A worthwhile New Years resolution

…would be for the United States to admit we’ve achieved everything we’re likely to in Afghanistan (i.e. not much), and end the operation:

No other country in the world symbolizes the decline of the American empire as much as Afghanistan. There is virtually no possibility of a military victory over the Taliban and little chance of leaving behind a self-sustaining democracy — facts that Washington’s policy community has mostly been unable to accept…

Indeed, Afghanistan represents the triumph of the deterministic forces of geography, history, culture, and ethnic and sectarian awareness, with Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras and other groups competing for patches of ground. Tribes, warlords and mafia-style networks that control the drug trade rule huge segments of the country…

The United States’ special adviser to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, is trying to broker a diplomatic solution that allows the United States to draw down its forces without the political foundation in Kabul disintegrating immediately.

That may be the real reason the United States keeps spending so heavily in Afghanistan. The Pentagon is terrified of a repeat of 1975, when panicked South Vietnamese fled Saigon as Americans pulled out and North Vietnamese forces advanced on the city. The United States military did not truly begin to recover from that humiliation until its victory in the Persian Gulf war of 1991. An abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan could conceivably provide a new symbol of the decline in American hard power.

There is also the fear that an Afghanistan in chaos could once again provide a haven for an international terrorist group determined to perpetrate another Sept. 11-scale attack. Of course, Yemen, Somalia and a number of other places could also provide the setting for that.  The point is, we remain in Afghanistan out of fear of even worse outcomes, rather than in the expectation of better ones.

Afghanistan has become America’s “tar baby.”  The more we try to do there, the more we seem “stuck” with no vision or endgame in sight.  The writer of the linked article is correct that our misadventures there are likely to signal to our adversaries we aren’t the power we used to be.  But what is far worse is that our indecision and inability to know “when to fold them” demonstrates poor strategic judgment as well.  Nothing encourages aggression like thinking your potential opponent is both weak AND a fool.

(Chinese) Rear Admiral Lou Yuan has told an audience in Shenzhen that the ongoing disputes over the ownership of the East and South China Seas could be resolved by sinking two US super carriers.

His speech, delivered on December 20 to the 2018 Military Industry List summit, declared that China’s new and highly capable anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles were more than capable of hitting US carriers, despite them being at the centre of a ‘bubble’ of defensive escorts.

“What the United States fears the most is taking casualties,” Admiral Lou declared.
He said the loss of one super carrier would cost the US the lives of 5000 service men and women. Sinking two would double that toll.

Our extended presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan underscored our country’s emphasis upon what the military calls “force protection.”  It’s natural for any military to seek to limit casualties, but when it becomes apparent that even a few deaths are enough to change national policy, outside observers begin to doubt one’s resolve.  The thoughts expressed by Admiral Lou Yuan echo those of the Japanese militarists in 1940: the U.S. is a paper tiger, and will acquiesce to its rivals if smacked hard enough on the nose.  Japan’s miscalculation led to a brutal Pacific War that ended in atomic fireballs over two of its cities.  To see the line of thought being resurrected by the Chinese, whose potential to oppose the U.S. dwarfs that of Russia, should give plenty of people pause.

Afghanistan is known as “the graveyard of empires” for a reason.  The sooner we recognize that, and take steps to restore the deterrent credibility we’ve lost there, the better.  The misguided 17-year (and counting) occupation may have sought to avoid another 9/11.  But at this point, it risks far worse outcomes by emboldening rivals who believe they’ve taken our measure by watching us there.  Perhaps America in 2019 lacks the ability to muster the resolve shown after Pearl Harbor in 1941.  Then again, perhaps not.

The only certain thing is it’s better to ensure we never have to find out.

The long twilight struggle

Sometime late next year, a young man or woman who was not yet born on September 11, 2001, will raise their right hand and join the U.S. armed forces.  Given the tempo at which those forces have operated the past 17 years, that young person likely will be sent quickly to the Middle East in some capacity.

There, they will form part of the second consecutive generation to fight this “war.”  Unlike my uniformed cohort, they will have no memory of the events that led to them being there.  Nor will they have a concept of a time when the TSA didn’t exist, and the government didn’t conduct constant surveillance.  For them, America has always been at war.

The same will hold true of their contemporaries who stay in civilian life.

So what have we accomplished thus far, at the expense of nearly 7,000 dead and almost $3 trillion?  Very little, it would seem:

…Al Qaeda may be stronger than ever. Far from vanquishing the extremist group and its associated “franchises,” critics say, U.S. policies in the Mideast appear to have encouraged its spread.

