Air Power is horribly Expensive and Inefficient, and Drones are no Different (Astore)

William J. Astore writes at Tomdispatch.com:

Today’s unmanned aerial vehicles, most famously Predator and Reaper drones, have been celebrated as the culmination of the longtime dreams of airpower enthusiasts, offering the possibility of victory through quick, clean, and selective destruction.  Those drones, so the (very old) story goes, assure the U.S. military of command of the high ground, and so provide the royal road to a speedy and decisive triumph over helpless enemies below.

Fantasies about the certain success of air power in transforming, even ending, war as we know it arose with the plane itself.  But when it comes to killing people from the skies, again and again air power has proven neither cheap nor surgical nor decisive nor in itself triumphant.  Seductive and tenacious as the dreams of air supremacy continue to be, much as they automatically attach themselves to the latest machine to take to the skies, air power has not fundamentally softened the brutal face of war, nor has it made war less dirty or chaotic.

Indeed, by emboldening politicians to seek seemingly low-cost, Olympian solutions to complex human problems — like Zeus hurling thunderbolts from the sky to skewer puny mortals — it has fostered fantasies of illimitable power emboldened by contempt for human life.  However, just like Zeus’s obdurate and rebellious subjects, the mortals on the receiving end of death from on high have shown surprising strength in frustrating the designs of the air power gods, whether past or present. Yet the Olympian fantasy persists, a fact that requires explanation.

The Rise of Air Power

It did not take long after the Wright Brothers first put a machine in the air for a few exhilarating moments above the sandy beaches of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December of 1903, for the militaries of industrialized countries to express interest in buying and testing airplanes.  Previously balloons had been used for reconnaissance, as in the Napoleonic wars and the U.S. Civil War, and so initially fledgling air branches focused on surveillance and intelligence-gathering.  As early as 1911, however, Italian aircraft began dropping small bombs from open-air cockpits on the enemy — we might today call them “insurgents” — in Libya.

World War I encouraged the development of specialized aircraft, most famously the dancing bi- and tri-winged fighter planes of the dashing “knights of the air,” as well as the more ponderous, but for the future far more important, bombers.   By the close of World War I in 1918, each side had developed multi-engine bombers like the German Gotha, which superseded the more vulnerable zeppelins.  Their mission was to fly over the trenches where the opposing armies were stalemated and take the war to the enemy’s homeland, striking fear in his heart and compelling him to surrender.  Fortunately for civilians a century ago, those bombers were too few in number, and their payloads too limited, to inflict widespread destruction, although German air attacks on England in 1917 did spread confusion and, in a few cases, panic.

Pondering the hecatombs of dead from trench warfare, air power enthusiasts of the 1920s and 1930s not surprisingly argued strongly, and sometimes insubordinately, for the decisive importance of bombing campaigns launched by independent air forces.  A leading enthusiast was Italy’s Giulio Douhet.  In his 1921 work Il dominio dell’aria (Command of the Air), he argued that in future wars strategic bombing attacks by heavily armed “battle-planes” (bombers) would produce rapid and decisive victories.  Driven by a fascist-inspired logic of victory through preemptive attack, Douhet called for all-out air strikes to destroy the enemy’s air force and its bases, followed by hammer blows against industry and civilians using high-explosive, incendiary, and poison-gas bombs.  Such blows, he predicted, would produce psychological uproar and social chaos (“shock and awe,” in modern parlance), fatally weakening the enemy’s will to resist.

As treacherous and immoral as his ideas may sound, Douhet’s intent was to shorten wars and lessen casualties — at least for his side.  Better to subdue the enemy by pressing hard on select pressure points (even if the “pressing” was via high explosives and poison gas, and the “points” included concentrations of innocent civilians), rather than forcing your own army to bog down in bloody, protracted land wars.

That air power was inherently offensive and uniquely efficacious in winning cheap victories was a conclusion that found a receptive audience in Great Britain and the United States.  In England, Hugh Trenchard, founding father of the Royal Air Force (RAF), embraced strategic bombing as the most direct way to degrade the enemy’s will; he boldly asserted that “the moral effect of bombing stands undoubtedly to the material effect in a proportion of twenty to one.”

