Thursday, June 25, 2009



Several days ago, I watched a documentary about American military strategy against Japan during World War II. The basic lesson boiled down to this: “America won not by overwhelming manpower, but rather by overwhelming firepower.” Unlike the Japanese—and especially the Russians—American military leaders recoiled from suffering heavy casualties in battle. Instead, they preferred to leverage massive technological advantages against their enemies, ostensibly because they cared about their soldiers’ lives. In the Pacific, this involved blasting the Japanese with massive battleships, airplanes and tanks. Obviously some infantrymen had to die in the final push to take island fortresses, but not before the Navy and Air Force gravely weakened the defenders with numbing firepower. In essence, although America mustered huge numbers of military personnel in World War II—over 16 million—commanders won battles without subjecting them to unnecessary risks.

That tradition continued after the war ended. In virtually every conflict America has fought since 1945, the military has put a premium on technology over manpower. Manpower is vital to operate the technology, but American strategy bets on technology to win battles, not massed men. In Vietnam, the Air Force dropped countless tons of bombs on the jungle in an effort to root out the Viet Cong. B-52 bombers razed North Vietnam’s cities to the ground. When American troops got in trouble, they called in air support to hammer their attackers. In most cases, the Air Force faced no opposition at all. They freely bombed, napalmed and strafed their enemies. American soldiers died. But a whole lot more Vietnamese did.

In Operation Desert Storm, America took its “technological” approach to war to the ultimate level. By 1991, the United States held sway over a formidable new “computerized” arsenal, including invincible tanks, stealth bombers and “smart bombs” that could home in on individual targets. Again, although America deployed hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the Gulf, the technology did the fighting. Day and night, the Air Force systematically pulverized the Iraqi army. By the time the Army moved in, there was almost nothing left to shoot. And once the advance into Kuwait began, the Army savagely destroyed anything that resisted. This time, only a handful of American soldiers died, while up to 100,000 Iraqis did. So complete was the slaughter that more American troops fell to friendly fire than to enemy action.

Beginning in 2003, America has attempted to leverage its “technological” approach to warfare in Iraq. Despite initial successes against “conventional” resistance on the way to toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime, American strategy bogged down once the conventional battlelines disappeared. The guerrilla “insurgency” that arose after Saddam’s fall continues to this day. American troops must engage in demoralizing patrols. Often, they are hard pressed to tell civilians from foes. In most cases, they never even see their attackers, who either wait in ambush or plant traps for them along the roads. Technology counts for nothing in these circumstances. And this is why—despite the smug confidence of men like former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush—the capabilities of “technology-based” armies in the 21st Century have their limits.

Yet I do not fully criticize America’s “technological” or “standoff” approach to war. America fights wars all the time. True, they are not colossal, World War II-style struggles between established States. But they are wars nonetheless. America solves problems with warfare. It defends its ideology and commercial interests with warfare, just as every Empire in history has done. Perhaps this is what dominant world powers must do. And at least America is not reckless when it fights. It does its utmost to ensure that few Americans die. Officially, it tries to reduce civilian casualties, but civilian casualties are unavoidable when deploying such immense firepower. America avoids losing its own men by deploying firepower. If it kills some civilians in order to save Americans, it will. That is just how the game works.

I do not criticize America’s war methodology to the extent that American military leaders care about American lives. There is nothing wrong with wanting to avoid unnecessary deaths. In fact, one might even say it is compassionate. Throughout history, many military leaders viewed their own men with contempt. They did not blink when hurling them into certain death. Generally speaking, however, American commanders rarely do this. While some men always must die to fulfill dangerous objectives, the real question is how many must die. The Russians never cared how many soldiers died. They just threw everyone in and trusted their overwhelming manpower to win. By contrast, American commanders actually take pains to reduce risks to their own troops by first inundating the enemy with firepower. In a strange way, this reflects care for individual lives. It might subject noncombatants to huge risks and inflict horrific losses on the enemy. But it is still “care.” American military commanders don’t hesitate to kill the enemy. They just don’t like seeing Americans get killed. It actually really bothers them.

I mention this because care for soldiers reflects a peculiarly benevolent, well-intentional government paternalism. In America, that is rare. In civilian life, for example, Americans learn to be independent economic creatures. They learn to “make their own way” without State help. They don’t get free health insurance; they bear the full price of irresponsibility, bad luck and failure. American civilians depend on themselves, not State apparati. In fact, Americans are patriotic largely to the extent that the American “Nation” provides them a “liberty sphere” in which they can pursue their own interests without interference from the government. They like America because America “leaves them alone” and lets them get rich. They don’t want help, because help is for weaklings. They want to be happy, independent economic producers who pursue their own self-interest. For the most part, the government lets them do exactly this. It does not step in when civilians suffer hardship or loss. It lets them bear suffering with remarkable indifference. It does not really “care” for them like a watchful parent does.

