In the New York Times on July 20, Major General H.R. McMaster penned a revealing essay on “The Pipe Dream of Easy War.” McMaster made three points about America’s recent wars and military interventions:
1. In stressing new technology as being transformative, the American military neglected the political side of war. They forgot their Clausewitz in a celebration of their own prowess, only to be brought back to earth by messy political dynamics in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.
2. Related to (1), the U.S. military neglected human/cultural aspects of war and therefore misunderstood Iraqi and Afghan culture. Cultural misunderstandings transformed initial battlefield victories into costly political stalemates.
3. Related to (1) and (2), war is uncertain and unpredictable. Enemies can and will adapt.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with these points, or in the general’s broad lesson that “American forces must cope with the political and human dynamics of war in complex, uncertain environments. Wars like those in Afghanistan and Iraq cannot be waged remotely.”
The last sentence is a dig at the Air Force and an argument for the continuing relevance of ground forces, which is unsurprising coming from an Army general who commands Fort Benning in Georgia.
But the sum total of McMaster’s argument is remarkably banal. Yes, war is political, human, and chaotic. Did our military professionals and civilian experts really forget this before making their flawed decisions to go to war after 9/11?
McMaster ends his critique with a few words of praise for the U.S. military’s adaptability. The usual refrain: We messed up, but we learned from our mistakes, and are ready to take on new challenges, as long as the department of defense remains fully funded, and as long as America puts its faith in men like McMaster and not in machines/technology.
If those are the primary lessons our country should have learned since 9/11, we’re in big, big trouble.
So, here are three of my own “lessons” in response to McMaster’s. They may not be popular, but that’s because they’re a little more critical of our military – and a lot more critical of America.
1. Big mistakes by our military are inevitable because the American empire is simply too big, and American forces are simply too spread out globally, often in countries where the “ordinary” people don’t want us. To decrease our mistakes, we must radically downsize our empire.
2. The constant use of deadly force to police and control our empire is already sowing the deadly seeds of blowback. Collateral damage and death of innocents via drones and other “kinetic” attacks is making America less safe rather than more.
Like the Romans before us, as Tacitus said, we create a desert with our firepower and call it “peace.” But it’s not peace to those on the receiving end of American firepower. Their vows of vengeance perpetuate the cycle of violence. Add to this our special forces raids, our drone strikes, and other meddling and what you get is a perpetual war machine that only we can stop. But we can’t stop it because like McMaster we keep repeating, “This next war, we’ll get it right.”
3. We can’t defeat the enemy when it is us. Put differently, what’s the sense in defeating the enemies of freedom overseas at the same time as our militarized government is waging a domestic crackdown on dissent (otherwise known as freedom of speech) in the “homeland”?
Articles like McMaster’s suggest that our military can always win future wars, mainly by fighting more intelligently. These articles never question the wisdom of American militarization, nor do they draw any attention to the overweening size and ambition of the department of defense and its domination of American foreign policy.
Indeed, articles like McMaster’s, in reassuring us that the military will do better in the next round of fighting, ensure that we will fight again – probably achieving nothing better than stalemate while wasting plenty of young American (and foreign) lives.
Is it possible that the best way to win future wars is to avoid them altogether? As simple as that question is, you will rarely hear it asked in the halls of power in Washington.