Even bolder was his American counterpart, William “Billy” Mitchell, famously court-martialed and romanticized as a “martyr” to air power.  (In his honor, cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy still eat in Mitchell Hall.)  At the Air Corps Tactical School in the 1930s, U.S. airmen refined Mitchell’s tenets, developing a “vital centers” theory of bombing — the idea that one could compel an enemy to surrender by identifying and destroying his vulnerable economic nodes.  It therefore came as no accident that the U.S. entered World War II with the world’s best heavy bomber, the B-17 Flying Fortress, and a fervid belief that “precision bombing” would be the most direct path to victory.

World War II and After: Dehousing, Scorching, Boiling, and Baking the Enemy

In World War II, “strategic” air forces that focused on winning the war by heavy bombing reached young adulthood, with all the swagger associated with that stage of maturity.  The moral outrage of Western democracies that accompanied the German bombing of civilian populations in Guernica, Spain, in 1937 or Rotterdam in 1940 was quickly forgotten once the Allies sought to open a “second front” against Hitler through the air.  Four-engine strategic bombers like the B-17 and the British Lancaster flew for thousands of miles carrying bomb loads measured in tons.  From 1942 to 1945 they rained two million tons of ordnance on Axis targets in Europe, but accuracy in bombing remained elusive.

While the U.S. attempted and failed at precision daylight bombing against Germany’s “vital centers,” Britain’s RAF Bomber Command began employing what was bloodlessly termed “area bombing” at night in a “dehousing” campaign led by Arthur “Bomber” Harris.  What became an American/British combined bomber offensive killed 600,000 German civilians, including 120,000 children, reducing cities like Cologne (1942), Hamburg (1943), Berlin (1944-45), and Dresden (1945) to rubble.

Yet, contrary to the dreams of air power advocates, Germany’s will to resist remained unbroken.  The vaunted second front of aerial battle became yet another bloody attritional brawl, with hundreds of thousands of civilians joining scores of thousands of aircrews in death.

Similarly mauled but unbroken by bombing was Japan, despite an air campaign of relentless intensity that killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians.  Planned and directed by Major General Curtis LeMay, new B-29 bombers loaded with incendiaries struck Tokyo, a city made largely of wood, in March 1945, creating a firestorm that in his words “scorched and boiled and baked [the Japanese] to death.”  As many as 100,000 Japanese died in this attack.

Subsequently, 60 more cities were firebombed until the apotheosis of destruction came that August as atomic bombs incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing another 200,000 people.  It quickly became an article of faith among American air power enthusiasts that these bombs had driven Japan to surrender; together with this, the “decisive” air campaign against Germany became reason enough to justify an independent U.S. Air Force, which was created by the National Security Act of 1947.

In the total war against Nazi and Japanese terror, moral concerns, when expressed, came privately.  General Ira Eaker worried that future generations might condemn the Allied bombing campaign against Germany for its targeting of “the man in the street.”  Even LeMay, not known for introspective doubts, worried in 1945 that he and his team would likely be tried as war criminals if the U.S. failed to defeat Japan.  (So Robert McNamara, then an Army Air Force officer working for LeMay, recalled in the documentary The Fog of War.)

But moral qualms were put aside in the post-war glow of victory and as the fear rose of future battles with communism.  The Korean War (1950-1953) may have ushered in the jet age, as symbolized by the dogfights of American Sabre Jets and Soviet MiGs over the Yalu River, but it also witnessed the devastation by bombing of North Korea, even as the enemy took cover underground and refused to do what air power strategists had always assumed they would: give up.

