The Discovery Channel has a series devoted to "Future Weapons." Some of these systems, which are billed as "the most subtle and sinister" ever designed, are already well known, such as the F-22 Raptor fighter, B-2 strategic bomber; nuclear submarines, body armor and various missiles. Others, however, are less familiar, such as the "Krakatoa" module explosive projectile and the Shoulder-Launched Multi-Purpose Assault Weapon--Novel Explosive (SMAW-NE), a thermobaric munition that has proved effective against urban bunkers in Iraq.
The proposed 2008 Pentagon budget requests $75 billion for research and development of new weapons. The desire for new high-tech systems is so great that despite the heavy strains that even the small wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have placed on military personnel, the services have been asked to trade manpower for hardware. Within tight defense budgets, the notion is fostered that exotic firepower is more important than boots on the ground, and should command the bulk of the money even as the families of long-serving soldiers struggle to make ends meet.
This technophilia was closely identified with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. His minimalist campaign plan for Iraq, and rejection of calls to rebuild U.S. ground forces after the massive cuts of the 1990s, were meant to "transform" the military into a small, agile, high-tech force that could avoid the messy slugging and slogging of traditional combat. His tenure was not, however, the origin of this fanciful approach to warfare. Nor has his departure ended it, even though Robert Gates favors a modest expansion of the Army and Marines. In World War II, the decision was made to cut the number of planned Army divisions to devote more resources to building heavy bombers to pound Axis cities. The result was a shortage of infantry as American forces fought their way into Germany, through the rubble of blasted cities whose defenders continued to fight on.
This is not to deny the advantage superior weapons give American troops. No enemy can stand against them, and few try. Insurgents use terrorist tactics, road side bombs and suicide attacks, because they have no chance to field an army that can contest for territory or state power against the world's best professional soldiers. Iraq is the kind of "small war" that great powers of the past were able to wage as a matter of routine. Indeed, it was the ability to project power at a distance and shape regional events that made a country "great" and defined what constituted an advanced civilization. Yet, today, it is the terrorists who proclaim from hiding that they are winning, while American politicians parade before the cameras calling for retreat. The war effort has not become unpopular in the polls because of a lack of advanced technology, nor will the political viability of future wars become enhanced merely by deploying new generations of hardware.
Carl von Clausewitz is the father of modern strategic thought. His experience was in the Napoleonic Wars, at the dawn of the industrial revolution, but he did not discuss technology. He assumed that armies would acquire whatever weapons were available in pursuit of the traditional objective of war, "to compel our enemy to do our will." When determining the power of an adversary, he notes two "inseparable factors, viz, the total means at his disposal and the strength of his will." With 300 million people and a $14 trillion economy, U.S. means are unrivaled by any combination of enemies in the Middle East. The weakness is in America's will to mobilize adequate resources to sustain the kind of campaign needed to grind down a fanatical opponent. This is the weakness that the enemy has targeted with success. The high civilization of post-modern America seems unable to stand up to the ruthless exponents of Dark Age doctrines.
The eminent British military historian Jeremy Black reconfirms Clausewitz in his study War in the 21st Century, arguing that war "involves a constant– the willingness of organized groups to kill and, in particular, risk death." Material factors are "less important than its social, cultural and political context." In other words, the home front is the decisive theater of war. American forces that are superior in the overseas theaters of combat may be defeated, not by any failure of those who are there risking death, but by the betrayal of those who are consumed by domestic luxuries and cannot bring themselves to think about the brutal realities of a dangerous world.
Thucydides, the Greek historian of the Peloponnesian War, who predates Clausewitz by over two millennia, established enduring lessons of strategy and politics. He concluded from his direct observation that rich and democratic Athens lost to authoritarian Sparta because, after the death of its great leader Pericles, Athenians fell into internal political conflict. They succumbed to "sedition" and "private differences." The crippling defeat in Sicily was less a strategic error than the fault of "the senders not deciding to make proper provision for those who had gone out [to fight], but choosing instead to occupy themselves in private quarrels regarding the leadership of the people." Sound familiar?
The need to unite quarreling Greeks back home to support the heroes who are facing the Persian threat to Western civilization at Thermopylae is a theme of the blockbuster movie "300" which grossed $200 million in its first three weeks. The movie's secondary story line, which has resonated well with audiences in both the U.S. and UK, revolves around Theron, a "politician" (the term is juxtaposed to "warrior") who urges a diplomatic solution. He uses Persian gold to bribe the oracles to oppose the war, so he can tell the popular assembly that King's Leonidas' military actions are "illegal." He vows that no reinforcements (surge?) will be sent by the assembly to support the king's stand against the Persian invasion. During a debate in the assembly, Queen Gordo grabs a sword and kills Theron. When he falls, Persian coins spill from his purse, exposing his treason. Sparta then rallies, as does the rest of Greece. The eastern hordes are then defeated by a united Greek army at Plataea as the film ends.
Today, the U.S. Congress is a quarrelsome place. Proposals to micro-manage the Iraq War show no consistent thought or grasp of strategy. Fight al-Qaeda, but no other foes. Support the troops, but don't let them win before they are pulled out at some arbitrary date. The only unifying themes are partisanship and political ambition. This is the behavior that doomed democratic Athens, and which will render all the marvelous new military technology useless.
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