Tuesday, May 02, 2006

America's Wars

There's a simple truth to face: America's military simply isn't capable of what we, in America, seem to collectively think it is. During Vietnam, LBJ famously said "America wins the wars she undertakes, make no mistakes about it." In retrospect, the generally-agreed-upon failure of America's Vietnam activities to "win" leaves a person wondering what LBJ was thinking. That he was trying to shore up support for an unpopular war is undeniable, but how could he genuinely believe that it was a war America could win?

The modern American military is, on a global scale, a police force. It excels at police actions, the surgical insertion and rapid destruction of specific targets. Its enormous technological advantage over all other military forces helps to ensure that it operates with maximal mobility, often destroying targets remotely. The rapidity of US actions during the Gulf War, Bosnia, and the initial siege of Baghdad in the current Iraq war all point to this refined ability, paid for with trillions of dollars over the decades, to roll right over opposition. Like the Blitzkrieg, America strikes with enormous speed and force at concentrated targets, making a robust defense nearly impossible.

What America is not able to do, however, is either conquer or colonize the rest of the world. During the American Revolutionary War, the uniformed "redcoats" of the British army could not tell friend from foe among Americans because we lacked uniforms. They marched in formation while snipers took potshots at them. Today, the situation is reversed, and American soldiers are highly visible sitting ducks in some of the most dangerous regions of the world. How America wages war is a vitally important aspect of foreign policy, and foreign perceptions of our tactics suggest that it is our actions abroad that are chiefly responsible for the level of aggression America's military faces.

Increasingly over the decades since WWII, America has dedicated its military to missions that, through the means it uses and the equipment it invests in, cannot be achieved. I do not wish to address the political aspects of warmaking (whether this or that war was justified, what slice of our taxes should go to the military, and so forth), but rather the basic policies and attitudes evidenced by our military. It is not only our responsibility to tell our politicians whether we wish America's military to be used - it is also our responsibility to demand that the way in which it is used (a) benefits America by conducting war ethically, (b) concentrates on American soldiers rather than on large-scale projects without clear functional use, and (c) demonstrates and understanding of the nature of the threats presented to our military.

Most US soldiers are moral, ethical people who have been told that they are doing their country a great service. Whatever our views on war, it does those soldiers a tremendous disservice to allow the continuance of policies that needlessly endanger their welfare and make them (and, by extension, us) the enemies of foreign powers and citizens.

Swords & Plowshares

When forced to stand still, American soldiers discover that bullets from an AK-47 remain lethally dangerous. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, AK-47s have flooded the arms market, costing as little as $6 per gun in some markets. When compared to the hundreds of dollars each M-16 used by American forces costs us, as taxpayers, one begins to get a sense that our enemies are more efficient than we are. The same is true of nearly every aspect of America's most dangerous combat commitments. Historically, military implements could be used for civilian purposed, the "beating of swords into plowshares." The durable and functional military hardware of today shows no such qualities, and there is an overwhelming supply to satisfy anyone who wishes to wage war. The world is literally awash in weaponry.

Everywhere in the world that America is currently engaged in heavy combat operations, the cost of US equipment is orders of magnitude higher than the price our enemies pay, despite remarkably comparable efficacy. The AK-47 is nearing its 60th birthday, but remains one of the most durable, easily maintained, and easily used rifles in the world. Even America's most effective personal body armor (assuming it even becomes available to soldiers) cannot fully protect soldiers from harm, particularly since a moderately skilled shooter can consistently hit reasonably small targets (such as the face or shoulder) at considerable distance. These problems are only made worse by our own eagerness to add more weapons to this abundance. A huge chunk of US foreign aid is in the form of military hardware or cash that is used for military purposes.

Spending Alone Will Not Save Many Lives

In today's world, where our military is under attack by armies without governments whose operations are revolutionary insurgence or criminal cartels (or both), we cannot outspend our enemies. Their lethality will cost them a tiny fraction of what ours costs us, so the basic need for the military is to find ways to eliminate wasteful spending and concentrate on efficiency. America needs to push its policy makers to understand that allocating more money to the Department of Defense is not enough (and may simply make the problem worse) - the DoD must spend what it is already allocated more carefully. The DoD's bottomless checkbook leads to an attitude that flagrant spending will save us. It will not, and as such, that flagrant spending often represents a flagrant waste of the country's resources.