Still, for the U.S. Air Force, the real action of that era lay largely in the realm of dystopian fantasies as it created the Strategic Air Command (SAC), which coordinated two legs of the nuclear triad, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles in silos and nuclear-armed long-range bombers. (The third was nuclear-missile-armed submarines.)  SAC kept some of those bombers carrying thermonuclear weapons in the air 24/7 as a “deterrent” to a Soviet nuclear first strike (and as a constant first strike threat of our own).  “Thinking about the unthinkable” — that is, nuclear Armageddon — became all the rage, with “massive retaliation” serving as the byword for air power enthusiasts.  In this way, dreams of clean victories morphed into nightmares of global thermonuclear annihilation, leaving the 1930s air power ideal of “clean” and “surgical” strikes in the dust — for the time being.

Reaping What We Sow

Despite an unimaginably powerful nuclear deterrent that essentially couldn’t be used, the U.S. Air Force had to relearn the hard way that there remained limits to the efficacy of air power, especially when applied to low-intensity, counterinsurgency wars.  As in Korea in the 1950s, air power in the 1960s and 1970s failed to provide the winning edge in the Vietnam War, even as it spread wanton destruction throughout the Vietnamese countryside.  But it was the arrival of “smart” bombs near that war’s end that marked the revival of the fantasies of air power enthusiasts about “precision bombing” as the path to future victory.

By the 1990s, laser- and GPS-guided bombs (known collectively as PGMs, for precision guided munitions) were relegating unguided, “dumb” bombs largely to the past.  Yet like their predecessors, PGMs proved no panacea.  In the opening stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, for example, 50 precision “decapitation strikes” targeting dictator Saddam Hussein’s top leadership failed to hit any of their intended targets, while causing “dozens” of civilian deaths.  That same year, air power’s inability to produce decisive results on the ground after Iraq’s descent into chaos, insurrection, and civil war served as a reminder that the vaunted success of the U.S. air campaign in the First Gulf War (1991) was a fluke, not a flowering of air power’s maturity.  (Saddam Hussein made his traditionally organized military, defenseless against air power, occupy static positions after his invasion of Kuwait.)

The recent marriage of PGMs to drones, hailed as the newest “perfect weapon” in the air arsenal, has once again led to the usual fantasies about the arrival — finally, almost 100 years late — of clean, precise, and decisive war.  Using drones, a military need not risk even a pilot’s life in its attacks.  Yet the nature of war — its horrors, its unpredictability, its tendency to outlive its original causes — remains fundamentally unaltered by “precision” drone strikes.  War’s inherent fog and friction persist.  In the case of drones, that fog is often generated by faulty intelligence, the friction by malfunctioning weaponry or innocent civilians appearing just as the Hellfire missiles are unleashed.  Rather than clean wars of decision, drone strikes decide nothing.  Instead, they produce their share of “collateral damage” that only spawns new enemies seeking revenge.

The fantasy of air war as a realm of technical decision, as an exercise in decisively finding, fixing, and dispatching the enemy, appeals to a country like the United States that idolizes technology as a way to quick fixes.  As a result, it’s hardly surprising that two administrations in Washington have ever more zealously pursued drone wars and aerial global assassination campaigns, already killing 4,700 “terrorists” and bystanders. And this has been just part of our Nobel Peace Prize-winning president’s campaign of 20,000 air strikes (only 10% of which were drone strikes) in his first term of office.  Yet despite — or perhaps because of — these attacks, our global war against al-Qaeda, its affiliates, and other groups like the Taliban appears no closer to ending.

And that is, in part, because the dream of air power remains just that: a fantasy, a capricious and destructive will-o’-the-wisp.  It’s a fantasy because it denies agency to enemies (and others) who invariably find ways to react, adapt, and strike back.  It’s a fantasy because, however much such attacks seem both alluringly low-risk and high-reward to the U.S. military, they become a rallying cause for those on the other end of the bombs and missiles.

A much-quoted line from the movie Apocalypse Now captured the insanity of the American air war in Vietnam.  “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” says an Air Cav commander played by Robert Duvall.  “Smelled like… victory.”  Updated for drone warfare, this line might read: “I love the sound of drones in the morning.  Sounds like… victory.”  But will we say the same when armed drones are hovering, not only above our enemies’ heads but above ours, too, in fortress America, enforcing security and conformity while smiting citizens judged to be rebellious?

