The Week counts and lists the number of wars the United States is currently involved in.
we’re currently at war in (at least) seven countries across the Greater Middle East: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Pakistan…
It would be shockingly easy for the White House and Department of Defense to do whatever they wanted with no meaningful democratic oversight at all. Our wars are fought thousands of miles from American shores with an all-volunteer force drawn from a tiny percentage of the population. Meanwhile, the country has spent the astonishing sum of $250 million a day on war-making for each of the nearly 6,000 days since the 9/11 attacks 16 years ago. Instead of raising taxes to pay for it, Congress has cut taxes, insulating the American people entirely from the cost and handing the bill to future generations of Americans in the form of debt.
Other people fight, other people suffer, other people pay — it’s a recipe for political ignorance and indifference. All the American people know is that there hasn’t been another 9/11. And that one must always, no matter what, “support the troops.” Together these sentiments translate into: “We dare not say anything critical about whatever the military is doing.” That holds for members of Congress no less than for average Americans. Rather than raise questions or concerns, we’re expected to defer. And for the most part we’re all too happy to comply with this debased and degraded form of civic duty.
I have a proposal – fund these wars through a sales tax levied very clearly on everything we buy. Every time you buy a bag of groceries, your receipt would tell you how much you contributed to the war effort. This way, those of us not fighting or sending other people to fight would at least think about it every day, and maybe be willing to speak out against it or at least make the politicians clearly explain to us why it has to be this way.
This report from the Congressional Budget Office contains lots of facts and figures on nuclear weapons, along with some underwhelming proposal for reducing their costs a little bit. But no proposals for limiting them or even scaling them back by much.
What strikes me right away is not how expensive they are, but how cost-effective they actually are. That is, no country could ever afford to match the firepower and deterrent effect of nuclear weapons with conventional weapons. That is one thing that makes them so diabolically hard to get rid of.
The other thing that struck me is how easy they actually are to get rid of. Keeping them in good working order takes a ton of maintenance effort and constant upgrades. It is not just the nuclear material or even the nuclear weapon that has to be upgraded, but the aircraft carriers, submarines, bombers, missile silos, and all the associated hardware, software, and personnel required to keep all of these components running. Just stop investing and pretty soon, you will not have a functional nuclear arsenal. Of course, having a nuclear arsenal in a state of disrepair is probably not a particularly safe thing. To unwind a nuclear program, you would have to have an organized program of decommissioning and destroying the things as they become functionally obsolete. Maybe nobody has given much thought to how to actually do that, so maybe we are locked into maintaining the arsenal because no alternative has been seriously considered.
The report does go into nuclear strategy a little bit. One thing I had never thought about is that if you go for a strategy of “minimum deterrence”, which means just the bare minimum number of weapons needed for a credible threat of retaliation, it might lock you into a strategy of targeting civilians. In other words, you want your opponent to believe you would lob your limited number of weapons at their cities rather than military targets. I’m not sure I quite get that – I suppose the idea is that with more weapons you could retaliate against military targets first, see how that goes, and still have the option of taking out cities as a last resort, really just out of spite. It’s also possible that with a smaller arsenal, a weak leader could be more tempted to launch a preemptive strike. I have a hard time seeing the morality of any of these scenarios.
The “liquid metal” from Terminator 2 is finally here, although it is not trying to kill us (yet). Still, if they start making autonomous drones out of this stuff…
“If you look at conventional aircraft technology, you have so many moving parts,” says Othmane Benafan, an engineer at NASA’s Glenn Research Center. Those moving parts are essential—they are how pilots steer, reduce turbulence, take off, land, and basically do everything else besides glide aimlessly. But the actuators, cables, motors, lubricant, hydraulic gear, and other bits needed move those parts around take up weight and space—precious resources on any aircraft.
The alternative is to move those wing parts using shapeshifting metals. Or, as they’re known to engineers, shape memory alloys. “Parts made from shape memory alloys are typically 10 to 20 percent the size and weight of a conventional part,” says Jim Mabe, a shape memory alloy guru at Boeing. For an industry that spent $133 billion on fuel last year, anything smaller and lighter is exciting news.
Shape memory alloys are essentially reversible Shrinky Dinks. When heated to certain temperatures, they shrink, twist, and bend. Cool them off, and they return to their original shape. Hot, cold, hot—shape memory alloys can cycle back and forth millions of times without wearing out. All you need is the ability to generate heat or pull it from some other, already spicy hot part of the plane, like the engine.
Why do governments start wars when they kind of know that long, drawn-out wars end up being bad for all sides. A new book by Lawrence Freedman suggests it is because they think they can deliver an early knockout blow and achieve some limited objective. Technology tends to aid and abet that belief.
