Over the past year, the American intelligentsia has expended no small amount of cerebral capital in an effort to articulate, if not delineate, visions of empire. Whatever form a Pax Americana might take, it will almost certainly require expanded use of the U.S. military. Although there is virtual unanimity of opinion in the ranks of the Army's officer corps that war with Iraq -- the cornerstone of the new order -- will likely result in a U.S. military victory, interviews with dozens of active-duty and retired officers, as well as reviews of recent military studies and articles, found that there is, nonetheless, a marked lack of enthusiasm in some segments of the officer corps not just for the Iraq mission but for its greater implications for the military as well as the society it defends.
Within military ranks, according to one midlevel officer, "one group believes that our Constitution is the right way to go for everyone and that we have a moral imperative to give everyone the world over the opportunity to have that device. You have another group that sees our military as a defensive weapon to use in the face of an actual threat to the nation, which means in this context enthusiasm about taking on Al Qaeda but not Iraq. Then there's a smaller group that believes political leaders, instead of really addressing problems and resource issues, are going to go out and empire-grab and disguise it as something else so we can feed a warped version of the American dream, in which we continue to consume more resources and produce more waste, rather than really struggle with what it takes to keep the American dream viable and inspirational in a world of six billion people."
Such opinions, said the officer -- a respected, active-duty combat veteran and analyst well-known in military circles -- are all subordinate to sworn oaths; "wherever any of us are told to go and fight, we will," he said. But, he added, what concerns many officers is how the debate over visions of empire overemphasizes the role of technology and ignores certain variables that just might make "empire-building" a bit more complex -- and consequential -- than many imagine. If not acknowledged and responsibly addressed now, these issues very well could mushroom into much larger problems, not just for the U.S. military but for America itself.
After the Shooting Stops -- The arcane nature of these problems all but assures their lack of wide recognition. Take, for example, the matter of personnel. Despite the wishing-will-make-it-so qualities of some in the pundit class, the most conservative estimate for the number of troops required in a post-Saddam Iraq is 50,000 for at least one year. Many military officers and civilian analysts -- including some leading hawks -- privately acknowledge that the number and time requirement will be vastly greater, perhaps lasting years and requiring forces that run to six digits. British troops have been told to anticipate at least three years of post-Saddam occupation duty.
While the Iraqi people may initially respond to the deposing of Saddam Hussein and his clique with euphoria, many officers do not expect a quick or easy transition to anything resembling stability or democracy; indeed, some who have made a close study of the region anticipate "spheres of simultaneous civil conflict all over Iraq," as one put it, that will tax resources as well as U.S. public opinion. Officers also have real concerns about anti-U.S. backlashes or acts of terrorism down the road -- not just against occupation forces in Iraq but against Americans all over the world. These situations may require the dispatch of anything from small special operations detachments to scores of smaller expeditionary forces.
Yet today, infantry forces are less than half their Vietnam-era strength. An August 2002 Army conference found that two-thirds of the Army's Special Forces are currently spread out over 85 countries, and that "the rate of increased employment since 9/11 cannot be sustained within current structures." The conclave also concluded that "many military occupational specialties and organizations that are important... for winning the global war on terrorism, are of low density," and that the current force structure does not meet "the exigencies of the global war on terrorism," let alone long-term operations in Iraq.
Robert Barry, the U.S. diplomat who headed the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission in Bosnia from 1998 to 2001, recently noted in London's Observer that "given the need to rotate units to their home bases and maintain readiness elsewhere," the United States and Britain won't be able to sustain an adequate Iraq occupation force.
Indeed, the manpower situation is so tenuous that in a recent issue of the Army War College's journal Parameters, one officer essentially called for accelerated outsourcing of war to entities that some refer to as "private military corporations" (PMCs) and that others less charitably characterize as mercenaries. As "the United States continues to pursue a national strategy of engagement and needs the ability to generate forces that can respond across the spectrum of conflict," Lieut. Col. Eugene Smith writes, "either a large force must be maintained or alternate solutions must be found. Private military corporations provide the United States the ability to respond across the spectrum of conflict by contracting out for required non-core or emerging capabilities... Rather than a usurper of state legitimacy, the PMC can become an extension of the United States as a tool to further American strategic interests."
Given the dubious track record of PMCs (for example, DynCorp's women-trafficking in the Balkans; Airscan's involvement in the Colombian Army's bombing of civilians), this is the type of suggestion that cries out for more debate and consideration. "Is this really the direction we want to be going in, philosophically and practically?" asks one Special Forces captain who's seen service in the Balkans and Afghanistan. "Speaking from experience, locals can be hostile to or alienated by the sight of American troops. Put people in who are seen as America's Hessians, and it adds another dimension to perceptions of American arrogance. Americans might also want to think about why, when we're spending more money on the military than the next three dozen countries' combined military budgets, we don't have enough people -- or enough people who know what they're doing, or enough basic gear for non-elite forces -- to do the jobs at hand."
Indeed, virtually ignored by pundits and others is the fact that in recent years the Army has been hemorrhaging junior officers. "The simple fact is that coming into 2002, the Army was short thousands of captains," says Mark Lewis, a former Army Ranger now with a federally funded think tank. This is the type of thing that should give proponents of empire pause, as Lewis notes that captains are "the most pivotal" of all officers. "They're the commanders closest to the troops in garrison, training and combat. Yet the number of captains leaving the Army doubled from 1995 to 2001. Even in the face of the struggling economy of 2001, when unemployment skyrocketed and 2.4 million Americans lost their jobs, the attrition rate did not slow by even 1 percent."