Something tells me this is not the dream that airpower enthusiasts had in mind.

William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, is a TomDispatch regular.  He welcomes reader comments at wjastore@gmail.com.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

Copyright 2013 William J. Astore

Mirrored from Tomdispatch.com

19 Responses

  1. “…air power has proven neither cheap nor surgical nor decisive nor in itself triumphant.”

    The 78-day war against Serbia (over Kosovo) in 1999 was conducted exclusively from the air, with the US flying 80 percent of the sorties and Britain most of the remaining 20 percent. It was definitely a case of air power proving both decisive and triumphant.

    “SAC kept some of those bombers carrying thermonuclear weapons in the air 24/7 as a “deterrent” to a Soviet nuclear first strike (and as a constant first strike threat of our own).”

    Much as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) and the ability to mount a retaliatory strike were considered “nightmares,” as you put it, they actually worked. The US and the Soviet Union maintained a balance, and both were rational enough to forgo their use. That is why you are able to say, regarding the US Air Force (apparently thinking it ironic), “Despite an unimaginably powerful nuclear deterrent that essentially couldn’t be used.” That it couldn’t be, and wasn’t, used demonstrated its deterrent value.

    • There were plenty of ground forces on their way there, though. I remember seeing columns of tanks and huge convoys of ammuniton trucks on Britain’s motorways at the time. I’m sure, too, that “success” in Kosovo contributed to Britain’s and the US’s over-confidence in Iraq four years later.

    • Bill, you’re leaving the KLA out of your analysis of Kosovo, in much the same way that some critics leave the Free Libya Forces out of their analysis of the Libyan Revolution. There were ground forces, and as always when air power is successful against a military fighting force, the air power served to support the ground forces and put them in a position where the opposing force was in trouble.

      • The United States and Great Britain were not coordinating our air campaign in Kosovo with the KLA on the ground, Joe. Moreover, what really brought the Serbs to the table was our air campaign in Serbia proper, including Belgrade. Every reputable military historian agrees that the NATO war against Serbia was decisively won by the air campaign. The use of air power in Libya was not anywhere near equivalent to the relentless sorties flown against Serbian forces, both in Serbia proper and in Kosovo.

        • It’s true that the US and UK were not coordinating with the KLA on the ground. Nonetheless, the air campaign targeted those ground forces’ opposition, drove them back, and allowed the KLA to advance.

    • Keep in mind we’re talking about the NATO alliance versus Serbia, who it would be a stretch to consider even a regional power.

      Roughly equivalent to the entire Dallas Cowboys front line versus Pee Wee Herman.

      That’s not a convincing data point for the “we can win wars by air power alone” argument.

      • In the war against Serbia, the NATO Alliance actually doing the work consisted of the US and the UK. It was not the equivalent of the entire Dallas Cowboys front line vs. Pee Wee Herman. More like the quarterback and end vs. Pee Wee Herman.

        My point was not that “we can win wars by air power alone.” It was to point out the fallacy in the author’s piece where he claims that air power has never proven decisive or triumphant in war. Against Serbia, it did.

  2. Using Tom Dispatch as a resource on questions of military operations is like using Jane’s Defense Quarterly as a resource on questions of anthropology.

    The pieces you run from them are always the same: a thesis about a topic that requires a solid knowledge base to draw a reliable conclusion, followed by a wikipedia-level overview of history, followed by some editorial commentary denouncing the military operation on political grounds.

    I come away from this piece with a sense that the author doesn’t even understand the difference between a strategic bombing campaign intended to suppress a country’s industrial base, and a tactical strike intended remove specific targets from the fight, and wouldn’t care very much if he did.

    Which is fine, if you want to write an editorial piece about the politics of drone strikes, but apparently that’s not good enough, and “Tom Dispatch” consistently adopts a wonkish pretense of addressing fact-based policy matters that it then proceeds to ignore, or fumble.

    Really, there are better sources for drone-critical military analyses out there.

