HOW 9/11 CHANGED OUR WAYS OF WAR
By James Burk
Stanford University Press Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
The End of (Military) History?
The Demise of the Western Way of War
Andrew J. Bacevich
"In watching the flow of events over the past decade or so, it is hard to avoid the feeling that something very fundamental has happened in world history." This sentiment, introducing the essay that made Francis Fukuyama a household name, commands renewed attention today, albeit from a different perspective.
Developments during the 1980s, above all the winding down of the Cold War, had convinced Fukuyama that the "end of history" was at hand. "The triumph of the West, of the Western idea," he wrote in 1989, "is evident ... in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism."
Today the West, its leading members wrestling with entrenched economic problems, no longer looks quite so triumphant. Yet events during the first decade of the present century have delivered history to another endpoint of sorts. Although Western liberalism retains considerable appeal and liberal economies may yet demonstrate an ability to get their house in order, the Western way of war has run its course. Whatever doubts may have remained on this score, events since 9/11 have removed them.
For Fukuyama, history implied a Hegelian dialectic. During the twentieth century, that dialectic had found expression in a fierce ideological competition, a contest pitting democratic capitalism against fascism and communism. By the time he published his famous essay, that contest was reaching its denouement. Defined as an unfolding sequence of events, history was likely to continue. As teleological process, however, history, according to Fukuyama, had arrived at an endpoint likely to prove definitive.
Yet from start to finish, military might as much as ideology had determined that competition's course. Throughout much of the twentieth century, great powers had vied with one another to create new, or more effective, instruments of coercion. Military innovation assumed many forms. Most obviously, there were weapons: dreadnoughts and aircraft carriers, rockets and missiles, poison gas and atomic bombs—the list is a long one. Yet in their effort to gain an edge, nations devoted equal attention to other factors: doctrine and organization, training systems and mobilization schemes, intelligence collection and war plans.
All of this furious activity, whether undertaken by France or Great Britain, Germany or Japan, Russia or the United States, derived from a common belief in the plausibility of victory. Expressed in simplest terms, the Western military tradition reduces to this proposition: war remains a viable instrument of statecraft, the accouterments of modernity serving, if anything, to enhance its utility.
That was theory. Reality, above all the two world wars, told a decidedly different story. Armed conflict in the industrial age reached new heights of lethality and destructiveness. Once begun, wars devoured everything, inflicting staggering material, psychological, and moral damage. Pain vastly exceeded gain. In that regard, the war of 1914–1918 became emblematic: even the winners ended up losers. When fighting eventually stopped, the victors were left not to celebrate but to mourn. As a consequence, well before Fukuyama penned his essay, faith in war's problem-solving capacity had begun to erode. As early as 1945, among several great powers—thanks to their affinity for war, now great in name only—that faith disappeared altogether.
Among nations classified as liberal democracies, only two resisted this trend. One was the United States, the sole major belligerent to emerge from World War II stronger, richer, and more confident. The second was Israel, created as a direct consequence of the horrors unleashed by that cataclysm and the criminal regime of Nazi Germany. By the 1950s, both countries subscribed to this conviction that national security (and, arguably, national survival) demanded unambiguous military superiority. In the lexicon of American and Israeli politics, peace was a code word. The essential prerequisite of peace was for any and all adversaries, real or potential, to accept a condition of permanent inferiority. In this regard, the two nations—not yet intimate allies—stood apart from the rest of the Western world.
So even as they professed their devotion to peace, civilian and military elites in the United States and Israel prepared obsessively for war. They saw no contradiction between rhetoric and reality. In the United States, this preoccupation with war gave rise to the national security state, a vast network of institutions, governmental and nongovernmental alike, centered on the misleadingly named Department of Defense. In Israel, the preoccupation with war found expression in the creation of a people's army, which became (and remains) the preeminent manifestation of the nation and the state. To be an Israeli citizen, remarked one Israel Defense Force (IDF) chief of staff, "was to be a soldier on eleven months annual leave."
Yet belief in the efficacy of military power almost inevitably breeds the temptation to put that power to work. This is especially true among nations (like the United States) fired by crusading instincts, sometimes bordering on messianic delusions, or those (like Israel) imbued with a deep and pervasive sense of insecurity, sometimes bordering on paranoia. For missionaries and for the fearful, armed might held in readiness to defend the nation does not suffice. Thus does "peace through strength" all too easily translate into "peace as the product of war."
