Skip to content

Military History Carnival #23

March 31, 2010

H-War (http://www.h-net.org/~war/) (in conjunction with the Edge of the American West, http://edgeofthewest.wordpress.com ) will be hosting the next Military History Carnival, on April 17, 2010. Carnivals are an ancient and hoary Internet tradition, bringing together the best submitted work on a particular topic from around the web:

“A blog carnival is like a roving journal, a rotating showcase of interesting writing from around the blogosphere within a particular discipline. Individual bloggers volunteer to host a carnival on their personal blog, acting as chief editor for that edition. It falls to them to collect noteworthy items, and to sort through suggestions from the community, many of which are direct submissions from authors. On the appointed date (carnivals generally keep to a regular schedule) the carnival gets published and the community is treated to a richly annotated feast of new writing in the field.” (http://www.futureofthebook.org/blog/archives/2005/10/the_blog_carnival.html)

My belief is to construe military history as widely as possible: drums and trumpets, surely. The face of battle, most definitely. But also memorialization, gender, and anything else that seems related to war in all its forms.

Submit potential entries to hwar@comcast.net with the subject header “Military History Carnival Submission.” The deadline is April 15th.

Further Regionalization

April 16, 2009

National parties mediate the differences between their regional bases. The Democrats, for example, must negotiate between the interests of their constituencies in the northeast, the upper midwest, and the west coast. What an autoworker in Detroit sees as a critical political issue from a taxi driver in New York City, and both would likely disagree with a barista in San Francisco, or a farmer in North Dakota. The result is often a mishmash of both policies and politicians: Byron Dorgan, Democratic Senator of North Dakota, holds substantially different views than Barbara Boxer, Democratic Senator of California. This is a good thing in electoral terms, as it enables political parties to contest and win national elections.

Regional parties, by contrast, are usually much more consistent (though not entirely) in their ideology, policies, and politicians. This gives them a stranglehold on their particular region. But it becomes a reinforcing cycle: the politicians that emerge from a regional party are the ones that are successful in that region. Politicians who do not adhere to the ideological template are marginalized or forcibly evicted from the party. And with each success and each eviction, the party regionalizes itself further and begins the cycle all over again. This is a bad thing for political parties, as it makes it difficult for them to contest national elections and weakens them everywhere but their particular region.

This syndrome is currently at play in Pennsylvania, where Republican Senator Arlen Spector is in danger from his own party. Specter’s relative moderation no longer seems to fit within the increasingly conservative and increasingly Southern GOP, and so he will be challenged in the Republican primary by Pat Toomey, who’s social conservatism fits much more closely with the current template. If Toomey wins, and it seems likely that he will, it is extremely difficult to see him winning against any reasonable Democratic candidate in a state that went for Barack Obama in 2008 by over 10 percentage points. Even if Specter wins, it will be by moving to the right, something that will weaken him in the general election. The likely flip of the second Senate seat in Pennsylvania to the Democrats will continue the regionalization of the Republicans, which will in turn make it more unlikely that Specter-like figures can survive in the party. The big tent is a useful electoral tool; diversity helps win elections. If the Republicans’ tent continues to shrink, there will be less and less room for actual voters.

Enforcing Military Realism

February 27, 2009

There is always theater in the writing of a defense budget. That is true no more so than this year, when a string of unusual events has made the American military process even more complicated than usual. In 2009-2010, the defense budget is…

  • Being made by a Democratic President and Democratic Congress for the first time since 1994,
  • Being made in a time of catastrophic economic global meltdown,
  • Being made as the United States is moving out of one war (Iraq) and moving more deeply into another war (Afghanistan),
  • Being made as some of the services are beginning to shift away from a Cold War mentality,
  • Being made as the military struggles to rebuild and enlarge itself after seven years of uninterrupted war,
  • Being made as all the services are struggle with procurement difficulties in their next generation weapons systems
  • Being made as the wide-open spigot of funding that started in the post 9/11 era is finally being twisted shut.

The Obama administration’s first defense budget is a critical one, both to begin the process for dealing with the factors above, and to set a tone of rationality for the coming years of the administration. Before we turn to that budget, let’s peer back at recent defense budgeting history, to get a sense of context. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 ushered in an era of essentially unfettered defense spending, aimed at winning the Cold War. Defense budgets shot up and remained up for most of the 1980s, reaching nearly 6% of GDP ($840 billion in 2008 dollars).

