STAFF WRITER AT SAIS HOPKINS-NANJING CENTER
“We also have fewer horses and bayonets.” –President Barack Obama
As Mitt Romney and the nation learned from this embarrassing exchange on the national stage, the downsizing in quantity of military hardware does not necessarily imply a decline in military capability. On the contrary with advances in long-range and precision-capability technology, boots on the ground are becoming as obsolete as horses and bayonets are.
The preferred method of waging war in the Obama administration has been from the sky by employing unpiloted drones. Not only does this method spare the risk of losing American soldiers, but the more the Pentagon relies on it, the need for ground forces is diminished. The US does not need boots to carry out its military objectives. It needs wings.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel recently announced plans to scale down active-duty soldiers to pre-World War II levels. “An army of this size is larger than required to meet the demands of our defense strategy,” Hagel said. Defense spending, however, remains higher than during the massive arms race of the Cold War. Since World War II, the US has maintained its armed forces with the notion of needing to be able to fight a war on two fronts at anytime, anywhere in the world. It has been seventy years since the US waged total war in the Atlantic and Pacific simultaneously. This kind of conflict is obsolete.
Public opinion in the US is not willing to accept the large death tolls associated with total war. Never again will the results of D-Day, for example, be acceptable, where the field was won and the tides of the war were turned favorably at the cost of 29,000 soldiers. The 58,000 soldiers killed in Vietnam a generation later provoked mass public outrage and tore apart the social fabric of the nation, from which, in terms of the left-right dichotomy, American society has never recovered. American sea and air power reign supreme.
During the Korean and Vietnam Wars, enemy leaders accurately calculated that in order to stymie a US victory, they would have to inflict immoderate fatalities on US ground forces. Ho Chi Minh is famously quoted as saying, “You will kill ten of us, we will kill one of you, but in the end, you will tire of it first.” The 58,000 dead are incomparable to the millions of fatalities suffered by the Vietnamese. In the Korean War, the Chinese lost hundreds of thousands of soldiers, while the US suffered roughly 38,000 fatalities.
Despite US naval and air superiority, and the extreme advantage in terms of casualties, neither war resulted in an American victory. While the Obama Administration’s decision to scale down the military is being regarded as historic, it does not represent retreat. Since World War II, US ground forces have been a weakness to the defense mission. This is not due to poor soldiering, but to the inability of the American public to stomach casualties. A trend has emerged of removing US servicemen and women from combat in favor of technology that is controlled safely away from the battlefield.
The absence of soldiers also carries the extra advantage of avoiding troublesome political maneuvering and simplifies the process of eliminating perceived threats. It allows for attacks in nations with whom the US has no official quarrel, as evidenced by the multitudes of drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Rather than being prepared to fight a monolithic two-front war, the US military is now prepared to attack any individual or group that is regarded as threatening.
The drone program is not without its dissenters, but the government lends less credibility to those opposed. Protesters have more credence if their family members are being brought home in American flags. The drone program eliminates that necessary expenditure of political capital and further isolates the public from the process of waging war.
Those lamenting a US “retreat” need not worry, and those hopeful of a scaled-down global role will be disappointed. The “one” soldier referenced by Ho Chi Minh is being taken out of the picture, as it was indeed the US who tired of fatalities first. But this will not hamper the US’ ability to carry out military operations globally. It will strengthen it.