Israel succumbed to this temptation in the conflicts undertaken in 1956 and then in 1967. Both were wars of choice, begun because Israelis (politicians in 1956, generals in 1967) saw an opportunity for what they expected to be an easy win.
Although the Suez War yielded none of the expected results, the Six Day War proved a turning point. The IDF smashed several Arab armies and seized huge swathes of territory. Plucky and audacious David had defeated—and thereby became—Goliath. Even as the United States was flailing about in Vietnam, Israelis appeared to have succeeded in mastering war.
It took a quarter-century before U.S. forces seemingly caught up. In 1991, Operation Desert Storm, George H.W. Bush's war against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, showed that American troops, like Israeli soldiers, knew how to win and to do so quickly, cheaply, and humanely.
U.S. generals such as H. Norman Schwarzkopf persuaded themselves that their brief desert campaign against Iraq had matched—even surpassed—the battlefield exploits of such famous Israeli warriors as Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, and Ariel Sharon. For the U.S. military, Vietnam now faded into irrelevance, an embarrassing memory happily expunged (or at least buried). For the American officer corps, Desert Storm signified redemption. Better still was the conviction that this successful foray into the desert was anything but a one-off event; American soldiers (and many members of the American public) deemed it a portent. Desert Storm foretold a future in which conflicts, according to one senior U.S. officer, were certain to be "short, decisive, and accompanied by a minimum of casualties."
For both Israel and the United States, however, appearances proved deceptive. Apart from fostering large illusions, the splendid wars of 1967 and 1991 decided remarkably little. In both cases, victory turned out to be more apparent than real, especially with regard to political implications. From winning came unintended and undesirable consequences. Worse still, triumphalism fostered massive future miscalculation.
On the Golan Heights, in Gaza, and throughout the West Bank, proponents of a Greater Israel—disregarding Washington's objections—set out to assert permanent control over territory that Israel had gained. Yet "facts on the ground" created by successive waves of Jewish settlers did little to enhance Israeli security. They succeeded chiefly in shackling Israel to a rapidly growing and resentful Palestinian population that the Jewish state would not assimilate and the IDF could not pacify.
In the Persian Gulf, the benefits reaped by the United States after 1991 likewise proved ephemeral. Despite his defeat in the so-called Mother of All Battles, Saddam Hussein survived, becoming in the eyes of successive U.S. administrations an imminent threat to regional stability. This perception prompted (or provided a pretext for) a radical reorientation of U.S. strategy. The Carter Doctrine of 1980 had declared that the United States would prevent any unfriendly outside power from controlling the oil-rich Persian Gulf. After 1991 that was no longer enough: Washington now sought to dominate the entire Greater Middle East. Hegemony became the implicit aim. Yet the United States proved no more successful than Israel in imposing its writ.
During the 1990s, the Pentagon embarked upon what became its own variant of a settlement policy. Yet U.S. bases dotting the Islamic world and U.S. forces moving in and out of the region proved hardly more welcome than the Israeli settlements dotting the occupied territories and the IDF soldiers assigned to protect them. In both cases, presence provoked (or provided a pretext for) resistance. Just as Palestinians vented their anger at the Zionists in their midst, radical Islamists targeted Americans whom they regarded as neocolonial infidels.
The Six Day War had not really ended in six days. The Persian Gulf War of 1990–1991 had not really ended with its celebrated 100-hour ground campaign. Seemingly decisive victories had created conditions conducive to more violence. Most Europeans would have found such an outcome unsurprising. Yet few Israelis and fewer Americans were prepared to assess the implications of this troubling fact.
No one doubted that Israelis (regionally) and Americans (globally) enjoyed unquestioned military dominance. Throughout Israel's year abroad, its tanks, fighter-bombers, and warships operated at will. So, too, did American tanks, fighter-bombers, and warships wherever they were sent.
So what? Events made it increasingly evident that military dominance did not reliably and predictably translate into concrete political advantage. Although Israeli and American national security elites remained deeply invested in the Clausewitzian conception of war as an instrument of policy—"politics by other means"—the outcomes achieved when employing that instrument rarely lived up to expectations.
Rather than enhancing the prospects for peace, coercion regularly produced ever more complications and more than a few nasty surprises. No matter how badly battered and beaten, the "terrorists" (a catch-all term applied to anyone resisting Israeli or American authority) were not intimidated, remained unrepentant, and kept coming back for more, devising tactics against which forces optimized for conventional combat did not have a ready response. The term invented for this was "asymmetric conflict," loosely translated as war against adversaries who won't fight the way we want them to.