And how is the Army addressing this? Recently, the service announced that it would simply start promoting young lieutenants to captain faster. Not only does this put already insufficiently seasoned officers in situations where they can find themselves in way over their heads, but, says Maj. Donald Vandergriff, author of last year's critical personnel and doctrinal study The Path to Victory, it essentially amounts to "bribing people to stay, buying their loyalty, patriotism and moral strength to go in harm's way, based on the dehumanizing assumption that our officers and NCOs are mindless, undifferentiated, replaceable cogs in a machine."
There are those who make the argument that in an era of targets laser-painted by elite forces, technological advance compensates for less-than-optimal human elements. But at a time when some of the most crucial postwar military functions -- infrastructure rehabilitation, military police, civil affairs, to name but a few -- are almost exclusively the province not of active-duty but of part-time Reserve and National Guard units, training and experience count for a lot. As far as effective occupation-style rebuilding is concerned, officers who have been assigned to the Balkans are skeptical about what might come in Iraq, based on their experiences in Bosnia and Kosovo.
"The preoccupation with force protection kept us more apart from the natives, as well as keeping us from being truly effective in terms of addressing problems that I thought we were there to deal with," says one officer of his Balkans rotation. "I can't imagine it will be any different in Iraq."
This view is echoed by a high-ranking British officer who did a tour with NATO in Sarajevo. "All the U.S. written orders and briefings I got treated the whole of Bosnia as bandit country," he says, "with the end result being the GIs on the ground treated it like the Wild West with Indians behind every bush; their weapons were always at the ready, even when they talked to the natives, which was a very antagonistic stance.
"If anything," the officer continues, "the locals in areas under U.S. control viewed the GIs as imperial occupiers, whereas in other areas, under Dutch or Canadian control, they saw them more as helpers who just happened to be heavily armed... I'll let you decide what that says about winning hearts and minds."
Winning With Technology -- But then, in the U.S. military of today, the human factor seems subordinated to the technological. In early 2002, Military Review, an official publication of the Army's Command and General Staff College, published an article critical of the mountain-warfare training program, and noted in some detail the "dos and don'ts" of high-altitude warfare. In last March's Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan, it seemed as if the Army had embraced the article's don'ts, sending ill-equipped, improperly trained troops up a mountain where, far from choking the enemy into submission, the Taliban and Al Qaeda were able to reinforce and subsequently disappear.
In theory, Anaconda was supposed to be something of a showcase not only for the regular infantry but for the miracle of modern technology as applied to combat, with an array of sensitive surveillance platforms to pinpoint the enemy and then precision-bomb him out into the open, if not out of existence. However, a recent study by the Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute discovered that more than half of enemy positions went undetected by the high-tech eyes in the sky. How could this happen? "The earth's surface remains an extremely complex environment with an abundance of natural and man-made cover and concealment" that -- surprise! -- can escape or counter all manner of high-tech detection.
As for precision-guided munitions (PGMs), the report notes that even after enemy positions were visually discovered, the "wonder weapons" used were far from magic bullets. "Where the Taliban presented exposed or massed targets in the open, PGMs were extremely lethal," the study says. "Where fighting positions were properly prepared, however, they were much harder to destroy -- even with modern PGMs." In fact, "al Qaeda positions survived repeated aerial attack by U.S. PGMs," including one position that fought for a week despite five direct hits from aerial PGMs.
For a military that, in the context of Iraq and beyond, is likely to face urban warfare and subsequent low-intensity conflict in cities and mountains sans adequate training, wonder weapons and networked surveillance and communications systems may not only be lacking -- they could even be exploitable weaknesses. In his recent Parameters essay "Doomed to Fail: America's Blind Faith in Military Technology," John Gentry, a retired Special Forces officer and veteran of East Asian and Bosnian operations, draws attention to the recent Defense Department planning document Joint Vision 2020.
JV 2020, Gentry reports, champions more technology for future military operations and is "a virtual article of faith in DOD." In Gentry's view, it's the epitome of "simple arrogance," as its inspiration is Operation Desert Storm -- a military abnormality, something that really shouldn't be the basis for doctrine, as it pitted "an inept, demoralized Iraqi army" against U.S. troops who were allowed to "assemble forces unmolested for six months, then allowed to attack on their schedule" in a clear, flat desert environment "well suited to use of precision munitions."
Noting the current Administration's "pursuit of dominance," now "widely called American 'hegemony' [that] is widely resented," Gentry points out that as the US military continues to spend money to make its systems and weapons more technology-dependent, the rest of the world will probably find cheap, low-tech ways to get inside this technologically driven decision cycle. This means that "opponents can take deceptive actions that lead U.S. forces to waste scarce precision munitions on low-value targets," he writes. And the rest of the world knows that isn't hard to do, as "America's dearth of collective patience and self-discipline is legendary."
If the military continues on this techno-driven track, Gentry's view -- echoed by a number of officers interviewed for this article -- is that the odds get higher of accelerating "a spiral that threatens to become increasingly expensive, both financially and politically." In the end, Gentry writes, it all boils down to the fact that the Defense Department's "basic problem is leadership," and Donald Rumsfeld's vaunted "transformation" program "barely addresses the fundamental institutional problems and pushes the department to use yet more gadgetry."
According to former OSCE Bosnia chief Barry, while the right sees post-Saddam Iraq under U.S. military governorship as akin to post-World War II Japan or Germany, it's more likely to resemble the former Yugoslavia -- where, after more than six years and $100 billion, peace and prosperity are far from secured. It's troubling, he writes, that "there is little sign that serious preparations are under way" for Iraq's future. That the Defense Department has a "distaste for nation-building" and that "the one thing all Iraqi exile groups oppose is a U.S. military government" should also be the stuff of consideration. But at a time when even the objections of historical U.S. allies are seen as intransigent betrayal, don't count on it. Uncle Sam clearly knows best.
Jason Vest writes on national security affairs for The Nation, where this article first appeared.
Publication date: 02/27/03