America is now involved in its third foreign entanglement of the twenty-first century. Our experience in Afghanistan and Iraq has been mixed, showing that we’re remarkably capable in some tasks and dismally inept in others. Federal debt and deficit may decide how much foreign policy we can sustain, but if we are able to resolve the budget concerns, we do have to consider what conflicts are likely.
The war that we were ready to fight from the late 40s through the 90s was a total war. It would have involved tanks and fighter jets for a few hours, but we all knew that it would get settled with nuclear weapons. That kind of war is still possible, as the nuclear-armed powers haven’t gone away, but barring accident, it’s unlikely. The strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.) means that two nations with a lot of nukes will grumble at each other, but generally remain polite.
Some will suggest nuclear disarmament. While that’s a laudable goal, it’s unrealistic. The technology for making nuclear weapons is widely known. Anyone with the uranium and no concern for longevity can build one in the basement. With a little more skill, such bombs can be churned out with minimal difficulty. There’s no going back from that, and as long as one nation has nuclear weapons, several others will have to have them as well.
But a nuclear world war is much less likely than the kind of war that we’ve seen in the last several decades. These days, the typical conflict is with bothersome little countries that seek to annoy the rest of us. Iraq is a good example of this. Saddam kept interfering with his neighbors and threatening more distant nations. Removing his regime proved to be astonishingly easy. What we saw is that America has a military that can defeat most countries around the world within a month of fighting. That’s our skill.
What happened afterward was a disaster. We don’t know how to occupy a country. We thought we did, but our experience in Germany and Japan at the end of the Second World War doesn’t really apply. In those two situations, we had spent years beating them into abject submission. We were then able to build them back up in our image. That kind of war can never happen again because it was a war against an equal, and our military equals today are in the previous category.
With all of this in mind, what kind of military force do we need in the future? I suggest a three-part force. The first two parts we already have. We need a nuclear force–including bombers, submarines, and missiles–to defend against total war. We need an expeditionary force that can sweep away any minor nation’s government and military, when such action is indicated.
The third force is an occupation force. It will have the training and equipment to act as a police department, civil services sector, better business bureau, and other such offices. The problems of occupation are insurrection, corruption, and tribal interests. The force that I’m picturing must be able to deal with all of those.
Americans, as a rule, don’t like the idea of occupying other countries. We objected to the British, and Southerners objected to Reconstruction. I don’t mean here that we ought to go around taking over small nations just for the enjoyment of it. The trouble is that a few of those will insist on being disagreeable. If we leave them alone, they fester and make more noise (something like children).
This essay is an exercise in realism. That being the case, I have to acknowledge that we’re likely heading into a period in which we can only afford to take care of ourselves, if that. But somebody has to take this role. The United Nations, being run by festering little nations, can’t. The Chinese don’t want the job. The Russians and the British are tired after years of managing empires.
Sacrebleu, I guess that leaves us with the French, if not us. Come on, Americans, get our act together.
The title of this piece comes from a song of the Spanish-American War:
Underneath our starry flag, civilize ’em with a Krag,
And return us to our own beloved homes.
The Krag is the Krag-Jorgensen rifle, America’s first smokeless powder longarm adopted by the Army.