- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By John Byron
Best Defense future of war essay contest entry
The inevitability of war and the design of the best military for fighting war are intrinsic themes in this series on the future of warfare. I judge that a giant flaw, positing as it does a false duality for the American military: war or not-war. We shouldn’t ignore the third realm, the theoretical and historical middle ground in which the military is shaped, trained, equipped, and operated to prevent war.
The Navy and the Marine Corps understand well this world of peacekeeping and war prevention. Here’s a CNA study of the Marine Corps’s role in 154 humanitarian and peace operations through 1993: A Chronology of US Marine Corps Humanitarian Assistance & Peace Operations. Here’s another, looking at the 207 U.S. Navy crisis-response operations short of war between 1946 and 1982 (in 140 of these instances aircraft carriers were the central force element): The Use of Naval Forces in the Post-War Era: U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps Crisis Response Activity, 1946-1990. These statistics can be brought up to date and paralleled with similar (but likely shorter) lists for the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force to build an excellent case for shaping our future forces as much for keeping the peace as for wartime combat.
Doing so, however, might prove painful for the Army and Air Force chauvinists who see need for a big-war boogeyman to justify the kind and size of military force that favors these services. The Soviets were once 10 feet tall and now the Chinese must be seen as bent on military domination of the entire world if we’re to sustain the heavy, over-built but under-capable military machine desired by both these services. Otherwise how do they stay in the game bulked up to the size they desire rather than building light and mobile forces, supporting SOF, deferring to diplomacy and naval force for rapid response, and settling for a force-in-being strategy relying on reserves, conscription, and the arsenal of democracy to get us up to full big-war footing in time to fight (or better, prevent) major combat?
On February 27, the Washinton Post published a superb essay by the redoubtable Andrew Bacevich arguing for a smaller Army: "Do we really need a large Army?" I commend it to you as rationale for future forces shaped to keep the peace and prevent war rather than for actually fighting one as primary response to all situations. Bush’s Global War on Terror got us wildly off track, premised as it was that the American military was the sure cure for terrorism and the direct application of massive military force our primary instrument to deal with real and potential threats outside our borders. Well, we’ve made a colossal cockup of Afghanistan, and Iraq is nothing close to our intentions. With overwhelming military force we’ve failed in two wars. War didn’t work. War doesn’t work. It’s a bad last option.
Preventing war, that’s the wise path. We should shape our future military with that as its primary purpose and rely on our industrial power and wit to build us up and protect us if in the future we have to react to a (wildly improbable) actual military threat to our vital national interests.
Churchill said that "to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war." Nailed it, he did, and described the best future of warfare: peace.
Captain John Byron USN (Ret.) is Best Defense‘s resident peacenik.