Why the American Military Is Doomed

General Flynn (FP: Foreign Policy)

General Flynn (FP: Foreign Policy)

W.J. Astore

Is the U.S. military doomed?  I’d say yes.  But it’s not because our troops are uncommitted, our weapons are bad, and our tactics are flawed.  Rather it’s because of the conventional wisdom in Washington and the Pentagon that continues to commit our troops to unnecessary and unwinnable wars.

This conventional wisdom is perhaps best summed up in a speech by retired Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn, the ex-chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).  It’s worth reading the speech in full, not because it’s especially original or insightful, but because it’s so unreflective and representative of Washington’s collective wisdom.

Here are General Flynn’s main points as I see them:

1. The American public must be committed to an open-ended ideological war “for decades.”

2. That war is against “grotesque” Islamic extremists who “hate our ideals” and who are “committed to the destruction of freedom and the American way of life.”

3. To win the war, America must be ready to use “overwhelming power” to defeat or deter the enemy, even if the U.S. must act alone.

4. Special Operations Forces (SOF) must be “well resourced” for this war, meaning they must be expanded even further and given even more money and latitude.

5.  The model for this ideological war against extremist Islam is Ronald Reagan’s war against communism.

That is General Flynn’s strategic vision.  It’s a vision widely shared within the Pentagon.  And it’s a vision that dooms America to defeat.

Why?  Mainly because radical Islam is a political/religious/social phenomenon.  It is not amenable to military solutions.  Indeed, the more America makes it into THE enemy, the more legitimacy organizations like ISIS gain within their communities and across the Muslim World.

Military force is a blunt instrument, even when it’s applied by the Special Ops community.  Expanding the American SOF presence throughout the world is a recipe for more blowback, not more victories.  Consider how well we’ve done so far in Afghanistan or Libya or Yemen.  Or for that matter Iraq.  Can anyone say that U.S. military intervention has produced stability in these countries?  Has it contributed to the defeat of radical Islam?  Indeed, in destabilizing Iraq and Libya and Yemen, has the U.S. not contributed to the spread of Islamic extremism?

Military professionals like General Flynn really know only one solution: “overwhelming power” applied “for decades.” And if you don’t accept their solution, they dismiss you as misguided (at best) or as arguing for “Retreat, retrenchment, and disarmament,” which “are historically a recipe for disaster,” according to General Flynn.

Well, I’m not aware of anyone seriously arguing for disarmament (fat chance of that happening in the USA!).  I’m not aware of anyone arguing for “retreat,” as if this was the Chosin Reservoir in the Korean War.  I’m not aware of anyone seriously working toward “retrenchment”; indeed, the SOF community keeps expanding, already mounting operations in 105 countries around the world in FY2015 (i.e., since October 2014).  It’s easy to bayonet a straw man, general.

I have a few words for the general: Committing the American military to an ideological war “for decades” against radical Islam is pure folly.  Chances are you won’t hammer it into non-existence: your blows will just spread it further, while wasting the energies of America and the lives of its troops.

Stop looking to Reagan and the collapse of communism for lessons and start looking at the actual results over the last 20-30 years of American meddling in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen.  And tell me: Is this what “victory” looks like?  You want to double down on “overwhelming power” applied “for decades” as defending American “ideals” and “way of life”?

Which “ideals” are those, exactly?  A permanent state of war in which military men are deferred to as the heroes and sages of the moment?

No thanks.

25 thoughts on “Why the American Military Is Doomed

  1. Your analysis is undoubtedly correct. Also the public funds expended in national security are so massive that it becomes another mistake that threatens financial stability of the nation. Finally, endless wars mean endless profits benefiting a few at the expense of the many. Our foes wanted to provoke us into endless wars knowing these wars are winnable as they destroy our nation expending enormously in blood and treasure. When petty men lead a nation in crisis disaster awaits.

    Criminals committing a spectacular vile act outsmarted a nation. We made their criminal leader a legend. We made a criminal more important that the nation’s well-being. We embarked recklessly in wars against a criminal band that now is expanding. We made war against a tactic because there was no organized army or nation to defeat. As in Vietnam the best and brightest have failed again. When a country chooses group think and sycophancy as ability and talent the vestiges of failure are our legacy. As a nation we are like a great ship headed towards the reefs and shoals and it is a slow and measured process to turn the ship away from disaster.