DIY Warfare

In the end, it is a problem of technology. In Spain's conquest of the New World or Britain's colonization of India, the invading Europeans had overwhelming technological superiority. The contrast between a firearm and a bow or a sword is spectacular. Today, that kind of gap no longer exists. Despite America's investment in "the next generation of combat equipment," basic physics maintains that rifles have a certain baseline level of lethality. This problem does not simply apply to small arms fire, however. Innovative new weapons are being developed on shoestring budgets, and America's soldiers must know what those threats are, how they work, and what can be done to deal with them.

Rocket-propelled grenades (or RPGs) remain entirely affordable around the world. Improvised explosive devices (or IEDs) remain Iraq's greatest hazard, and can be built by anyone with basic supplies, a little training, and a motive. The disposable items we have grown used to seeing glut our own markets, such as cell phones, personal computers, and cars can be easily weaponized by someone with the do-it-yourself skills that flourish in countries used to making do with hand-me-down technology from the West. These are skills that the American military is almost entirely lacking, however. Apart from elite forces like the Marines, rank-and file US soldiers are not able to survive without support behind enemy lines, arm themselves, or accomplish complex objectives in hostile territory. Most might learn the warning signs of what an IED might look like, but very few can build (much less disarm) them. As part of their training, US soldiers need to realize that all things can be weaponized, and become more versatile and less reliant on their own high-prices equipment.

Increase Training In Improvisational Warfare

Every US soldier should have the basic understanding of chemistry and engineering needed to hotwire cars, cook explosives, and build radios. They need to learn not only how to survive, but also how to stay alive and fight in the wilderness. They need to identify the warning signs of IEDs and carbombs. This should be part of their repertoire not only because it allows them to achieve results when things go wrong, but more importantly because the enemies America faces have all learned these skills already. Soldiers need to shed their locker-room arrogance about being "the world's finest fighting force" and realize just how dangerous someone with half a brain can be once they've taken shop class. Just as the Anarchist's Cookbook gave America's police a rude awakening in the early 1990s about how dangerous household products could be, soldiers must learn the many, many ways even mundane-seeming objects can present a threat. Respecting your enemy means learning how he fights, in order to defend against it.

The Loneliest Superpower

America is alone, on the world stage, as the only 800-pound gorilla. Since the end of the cold war, the notion of an "arms race" seems, at a basic level, silly. While certain major countries (China, India, etc.) do show basic technological ambition, the fact is that no one is trying to develop the next "superweapon." The major weapons America should worry about having deployed against it are basic nuclear and biological weapons. By basic, I mean "rudimentary." No country in the world that threatens us, for example, is aggressively spending money on developing next-generation fighter planes. No country can nullify the threat the US can present with ICBMs. No navy in the world is safe from our submarine fleet. Despite this, the Department of Defense spends mind-blowing amounts of money on R&D to continue racing with the ghost of the USSR, with ongoing chatter about missile defense systems, laser weapon systems, stealth combat vehicles, or bunker-buster nukes.

A common rejoinder is that this money drives innovation that later benefits the private sector. The phrase "space-age materials" has been bandied about since, well, the space race. The truth is that, as the American military becomes more and more secretive, the less we know about the specifics of what it spends its money on. Substantial economic evidence suggests that innovation is driven much more effectively by private enterprise for a variety of reasons. One is transparency - if a company spends $15 million on a new way to do something, it needs to put that technology out into the marketplace in order to make a profit. It must apply for a patent that, while protecting its intellectual property, makes public the workings of its innovation. Imitators can then take this into consideration when creating competing products. None of these stages apply to defense research, which remains strictly classified and often never sees the light of day.

