All the Burdens of an Empire, Without any of the Perks.
Military planners love to lament dirty little counterinsurgencies and day dream about “real” wars, but when you look at the history of American warfare, big, traditional, conventionally-fought wars — “good” wars — are few and far between.
Counterinsurgency has been referred to as “graduate-level” warfare. This is nonsense. If one looks at the history of wars fought by the Armed Forces of the United States, overwhelmingly our military experience has been with insurgencies. As insurgents ourselves, fighting for independence, or eradicating and expelling indigenous American populations to secure our expansion, subduing Cuban and Philippine natives we had liberated from Spain, and the countless “Banana Wars” fought throughout Latin America and the Caribbean as we sought to stabilize the chaos unleashed with the removal of that autocratic imperial power, battling Chinese Boxers, or Russian Bolsheviks… Military planners love to lament dirty little counterinsurgencies and day dream about “real” wars, but when you look at the history of American warfare, big, traditional, conventionally-fought wars — “good” wars — are few and far between. We like to consider ourselves a peaceful nation which is only begrudgingly pushed into war. Unfortunately that sentiment doesn’t hold up against the fact that in our 240 years of independence, we’ve been involved in open military conflict of some sort for all but 53. The longest period of consecutive years the United States has not been engaged in some kind of war was on average 7 years; which consist specifically of the period right after the Revolutionary War (1783–1790), and between the last of the “Indian Wars” and the Spanish-American War (1891–1898).
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars end up remembered about as well as [the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection] in future history.
The “Afghanistan War” is now often referred to as America’s longest war, but this is somewhat factually erroneous when you consider the aforementioned Indian Wars, a sustained campaign of counterinsurgency against indigenous Americans (a positive way of describing a pre-industrial Lebensraum campaign — but that’s another discussion) which was fought for 96 years. (1790–1891… with a few “breaks”) As a student of history, I think the best parallel to the contemporary amorphous campaigns overseas in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East is the 1898 Spanish-American War and the subsequent campaigns which went on for nearly twenty years afterward in Cuba, the Philippines and elsewhere. Ironically, there’s even a similar “conspiracy” associated with the start of both of the starter-wars; the explosion aboard the USS Maine in Havana and the threat of weapons of mass destruction in Baghdad. Naturally, like all analogies it isn’t perfect, as the 9/11 attacks and the Afghanistan War happened before we invaded Iraq, but there are still some apt comparisons. Though the “Philippine-American” War technically ended when we granted independence to the Philippines in 1902, the insurrection in which American servicemen continually fought and died, continued until 1913. We would go on to essentially act as the military for the “independent” Philippines thirty years later when the Japanese invaded. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars end up remembered about as well as those conflicts in future history.
It was fear of a Europe dominated by Germany at the expense of our ally Britain and an Asia dominated by Japan which came into conflict with our Pacific interests which led to war, not humanitarian sentiments.
History shows that a nation rarely gets the chance to choose the conflicts it finds itself involved in, and when it does, it rarely unfolds in a way that it intended. However, a good rule of military history to follow is quite simple; there is a better chance of winning a war if you aren’t the one who starts it. Just ask Germany. For example, if history were to repeat itself exactly today, the argument would likely be made that it was a moral imperative for US to go to war with Japan and Germany for their inhumane treatment of their ethnic minorities (for the former, recall that from 1910–1945, Korea was considered legally part of Japan) and their aggressive threats towards their neighbors well before either of them actually invaded another country. Now, these arguments were made, mind you, but the justification which was actually used for going to war against Japan and Germany however, was not their inhumane actions or aggressive bellicosity; it was a combination of their military attacks on our allies and their direct strikes against us. Not even FDR was concerned for the humanitarian crisis caused by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, so much as he was the danger it posed to America with regards to global stability and security. It was fear of a Europe dominated by Germany at the expense of our ally Britain and an Asia dominated by Japan which came into conflict with our Pacific interests which led to war, not humanitarian sentiments.
The difference between the 1991 Iraq War and the 2003 Iraq War was that in ’91 we liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation — not Iraqis from the Ba’ath Party.
A second rule of military history is that you cannot liberate a people from themselves, only from foreign occupation and oppression. We liberated Western Europe from German occupation and the Pacific nations from Japanese occupation. We did not liberate Germans from the Nazis or Japanese from the militarists. Our military efforts in World War II were designed to defeat Germany and Japan by killing enough of them and destroying as much infrastructure as possible to force them to capitulate as a nation and a people. While it was understood then as today that the Germans and Japanese were being oppressed by authoritarian one-party states, we had no illusions that the existence and success of the authority of those governments was a result of the implicit and overt consent of the governed — a founding principle of our own government. This allowed us to dispense with false and limiting self-imposed restrictions which would have ultimately hindered our war effort and we subsequently set a clearly understood and articulated end-state for victory — unconditional surrender — which meant continuing to kill Japanese and Germans until they stopped fighting and collectively assumed responsibility. Look to German and Japanese society to see the fruits borne of total war against the population of authoritarian governments and compare that to Iraq. The difference between the 1991 Iraq War and the 2003 Iraq War was that in ’91 we liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation — not Iraqis from the Ba’ath Party. What would a post-Ayatollah Iran portend?