    • “Using Tom Dispatch as a resource on questions of military operations is like using Jane’s Defense Quarterly as a resource on questions of anthropology.”

      I completely agree, Joe. To read this author’s “Wikipedia” overview (I like that, Joe) of air power, one would never know that the bombing campaign against Germany actually did result in destruction of much industrial base, ball-bearing factories, and other sources power for the Nazi war machine. There is controversy and disagreement over the “area bombing” that hit civilians, but no reputable military historian denies the damage the air campaign did to the industrial, war-making base.

      And the author clearly does not understand the nature of our missile doctrine and second-strike capability during the Cold War, and how it maintained the nuclear balance. He ludicrously refers to “an unimaginably powerful nuclear deterrent that essentially couldn’t be used,” and apparently fails to understand that the very fact that it could be used is what ensured that it would not have to be used.

      • While the strategic bombing campaign against Germany did cause damage to their industrial base, the German economy had so much slack capacity that it had very little effect on their actual war production.

        German aircraft production actually peaked in 1945. They were just short of fuel to run them or pilots to fly them.

      • The irritating thing, Bill, is that there good, realistic, insightful arguments to be made on the side of your positions – that the industrial bombing didn’t do much to contribute to the allied victory, or that the apparent success of MAD was just a matter of luck, and it was only good fortune that the world didn’t blow up during the Missiles of October or Operation Able Archer.

        Yep, solid arguments there are…just not in this column.

        • The bombing campaign against German industry, the Ruhr damns, and other facilities, in fact, contributed to the allied victory. The decisive factor in the defeat of Germany, of course, was the Eastern Front when the Soviets turned the tide and began rolling back the Germans. But the destruction of German industry definitely had an effect.

          Regarding MAD as being a matter of luck, I think if you read the accounts of the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as other crises between the Soviets and the West, it becomes clear that both sides, we and the Soviets, recognized the danger and dialed back in order to avoid the unthinkable. I don’t view it as luck. I think it was due to rational men sitting in the White House and the Kremlin.

  3. “ergo propter hoc…” Another example from the set of truthyisms about this and that, like the occasional corrections given by the Expert on how counter-terrorism or something worked in Malaysia. Anyone want to make their own individual judgment on how well “air power” did in “winning the war over Serbia might want to start by reading this piece, from the Air Force perspective, that kind of points out how this was another case of special circumstances:

    link to airforce-magazine.com

    That thing the Gamers call “war” sure is complicated, and EXPENSIVE! and OUT OF CONTROL! so much of the time. Note how successful the AF claims the JDAMs were, even though so much of the time when used elsewhere they have this problem of “improper target strike”ing and stuff. Of course JDAMs could only be “delivered” by B-2s flying half way around the world, thereby “proving” the utility and value of those trillion-dollar resurrected dreams of Jack Northrop of a “flying wing” intercontinental bomber ‘cuz That Would Be Really Cool!, leading from Jack’s original entrepreneurialism, link to en.wikipedia.org, to the MICBeast called NorthropGrumman today, which corp brags as follows: link to northropgrumman.com OOOoohhh! The B-35! The early investment in Drone Technology, buying the Radioplane! the so very efficient vertical and horizontal and diagonal and multiversedimensional integration of it all! The sales to all those “foreign governments!”

    I got to see “Arc Light” missions under way in Vietnam, link to war-stories.com, which did not a damn thing to stop or really even slow the flow of materiel and troops from the North, and the old whine that that was just because of the “cowardly civilian constraints on the LeMay types” does not cut it.

    Tell us, you subtle proponents, of “this time will be different:” did “air power” WIN anything in Iraq or Afghanistan? The level of aerial violence in Serbia was pretty intense, for all the operational problems of command-by-veto. How many Reapers and their successors, how many Hellfires directed by how many unaccountable invisible enthusiasts, will it take to “win” in whatever contest you have committed the rest of us to this time around?

    • Tell us, you subtle proponents, of “this time will be different:” did “air power” WIN anything in Iraq or Afghanistan?