What U.S. officials didn’t grasp, said Rita Katz, director of the SITE Intelligence Group, in a recent phone interview, is that Al Qaeda is more than a group of individuals. “It’s an idea, and an idea cannot be destroyed using sophisticated weapons and killing leaders and bombing training camps,” she said.

In fact, a good case can be made that the resilience of jihadi groups in the face of the most technologically sophisticated military force on the planet only underscores the righteousness of their ideas.  In swatting bees with sledgehammers, we’ve only increased the size of the swarm, with no vision of how this is supposed to end:

There is a stunning lack of strategic vision in America today. The range of foreign policy activities, beyond so-called “traditional diplomacy,” extend across military power and include everything from financial aid to information to exchanges of all kinds. These instruments are, however, seemingly applied without synchronization or thoughts about end states. The different bureaucracies often work together only on an ad hoc basis and rarely share collaborative requirements and communications with their respective oversight committees in the Congress.

Our few and feeble attempts to articulate vision have been badly flawed, and rarely considered the cultural and political realities of where we were fighting.  I was in Baghdad when the Bush administration declared our objectives there were a stable, unified, democratic Iraq.  A quick wit in our section soon had those diagrammed with a triangle on a marker board with the caption “pick any two.”

While pursuing this quixotic endeavor abroad, we have also failed to secure our own borders or effectively increase scrutiny of those entering our country.  The 9/11 hijackers covertly but legally entered the United States.  Now we have a veritable open fifth column of Islamists spreading the influence within the country.  Since many young Americans have been conditioned to believe their nation to be a blight on history, it’s difficult to mount an effective ideological defense.

Our continued thrashing about in the world only underscores our nation’s diminishment.  One measure of “just war” — a pillar of Western thought rarely referenced in the general public these days — is whether a conflict results in improved circumstances.  Can anyone say that Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen… or the United States are better off after a generation of warfare?  Is this likely to change when the sons and daughters of the original military force are the ones doing the fighting?

Seal the borders.  Deport the disloyal.  Bring our troops home.  That’s a coherent proposal, and at least has the benefit of not yet having been seriously tried.  Anything short of that is insanity — defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.  That’s no way to honor the memory of those who died 17 years ago… or the tens of thousands of American servicemen dead or disabled since then.

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As I’ve been saying…

this fellow also says it well (emphasis added by me):

War is and always will be an ugly business.

That knowledge should lead Western governments to use their technological and economic advantages to avoid getting into wars with the barbarians on the edge of civilization. Instead, they start wars they never intend to win, so they can preen and pose about their virtue and morality, when something terrible inevitably happens…

The point of war is to kill the enemy and break up their stuff. The hope is they quit before you kill all of them and break all of their stuff, but you plan otherwise. If the Afghans knew all along that helping Osama bin Laden was most likely going to mean their cities and large towns would be flattened, they would have chose differently. Let’s assume they played it the same and Bush had firebombed Kabul, what would have been the result?

Yeah, there would have been a lot of hand-wringing and pearl clutching in Washington, but every other nutjob in the Middle East would have been re-calibrating his plans. A lot less death and destruction would have come as a result.

Not long after it became clear we were in both Afghanistan and Iraq for an extended engagement, I told a fellow Airman our country was making a huge mistake.  Rather than just strike and leave, our country was arrogant enough to believe we could “make democracy bloom” in a soil that has never yet produced it on its own.  Americans today have no stomach for the kind of occupation (both scope and duration) it would take to create that level of change in the region.  To put it bluntly, unless we’re willing to seal off and occupy the countries until we’ve educated a couple new generations, it ain’t happening (and probably wouldn’t then, either).  I said at the time we’d have been better off after 9/11 by turning the Taliban and Kabul into the world’s largest man-made crater as a warning to others, then leaving everyone in literal shock and awe (“Who else wants some of that?  Any takers?”).  Instead, our half-hearted wars of choice over the last decade and a half have eroded the respect and fear (not to mention the capability) our military once commanded.

You’re not powerful just because you’re throwing military forces around.  You’re powerful when nobody dares challenge you, even indirectly, for fear of the deathstroke you’re expected to deliver.  That’s the difference between deterrence and playing expensive whack-a-mole all over the earth.