More to the point, however, the simple fact is that we don't need these new weapons. Certain areas of research are clearly still viable (such as many of the military's recent applications of robotics and self-correcting anti-armor rockets), but America doesn't need new superweapons. It doesn't need bigger, scarier battleships. It certainly doesn't need new, bigger nukes (which America can never deploy unless it is willing to commit political suicide). What it needs are technologies that increase per-soldier efficiency, particularly in the areas where soldiers are currently lacking.

Much of the technology designed to enhance soldiers is also severely lacking. Though the military proudly displays its remarkable developments in the areas of body armor and multi-tools, it ignores feedback from the most qualified experts: soldiers themselves. Many soldier-enhancing technologies are delivered to our forces abroad but are never used because of their fragility, clumsiness, or lack of efficacy. The DoD has an unpleasant track record of pouring millions into every possible avenue of research, including areas clearly devoid of genuine tactical benefit. This research, from a military perspective, is a waste.

Concentrate DoD Research on Areas That Genuinely Enhance Soldiers

A fighter plane may never experience enemy fire - infantry in a combat zone certainly will. In this context, enhancement means more than just combat efficacy. America should increase training to help soldier communicate with foreign civilian populations, develop "small arms" that genuinely enhance soldier flexibility, and invest more heavily in body armor that soldiers will actually use (as opposed to recent developments that, due to their unwieldy designs, are basically being left by the wayside because they impair soldiers too heavily). Make technology a seasoned veteran will actually use, rather than some new widget that imposes limitations that exceed its benefits.

The Glass Jaw

This brings me to another policy problem: military supertech. America is (perhaps rightly) proud of its top-flight military technologies: the nuclear submarine, the aircraft carrier, the stealth bomber. These are icons of American engineering and innovation. They also cost millions of dollar per unit to build, and as such, are risky to deploy. Consider the Black Hawk helicopter. It is the pinnacle of military VTOL utility aircraft. It costs $6 million for the vanilla variety, $10 million nicely loaded with features. A Black Hawk can be taken down by a single RPG (at a cost of as little as $500 in many markets) fired by a competent user, provided it damages the central or tail rotors. To provide some context, at the time of this writing, over 40 Black Hawks have been lost in Iraq, adding at least $250 million dollars to the cost of the lives of its pilots and passengers.

The problem is made even more egregious by human error. As supertech grows in complexity, the training needed to use it also grows. The Air Force is proud of its ace pilots, who have spend years in preparation for the extraordinary task of flying these cashsinks. The line-item cost of supertech conceals the added cost of training, which over years can add millions to the price tag. Further, even with tremendous training, human error remains possible, making a moment of bad judgment cost the American taxpayer dearly. This is most true with fighter aircraft, but the theme extends to all areas in which military hardware literally costs more than its weight in gold.

Despite this trend, America continues to spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year to build more supertech. Our submarine fleet grows by the year, even though we face no major naval threats in the modern world. We build fighter aircraft designed for dogfighting even though our modern use of air power is almost exclusively limited to bombing and reconnaissance (Afghanistan's air defense, for example, were almost instantly obliterated in the October 2001 invasion). They then remain grounded, unsuitable for any modern combat scenario, requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars in upkeep. The solution seems obvious:

Stop Developing And Building Technology Too Expensive To Risk On The Battlefield

Short of invaders from space, there isn't going to be a venue for these developments. The cost of an F16 fighter ($15 million) can be used to properly equip dozens of soldiers, to say nothing of the social good that can be accomplished with $15 million outside of the military. The very technology that makes the US military remarkably mobile (like the Black Hawk) should not also be overused in areas of prolonged combat. Build new equipment only when it is required, and concentrate instead of perfecting the equipment already in use.

My Gun Is My Skill List

If we think of America's social services (police, medicine, sanitation), we think of a system of loosely connected professions with a wide range of duties and skills. We would balk at the idea that the police could replace all social services. Imagine if the people who collect your trash are also police officers - the image is so strange as to be comical. But the fact is that, in using the American military as an occupying peacekeeping force whose strength is intended to drive the reconstruction of a country like Iraq is basically that form of military policy. Realistically, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, the US military "keeps the peace" but does comparatively little to change the circumstances that propagate violence in the world: poverty, ignorance, and instability.