  2. >>> “5. The model for this ideological war against extremist Islam is Ronald Reagan’s war against communism.”

    >>> “That is General Flynn’s strategic vision. It’s a vision widely shared within the Pentagon. And it’s a vision that dooms America to defeat.”

    Perhaps Flynn’s strategic vision is insightful after all, in a Freudian sort of way. IMO, neoconservative warmongering sees no subjective difference between Islam and communism even though one is a religious construct and the other economic. What those philosophies share in common, and to which neocons fiercely oppose, is any social organization based on non-Christian and non-capitalistic precepts. Neocons and neoliberals have been as aggressive towards functional and nominal democratic states all over the world having socialistic economic policies (e.g. Chile in 1973). This aggression is also not limited to sovereign nations. The push-back against the 1960s counterculture movement was quite brutal by American standards, and the put-down of Occupy Wall Street in 2011 was intricately sophisticated.

    To understand the interests represented by the Pentagon, we must look beyond their rhetoric. What they are focused on at any given time, currently radical Sunni Islam, is far less revealing than an objective analysis of their shared philosophical nature. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu identified a rational, dispassionate awareness of self, friend and foe as the keys to military success. This also applies to the larger contexts of geopolitics and cultural friction. The Pentagon is what it is… all we need to do is observe it with discerning eyes.

    • Interesting point, Robert. But to me the Soviet Union WAS a threat, not primarily due to its ideology, but because of its vast military potential (a potential that was exaggerated, but still …).

      These radical Islamist networks — yes, they’re a nuisance. But they don’t pose an existential threat to the USA. They aren’t anything like the USSR. Who really believes (other than some deluded and extreme right wingers) that radical Islam is coming to America to impose Sharia Law?

      Leave radical Islam alone, and I think it’ll burn itself out. Keep hyping it, keep attacking it, and you feed it. You lend it legitimacy precisely by vastly exaggerating the threat it poses.

      • Yes, the Soviet Union was a real military threat – no question about it. However, the Cold War conflict between it and the U.S. was purely ideological. Had a capitalistic Russia survived WW1 and militarily rivaled the U.S. after WW2, America would not have experienced the passionate Red Scares and demonization of suspected “Commies” in the McCarthy era which shaped Cold War antagonism. I’m sure the geopolitical climate would still have been contentious, but on a far less general scale.

      • >>> “Leave radical Islam alone, and I think it’ll burn itself out. Keep hyping it, keep attacking it, and you feed it. You lend it legitimacy precisely by vastly exaggerating the threat it poses.”

        Exactly.

      • I have been reading a fascinating book called ‘ STALIN’ vol. 1 which is really a history of the WW I period with the rise of socialism- communism and the West’s response. It becomes clear as you read real history that the West was the threat to socialism-communism not the other way around. Communism was a threat to, not the West, but to capitalism and only smart PR by the capitalist states sold the opposite. The Soviet Union tried through the Communist International to influence the politics of Western capitalism but posed no military threat. Just remember, we got the atom bomb first not them. They tried to copy. We armed the ‘Whites’ and sent troops to suppress the infant Russian Red Bolshevik revolution in 1918-21.
        It is a distortion of history to claim that the Soviets were a “threat” to us while refusing to acknowledge that Fascist
        Germany was not a threat until we were attacked by them. That fallacy should be laid in the junk box of historical myth alongside of the narrative that we had to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to save our troops when indeed Japan knew they were beaten and were ready to surrender.

      • Communism morphed into a totalitarian state under Stalin. Stalin saw that millions of Ukrainians starved to death. Political opponents were killed or sentenced to the gulag. Stalin’s actions, especially his paranoid purge of the Soviet officer corps prior to WW2, almost cost the Soviets the war.

        Fascism and communism produced power-mad dictators who murdered scores of millions. While the West is obviously not guiltless, let’s be careful of absolving men like Stalin of their vast crimes against humanity by blaming the actions of the West.

