Twenty Years of War: What Have We Learned? Part 2

A Politicized Military

The pressures of the long war and the extraordinary political climate in the country have raised the specter of a politicized American military of a kind that we have never seen. For a time, it seemed possible that the armed forces might be called on to overturn a presidential election, even to impose some version of martial law. The numbers of veterans and military members involved in the January 6 insurrection raised fears of military involvement in an attempted coup d’état.  It may be (this has yet to be established) that federal troops were held back from intervening in the insurrection by people in the chain of command who hoped that it would succeed in overturning the election. It also appears that an intervention by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs was precipitated by his concerns over the possibility of an eleventh-hour, unprovoked attack by U.S. forces.

Retired colonel Andrew Bacevich, among others, has argued that the relations between civil and military authority in the United States have not been as stable as many suppose. Since the armed forces have eschewed the coups and king-making of other militaries, we believe that all is well in this area. The events leading up to the transfer of power after the last presidential election suggest that Bacevich may be right, and that more consideration needs to be given to the place of the military in the national life. The Constitutional oath is sometimes invoked as a guarantor of a stable position of the armed forces, but the oath itself is too little discussed or understood, and it may not be enough. An explicit commitment to the rule of law, to the electoral process and principles of a liberal democracy may be required to avert even the possibility of a “seven-days-in-May” scenario.            

The Human Factor

            The American wars of the 21st century have surely been a reminder of the human costs of war. First among these is loss of life. The total fatalities from these conflicts runs at half a million. The second are those wounded, physically and psychologically, and this number runs into the millions. Finally there is the physical destruction: of bridges and buildings, of goods and supplies, of rolling stock and other forms of civil and military machinery and equipment. This cost ran into the trillions of dollars of unrecoverable losses, and this in a region and world of scarce resources, of material want in all parts of the globe.

            By the “human factor” I am also alluding to war as an enduringly and even uniquely human activity. Wars are fought by people operating under intense conditions that may test them physically, intellectually, and ethically as perhaps no other activity. It is not fought by machines or by technology, but by those who carry, maintain, operate and adapt the machines and technology to a warlike purpose. There is, however, a danger that the encroachments of technology will make war even crueler than it has been. In a recent book co-authored by Henry Kissinger, the authors warn of the ruthlessness and inhumanity which AI involved in strategic calculation often displays. Writing about computers as decision tools as long ago as 1951, German philosopher Hans Blumenberg warned of the ability of computers and other technology to “silence all questions regarding…meaning, humaneness, and justifiability” (Times Literary Supplement, Dec 17, 2021). A symptom of the “Next War-itis” referenced in my last post appears to be a preoccupation with technology and its putative ability to bring quick and clean victory. But the human factor will intrude. The fighting will react to the usual forces of atavism and entropy, coming down to the gunfight or hand-to-hand combat in a drone-wrecked building or by the wreckage of a million-dollar vehicle destroyed by an improvised device built in a basement.  And the cost of war will remain high.           

Next: Conclusions


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