Allowing corporations to staff the "civilian" roles of reconstruction has three major consequences. The first is that the scope of the jobs they are able to do safely is extremely limited, because (in a time where Americans in war-torn areas are especially at risk) they cannot safely work on jobs in urban areas. The second is that the corporations, whose sole responsibility is to the stockholder, has every incentive to charge the US government as much as possible. The third is widespread corruption and graft - we are now seeing the beginning of a long list of court decisions regarding embezzlement in Iraq. The alternative is to expand the role of the US military's constructive wing. Imagine is the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) expanded into the international sphere. Only about 2% of the USACE's 35,000 members are active military - the rest are civilians. They have proven their mettle, skill, and flexibility in a host of domestic activities. Instead of entrusting all aspects of reconstruction to a corporation focused solely on profit, making use of a government-employed civilian task force with basic training in the combat-zone survival would cost America far less. Attracting talented new blood in this field is easy enough: offering technical training and college tuition to America's youth is all well and good, but many avoid the military because of its necessarily violent aspects. An international corps of engineers would provide an alternative form of civil service that doesn't require learning dealing death.

The same can be said of America's inability to communicate with the cultures it occupies. If the US wants to reach the hearts and minds of populations, it must lead by example. It must have a wider and stronger foundation of communication with the populace, and more means of speaking directly to and with the citizens of those populations. Most soldiers are woefully ignorant of the cultures they encounter, and that ignorance leads to embarrassing ignorance and revolting arrogance. The armed forces should educate its soldiers better, force them to learn local languages and customs, and develop a stronger "military diplomacy" in the form of US representatives who can attempt to interact with occupied cultures more heavily. Nay-sayers have been predicting a civil war in Iraq for years, but few Americans (civilian or military) seemed to understand how this could come to pass. Now, many seem surprised by the sectarian violence, by Iraq's widespread rejection of America's presence, and by the rise in terrorism of all kinds worldwide. The situation would surely have been less dire if a more multifaceted approach to reconstruction in Iraq had been implemented. Which leads to my next point:

Expand The Military's Ability To Build And Communicate, Rather Than Simply Occupy

America's surgical invasions routinely attack infrastructure in order to weaken and scatter the enemy, but these are often resources also used by civilians. Also, dismantling a country's police, military, and civil services is a recipe for disaster unless (a) an effective stopgap can be provided and (b) new systems can be put in place. If a trained military force with the ability to make constructive change leads by example, it can become the model for the existing population. Countries do not magically metamorphose into small-town America when dictators are dethroned (especially if quality of life is necessarily reduced by the invasion itself)- the democratic process must be nurtured, but so must the civil society that tolerates a democratic government. The election of a parliament is a hollow success if the withdrawal of US troops simply means the lights will go back off, the water will stop running, unemployment will remain the rule, and violence will remain the easy alternative.

I Broke It, You'll Pay For It

What continues to amaze me is the lack of accountability US soldiers have for their actions. This happens at two levels. On the one hand, soldiers acting on their own basically have the right to kill with the slightest provocation, and face severe reprimand only in cases of friendly fire, psychotic behavior, or media accusation. In an era where anyone (even a child) might be an enemy, "reasonable doubt" becomes a blanket term to justify bad judgment. This leads to trigger-happy soldiers who alienate and frighten native populations, which is unlikely to reduce resentment against America on the whole.

On the other hand, there exists a systemic problem involving the chain of command. A soldier acting on orders is blameless (as they were doing their duty), with the responsibility falling on the shoulders of the officers responsible for issuing the orders in question. Unfortunately, the rank-intensive mentality of the military essentially insulates high-ranking officers from the possibility of prosecution for war crimes.

There is no question that America has committed war crimes. Robert McNamara admits as much of activities he facilitated during World War II (specifically, the firebombing of Tokyo, responsible for the deaths of 100,000 Japanese civilians). It was a tactically effective attack that indiscriminately destroyed factory facilities and military installations, along with the killing of women and children. More recent use of white phosphorous ammunition (or "Willy Pete") in Iraq has the same earmarks: a chemical incendiary that carmelizes flesh right through clothing and armor. Its remarkable defense-penetrating qualities make it a remarkable siege weapon, but when used in a civilian-rich combat zone like Fallujah, it kills anyone in its path, combatant or not.