      • Now there you go again, Col. Astore, reverting to the conventional song and dance of a US military officer!! I hardly think “b. traven” was defending Stalin’s tactics, his historical track record. He was pointing out that from its birth, the Soviet state was confronted with nothing but bristling hostility (including direct military intervention by American forces as part of the invading capitalist regimes’ coalition trying to unseat the Bolsheviks). I am well versed in this history, having recently completed the 1500 pages of Isaac Deutscher’s biography of L.D. Trotsky. Or as we say nowadays: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean the bastards aren’t really out to get ya!” Once Trotsky and his co-thinkers, wishing to continue a Leninist direction for governing, were defeated by Stalin, the Comintern (Third, i.e. Communist International) was rendered a largely toothless tiger. Thus, no military threat to the American Colossus, protected by vast oceans and tremendous productive powers. Poor Trotsky placed some faith in the US actually becoming the light of the world that it has claimed to be, putting that productive power to the benefit of the downtrodden around the globe. Of course that required revolution, which American workers could not abide by, suffocated as they were and still are by the ideology put forth by the Ruling Class. (Being convinced, among other stuff and nonsense, that the US has no Ruling Class!) I have pointed out previously here that this feat of brainwashing really is Capitalism’s most stunning achievement. But what can one expect of a society so dumbed down that 98% of the Senate vote to indicate they accept global climate change as a real phenomenon, but then 50% of THEM indicate they DON’T believe it’s caused by human activity?!? “We have met the enemy, and he is us” indeed!!

      • Hello there, Comrade! A little biased? I hardly think I’m reverting to the conventional song and dance of a military officer. I was merely stating historical facts about the horrors of communism under Stalin, and suggesting that we need to be careful when we assign responsibility and blame. Does that make me a reactionary military puppet? Nyet!

      • Mr. Astore: Yes, you may address me as “comrade,” though I’m not your comrade. You know from my frequent comments here that I am an unrepentant socialist. Your original post is not what I took issue with. It was your knee-jerk anti-communist reply to “b. traven”!

        “b. traven”: I remind you of what Chairman Mao wrote–“A revolution is not a tea party.” (sometimes it’s rendered “not a dinner party,” but whatever!) Do you think Trotsky relished using force against the Kronstadt sailors? He did what he felt was necessary to preserve the new regime. Stalin kept quiet, as I recall, but later would use the Kronstadt tragedy against the Opposition. Typical rank opportunist. I’m sure you are fairminded enough to realize that any attempt at socialist revolution will not “automatically” regurgitate the Stalinist model of control. One of the remarkable aspects of Trotsky is that though he publicly, near the end, equated Stalin’s rule with that of Hitler’s, with his dying breath he defended the USSR against capitalist subversion and encroachment, warped and deformed though it had become. For a brief moment, during “de-Stalinization,” it looked like Trotsky might actually be “rehabilitated” in Russia but they just couldn’t bring themselves to do it. Prepping for my visit to Moscow in 2013 I was astounded to read that a bust of Trotsky had somehow survived and was on display in the “Soviet Sculpture Garden.” Alas, when I arrived, camera at the ready, I found that area of the park (grounds of a major art museum, actually) “closed for renovation”! A big disappointment.

        Jerry Peacemaker: Haven’t read the details, but CNN (take with appropriate grain of salt!) says that outgoing War Secretary Hagel sees strong possibility of returning US combat forces to front line to take on “The Islamic State.” He reportedly felt distinctly pressured by those in the White House to make his way to the exit. Interesting, eh?

      • “Leave radical Islam alone.” Yes, the best weapon we have to counter radical Islam is radical Islam. If they want the 7th-Century for themselves and theirs, bottle them up and let them have it. No modern manufacture (for all their AK-47s, they can’t make a single one), no modern medicine, no modern agriculture, and no migration.

        Colonel, you are thinking strategically. Unfortunately, the Beltway officer corps can’t or won’t.