Not so in the military. The military is a governmental institution that shows incredible care for its members. In the military, the emphasis does not lie on the individual; it lies on the group. There is a “group mission” and “group ethics” that bind everyone to common—and noncommercial—goals. There is common care for each member. It may be harsh care, but it is still care. If a solider gets sick, army hospitals care for him. He does not have to worry about rent, food, clothing or bills. The military provides him everything he needs, leaving him free to focus solely on the “group mission.” Finally, American commanders truly care that their troops do not die in battle. This represents true government care. Symbolically, when military commanders actively worry about their soldiers’ lives, it represents government caring about its citizens. This differs from civilian life. If a civilian encounters unavoidable circumstances that put his life in jeopardy, that’s his problem. The civilian authorities do not care.

Should we be proud about this? Why does government care not extend throughout all of society, not just certain institutions like the military? Do we have to confront mortal danger in combat before the government starts really worrying about our well-being in life? The United States spends half its gross national product on maintaining the military. This includes all the fancy technology that gives the military the “overwhelming firepower” it needs to preserve its “manpower.” People complain that the government spends too much on things like stealth bombers, unmanned robot tanks and sophisticated airstrike guidance systems. But all these expenditures reflect care for individual soldiers’ lives, not just a desire to defeat potential enemies. Stealth bombers efficiently destroy things so that military commanders do not have to put American soldiers in jeopardy to fulfill a particular objective. The pricetag for stealth bombers, then, indirectly saves American lives by insulating American soldiers from combat risks.

For a country that prides itself on “self-reliance” and “making your own way,” it is quite striking that America spends so much money protecting those who are not self-reliant. After all, military personnel are quintessentially dependent: They depend on the military for everything, from equipment to food to accommodations to emotional support. In essence, the Armed Forces represent a massive welfare State dedicated to the safety and well-being of its members. It is ironic that most military personnel consider themselves conservative when they directly benefit from extravagant government largesse on every level.

In fact, they get the best. There are less than 5 million Americans in the Armed Forces, yet half the GDP goes to support them. The other 295 million Americans have to make do with the other half.

America can be socialistic when it wants to be. American support for the military—and the military’s obsessive care for its own members—proves this. That is why I do not think that “socialism” and “America” exclude one another. Our military is a shining example that Americans can truly care about each other from a social perspective. American commanders do not like to see their soldiers die; they take great, expensive pains to ensure that they do not. That spirit should permeate our entire society, not just the military. Yes, it costs a lot. But it bears tangible benefits. When individuals know that they have recourse to assistance when they need it, they feel good to be part of a larger community that cares about them. Soldiers feel proud to be in the Armed Forces for the same reason; they know the military will support them as long as they do not commit some gross infraction.

Considering all these factors, the military is a socialistic institution. It is not capitalistic at all. It might fight to protect capitalistic ideals among civilians, but capitalism in the military would destroy its cohesion and esprit de corps. If the military practiced capitalistic ideals, soldiers and officers would struggle to exploit one another for personal gain, not to advance “common goals” or “the mission.” Soldiers would fight for “themselves,” not their “buddies” or great principles such as “freedom,” “honor” or “sacrifice.” If the military were capitalistic, soldiers on the battlefield would say to their wounded comrades: “That’s your problem, pal.” Some Lieutenants would be richer than other Lieutenants, even though the regulations say that everyone with the same rank is equal. And if the military practiced capitalism, it would not really care if some undifferentiated soldiers died in a battle as long as it did not impose a cost “on profitable operations.” This is certainly not the case in the military as it exists in the United States. It cares too much about others’ lives; that is why it is not a capitalistic institution. Rather, it is a socialistic institution within a capitalistic society. And it would not be effective in battle if it were not essentially socialistic.

America can learn from the military. Military life is in many ways a rarefied existence. Military personnel are insulated from the pernicious “buy, sell, make money” cycle that typifies civilian life. Every soldier has a chance to advance based on his merit, not his money. He does not worry about bills, rent, clothing or electricity. Instead, he focuses his mind and body on larger “missions” that transcend his own commercial gain. And he knows that his officers truly care that he lives. These are not bad ideals. In fact, they are quite noble compared to the usual impulses that drive civilian life. Soldiers are not “on their own” in a society that could care less whether they live, die or go bankrupt. They are part of a family that cares. It may care harshly, but it still cares.

In the American military, commanders care so much about their soldiers’ lives that they are willing to level whole cities in order to protect them. We do not have to go that far in order to care about our fellow citizens. The military experience proves that America can actively care about its own people, even if it professes “self-reliance” and “total independence.” I would find it refreshing to know that civilian authorities cared as much whether individual citizens live or die as military commanders care whether their soldiers live or die. This might be socialistic. But it is also quintessentially humanitarian.

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