“To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”  – Sun Tzu

But failing that,

“The will to conquer is the first condition of victory.”  – Marshall Ferdinand Foch

 We as a nation don’t have a will.  We’re too hesitant to be feared, and too reckless abroad to be respected.  And that’s why there’s not a way to win.  Trying to fight a war at the level of a low and long simmer is about as sensible as a doctor trying to operate without losing any blood.  Either America has the will to fight — including responsibility for the inevitable horrors — or it doesn’t.  Either there’s a reason to break things and kill people, or there’s not.  If there is, let it be done quickly, relentlessly and efficiently until a better future is secured (that’s Just War theory, by the way).

If, however, there isn’t will or a reason, the families of more than 8,300 Americans deserve to know why their loved one were sent to die.  Tens of thousands of scarred Americans also deserve to know what their sacrifices were for.

War without end

One of the pervasive problems that can be traced back to increasing disregard for the rule of law is the perpetual state of warfare and “emergency” in which the United States has existed for decades:

…preparing for war—even engaging in war—without asking why war is necessary has arguably become part of our national psyche. In a large sense, the United States has been at war for so long that, collectively, its citizens and leaders have become uncomfortable with, if not frightened by, the very idea of peace. After decades of being at war, we have come to the point where we can’t live without it.

As the distance between soldiers and civilians has grown, Americans have become less troubled with the idea of permanent war. As early as 1995, the historian Michael Sherry documented the militarization of American life, a decades-long trajectory originating before World War II in which “war defined much of the American imagination” and “the fear of war penetrated” American society. Though Sherry ended on a guardedly hopeful note—that Americans might “drift away from their militarized past”—more recent critics, like Bacevich, have denounced our society’s increasingly comfortable relationship with war. Extending Sherry’s analysis beyond the events of September 11, Bacevich persuasively maintains that the seduction of war overpowers rational thinking on the possibilities and, more importantly, limitations of military power abroad. Instead, we instinctively equate American superiority with military superiority…

Given the experience of American wars since 1945, perhaps we should reconsider how well U.S. military efforts solve overseas problems. More serious consideration of what’s attainable from our wielding of power might compel us to challenge our notions of the advantages war supposedly offers.

While it’s true America’s schizophrenic tendencies toward both fearing the world and desiring to remake it in its own image contribute heavily to this permanent war footing, a lack of constraint on our leaders is an equally important ingredient.  The Constitution clearly states the method by which the Republic is to go to war: via a declaration of such by Congress.  It has been so long since this was actually done (1941, to be exact) that most people today have no expectation of the President actually seeking such a declaration.  Oh, sure, there are the occasional figleaf “Authorizations for Use of Military Force” in which the legislative branch essentially hands the current sitting emperor President a blank check to go kill people somewhere else on the planet.  Sometimes even that doesn’t occur.  The question of war or peace is the most serious one any nation can face.  Rather than entrusting power to a single individual the Founders placed it in the hands of the people’s representative body, where it was to be deliberated, not just rubber-stamped.  If Congress were doing even part of its job, we wouldn’t have a President admitting 12 months into another new series of combat operations that there’s essentially no strategy – that we’re just winging it!  If a war is necessary, it certainly deserves more focus and attention than that!

Aside from the Cold War nuclear standoff, America hasn’t faced an existential threat since 1941.  Americans don’t consciously think about that, but they instinctively realize it.  That’s why World War II is sometimes called the ‘good war’ (i.e. we knew what was at stake), while all the conflicts since — with the telling exception of Desert Storm — have had considerably less public support.  That public has failed, however, to hold its leaders accountable for the profligate way they spend American blood and treasure abroad.  Sure, there were protests about the Iraq war — but they were motivated (and financed) largely by those seeking partisan advantage, not by a grassroots sense that this was an unnecessary foreign adventure.

Sadly, that is our track record over the last 70-plus years: a series of unnecessary foreign adventures.  Because the people refuse to demand a less bellicose footing, the powerful interests that are served by war continue to hold sway.  War remains, as Smedley Butler wrote, “a racket,” where the well-connected reap the benefits, the State continues to grow in power, and everyone else pays the piper.  Considering our porous borders and inability (or unwillingness) to control physical access to our country, the Orwellian term “Defense Department” (wherein we account for more than a third of all military spending in the world) has to be one of history’s biggest misnomers.  We, the people, need to demand better.

Something to consider, as our leaders continue to poke the Russian bear and twist the Chinese dragon’s tail, all while doubling down yet again in a Middle East that is the world’s largest geopolitical quicksand bog…

“Why has America stopped winning wars?”