The end of the Cold War substantially reduced those budgets and the size of the military. What did not change, however, was the essentially unfettered ability of the military to decide its own strategy and purchasing decisions. With the exception of a small period from 1991-1994, the Pentagon essentially on military strategy (“The Powell Doctrine,” for example) and procurement (continued emphasis on Cold War weapons). President Clinton’s difficulties in handling the military essentially led him to abdicate any hard choices about future strategy. There was another brief break from this trend in 2001 as the incoming Bush Administration pushed a self-consciously “transformational” agenda. Donald Rumsfeld tried to break the services from their Cold War mindset, most notably with the cancellation of the Crusader artillery system. All of that stopped with 9/11 and (despite the legendary dislike of Rumsfeld by the military) the military was allowed by American policy makers essentially to run its budgeting ship, with ever increasing funding.

Given this past history, President Obama’s most important responsibility is to enforce realism. Simple sounding in theory, but difficult in practice and notably absent for the last several decades. The two most critical parts of enforcing realism is

  • Budget discipline
  • Building for Real Wars

First, budget discipline. Perhaps the most pernicious practice of the Bush Administration was the splitting of the defense budget from the budgets for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Defense budget &
supplemental budgets, 2001-2008

The latter were paid for with “supplemental budgets” which were passed by Congress separately. The effect was to enforce spending discipline on neither effort. Billions of dollars have been lost in Iraq, while the defense budget has continued to spiral as the military continues to buy larger and more expensive weapons. President Obama seems well on his way to dealing with this one, having announced not only the unification of defense budget and war budgets, but also putting a cap of $537 billion on non-war related defense spending for the next year. As a method for bringing the defense budget under the control, this is a good start.

Second, the Pentagon needs to plan for real wars. This sounds like an obvious idea, but practice has been to plan for potential wars rather than actual ones: wars that the United States might wage, rather than ones they were actually waging. In the Cold War, when the genuine potential existed for a large-scale ground war in Western Europe existed, this practice was marginally defensible, though even then it left the U.S. badly prepared for Vietnam, among other conflicts. But now, when a conventional conflict against China or Russia is all but impossible, and the United States is involved in two counterinsurgencies, the practice is actively dangerous.

F-22 Raptor

The primary goal of the services must be to wage the wars they are actually involved in, not the ones that they believe possible. Doing the former leads to the purchase of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles for the conflict in Iraq and the rewriting of the Army’s Field Manual finally to address counterinsurgency. The latter leads to billions being spent on the F-22, and the use of billion dollar warships to chase pirates off Somalia. The wars that the United States has been involved in in the past few decades have all been asymmetric–against much smaller foes–and a mix of conventional and insurgent campaigns. The defense budget has to focus on preparing for those, not for imaginary conflicts with China. Does that put the U.S. at risk if a massive conventional war comes along? Surely. But no more so than preparing for the large-scale conventional war put us at risk of getting bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. In this time, America simply does not have the resources to prepare for every contingency no matter how remote. That leaves us only one option: waging the wars we are actually fighting.

GOP Calculus

February 24, 2009

The GOP made a big show of not cooperating with President Obama’s passage of the stimulus bill last week. No Republican member of the House voted for the bill and only three GOP Senators did so. There are three major political implications of the way the bill was passed:

  • Legislative power in the government rests largely in the hands of three of the remaining Northeastern GOP Senators: Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Once Al Franken is seated as Senator from Minnesota (and it seems more than likely that he will be), any one of those GOP Senators can be the decisive vote to invoke cloture and prevent a Republican filibuster of Democratic legislation. The Democratic majority in the House is so large as to make it functionally irrelevant, unless there is a major Blue Dog revolt. Thus any critical legislative action from the White House is likely to be tailored to those Senators.
  • The calculations of the Republican leadership are those of politicians in a tight spot. After getting soundly thumped in two straight elections and still saddled with the horrendous legacy of the Bush-Cheney Administration (much to Democratic delight, Vice-President Cheney has refused to go quietly into the night). Voting for the bill, they likely figured, gained them nothing. Any success would be credited to President Obama and the Democrats. Voting against the bill set them up as the voice of opposition in case of failure, and offered them a (however hypocritical) way of reasserting their status as the fiscally conservative party. That much of this required the most stringent short and long-term political amnesia–amnesia bad enough actually to provoke the normally-compliant media into noticing–was simply a burden to bear. The criticism that they thus put party interests above national ones is misplaced, as the GOP leadership knew that there was no way they could prevent the bill’s passage in the House and none of the three GOP Senators who voted for it in the Senate have been punished by their caucus. Essentially, the Republicans were playing political theater and they knew it.
  • The regionalization of the Republicans continues. Voting against the auto bailout bill in the last days of the Bush Administration should effectively destroy the GOP brand even further in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania. The effective conversion of northeastern GOP Senators into conservative Democrats means that the GOP presence in the northeast is even more reduced, and it is likely that some if not all Senators will lose their next election. Certainly, Arlen Specter is probably doomed in his 2010 campaign in Pennsylvania, if he’s not picked off by a primary challenge. The GOP has become a party of the South and the Great Plains, able to contest states in the West and Midwest, but losing more than they win. The Democrats have now won the popular vote in 4 out of the last 5 Presidential elections, and the GOP’s regionalization means that it will be unlikely to produce a nationally-viable candidate in 2012. Certainly neither Sarah Palin nor Bobby Jindal seem to have country-wide credibility.

