Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Haiti and the American war machine

The outpouring of sympathy from the United States following the Earthquake in Haiti is similar to that in this country when Samoa was devastated by Tsunami last year. The parallels are notable. A relatively small and dependent island nation with problematic political structures hit by a significant national disaster and a larger nation which hosts many of that island's nationals scrambling to respond.

Given the vastness of the United States military - its airforce's budget is greater than New Zealand's GDP - one might have expected a slighly more coordinated response. But one should never confuse size with capability. A superyacht may cost the same as an ocean liner but its focus is on quality rather than quantity . The United States military is designed to (in the words of one general memorably testifying to Congress) "kill people and destroy things in the name of the United States of America". It isn't designed to save lives and build things as is needed in Haiti.

The American military is something of oddity in the world. For a start it is many times bigger than any other military anywhere. US military spending dwarfs Chinas and even most of Europe's combined. Moreover the US military performs many functions that in other nations are handled by Government departments. The Army Corps of Engineers is pretty much a Federal Public Works department. The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency is similar to other Government's national science agencies. The military provides a huge vocational education infrastructure for literally millions of Americans, and it also has its own health and welfare program. In many respects America has become a cross between Sparta and Plato's Republic.

America is a militant state. Most of the wars that have occurred since World War Two ended have occurred because America decided to fight them. It has a huge hammer and it goes looking for nuts. As this page shows http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_United_States_military_operations#1970-1979
the US has scarcely been shy about trotting out its hammer when its seen a need to crack down on things.

But what is obvious is that what drives these operations is a constant need to field test its capability. The invasion of Grenada, Panama and the dirty war against Nicaragua have been launched on the meanest of excuses. The current deployment in Afghanistan is ultimately a test of United States capability and not the most cost effective way to crush the Taliban ( it would be cheaper to pay the Afghans to fight the Taliban than send US soldiers). War is the anvil on which the United States perfects its weapons in order to ensure its global strategic hegemony.

Where the US military has generally found itself unable to operate as well as expected is where the emphasis is on saving lives and building things in the name of the United States of America. Katrina was an excellent example and Haiti is turning into another. Yes, the US military has the capability but it is fundamentally a war machine. At the back of its mind it is based on World War Two. The US shows up, it invades, it kills the bad guys and it rides off into the sunset. The way Ahmed Chalabi was able to apply this fantasy to Iraq and sell it to George Dubya Bush shows how ingrained this mythic vision of itself is in the American psyche.

The problem is the US military is really best structured to fight itself. It is organised to fight a huge highly advanced enemy and defeat them on the field of battle. In reality however what it actually does is invade small nations suffering from internal conflicts, gets hopelessly muddled in the middle, shot at from all sides and retires in confusion. It still hasn't really worked out that mounting a successful landing is pointless if you don't know what a successful exit looks like. Examples include Lebanon, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq. It has been interesting lately to watch the way U.S generals have increasingly moved from a combat outlook to their jobs to starting to understand the economic, cultural and social precursors to conflict and deal with those. But what does that mean for military structure and training?

In my view the fundamental objectives of military training need reconsideration. The object of military intervention should be to establish peace and security without necessarily establishing total control. The problem with command structures in the military is they encourage a view that when the command is given to "jump!" the response is "how high?". Well outside the military structure - and that is where most people are - the response to "jump!" is "or what?". And the threat of an airstrike is not exactly conducive to friendly relations.

The British have bitterly criticised US management in Iraq for acting like invaders from Mars who simply won't listen to anyone but their own. The British deserve to be listened to, too, for while the US has lost most of its military interventions in the past fifty years the British have actually won most of theirs. And the way the British win is through negotiation, engagement and when necessary (as in the Falklands) steely determination. The point is however the British have always operated very effectively with allies rather than going it alone.

The US needs to adopt this strategy as well. It means having an overwhelming hand of friendship extended first with a big stick behind its back ready to whack anyone who bites it.

It starts with logistic and medical trains on land sea and air. Then tacked on the end of that are the operational units which are more like engineers and medics than soldiers. These are troops who can work with civilians, defend themselves and others and build infrastructure. This is the big hand of friendship. The point is this sort of unit will be welcome by the average local anywhere - just as they were in World War Two.

Then around this core are the security units able to infiltrate the community and also strike with power and precision. This is the big stick. It consists of humint operatives and all the incredible weaponry the US has at its command. It has to be surgically accurate and proportional. This is the 'don't mess with us' stuff which is there to dissuade political opponents from use of force.

So in concrete terms you need a logistic train consisting of a sea or air fleet preferably of purpose built craft. That means hospital ships, fast RO-RO freighters, landing ships able to work from a beach or small port or the equivalent in aircraft. It means a completely new kind of pioneer brigade equipped with multi-wheeled transports and engineering vehicles with strong medical support able to extend from the landing point and begin operations deeper into the territory. The pioneer brigade can fight if need be but largely in self defence. It means add-on security units for naval security, air security, litoral security and land security. Each of these units should be environmentally specific and task sized. So for example a land security unit in some places might involve armour and in another helicopters depending on the need.

A structure like this would work in just about any of the operations where the United States has ended up having to retreat in confusion. It would also work where the emphasis is on saving lives and building things rather than killing people and destroying things.

Ultimately a mercantilist world relies on stability. Without peace trade suffers, It is in the interests of everyone in the world to have peace. That said without America's overwhelming capability for war the temptation for other nation's to resort to force would be greater. But making war for the sake of maintaining a war machine is ultimately self-defeating. America's experience in Vietnam, Somalia, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq has shown that a war machine - no matter how large it is - cannot be sustained in long and futile actions without a clear objective.

By restructuring the core of the US war machine around saving lives and building things and wrapping around that the most devastatingly accurate and sophisticated capability to kill people and destroy things America would be able to both maintain its global military hegemony and redeem itself in the eyes of the rest of the world. That in itself would be a step along the way toward resolving the deep conflict between the US and its billions of resentful detractors.