The Obsolesence of Raw Military Power

January 15, 2007

The United States, with its intercontinental ballistic missiles, its carrier fleets from Taiwan to the Persian Gulf, its military bases in 132 (or more) countries around the globe from Kyrgyzstan to Korea to Japan, its heat-seeking sensors, stealth bombers and helicopters, its night goggles and rapid fire machine guns, is losing a battle against insurgents dressed in street clothes, powered by donkeys or auto jalopies or foot traffic with brief case bombs. In Iraq and in Afghanistan, in Palestine and in Lebanon, we are helpless; we cannot do a thing about genocide in Darfur and we are helpless to enforce human rights in Russia or Iran.

For over 50 years we have built the largest military machine in human history and now we have the most tanks and planes, warships and sonar guided bombs, the best body armor and strongest humvees. But with all this we cannot win a war to convince an unwilling people in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Somalia, in Sudan, even in Bosnia, to change their ways, or to submit to become like us.

We have built a military to fight armies in countries which mass their troops along battle lines. We are prepared to fight World Wars I and II better than we ever did before. But this is a new world and we have been preparing for the wrong war. We cannot change the government—or that is, the source of moral authority—in Iraq or Afghanistan or in Cuba or Venezuela or Russia or China, with the tools that we have been relying upon this last 50 years. They are the wrong tools. We have wasted our treasure and the lives of our young on the wrong strategy.

The president has now decided to engage our military in door-to-door, urban combat with an invisible enemy. He believes that once we have “taken” Baghdad, American soldiers will be able to identify who of the Iraqi police are loyal to our ally Shiite Al Maliki, and who are loyal to our Shiite enemy Muktada al Sadr. The president believes that young people from Kansas and Georgia and urban Los Angeles will be able to determine who among the Iraqi soldiers is willing to shoot Sunni insurgents and who will, to the contrary, assist the insurgents by planting IEDs under our vehicles.

Sadly, there is no sensor for any rifle, there is no night-time infrared, there is no accent, or style of clothing which can help our soldiers know when, or from whom, they have “taken” Baghdad, nor whom to hold it against, because there is no sensor for ideas in the head.

The wars of whole populations against modernism, the religious wars of Hamas, and Hezbollah and Osama Bin Laden can none of them be solved or even addressed by military might. US military power is to Osama like gasoline to the flames; it infuriates him and insults him and rallies his followers. US military power is to Taliban fundamentalists in Afghanistan a despoliation of holy soil, a violation of their identity as children of Allah, and our show of power is itself an incitement to resistance. Our military support for Israel is an incentive for Palestinians to dig in, not to give up. Military muscle is, in short, simply as out of date, as obsolete for the solution of the conflicts in the Middle East as the bow and arrow.

We have, as a nation, for over 50 years, invested in bases, missiles, thousands upon thousands of stockpiled weapons and planes, hundreds of thousands of soldiers, marines and sailors and been preparing for the wrong war. We should have been building libraries, not bases. Instead of reinforcing the thugs and princes of Islamic fundamentalism, we should have been seeking out and encouraging conversations among the enlightened and progressives of all the religions. Instead of giving excuse to accuse Americans of oil-driven imperialism we should have been developing alternative fuels, investing some of those billions not on tanks but on solar arrays, not on stealth bombers but on electric automobiles. A thousand alternative ways to approach mind change, both theirs and ours, are available. We have chosen none of them.

There is a bloodbath about to break out in Baghdad which we will sponsor. If this tragedy is to have any meaning at all, when it is done and when it fails, as it surely must, let such failure at last break the illusion of American military power. At this time in history, ideas are more important than guns and military power is the exact opposite of what will create a peaceful or a stable world