The dirty secret… is that the way to defeat an insurgency is to either kill everyone who might pose a threat or co-opt them through bribery or employment. Period.
This is half of the source of our inability to “win” the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Liberating people from their own government as an occupying foreign power, regardless the goodness of your intentions, inevitably breeds contempt and insurgency; especially if you destroy a country’s infrastructure and institutions and fail to adequately rebuild it in a timely manner. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s famous quip that if you “break it, you buy it” referred specifically to the destruction wrought on the infrastructure of Iraq, which was necessary in order to defeat Saddam with conventional forces. At the end of the invasion of Iraq in May 2003, when President George W. Bush triumphantly announced the “end of major combat operations”, the Iraqi people had not been defeated; only their military and government. The people may have hated Hussein and the Ba’ath Party, but they still needed running water, electricity, public transportation, and a paycheck. Once we had effectively eliminated all of those things, no one cared that they had been “liberated” from an oppressive and autocratic government and their attention turned to the most visible reason for their plight. The dirty secret about dirty wars (and why I scoff at the notion of it being “graduate level” warfare) is that the way to defeat an insurgency (or prevent one) is to either kill everyone who might pose a threat or co-opt them through bribery or employment. Period. Forget the oft-cited success story of the British in Malaysia; that’s how the Russians managed to successfully occupy half of Europe for 50 years.
What we’re really seeing… [is] the final unraveling of 500 years of European domination.
Which leads into the inevitable discussion which asks the question of why so much of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East are suddenly unstable and racked by violence in the last few decades. Is it Islam? Not likely, given that Islam has been a deep-rooted part of the societies and cultures of those regions for a millennia. Is it endemic poverty? This is a compelling reason, given that the majority of those filling the ranks of the organizations waging war in these regions are what we call “military-aged males” who are unemployed and disaffected. But this is just a symptom being exploited by others — poor and hungry people don’t fight for a cause. And what of the rise of groups like the so-called “Islamic State” and the tribal wars which are sprouting across what was once the bastion of the “Arab Spring”? No, what we’re really seeing is a combination of all of this, and while there are many who saw liberal ideals in the various “springs” which arose in response to the despotic regimes of that part of the world, confusion abounded when in many instances the replacement was worse. The explanation is rather simple, but not one we or the rest of the “West” want to hear. The final unraveling of 500 years of European domination. What we are witnessing is the “rest” of the world going through the same civilizational growing pains Europe did up until the end of the Second World War.
These conflicts would be indistinguishable from the din of war which existed for a millennia and a half before the “Cold War” forced everything into an ideological prism that only had two facets.
These areas in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, were forced into artificial polities of the Westphalian model, which did not reflect their own ethno-linguistic or cultural and religious realities and in many instances (sometimes purposefully) exacerbated animosities. The end of the Second World War effectively meant the end of European empires which dissipated over the next few decades. The two remaining world powers — the United States and Soviet Union — had a vested interest in exploiting the remaining colonial order, however, and so it was effectively “frozen” in place. The only places where this order effectively crumbled were immediately divided into opposing “ideological” camps which in reality had nothing to do with the actual conflict taking place. It is no wonder that after the collapse of the Soviet Union the first place to descend into ethnic conflict was the last holdout in Europe with unresolved animosities and in need of “border adjustments”, the Balkans; the remainder having been settled by forced resettlement, displacement due to war, or genocide. The spiral of violence gained momentum soon afterward. Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda. The Somali Civil War. Liberia and Sierra Leone. The Congo Wars. Lord’s Resistance Army. Boko Haram. Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in Iraq. Tuaregs in Mali. Alawites and Arabs in Syria. Houthis in Yemen. Libya. Afghanistan. And now even in eastern Ukraine. Far from being an “alarming trend” or the sign of coming chaos, these conflicts would be indistinguishable from the din of war which existed for a millennia and a half before the “Cold War” forced everything into an ideological prism that only had two facets. In fact, when one looks past that geopolitical overlay of “Communist” (and now “Islamist”) aggression one can begin to see this same “post-colonial” restructuring all the way back to 1945.
Washington’s farewell address is often used to invoke an isolationist policy toward the world, but he was more of a proponent of realpolitik than those who invented the term.
And now we, as the leader of the “free” and civilized world are burdened with the responsibility to chastise billions of people for striving for self-determination. It’s all well and good to wag our finger at bloodshed and violence over a border which doesn’t reflect the ethno-linguist or cultural and religious divides of a country or region; after all we have the historical experience and hindsight to know how destructive and self-defeating it can be. But, we cannot lose sight of the fact that from the perspective of those fighting today it seems more than a bit hypocritical and disingenuous to chide them for what we have done exponentially worse ourselves. Were we an empire, such as the British were at their height, I could see justification in our continuance of these dirty little wars. But an empire fights these wars as a way of keeping hold of its hard-won territory, which reap rewards for the home country. We are not an empire, however, and continue to receive nothing from our continued military involvement in other peoples’ wars; only expenses. Humanitarian concerns should not be ignored — we aren’t monsters — but our primary objectives as a Nation when it comes to foreign policy and military intervention should not ignore reality for the sake of ideology and principle. Where have I heard that before? Oh yeah:
“The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connexion [sic] as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop.”
President George Washington’s farewell address is often used to invoke an isolationist policy toward the world, but he was more of a proponent of realpolitik than those who invented the term.