Freedman — an emeritus professor at King’s College London, one of Britain’s pre-eminent strategic thinkers and a former member of its official Iraq war inquiry — argues that the prognosticators often expect to limit the destructiveness of the next war through a surprise knockout blow. But they tend to overlook what happens if that first salvo doesn’t win a quick victory, underestimating the salience of demographics and economic capacity while overestimating citizens’ willingness to keep on fighting and dying in a prolonged struggle. Bloody stalemates at the front can spark revolutions, mutinies or civil wars at home…
There’s an important Asian case in point, mentioned only briefly here, that strongly supports Freedman’s warnings against delusions of knockout battles: Japan in World War II. Plotting their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese militarists hoped to win some quick victories and then negotiate peace on more favorable terms…
Today the allure of a swift victory comes packaged in new military technologies combining information with more accurate targeting from afar, killing enemies without endangering American soldiers. Freedman is unbeguiled by our current tech obsession. While studies of the evolution of warfare have often concentrated on newfangled weaponry like machine guns, nuclear submarines or artificial intelligence, he spurns the “constant temptation to believe that there were technical fixes for what were essentially political problems.”
Warontherocks.com has some suggestions on what a non-military U.S. foreign strategy could look like. Nothing earth shattering, basically it’s supporting emerging democracies and international institutions like the UN and WTO.
The intercept has a long piece on the U.S. military’s misadventures in Africa. Sometimes I wonder if there is really any geopolitical strategy, or if it is as simple as they are fighting us because we’re there, and we’re there because they’re fighting us. If this is the case, there is clearly no military solution. But if the military is making its own foreign policy and conducting diplomacy directly with foreign militaries, is it surprising that military ideas are the only ideas?
This American Historical Assocation blog talks about the dangers of so many generals being appointed to senior positions in the U.S. civilian government.
Cohen cautioned that it is normal for tension to arise in civil-military relations and that political generals have appeared at various points in American history. But he noted that the military is a far more powerful and important institution than it was prior to America’s rise to global dominance, making these tensions more serious. Like Kohn (and Whitt in her introduction to the briefing), Cohen is concerned about the growing separation of the military from civilian elites, noting, for example, that ROTC programs are far less common in our leading universities than they once were. He also worries that the high public esteem currently enjoyed by the military harbors hidden dangers. Maintaining civilian control of the military depends as much on “norms” as laws, and those norms are under assault.
These troubling trends make the generals’ prominent roles in the present administration a particular cause for concern. Kohn worried about the dearth of other agency voices to counterbalance the “troika” of Mattis, McMaster, and Kelly. Generals, he pointed out, are not diplomats or politicians, lacking their knowledge and experience. Although McMaster and the other generals probably see themselves—and are certainly seen by others—as “catastrophe insurance” for an erratic administration, they are trained to follow the orders of their commander-in-chief even if they consider those orders unwise. The irony here is that their commitment to civilian control and the chain of command limits their ability to influence or restrain the president.
Cohen agreed. He feared, for example, that the “troika” is less likely than civilian officials to resist or undermine a lawful directive by the president that they regard as reckless: going to war with North Korea was raised as an example. The only circumstance that might lead them to resign, he suggested, was if their honor was besmirched in the manner of Trump’s humiliation of Jeff Sessions. Cohen also warned of the rise of a “benign junta.” Noting that everyone in government is “the prisoner of their rolodexes,” he worried that Mattis, McMaster, and Kelly are likely to recruit fellow officers to staff junior positions, thereby expanding the military’s influence over the civilian sector.
Okay, it is not falling quite yet, but The Intercept has a review of two books that make a persuasive case we are witnessing its decline.
Wright sees the system under threat from a combination of newly emerging powers and recent American missteps. McCoy, for his part, sees the unraveling of the U.S. empire as analogous to the series of events that led to the decline of the British and French empires before it. The first step is the loss of support from local elites in territories under imperial influence, a process that McCoy says is clearly underway for the U.S. in many critical regions of the world. In recent years, America has seen its ties strained with military partners such as Turkey, the Philippines, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, while major U.S. allies like Germany and South Korea have increasingly come to question America’s capacity to continue leading the imperial system that it created.
