How to Lose wars: The Military as Asylum (2011)

Ever wonder why the US military can’t win wars? Why a few ragtag guerillas could send it running out of Somalia (Black Hawk Down)? Why one guy with a truck bomb could chase the Marines out of Lebanon? Why the attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran was such a disaster? Why the world’s most expensive military can’t win its unending wars against peasants with rifles? How is this possible?

Different jobs attract different personalities. The Mike Tysons of the world do not go into ballet, nor do the Mother Teresas become tank commanders. The career military attracts people who run from the merely abnormal to the frankly weird. For example, they place extreme value on ritual and ceremony, on ribbons and medals and colored things more appropriate to a Christmas tree than to a human being. They are authoritarian by nature, comfortable in a rigid, hierarchical, and conformist society that most of us would find equally unbearable and absurd. Suppose your boss told everyone in the office that they had to wear exactly the same clothes and stand at attention in the morning to that he could determine whether they had dressed themselves correctly. Militaries start with odd material.

Then they inculcate in themselves an exaggerated sense of their own powers, a sort of Terminator complex. This is done calculatedly in basic training when men are in impressionable late or, in the case of officers, extended adolescence. They absorb the notion of invincibility and it persists into adulthood.

Examples abound. When I was at Parris Island in a previous geological epoch, a large sign in Third Battalion conspicuously said, “The Most Dangerous Weapon in the World: A Marine with his Rifle.” This didn’t rise to the level of nonsense. Few Marines are as dangerous as a hydrogen bomb, and Marines in general are just pretty good light infantry, well-equipped as an expeditionary forces.

But you can’t tell fresh young troops, “You’re maybe a bit above average, but the Afghans are much tougher people, having been raised fighting and living on dried goat-meat, and they know the terrain, whereas you will have no idea where you are and your equipment and tactics are badly unsuited for the region, so it’s going to be hard slogging.” Not optimal for recruiting. More profoundly, men in combat arms want to feel inexorable, deadly, the best. Whether they actually are doesn’t occur to them until the war starts. A satisfying state of mind is what is wanted.

This preference for mood over reality runs through their careers. Constantly they are told that they are “the best trained, best equipped, most powerful and effective fighting force the world has seen.” This is not a statement of fact but of mandatory enthusiasm. The Pentagon’s record since WW II has been a sorry one. Further, effectiveness, training, and so on are relative to a particular situation: a force well-equipped for desert war against aging Iraqi armor is not necessarily equipped to fight guerrillas in Quang Tri or Helmand.

But soldiers, romantics pretending to be realists, do not think in these terms. And so you hear from them unending expressions of fierceness. “Crush their skulls and eat their faces,” and “Oooo-rah!” The tee shirt of the 82nd Airborne said, “Death from above.” (I saw a Marine cook whose shirt said, “Death from Within.”) “The Marine Corps Builds Men,” or did until feminists put an end to that. Now they are “The Few, the Proud.” Well and good, but morale is no substitute for victory. (You can quote me on that.)

The relentless affirmation of their lethality leads to underestimation of the enemy. Before you stick your hand into a hornets’ nest, it is well to examine the hornets. We don’t. The Taliban are primitive mountain-crawlers with AKs. “No problem, sir! We can take them. We’re the best equipped etc.” In an ancient war of classical antiquity, the Vietnamese were held in contempt as rice-propelled paddy maggots. No problem, sir. We’ve got fighter planes and tanks and endless zip-wowees. Everything but understanding and curiosity.

Of course, Saigon is now Ho Chi Minh City. In like fashion, the French also got run out of Viet Nam, and from Algeria, the Russians from Afghanistan, the Israelis from Lebanon, in each case a trained modern military losing to angry and inventive amateurs.

The norm is a wild overestimation of one’s own powers, disdain for the enemy, and inattention to tactical facts. Why? Not because soldiers are actually stupid, but because they prefer martial ardor to thought.

The compulsory belief that they are the best-trained, best-equipped etc. elides quickly into the can-do-ism of the US military. A lieutenant does not say, “Colonel, this is a half-assed idea you have and isn’t going to work. Maybe you need to think a little more.” No. He says, “Yessir! Can do, sir!” Thus the glandular optimism of “Failure is not an option!” when since World War Two it has become the norm, and “There is no substitute for victory,” when losing and going home has proved serviceable, and, “The difficult we can do today; the impossible takes a little longer.” Agreeably cocky, stirring, mindless, and rampant in the Pentagon. “Sir! Yessir! Can do, sir!”

In their elevated estimation of their powers, (which is not personal egotism) militaries routinely underestimate the difficulty and duration of their wars. The American Civil War, widely expected to end after First Manassas (or, as I think Yankees call it, Bull Run), turned into four years of ghastly bloodshed. In WW I the German general staff thought that the Schlieffen Plan, keep to the right, to the right, would end the war quickly, but it turned into four bloody and completely unexpected years. The Pentagon had no idea that Vietnam would turn into a long, ugly, losing war, nor that Iraq would present a struggle still not over, nor that Afghanistan would turn into the ten-year-and-counting monstrosity that it is. “Sir! Yessir! Can do, sir!”

Aggravating the sense of omnipotence is the possession of impressive weaponry. It is impressive, even the old stuff. (If interested) . The electronics, sensors, noises, flashes, the sheer technological mastery, the thrill of speed and roar—all appeal to the male love of power and controllable complexity. They do not elicit the crucial question, “Yeah, but how is it going to work in this war?”

In Libya one sees this touching innocence. Air power would save the day for the rebels. Can do, sir. Wasn’t Libya open desert where air power should be decisive? The assumption apparently was the usual, that Gaddafi’s forces were pathetic mugs who couldn’t adapt. So the Mad Colonel’s troops began riding in civilian cars and mixing with civilians and the war is now being called a stalemate. Who would have though it?

“Yessir! Can do, sir!” Yeah.

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