We, in America, concentrate on the number of Coalition deaths in Iraq (2620 at the time of this writing). We ignore the (largely speculative) death toll for Iraqis. Figures vary wildly, but common estimates place the number of civilian (i.e. non-combatant) casualties in the ballpark of 30,000+, with statistical extrapolations suggesting numbers as high as 98,000. In other words, at least one Iraqi civilian in 870 has died. That may seem insignificant, but it's the equivalent of somewhere between 330,000 and 1,278,000 Americans dying (given our population size). Many of these casualties are the result of the "anything goes" attitude of the military, because (in a coalition dominated by the US administration) no US soldiers/officers expect to be held accountable for their actions or the orders they give. This has not endeared us to Iraq's remaining population.

Even more horrifying is what is emerging America's military prisons: images and testimonials of torture (in some cases to death) of captives who are held in defiance of our own country's and the world's standards for . If this is how we treat our enemies, no one will lay down arms against us. Allowing torture, whether the result of a few sadistic bad apples or an amoral chain of command, demonized Americans (especially American soldiers). We appear to be (or are) hypocrite, liars, and war criminals in the eyes of the world, which justifies the worst kinds of attacks against us.

The flat refusal of America to endorse the International Criminal Court or similar bodies is motivated by the strange notion that America answers to no one. Its aggressive stance against tyrants and the abuse of civil rights dissolves when applied to its own forces. Thus:

Wage War in Accordance with America's Ethical Compass, And Accept The Consequences When Those Standards Are Violated

Both internally (at the level of the military courts) and systemically (at the level of international policy), America has very little ground to stand on in policing other states if its own forces cannot be held to an ethical standard of conduct. The notion that "the enemy won't play fair," while true, does not justify fighting dirty. America's moral credibility in the rest of the world is at an all-time low, and this impacts soldiers directly by increasing the number of people willing to take arms against them. It comes as no surprise to me that American soldiers killing Muslims in a mosque sparks anti-American violence. It comes as no surprise that revelations that torture now rages out of control in US detention centers radicalized our enemies. A nation that demands of its soldiers and its leaders an ethical standard in warfare will find fewer willing to take arms against it.

Closing Thoughts

The military is viewed, by the American people, as a system divorced from the world of civilians, a hermetically sealed society that (for better or worse) operates by its own rules, often in contradiction to those expected of civilians. It is precisely for these reasons that the civilian oversight of the military is so important: without elected and appointed oversight and control, the military goes entirely off the grid and functions without checks on its power or conduct. While we, as civilians are not authorized to know the details of how the military carries out its day to day activities, we do elect the people who appoint the people who do.

Recent criticism of Donald Rumsfeld by retired generals represents not only popular civilian distaste for our civilian leaders, but also a growing dissatisfaction by the military with those whose job is to ensure that the country's clandestine abilities nevertheless conform to our social standards. Murmurs have been on the rise, in the American military, that civilian control is a recipe for disaster, keeping the armed forces from "doing their job" properly. To have a military force chafing under civilian leadership is a troubling sign.

What does on in the Department of Defense is something voters cannot directly control, and this makes appointment a critically important aspect of the political equation. We, as a country, have been trained to think in terms of issues: civil liberties, the war on terror, abortion, gay marriage. We ignore the subtle but pervasive effect that our leaders' stances on defense can have. If America dislikes not only why and when but how war is waged by this country, a global rejection of military power is a losing strategy. Instead, we must demand of our leaders a rational and functional strategy towards the military if we are ever to be seen as a "force for good" by the rest of the world. We must speak not only about hot-topic issues, like torture, but more generally about the attitudes and techniques of the military. In the words of former secretary of defense Robert McNamara, "I think people need to think more about killing, about conflict. Is that what we want, in this 21st century?"


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