This is a worthwhile read from Atlantic magazine:

…From 1846 to 1945, the United States had a minuscule peacetime army but won almost every major campaign. After World War II, Washington constructed the most expensive military machine that ever existed and endured seven decades of martial frustration.

Indeed, power is part of the reason the United States loses. After 1945, America’s newfound strength created a constant temptation to use force (emphasis added), and projected U.S. forces into distant conflicts. But Washington chose an unfortunate moment to discover its inner interventionist. The nature of global warfare changed in ways that made military campaigns ugly at best and unwinnable at worst…

America’s material strength has another curse. For a global hegemon like the United States, each war is just one of many competing security commitments around the world. For the enemy, however, the conflict is a life-and-death contest that occupies its entire attention. It’s limited war for Americans, and total war for those fighting Americans. The United States has more power; its foes have more willpower.

Two thoughts:

1) All the material advantages in the world can be useless if there is not a coherent strategy that aligns means and ways with ends.  In nearly all of the recent conflicts that have turned sour, it is difficult to identify a comprehensible–and achievable–goal that could serve as an endpoint toward which our resources could logically be used.  Regardless whether a conflict is a massive conventional struggle of state against state, or the now-more-common issue of fighting various non-state or quasi-state actors (i.e. ISIS), unless you know–and can articulate–what your desired end state is, you’ll never get there.

2) The recent escalations of tension with both Russia and China are both unnecessary (another result of America’s interventionist attitudes since 1945), and if we aren’t careful, could prove a disastrous temptation.  After the frustrations of fighting Viet Cong, then Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and now ISIS, no doubt many yearn for the “simpler” times of industrialized warfare between functioning nation-states.  Frustrations aside, all one need do is look at the costs of the Second World War and the Cold War versus our long national nightmares in Iraq and Afghanistan to realize that, as Billy Joel put it, “the good old days weren’t always good…”  Let’s hope nobody provokes World War III while quoting Han Solo: “bring it on; I prefer a straight up fight to all this sneaking around.”

What America REALLY needs to do is realize it is not omniscient, nor omnipotent, and that our continued delusions of remaking the world in our image have only led to us becoming more like the rest of the world (including importing large quantities of refugees from our various wars of choice), and squandering all that once made us unique.  Our poor choices have cost us much respect and prestige, not to mention considerable blood, treasure and the rise of ever-increasing government power (remember: “War is the health of the State”).  Instead of following the 1990s view of the hawkish first female Secretary of State, Madeline Albright (“What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”), we should recall the council of the Greek historian Thucydides: “Of all the manifestations of power, restraint impresses men the most.”

The source of freedom

This post is not likely to be popular.  Confronting uncomfortable truths rarely is.  So before anyone jumps on my case about somehow diminishing Veterans Day, I’m going to do something I almost never do here, and that’s tell you something about me.

I’m a veteran.  Of more than 20 years.  Of more than a couple trips overseas.  Given all the ‘hero tributes’ I routinely see on November 11, then, maybe this is the day for me to speak my peace.  I don’t pretend to speak for every veteran — we’re not the faceless mass of conformity Hollywood likes to portray.  But what I have to say is this:

Stop thanking me for your freedom.

There are several reasons I say this.  First is a realistic assessment of what I’ve actually done.  Alone in our actions, we in uniform do not create freedom.  At our best, we can create conditions in which a people can choose to be free and self-governing.  At our worst, a military/security apparatus is one of the greatest threats to freedom — something the Founders well understood.  It’s like the old story of Benjamin Franklin:  A woman is supposed to have asked him what the Constitutional Convention accomplished.  He is said to have replied “we have given you a Republic — if you can keep it.”  Whether anecdotal or not, the tale tells a truth: we are ALL responsible for freedom, not just some of us.  The main trouble I have with these holidays since 9/11 is that it further separates the soldiery from the citizenry, assigning the former the “active” part in defending freedom, and only a passive role to the latter.  If that model is accepted, it’s fatal to any free society.

The second reason I say this is that far too many of our overseas adventures have had only a marginal relationship at best with actually protecting America.  Sure, they’re all sold that wayLook closer, though.  Was our security enhanced by removing Saddam Hussein?  As despicable a leader as he was, is ISIS really an improvement, for Iraq or for us?  Consider how close we came to actively toppling Assad in Syria — how much MORE would that have aided the latest threat du jour?  Americans are always so concerned about the emergence of a threat that we fail to see how our own actions are perceived by others as threats… and thus become self-fulfilling prophecies of a sort.  Even worse, we have short memories and never ask whether our past actions achieved anything beyond setting up tomorrow’s problems.

