In Max Hasting’s massive book ‘Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-5’ he makes numerous observations comparing the Allied armies in the later stages of the war with each other. The hard lessons learned by the post-purge USSR in combating the German army are contrasted with the bungling and occasionally disastrous performance of the British anywhere outside of North Africa and the overly cautious hyper casualty-conscious strategies of the Americans. Though he hardly judges it as it makes sound strategic sense when one has the luxury of a much larger and more ruthless ally to do much of the heavy lifting, it is a worthwhile point you will not hear much of in the triumphalist Atlantic oriented popular history of the Second World War.
Eisenhower quite correctly saw how adverse to mass casualties the United States was in the immediate post-isolationism era. But catering to this need would not have been a remote possibility had the USSR either not been a participant in the war or had been knocked out of it by the time the USA was in full force. While it is undeniable that the United States played the most decisive role in supply, logistics, and defeating Japan in a largely naval and limited amphibian war(those tend to have smaller amounts of overall casualties than big pitched land battles even if they are economically more challenging to sustain in many cases) the amount of sacrifice it would have taken to have gotten unconditional surrender from Germany (or to conventionally invade Japan) would have necessitated a negotiated peace or the mass deployment of nuclear weapons again and again on most of the cities of both countries.
Debacle in Vietnam reinforced this trend right when it was starting to expire. Multiple wars of choice since the 90s were conducted in such a way as to minimize American casualties as the first priority and securing objectives a second. This is a problem, and not because these luxury wars of choice need to be fought better-but rather because they are totally unnecessary.
With the renewed and potentially perpetual US commitment to Afghanistan coming at the same time NATO countries are doing everything in their power to unseat the Assad regime while seemingly either oblivious or indifferent that such actions may create a new safe haven for radicals perhaps it is time to re-examine America’s greatest weakness as a tool which could be its greatest strength: adversity to sanguinary military operations. If one thing is going to re-align a fundamentally moribund foreign policy strategy it could be this.
There was only once as a fully independent and established nation that the United States both mobilized for total war and was willing to accept truly enormous open ended sacrifices with seemingly no limit to bring a war to a decisive end and that was the Civil War. The partially botched nature of Reconstruction and the truly appreciable percentage of the nation’s populace killed or wounded produced a souring which meant that a single year in the trenches of WWI reinforced quite the fear of mass casualties…and the further from home they were the more suspicious they could be. One could imagine that in an alternative Second World War where the United States gets involved reluctantly to shore up the Allies against the Axis without a Pearl Harbor to inspire a desire for revenge as one of being careful and fearful to deploy forces in the decisive quantity. Though as a naval power in two oceans, it would retain great defensive bonuses and initiative.
But despite constant fearmongering over China’s rise, there is no power which on its own or even in a league with another power could challenge the current status of the United States unless it gets perpetually overextended and bogged down. Its offensive actions in the Second World War and its simply holding out and assisting the collapse of the USSR indirectly ensured the closest approximation to a unipolar world order since the Mongol Empire-and a much more global one that even that was.
Even the most paranoid of security fiends should realize, looking beyond instinctual and trained reactions of pride and ‘sending messages’, that there is no need for the United States to take the offensive. Indeed, doing so overburdens its resources and will and risks an isolationist backlash. Using naval power to secure and control trade routes and economic power to guarantee central airline links as well as supplying a defensive reserve to allies is all that is really needed. And no, it is not ‘defeatist’ but merely a good cost/benefit ratio. After all, history is full of examples of people who declined not because they ceased by somehow ‘vital’ (as is commonly supposed by bitter old men and Basic History Bros alike) but rather due to overextention. As it is, the United States is an overindulgent ally, and in its mad quest to re-make the world in its own image, often a full blooded ally to some when mere friendliness would suffice. Coupled with the lack of understanding to other contexts this means not only are nation building efforts done with money and air power over real on the ground results, but more importantly, the nations in question are not being built to be their best as they are, but their best as America wishes them to be.
If steps are not taken to change strategic course some spirally over-indulgent intervention somewhere will make the people demand it. No one but the neocons is going to be able to tolerate the bumbling id-cop routine much longer. Lest we be subjected to a fate where the United States literally becomes the nation-state variant of ‘Mitchell.’
The fundamental problem is that the United States sees itself as the sole unique nation. The one who can remake history to suit its own domestic mythology. This has never been true of any nation and it is not true now.
There will one day come a world which is again multipolar. It will come sooner if the United States is too ambitious and too over-active in non-critical regions to its interests, not later. And the nature of that multipolar future will have no room for world-changing universalist creeds. In fact, in my next post I will discuss the closest historical analog to what I think great power politics will be like. So stay tuned.