Israel ran smack into this problem during Operation Peace for Galilee, its 1982 invasion of Lebanon. U.S. forces encountered it a decade later during Operation Restore Hope, the West's self-congratulatory titled foray into Somalia. Lebanon possessed a puny army; Somalia had none at all. Rather than producing peace or restoring hope, however, both operations ended in frustration, embarrassment, and failure. There were also moral problems that clashed with Israeli and American assertions of a humane and liberal democratic identity. Both armies preferred to make war against armies; increasingly, they found themselves fighting groups that the term "army" did not adequately describe.
According to its "iron wall" strategic paradigm, a militant Israel demonstrating implacable strength would ultimately leave its adversaries no alternative but to make peace on terms acceptable to the Jewish state. By the end of the twentieth century, that strategy had achieved modest but not inconsequential success. First, in 1979 came a peace agreement with authoritarian Egypt. Then in 1994 came an agreement with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, a weak state held together by a precarious monarchy. More important than either of these was Israel's hard-won alliance with the United States, forged in the last third of the twentieth century. American arms and diplomatic support played an invaluable role in buttressing Israel's iron wall.
Yet for Israel, the episode in Lebanon proved but a harbinger of worse things to come. By the 1980s, the IDF's glory days had passed. Rather than lightning strikes deep into the enemy rear, the narrative of Israeli military history became a cheerless recital of dirty wars—unconventional conflicts against irregular forces yielding problematic results. The First Intifada (1987–1993), the Second Intifada (2000–2005), a second Lebanon War (2006), and Operation Cast Lead, the notorious 2008–2009 incursion into Gaza, all conformed to this pattern. One effect of these encounters was to tarnish Israel's image internationally. Actions that Israeli governments depicted as taken in self-defense looked to others like heavy-handed bullying. This had profound political implications as Israel faced increasing criticism from abroad and even diplomatic isolation. For better or worse, this served to increase Israel's reliance on the United States as its superpower patron. Stubbornly persisting in their belief that war works, the two democracies stood together, but increasingly alone.
Meanwhile, the differential between Palestinian and Jewish Israeli birth rates emerged as a looming threat—a "demographic bomb," Benjamin Netanyahu called it. Here were new facts on the ground that military forces, unless employed pursuant to a policy of ethnic cleansing, could do little to redress. American-manufactured F-16s or Apache attack helicopters were of no value in suppressing Arab fertility rates. Even as the IDF tried repeatedly and futilely to bludgeon movements such as Hamas and Hezbollah into submission, demographic trends continued to suggest that within a generation a majority of those living within Israel and the occupied territories would be Arab.
Trailing a decade or so behind Israel, the U.S. military nonetheless succeeded in duplicating the IDF's experience. Moments of glory remained, but they would prove fleeting. After 9/11, American efforts to dominate (or, in Washington's preferred term, to "liberate") the Greater Middle East kicked into high gear. In Afghanistan and Iraq, George W. Bush's global war on terror began impressively enough, as U.S. forces operated with the speed and élan that had once been an Israeli trademark. Thanks to "shock and awe," Kabul fell in 2001, then Baghdad in 2003. In remarkably short order, military action had seemingly achieved its intended political objectives.
Landing on the deck of the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003, George W. Bush sought to affirm that verdict. Here lay the symbolic significance of the famous (or infamous) "Mission Accomplished" banner that served as a flamboyant backdrop for that visit: by declaring the job all but done, the commander in chief, his personal prestige and authority at their highest, was attempting to rebut or refute the view that war had become pointless. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, American technology, professionalism, and bravery had made war once again purposeful—controlled, cost-effective violence yielding intended outcomes. The results so spectacularly achieved in Afghanistan and Iraq seemingly proved this.
As one senior Army general explained to Congress the following year, the Pentagon had war all figured out:
We are now able to create decision superiority that is enabled by networked systems, new sensors and command and control capabilities that are producing unprecedented near real time situational awareness, increased information availability; and an ability to deliver precision munitions throughout the breadth and depth of the battlespace.... Combined, these capabilities of the future networked force will leverage information dominance, speed and precision, and result in decision superiority.
The key phrase in this mass of techno-blather was the one that occurred twice: "decision superiority." The American officer corps knew it knew how to win.
Excerpted from HOW 9/11 CHANGED OUR WAYS OF WAR by James Burk. Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press.
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