But the primary reason I say this is that I am no longer convinced we live in a ‘free country.’  Sure, we don’t see the trappings of totalitarianism run amok — nobody’s goose-stepping down Pennsylvania Avenue or holding Nuremberg-type rallies in Times Square.  Yet.  But evil rarely reappears in an easily recognizable form — it’s too subtle for that.  Ask yourself: in a free society

– Do police routinely seize your property simply because they can?  (Even if they don’t bother charging you with a crime)

– Do communities seize your home for whatever reason they (and the politically well-connected) deem fit… because they can?

– Do laws apply more stringently to “the little people” than “the big fish” whose misdeeds cause far more damage to the nation?

– Do leaders privately flaunt how they passed controversial bills through a ‘lack of transparency’ and despite ‘the stupidity of the American voter?’  (After all, ve know vats best for us you!)

– Do nine unelected people get to torture repeatedly the plain meaning of the highest law of the land to suit whatever the prevailing political whims of the day are?

– Does the chief executive threaten for months to unilaterally ignore established law, even though the clear majority of the electorate opposes such an action on this issue?

– Does the government collaborate with or coerce major companies to assist in creating a surveillance state?

– Does the government threaten, if you decide you’re paying too much tax and decide to emigrate elsewhere, to confiscate a huge chunk of your estate?

Why did I compile such a list on a day like this?  Because these issues have at least one thing in common: THERE IS NOTHING THE MILITARY CAN DO ABOUT THEM (at least, not in a way any lover of freedom would want).  While veterans swear to uphold the Constitution against “all enemies, foreign and domestic,” the reality is we are focused on the former.  THE CITIZENS have to be vigilant and energetic about identifying and marginalizing the latter.

In this, we have failed as an electorate.  For decades we have complained about government inefficiency, ineptitude and corruption, all while asking that same government to do more for us.  Does it not occur to anyone that the more you ask of your government, the more it will demand of you?  Instead of our first instinct being to employ government force (“…there oughta be a law…”), find ways to fix issues as individuals and communities who organize voluntarily.

That is, of course, the main problem.  Most people don’t want to invest the time and energy it takes to be free agents.  They’d rather somebody else do the heavy lifting, even if it means higher taxes to hire people who give a questionable return on investment.  But to the extent you depend on others to do things for you, you are not free.  When Tocqueville traveled through America in the early 1800s, this is what he observed:

…Americans naturally formed groups when they wanted to hold a celebration, found a church, build a school, distribute books or do almost anything else. “Finally, if they want to proclaim a truth or propagate some feeling …they form an association. In every case, at the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government … in the United States you are sure to find an association.”

So.  If you want to thank me, and other veterans on this day:

– Stop demanding the government do things you are capable of doing for yourself.  Only then do you have any chance of being “free.”

– Stop reflexively supporting every military action our leaders propose overseas.  There are times we have to fight.  And there are times certain interests choose to have us fight.  As citizens, you have to discern between the two, and not just rubber stamp every war that’s offered.  And sometimes, the best way to “support the troops” is to demand they stay home.

– Stop electing people you believe are “the lesser of two evils,” and start finding people you can honestly vote FOR, because they seek to be the public’s servant, not its master.  If you want to hold Congress in the same high esteem you apparently hold the military, you’re the ones who have to fix it.

– Hold your leaders accountable.  Show up en masse to let them know when they are out of line.  If necessary, refuse to comply with unconstitutional or immoral legislation.  Take a stand.  It might cost you something, yes.  Freedom usually does.

We will never remain the “land of the free and the home of the brave” solely because of the choices of less than 1 percent of AmericansThe other 99 percent have to be in the struggle as well.

Do you really WANT to be free, America?  Or do you just hope for a tolerable master, and content yourself with complaining when you don’t get one?   The freedom of our children and all future generations depends on how each of us, uniform or not, answer those questions.

Yes, it’s come to this

Tired of incoherent foreign policy?  How about demanding a reassertion of the Constitutional restriction that ONLY the Congress can declare a war — and that this should only happen after a reasonable explanation to the American people of the causes for, and objectives of, such a venture.  Otherwise we’re likely to continue having Presidents who win Nobel Peace Prizes before bombing multiple countries during their reign tenure, and claiming not to have “boots on the ground” while leaving plenty of footprints.

Whose side are we on