  3. Striving to be concise, once again, in response to “all the above”: the National Security/Permanent Warfare State REQUIRES enemies to demonize, to “justify” keeping the juicy contracts flowing to the Pentagon’s suppliers. (“There’s plenty good money to be made, By supplying the Army with the tools of the trade”–Country Joe & The Fish, 1968) In terms of Orwell’s “1984,” East Asia needs Oceania, Eurasia needs East Asia, etc. as shifting opponents/allies. I won’t go so far as to claim all these “jihadist” groups are creatures of the CIA, but we know that bin-Laden set up al-Qaeda with our tax dollars, by gump!! Ponder that for a minute. One day we’re told to Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid; the next day we’re told Go Shopping! Is this Open-Ended War On Terror palatable to the American citizenry because “we” (I will always, always exclude myself from what the government claims to do in my name/interest) are only bombing “The Islamic State” in limited fashion, and US casualties pale compared to Vietnam? The whole campaign requires the utmost in cynical stage-management! Me, I want to exit, stage right or left, out the back Fire Escape…hell, I’ll leap off the stage into the audience!! Just don’t ask me to support ANY of this insane BS, Uncle Sam!

  4. ISIS started their rampage in June 2014, so they have after seven months not been put out of commission. Has anyone heard any success stories of cutting off sources of funding, sources of weapons, locating al-Bhagdadi, or an overwhelming multinational force going to their “capitol” (Ramallah, if not mistaken) in northeast Syria and defeating them. All the world leaders expressing their extreme outrage over beheadings and world’s greatest threat of ISIS etc., then after the intervening months ISIS still standing, and the initial sense of great urgency coming from same world leaders has gone. ISIS should have been defeated months ago.

    • And we helped to create ISIS! Many of its future leaders ended up in American prisons in Iraq during the insurgency, where they formed a network that morphed into ISIS. Our solution: go back into Iraq and kill or imprison more Iraqis.

      Sure. That’ll bring peace.

  5. Dr. Col.Astore. What is the difference between the Soviet Union under Stalin as a cruel dictatorship and Saudi Arabia as a cruel dictatorship under King Abdullah? You didn’t guess it?……. Not much but also great deal. The communists attacked Capitalism as a political system, the Saudis attacked the U.S directly by sending 15 of their citizens to commandeer and fly lethal planes into our country and kill thousands. And the Saudis, to this day, continue to conspire and support the Jihadists in Iraq and Afghanistan and other places that result in deadly attacks in London, Paris, etc. And what is our response? Obama speeds to Saudi Arabia to kiss the butt of the new despot who returns the favor by beheading a citizen the next day.

    Greg is correct except that he is quite wrong about Trotsky who was internally as bloodthirsty as Stalin until he was exiled. The lesson? Seek regime change in Saudi Arabia and let Russia and Ukraine settle their own differences. We are not god!

    • I always worry when people start using my titles! Seriously, the Saudis may be a monarchical dictatorship, but they are OUR dictators (or so our ruling class thinks). And as long as the House of Saud keeps cheap gas flowing, thereby raising profits for the ruling class, the Saudis are AOK with the likes of Obama.

      • We can agree if we append to your statement ” the cruel, deceitful, and dangerous whose Wahabi religion hates the West” “Saudi monarchical dictatorship”. And if we can bind them to our bosom why can’t we bind current Russia who doesn’t behead people nor even promote socialism to our bosom because they have a lot of oil also. ?

      • Hey, lighten up, traven. I played volleyball with Saudi officers in Squadron Officer School in 1992 and they were good guys!

        I never played volleyball with Russian officers — they were always drinking vodka and wanting to wrestle bears like Putin. Those Russkies are no fun.

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  7. General Flynn, disappointingly, lacks any real vision of the human condition and repeats an ideology. The limits of his ideological stance is not unusual among military officers. Having had a couple of lieutenant colonels in the family I can attest to the limitations of a blinkered vision. Attitudes harden early in an officer’s life.

    I agree with Mr. Astore that America takes on un-winnable wars far away from its natural border, usually it seems, for purely ideological reasons. With the political/military leadership that has taken control of the country and with their amazingly short-term memories of past defeats, they invariably find someone else to blame besides themselves so endless justifications are found.

  8. Dr. Astore, unless America’s endless warring and spying are ended she is doomed. I invite you and your readers to read my new Kindle e-book America’s Oldest Professions: Warring and Spying. It’s available FREE 2/2-2/6.

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