battle and still managing to lose the war. The media is, to all intents and purposes, on the side of the enemy, gleefully painting the US as evil while giving a free pass to enemies who willingly practice barbaric acts far beyond the worst the modern US has ever committed.
The book is, in effect, a collection of eight essays. The first looks at how Americans have treated prisoners throughout American history versus the standard treatment of prisoners by other nations and then uses that context to give a clearer picture of Abu Graib and Gitmo. While the outrages American soldiers have suffered in no way excuses any abuses American personnel commit, he also notes the American punishment of those committing those abuses. The activities of ‘harmless’ prisoners in Cuba have passed unnoticed by the media.
The second and third chapters look at the development of American military power, specifically how the US has learned from failure and loss throughout history, and how the US has a long tradition of citizen soldiers. He debunks claims about the situation of the current volunteer army and the vested interest some have in perpetuating the false picture of the US military as kids who can't succeed in life at anything else.
The fourth chapter takes a closer look at how front line soldiers are empowered to take the initiative, to adapt, and to succeed even when orders have to be changed to gain the larger objective. The author compares that to the strongly centralized decision making of enemies the US has defeated throughout history. In some ways, this chapter is flawed; the German Army of WW2 tried to develop similar patterns of behaviour among the junior officers. This comparison is probably quite unwelcome!
The next two chapters consider the building blocks of American military power, specifically the role of technology and industrial might in US success at war and the way American ability to integrate the armed forces into a single fighting force has increased American fighting power. These chapters are genuinely interesting mainly because they point out how the free market system allowed the US to take massive strides forward, while the Communist systems failed to keep pace by ordering development – and sending failed scientists to the gulag.
The final chapter is the most interesting and controversial. The author claims that protest has strengthened the US military by causing the US to rethink the mission, the means, and the way in which they use their armed forces. If awareness of possible casualties becomes a political issue, and it has, the US has adapted by working hard to keep the death toll as low as possible, developing new tactics and military operations to minimise both American and enemy deaths. The US possesses a respect for life that far outshines that of its enemies.
The book is an interesting read – it is not, to be fair, a solid history – but it does have its weak points. The author’s insistence on jingoism and on proving his points tends to weaken his own position. For example, the US possesses an effectively impregnable geopolitical position. It is simply impossible for any outside force to invade the United States. The Russians or Chinese could nuke the US – although the growth of ABM systems may make even this impossible in the very near future – but an outright invasion was impossible. America has a friendly border to the north and a tiny, but annoying problem to the south. The US can and did lose battles; it could never be actually defeated. This threw the US into conflict with its European allies, who found themselves right next door to the Soviet Bear and knew that even a victorious WW3 would be devastating – for them. Their reluctance to actually poke the bear was quite understandable. The author does not talk about this advantage. The cynic in me wonders if that may be because a French-dominated North America would have the same advantages.
This massive geographical advantage is also the US’s most significant weakness, for the US can always (and has) withdraw from a conflict. One of the reasons for US success is that the modern US has always fought its wars on someone else’s territory, but if American politicians decided to wimp out, the US could withdraw…leaving their allies facing the revenge of their victorious enemies. To study a simple example, the US encouraged the Iraqis to overthrow Saddam in 1991 and then abandoned them to Saddam’s revenge. The reward for this was that the Iraqi Shia distrusted the US when Saddam was finally toppled in 2003. The shortage of allies the author bemoans comes from a simple factor; very few believe that the US has the staying power to remain in the game as long as it takes. The general European perception of Operation Iraqi Freedom was that the US would invade and then pull out, leaving chaos behind. The Iraqi perception that the US was going to withdraw tomorrow killed any enthusiasm for working with the US – why should they, when they would be abandoned? The book does not discuss, for example, the problems faced by Iraqis who worked for the US who wanted (quite reasonably) to leave their country and move to America. This particular failure should have been corrected from the start.
I don’t buy the author’s claim that protesters made the US stronger, although I admit that it does have its ironic side. The US was weakened when Communists in the Atomic Bomb Project gave all of its secrets to Stalin. NATO was weakened when Soviet-backed and funded peace movements in Europe struggled against cruise missiles and the neutron bomb. Bush’s position was weakened when massive protests against the Iraq War raged through America and Europe. It does not take a genius to wonder if, because of the protestors, people the US needed to support them saw the US as a weak reed and refused to risk supporting the US, believing that the US would withdraw ‘tomorrow’ and leave them to the tender mercies of their enemies.
Further, the need to keep US casualties as low as possible hampered the war effort in Iraq. The forces committed to the invasion and occupation were too small to accomplish the overall task – the creation of a peaceful Iraq – and nearly lost control of the country. The need to please liberal opinion meant that taking control had to be done ‘softly-softly’, which meant that looters were not shot or otherwise discouraged from looting whatever Saddam had left of Iraq. Worst of all, the western news media was allowed to be unbiased in the worst possible sense – portraying the US soldiers and terrorists as equals. The Pentagon was always one step behind the liberal media and spent more time sucking up to it than it did fighting the war.
While the US has developed joint operations to a remarkable degree, as the author notes, it has seemingly failed to grasp the fact that war is not just military operations. When the US went into Iraq, the various different departments – Pentagon, CIA, State, etc – didn’t cooperate well with one another. Instead, they all pulled in different directions, impeding the war effort. The blunt truth is that the CIA failed badly, State tried to make deals with the wrong people and the Pentagon refused to realise that it had an insurgency on its hands until it was almost too late.
Bin Laden laid it out fairly well. “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse,” he proclaimed. But strength isn’t just a matter of sheer power (by that standard the US is ahead of everyone else by a long way), but of Will. As long as America’s will to fight and win is doubted, America will be challenged and the question of just who is the strong horse will be in doubt.
The author does a good job at outlining America’s strengths, but all strengths are matched by weaknesses and, as long as those weaknesses exist, they will be exploited. Victories – or defeats – don’t matter. All that matters is who is still standing when the end comes.