Monday, October 09, 2006

Fighting Them Over There (Part II, with North Korea Update)

Cross posted at the front page of My Left Wing.

(Part I discussed how "fighting them over there" became the American way of war. Part II will begin to explore how the "over there" policy has become a broken paradigm.)

Over the course of the 20th century, America developed an "over there" war machine. Unlike the great powers of Europe whose conventional forces were designed to protect their borders or project power slightly beyond them, U.S. force posture focused on deterring or fighting conflicts in far flung strategic corners of the earth, either through permanently station enclaves (such as our Cold War land and air forces positioned in western Europe) or through forces that could rapidly deploy from the homeland in response to short notice crises (naval and long reach, strategic air power assets).

Mixed result proxy wars like the Korean and Vietnam conflicts aside, our "over there" Cold War strategy worked pretty well. We won it after all. In theory anyway, or at least as well as we can judge any war to have been "won."

But just as World War I led to World War II, and World War II led to the Cold War, we now find ourselves in a new struggle against old adversaries, and by following our 20th century paradigm we're ceding the advantage to foes that we thought we'd vanquished.

The balance of military power is now so tilted in America's favor that nobody else is bothering to compete in a symmetric arms race with us. Why should they? They don't have to come "over here" to defeat us in a toe-to-toe clash of arms. All they have to do is sucker us into going "over there" and take them on in wars we're not designed or doctrinally organized to win.

And who's reaping the benefits of our woebegone foreign entanglements in the Middle East? Let me count the adversaries: China, Russia, Iran, al Qaeda, the Taliban, and everybody else who doesn't like us (which at this point is pretty much everybody but "us," and "we" have mixed opinions about ourselves).

They are Smart, We are Strategic Creatures of (Bad) Habit

In a 2003 Proceedings article titled "Invasion of the Transformers," I illustrated how Donald Rumsfeld's "military transformation" movement hasn't given us a force structure significantly different from the one we used to defeat the Germans and Japanese.
In World War II, we had armor, artillery, and infantry. We had aircraft carriers, surface combatants, and submarines. We had bombers, fighters, and reconnaissance aircraft. We had air and surface lift, air and amphibious assault, and special operations.

What do we have now that is so different? Computers? They're just the electronic progeny of the abacus. Cruise and ballistic missiles? Unmanned aerial vehicles? They're fighters, bombers, and reconnaissance aircraft flown by silicone monkeys. Satellites? They're balloons that don't explode in a vacuum. Information and intelligence? Command and control, synergy, net-centric warfare? Basic forms of these concepts and technologies have been around since Sun Tzu was a sergeant. Coordinating force effects is coordinating force effects, whether you do it with computer networks or smoke signals. Sure, the stuff we have now runs faster, jumps higher, and stops on a smaller dime than the stuff we had in World War II. But all we really have done is trade our cheap-o P.F. Flyers for high-dollar Air Jordans.

Is it any wonder, then, that the same kind of force we built to go abroad and defeat the German Wehrmacht and the Imperial Japanese fleet isn't so swift at fighting an enemy whose main weapons are box cutters and water bottles?
And what military "geniuses" have convinced so many people that directing a 21st century force against a 17th century adversary "over there" makes us safer "over here?"

Over Where?

I hear on the morning news that North Korea went and pushed the button down last night.

This illustrates a key problem with trying to work military solutions in too many "over theres." We're bogged down in land conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, neither of which had nuclear weapons. We're threatening to strike Iran, which doesn't have nuclear nuclear weapons, says it doesn’t want to have any, and even if the Iranians are lying, they're five to 10 years away from having nuclear weapons.

North Korea, which not only admits it has nuclear weapons but just tested one to see how loudly it would go bang--well, we don't have much of a military option on the drawing board for those guys. We're relying on China to put the cuffs on North Korea, but China's committed to keeping Kim Jong Il in power so they don't wind up with millions of North Korean refugees on their hands. China's also likely to put the kibosh on any UN sanctions aimed at Iran because, among other reasons, it wants Iranian oil.

Would China go for sanctions on North Korea? It might, but what good are sanctions on a country that's already the world's most isolated nation?

Our best option may be to encourage Kim to keep testing his nukes until he runs out of them.

Do you think he'd fall for that?

Young Mister Bush just announced that world leaders are united in their commitment to a "nucular" free Korean peninsula. The U.S. is committed to diplomacy, he says. Lots of glittering generalities, lots of facial tics.

Gee, you'd almost think that this time Bush understands he's blown it.

(Part III will discuss how being "over there" creates vulnerabilities that America's adversaries have learned to exploit.)


Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Read his commentaries at ePluribus Media and Pen and Sword.


  1. Anonymous10:12 AM

    The there vs. here strategy allows this administration only two real options: genocide or fighting on the opponents' terms. Either way we lose.

  2. You're exactly right. That's the corner we've been maneuvered into.

  3. In a sense, this is not a problem we can realistically blame on Bu$hCo. Being shoehorned into an unworkable global strategy is really the fault of the thinkers and drinkers of the advisory organizations. While uniformed military strategists might have worked out the failings of the "over there" policy on their own, our form of government assigns the decision making authority, and hence policy formulation to civilian control.

    Is it likely that the "deep thinking" format that should properly be done by the uniformed services has been abrogated by the professional advisory organizations? Or is it in fact unlikely that uniforms would ever admit to being confronted by a problem that isn't solvable by force of arms? (After all, all that budget money IS there...)

    I can remember reading a paper in ARMY magazine back in the 70s complaining that flag officers are so swamped with organizational minutiae that they have no time to "put their feet up on the desk and think about the future." (A direct quote as best I remember.

    Perhaps this whole failure thing is a result of our streamlined "up or out" policy for officer career management. The system we have now is self-reinforcing, requiring a degree of group-think that ostracizes non-orthodox thinking and tactical innovation. How many snake-eaters have made it to flag rrank? (I think the answer is just one.)

    Being a soldier these days is almost like signing up to be a robot.

  4. Lurch, great thoughts. I personally feel the civilians in charge of the military in this administration have group think on 'roids.

    Jeff, thanks for laying out our lack of options re: N. Korea. I put up an open thread asking for ideas to deal them. Feel free to pipe in.

    Semper Fi