      The air support given to the Northern Alliance allowed it to rout the Taliban, capture the capital, and take over the country. I wouldn’t characterize that as “air power” WINning that war, though, but as air power allowing a ground force to WIN.

      I do love the way your sneering attitude is supposed to make us understand that there is no difference between a 1940s area bombing campaign and the a series of drone strikes against al Qaeda commanders. I imagine it’s much easier than actually arguing the case.

      • Aha! another drive-by, captured-quote “impeachment!”

        I read in Gary Schroen’s book “First In: An Insider’s Account of How The CIA Spearheaded The War On Terror In Afghanistan,” lots of interesting stuff about how important and effective “air power” was NOT, in moving the Northern Alliance into Kabul. It never much of an “alliance” except in memos and cables, that now has morphed, if I have it right, into lots of parts of the many “opposition groups” who get to sneer at the unfortunate boots and butts of the US/UN forces as they leave Afghanistan, as what, “winners?”

        Schroen tells a more compelling story of how that air power was more often “not available,” often killed CIA and other “friendly” forces, was controlled and used as any “air power” is in modern Battlespace by people with political interests that seemed to have little to do with single-minded pursuit of “victory” (hard anyway in a place as variegated as Afghanistan with all its warlords and shifting “alliances” and through a mess as Byzantine as the power centers of Washington.)

        To hear the CIA guy tell it, shrink-wrapped blocks of $100 bills, disbursed to this or that warlord along with other favors (like the Viagra the smarties in the CIA used to try to buy some “warlord loyalty” not so very long ago) had a lot more to do with displacing or turning “the Taliban” (along with a shitload of other forces like disgust at reactionary patriarchalism and behaviors that looked kind of Khmer-Rougie) from Kabul.

        “We took their capital” means nothing to tribal Afghanistan, which has an actual sense of and memory for “history.” And I make no confusion between 1940s bombing of all types, carried into Vietnam, and “surgical” drone strikes that like a lot of surgery result in dead patients. Is your claim that “air power” led to the Northern Alliance that isn’t, any more, any “proof” of the efficacy of “air power?” Is that the best you got, in answer to my question about what “we won” in Iraq or Afghanistan? And have you got any proofs of the efficacy of Hellfires from drones as a mainstay of “victory” in any other activity the parts of the US “security” establishment are currently spending Big Money on? Other than some body count, and brags about how this or that “terrorist organization” that “we” don’t seem to have much intelligence about has been decimated or decapitated?

        You are backing an ancient set of grossly expensive stupidities, garlanded and bejeweled with questionable laurels and shiny medals, that benefits an ever-smaller set of people and has nothing to say to the future except more exotic ways to do the same crap that has never led to anything but “I am Ozymandias, King of Kings!…” If you needed any more proof for yourself that I am not, thank God, “serious.”

  4. Operation Rolling Thunder in Vietnam was considered to be largely ineffectual at damaging the military-industrial infrastructure of North Vietnam. The severe limitation was the lack of precision of U.S. Air Force bombing operations -which at that juncture were jet fighters reconfigured as bomberssuch as the F-4 Phantom, F-5 Freedom Fighter and the F-86 Super Sabres. B-52s were used sparingly and well away from North Vietnamese population centers.

    The two phases of Operation Linebacker in 1972 gave the Air Force a certain sense of success with its laser-guided “smart bombs” making precision strikes on bridges, buildings, POL storage tanks and other areas throughout the North, including Hanoi and Haiphong. B-52s were unleashed in round-the-clock raids from Guam to strike Hanoi, although Russian SAMs shot down a number of these heavy bombers. The air force of North Vietnam retreated into China and complete air supremacy was achieved by the Air Force before the time a truce was reached. More damage was inflicted by American bombers in two weeks than had been acomplished in the preceding seven years. One North Vietnamese leader later admitted that the intense bombing caused the North to enter a truce to avoid national suicide.

