Last night on the lobotomy box I encountered yet another candidate for the presidency, a Mr. Santorum, threatening to make war on Iran. I can’t decide whether the idea is more frightening than fascinating, or fascinating than frightening. I do suggest that the combined candidates do not have the military competence of a stuffed bear. Given that the principlal business of the United States is war and preparation for it, do we want a martial analphabetic in charge? One does not let children play with chain saws. (From all of this I exempt Ron Paul, who appears to be sane.)
To save the republic, if any, from another routine military disaster, I offer the following thoughts.
To begin, I will ask the following questions of the candidates, and for that matter of Mr. Obama, and of the Secretary of Defense, a generic bureaucrat.
Can you explain: Convergence zones, base bleed, Kursk, range-gate pull-off, artillery at Dien Bien Phu, IR cross-over, Tet and queen sacrifice, Brahmos 2, CIWIS, supercruise, side-lobe penetration, seven-eighty-twice gear, super-cavitating torpedoes, phased arrays, pulse Doppler, the width of Hormuz versus the range of Iranian cruise missiles, DU, discarding sabot, frequency agility, Chobham armor, and pseudo-random PRF?
These, gentlemen, are the small talk of serious students of the military. Here I mean men like David Isby, author of such books as Weapons and Tactics of the Soviet Army for Jane’s, which you likely have never heard of, or William S. Lind, probably the best military mind (though, or because, not a soldier), that I have encountered. If you are unfamiliar with them, and with the things listed above, you are unfamiliar with the military. Yet you campaign for possession of the trigger.
Perhaps a little humility, perish the thought, and a little self-examination might be in order.
Peering into your own depths, you will probably find that the humility does not come easily. In my decades of covering the armed services, I noticed among men a belief in their innate jock-strap competency regarding wars. Men who would readily admit ignorance of petroleum geology, ophthalmology, or ancient Sumerian grammar nonetheless believe that they grasp matters military. Usually they do not. In particular, they have an utterly unexamined belief in America’s military invincibility.
Candidates should be wary of this. Instead, most of you propose ultimata to Iran as one would threaten a three-year-old with a spanking. You clearly think that the American flotilla would quickly thrash the impudent Persians with no unexpected consequences. Do as we say, or the fleet will teach you a jolly good lesson.
So thought Philip II in 1588.
A little reading wouldn’t hurt. I would strongly recommend A Legacy of Ashes, by Tim Weiner, on the CIA, and We Meant Well, by Peter van Vuren, a former State Department guy on how Iraq actually works. You will be most surprised. I accept in advance your gratitude for these suggestions.
Once a candidate from the relative bushes gets elected, as may happen, he becomes a captive of Washington in about ten minutes. This too you should bear in mind. You will be briefed by the CIA, which will spin things so that you believe what it wants you to believe. The spooks will radiate lethal charm and speak with the assurance of a higher order of being. This will give you a sense of admission to a special tree house where everyone has a Captain Marvel secret decoder ring (two box tops and a dollar fifty). And, in Washington, you will have access to no other view. Gotcha.
You will be briefed by the Pentagon by generals with firm handshakes, steely gaze, obvious intelligence, and a convincing understanding of the world as consisting chiefly of threats. They are very good at this. You do not become a general without expertise with Power Point and the slick gab of a confidence man. Generals too are politicians. They will carry you along like a wood chip in a spring flood. And you will pay the price.
A powerful skepticism is here well advised. The belief that military men know about war is beguiling. It is their trade, is it not? Surely they must be authorities. Dentists know about dentistry. Soldiers must know about war. But how often when you go to a dentist do you return without teeth?
In fact career officers live in a mental world not well adapted to winning today’s wars. You need to understand this. Theirs is a world of aggression seeking an outlet, of institutionally inculcated confidence unrelated to external reality, of suppression of dissent. Fatal bad judgement is common, and recently almost the rule. If you think this implausible, consider:
When the Japanese attacked Pearl, their military thought it would win, Yamamoto excepted. When the Wehrmacht went into Russia, it thought it would win. So did Napoleon. When the Germans attacked in 1914, they thought they would win, the Schlieffen Plan being infallible. When the Confederates shelled Sukmter, they thought they could win. When the French took on the Viet Minh, they thought they would win. When the Americans went into Viet Nam, they thought they would win. When they went into Iraq, Somalia, Beirut, Afghanistan….
And now you, our newly elected, fresh-caught president, contemplate a shooting war with Iran. Those who favor this idea will assure you that it will be short and sweet. Shock and Awe. Duck soup. A cakewalk. The Iranians will just take it, perhaps put up some slight and hapless resistance, and roll quickly over. Our airplanes, after all, say varooom and pow-pow-pow and boom.
Note that in the foregoing list of wars, all were expected to end quickly. This should not surprise. Military men live in the psychic world of the cavalry charge, of decisive battle, of courage, heroism, and glorious victory. Modern militaries are designed with shsort-and-sweet in mind, with tanks ships and aircraft intended to fight other tanks ships and aircraft. Unfortunately wars nowadays are more like dealing with a recalcitrant bureaucracy. They go on and on. Concentrated firepower doesn’t work well against dispersed enemies. The treasury bleeds, the public wearies. Quick victory seldom comes. The Pentagon thrashes and thrashes every more desperately, a saber tooth in the tar pits of La Brea. Just give us a little more time, a few more troops, a surge….
Reflect that the Pentagon hasn’t won a war since 1945, unless you count titanic eruptions like Grenada. Yes, it usually wins the conventional battles, as it did in Afghanistan, as it did in Iraq, Mission Accomplished, but then the enemy deploys the most fearsome weapons of the last half-centry: the AK, the RPG, and the IED.
The Pentagon can bomb Iran with impunity, as it could Afghanistatn. It thinks it can keep the Straits open, as it thought it could do all the things in the past that it couldn’t. How many burning supertankers does it take to discourage the rest?
Then the unexpected comes. It turns out that the enemy is not as stupid as the strategy required. Pehhaps thousands of Iranian troops infiltrate into largely Shiite Iraq, which blows again. Oh fun.
If you can’t win any war at all, start a larger one. And you, Mr. Santorum, or Romney, or Gingrich, will hold the bag. Such a deal.