The Limits Of Military Power.
Of the 27 major battles in the Revolutionary War, the Colonials prevailed in 13 of them. This was not exactly an ass whipping. Less than half of the battles were won by the rebels, but King George III thought the best of it was long past and it was advised to cut bait. The Royal Crown’s brand wasn’t diminished with this loss, not at all. On the other side of the world, England was faring well in wars against France and securing the Empire’s assets in the East. When finally the Revolutionaries prevailed and the king had to accept defeat, he was at least reasonable about it
He said, “I was the last to consent to the separation; but the separation having been made and having become inevitable, I have always said, as I say now, that I would be the first to meet the friendship of the United States as an independent power.”
The problem with the Revolutionary War for England is the same problem with modern insurgencies. It’s not the war that drives away empires. It’s the bill. After a while, force projection across the world is too expensive.
In Vietnam the US found itself desperate to get out of a war that was marked with both major losses and Pyrrhic victories, like the Tet Offensive in 1968 and Hamburger Hill in 1969. Both were battlefield wins for the ARVN and the US. But the casualties belied the hopelessness of the Vietnam cause. The mounting costs themselves, not battlefield losses motivate the egress of Imperial troops.
The real reason we left Vietnam was obvious only to people who see world power games in light not of territory, but in public relations. What Stalin gained in actual territory and world power he lost in PR. His brutality could never be softened, the flagrant and cavalier extraction of rights from countries once nominally free would forever imprecate the Communist Revolution. Of course nothing tarnished the Communist brand quite like the 1966 Communist Revolution in China, a fanatical grass roots red-neck Communist party saw party loyalists march through towns and beat people because they were intellectuals and most likely opposed to the new reforms. The proof? Well, if you wore glasses, you were intellectual.
In the PR war, every airman marched through the streets of Hanoi, every film of US bodies in the aftermath of a battle, every protest march against the US or allied involvement in the Vietnam War was a PR loss for the west. It was a war that could almost not be won.
That was the real cost of the war. In an open market where Phantoms and MIGS compete for sales, the cheaper, slicker MIG 21s were starting to look good to potential buyers. Hundreds of US planes were downed by MIG 21s in Vietnam. Russia made sure to disseminate these kills in its own sales messaging.
So, yes Vietnam was becoming costly, and the price was being paid in more than dollars. It was wearing down reputation, and that is the hardest currency to inflate.
The point here is that any insurgency can win against invaders if its popular enough to become anchored in the culture, and the locals simply refuse to stop fighting.
The Battle of Algiers was essentially an 8-year rebellion that drove a modern Imperial French Army out of its country by just becoming too expensive to fight and a crumbling reputation that the fighting worsened. The French did everything they could to tamp it down, including torture.
Ghandi’s revolution won independence from the United Kingdom by simply outlasting them. The resistance never subsided, and eventually the Crown thought the best result here would be to cut losses and go home.
The Mujahadeen had a little help from Uncle Sam as they fought to mundify the country of Russian soldiers. The outcome was based on cost, not wins or losses. It was 2004 when the 3rdMarines 6thBattalion secured an operating base in the Korengal Valley and it was 2010 when they marched out, after thousands of casualties. Within hours, the Taliban occupied the outpost and had videos of it on YouTube. The Mujahadeen’s heir-apparents, the Taliban, drove ISAF out of their country not by winning, but by not giving up.
It was just 13 years ago that I recall everyone was all flush about an imminent strike on Iraq, because they had weapons of mass destruction and we had to disarm them. Lone voices sang out protesting evidence of the claim, but eventually, the weight of the media and the play to the salacious and the outrageous fell heavily upon the public.
This turned out to be 99 44/100% wrong. And the tough talk about deposing a dictator ended up with a massive trillion-dollar bill, and another US Army that marched out of a country because we couldn’t stop the insurgency just like Vietnam and just like Afghanistan. Of course the precept over occupied Iraq was a true believer in the project For A New American century. As such, Paul Bremer eschewed the facts of the world or the advice of those who lived there and worked there. Instead Paul Bremer fired the entire Iraqi Army in one fell swoop and helped plant the seeds to the insurgency that would later run him out of the country as well.
In the meantime, the US and allies have conducted tens of thousands of strikes on jihadists all throughout the Mideast and it has done little. Twenty five years ago the US public was fooled into believing that we can stop a massive and hostile Arab force with air power. We have for the most part, not given up on that dream.
It is the blind willfulness to forget that will lead the US and allies into another bloody gallimaufry. It will begin with the vituperous deconstruction of any criticism. It will proceed with more video game footage of airstrikes adumbrated in night vision and cross hairs. It will end with a public exhausted by yet another endless and expensive invasion of a place most of us couldn’t find on a map with two hands and a flashlight.
Originally published at civilianmilitaryintelligencegroup.com on December 23, 2015.