    Operation Linebacker set the tone on how aerial warfare should be implemented. The aerial bombardments the Israeli Air Force has used against Lebanon and Gaza had inflicted heavy losses upon those areas with few casualties by the air crews. Same with the U.S. Air Force in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and in both Iraq conflicts. Air power was the centerpiece of those Israeli and American operations.

    There is no doubt that air forces of the U.S. and Israel have been highly successful at strategic bombing with comparatively few casualties of their respective personnel. These modes of air operations can usually quickly subjugate hostile states that have little air defense capability – such as in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Gaza, and Lebanon.

  5. This is a one sided presentation meant to persuade those who know little military history. It doesn’t distinguish between conventional war and insurgency or strategic vs. tactical air strikes. It also doesn’t consider the alternatives of ground forces compared to air power. Soldiers on the ground also kill a lot of civilians. While I agree with a number of his main points, there was no need to oversimplify. Tactical bombing and strafing in conventional war is not only important, it is often decisive. Air strikes are not so effective in guerrilla warfare, but then, neither are ground forces. As a former USAF officer he must be aware of these distinctions; the fact that he ignores them makes this article little better than propaganda.

    • As Joe from Lowell noted above, Gary, this piece is the kind of shallow analysis of military history and military doctrine and activity that one gets from Tom Dispatch. Joe’s description of the author’s “Wikipedia overview” and your observation that the article is “little better than propaganda” sum it up perfectly.

  6. So desperate the “experts” are to impeach one of their classmates who dares to break ranks and look at a wider view, not just color inside the lines in their restricted comic books.

    What’s always missing in all this we’re-wise self-congratuation on mastery of the terminology and tenets and tactics/strategies/tools/toys of the Game of War is the whole normative and even economic question: Why?

    Sun Tzu sure put answering the question of the “profitability” TO THE NATION of the “war” thing being contemplated right up there at the top of the list. There’s infinite text arguing and discussing and railing about details of battles and tactics and methods and doctrines, but in the end it sure looks, for all the reasons that matter to ordinary people, that Vietnam was wrong, Iraq was wrong, Afghanistan was wrong, arming Syrian opposition forces and putting US troops and toys into the mix is wrong, so is picking a fight with Iran, or trying to dominate Africa or Central America. We can’t even manage “victory” or “success” in any of the Asias except by changing the definitions to suit and declaring we meant to do that, maybe because we have all these “experts,” like MchChrystal and Petraeus, but not a wise commander in the whole bunch.

    And being involved in Great Game stuff that leads to episodes that may give the Air Force some bragging rights, like Serbia/Kosovo, is also wrong. In the name of some set of national-identity strategems aimed at hegemony or glomming onto resources or making “friends” who can buy “our” weapons, our rulers lose or dissipate all the advantages Sun Tzu says ought to be in hand:

    … The art of war is of vital importance to the State…. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.

    …The art of war, then, is governed by five constant factors, to be taken into account in one’s deliberations, when seeking to determine the conditions obtaining in the field.

    These are: (1) The Moral Law; (2) Heaven; (3) Earth; (4) The Commander; (5) Method and discipline.

    The Moral Law causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger… [and you can read the rest at the link below]…

    [And how often has this been proven true?] There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare…. Contributing to maintain an army at a distance causes the people to be impoverished. [this latter is apparently considered a BAD thing]

    link to classics.mit.edu This stuff is taught in War Colleges all over the planet, but I guess the officers sleep through those classes…

    “Expertise” is not the same thing as “righteousness.” An expert torturer or propagandist or master of Pentagonal procurement chess may have a little power, along with “mastery,” but does that advance the species or even, as events move, the supposed, presumed, UNDEFINED “national interest?” Did Vietnam or Iraq (shorthands for enormous violence and waste and horror that there’s NO evidence our Really Expert Brass could improve upon) “advance US interests?” Make the world safer, more stable, healthier for humans, even our own humans who are nominally all US-ans and on the same side?

    Love to hear any support for that notion. And “It’s just the way things are” ain’t a winning argument. Global warming is “the way things are,” too.

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