It is the Arab Spring uprisings against mostly pro-U.S. dictators, however, that McCoy says marked the slow beginning of the end of American imperium. While the revolts are widely judged to have failed in bringing about liberal democracy, they did succeed in unseating longtime American allies in Tunisia and Egypt, while straining U.S. ties with Gulf Arab countries and even Iraq. As McCoy writes, “All modern empires have relied on dependable surrogates to translate their global power into local control.” He adds, “For most of them, the moment when those elites began to stir, talk back, and assert their own agendas was also the moment when you knew that imperial collapse was in the cards.” The British empire famously became a “self-liquidating concern” when local elites across the empire began demanding self-rule, as did France’s far-flung rule when it was forced to wage a grinding war of attrition to keep control over Algeria. The Arab Spring and the forces it unleashed, which have reduced U.S. influence while exhausting its resources to deal with terrorism and migration, “may well contribute, in the fullness of time, to the eclipse of American global power…”
Partly as a consequence of so many self-inflicted losses, China, Russia, and Iran have all mounted growing challenges to American hegemony in recent years, contesting the tenets of the U.S.-enforced order in the South China Sea, eastern Europe and the Middle East, respectively. Russia has successfully annexed territory and asserted its influence along its periphery, in places like Ukraine, while China has moved ahead with plans to put the economically-vital South China Sea region under its control. Instead of a world in which a hegemonic U.S. enforces the political and economic rules of engagement in these regions, its now possible to see a future in which the world is carved up into a “spheres of influence” system that gives regional powers wide latitude to set the agenda in their immediate neighborhood.
Love the republic, hate the empire. Or at least let the empire go and maybe breathe a sigh of relief to let some of the self-imposed responsibility go with it. But if we are going to do that, we need to support and strengthen international institutions that promote peace, trade, and human rights. Instead we seem to be abandoning those institutions at the same time we are abdicating responsibility.
This surprising study from Boston University and University of Minnesota concludes that military families that suffered casualties in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars might have been the swing voters that put Trump over the top in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
Kriner, Douglas L. and Shen, Francis X., Battlefield Casualties and Ballot Box Defeat: Did the Bush-Obama Wars Cost Clinton the White House? (June 19, 2017). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2989040
America has been at war continuously for over 15 years, but few Americans seem to notice. This is because the vast majority of citizens have no direct connection to those soldiers fighting, dying, and returning wounded from combat. Increasingly, a divide is emerging between communities whose young people are dying to defend the country, and those communities whose young people are not. In this paper we empirically explore whether this divide—the casualty gap—contributed to Donald Trump’s surprise victory in November 2016. The data analysis presented in this working paper finds that indeed, in the 2016 election Trump was speaking to this forgotten part of America. Even controlling in a statistical model for many other alternative explanations, we find that there is a significant and meaningful relationship between a community’s rate of military sacrifice and its support for Trump. Our statistical model suggests that if three states key to Trump’s victory – Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin – had suffered even a modestly lower casualty rate, all three could have flipped from red to blue and sent Hillary Clinton to the White House. There are many implications of our findings, but none as important as what this means for Trump’s foreign policy. If Trump wants to win again in 2020, his electoral fate may well rest on the administration’s approach to the human costs of war. Trump should remain highly sensitive to American combat casualties, lest he become yet another politician who overlooks the invisible inequality of military sacrifice. More broadly, the findings suggest that politicians from both parties would do well to more directly recognize and address the needs of those communities whose young women and men are making the ultimate sacrifice for the country.
I acknowledge and am willing to believe the numbers. I am not sure I buy the conclusions these authors draw from the numbers – that communities with ties to the military will vote for candidates they think are least likely to send their children off to war. On the contrary, I would hypothesize that people in these communities might respond more strongly to patriotic rhetoric, and be more likely to support military approaches to geopolitical problems.
This is a new book arguing that winning battles is not enough to win a war. From Amazon:
History has tended to measure war’s winners and losers in terms of its major engagements, battles in which the result was so clear-cut that they could be considered “decisive.” Cannae, Konigsberg, Austerlitz, Midway, Agincourt-all resonate in the literature of war and in our imaginations as tide-turning. But these legendary battles may or may not have determined the final outcome of the wars in which they were fought. Nor has the “genius” of the so-called Great Captains – from Alexander the Great to Frederick the Great and Napoleon – play a major role. Wars are decided in other ways.
Cathal J. Nolan’s The Allure of Battle systematically and engrossingly examines the great battles, tracing what he calls “short-war thinking,” the hope that victory might be swift and wars brief. As he proves persuasively, however, such has almost never been the case. Even the major engagements have mainly contributed to victory or defeat by accelerating the erosion of the other side’s defences. Massive conflicts, the so-called “people’s wars,” beginning with Napoleon and continuing until 1945, have consisted of and been determined by prolonged stalemate and attrition, industrial wars in which the determining factor has been not military but matériel.
Nolan’s masterful book places battles squarely and mercilessly within the context of the wider conflict in which they took place. In the process it help corrects a distorted view of battle’s role in war, replacing popular images of the “battles of annihilation” with somber appreciation of the commitments and human sacrifices made throughout centuries of war particularly among the Great Powers. Accessible, provocative, exhaustive, and illuminating, The Allure of Battle will spark fresh debate about the history and conduct of warfare.