Overestimating the military

Fred presciently cautioned the nation several weeks prior to America’s somewhat exaggerated celebration of its SEALs:

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…. In their elevated estimation of their powers, (which is not personal egotism) militaries routinely underestimate the difficulty and duration of their wars.

I have to admit, I have been more than a bit underwhelmed by the supposedly exemplary performance of the strike team that is reported to have killed Osama bin Laden. All of the congratulatory posturing on the part of civilian America strikes me as more than a bit ignorant. While I’m glad there were no American casualties, if you manage to lose a $15.6 million helicopter in exchange for killing a few elderly, unarmed men, it’s not exactly indicative of superlative performance in the mode of Hannibal at Cannae.

What many Americans don’t realize is that many militaries sincerely believe they are the best in the world. The British can’t mention their armed forces without reflexively adding “of course, man for man, the best army in the world.” The Canadians think their air force is the best, the Israelis think that defeating Arab armies some 40 years ago makes theirs the best.

The fact of the matter is that the quality of a military force and its material is significantly less important than how it is utilized. Mahan’s historical treatise on sea power makes it abundantly clear that there were numerous occasions when the French, or the French and the Spanish, had better ships and more of them, but failed to seek battle at the crucial junctures and therefore lost what were eminently winnable wars. Indeed, the French could have easily become the dominant sea power and were well on their way to doing so, but the Sun King, Louis XIV, was fatally distracted by trivial continental endeavors and thereby threw away the formidable naval machine that Colbert had built up for him.

The more military history one reads, the more one realizes that much of the discussion of the spear’s head is virtually beside the point. This isn’t to take anything away from the heroism and the personal sacrifices made by the soldiery, but rather, to point out that such things should not be permitted to go to waste by an overly politicized officer class and politicians who blithely decide to invade foreign countries regardless of the level of the national interest.

And it is impossible to argue with Fred’s observance that the U.S. military is no different than any other in its inability to realistically forecast the difficulty and duration of its engagements.