What emerges from these three implications are a set of questions. How well will the Specter, Snowe, and Collins work with the Obama administration going forward? Will the GOP’s gamble on being the Party of “No” work? Can the GOP avoid becoming a regional party without the ability effectively to contest national elections?

The Pacific War at Home and Abroad, at Beginning and End.

February 19, 2009

On this day in history, the United States took actions that came to symbolize the contradictions of the Pacific War, at home and abroad. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which ordered the internment of ethnic Japanese (Issei) and Japanese-Americans (Nisei) living in the western U.S.. In 1945, assault forces of the 4th Assault Corps put two divisions on the black sands of Iwo Jima. In a sense, the linked days symbolized the beginning and the end of the Pacific War in their own particular way. The internments–perhaps the most shameful act of Roosevelt’s Presidency–highlight the confusion, fear, and chaos of the immediate months after Pearl Harbor. Iwo Jima, at the other end, demonstrated the bloody grinding that the war had become by 1945 as overwhelming American power hammered against obdurate Japanese resistance.

Internment

The attack on Pearl Harbor had thrown the United States into war with Japan. It also reinforced suspicions that many Americans had about the Issei and Nisei living in the west. “Fifth column” activity had been a constant worry in the U.S. since the war in Europe started and suspicious individuals in the east had been questioned by the FBI for their connection to Germany or Italy. What was different in the American west, however, was the rapid shift from the suspicion of individuals to the suspicion of the entire group. The panic that overtook the West Coast after Pearl Harbor soon focused–at least in part–on supposed Japanese fifth columnnists active in California, Oregon, and Washington. The Attorney General of California, Earl Warren, issued a study claiming that Japanese-Americans lived in greater numbers near sensitive military targets. This, Warren thought, meant that they were concentrating themselves and waiting for an opportunity at sabotage. General John L. DeWitt, the head of the Western Defense Command, echoed Warren’s assessment. The result, in mid-February, was Executive Order 9066, which laid the groundwork for the exclusion of individuals from sensitive “military areas.” General DeWitt quickly issued orders to exclude all ethnic Japanese from “Military Area 1,” essentially the West Coast, and to set up processing centers and internment camps in the inland west to which the Nisei and Issei would be relocated.

The inherent silliness of the military justification for this is revealed most acutely by three things. First, the ethnic Japanese population of Hawaii was not included in the internment, despite their massive numbers and proximity to critical American bases. Second, it was impervious to any counter-argument. When told that there had been no acts of sabotage on the West Coast, General DeWitt responded that such a lack was “disturbing” because it indicated that the Japanese were waiting for the Americans to let their guard down. Third, many of the Nisei volunteered or were drafted for the military and served either in the European theater or (as linguists) in the Pacific.

The relocation of so many thousands of people created horrendous difficulties for the Japanese-Americans. Many were forced to sell their homes and possessions at fire-sale prices. Some destroyed their belongings rather than sell them for insultingly low prices. Nine Nisei soldiers were given furloughs from their units to return home and help their families with the move. In a defiant statement about their patriotic service, some Issei veterans of World War I showed up to the assembly camps in their old uniforms.

The internment was in roughly built camps in Montana and Wyoming and Utah. Treatment of the Nisei and Issei there ranged from malevolent to indifferent to kind, depending on the commander. Executive Order 9066 was revoked in February 1945, and the camp inhabitants were given $25 and a train ticket home by the government. They were not, however, compensated for their confinement or for the property that many had lost.

Iwo Jima

In military terms, Iwo Jima is perhaps most notable not for the style of the American assault, but the method of the Japanese defense. American amphibious landings had become routinized in their execution (though not, obviously, in the experiences of those mounting the assault). The focus was on getting the Marines and soldiers ashore with a minimum of casualties. To that end, massive firepower was rained down on the beach from carrier airplanes, the big guns of American battleships, cruisers, and destroyers, and purpose-built ships such as rocket-firing landing craft. Once the beach had been pulverized, assault forces would go ashore in landing craft and tracked vehicles and fight their way inshore.

At Iwo Jima, however, the Japanese took a different tack. Rather than concentrating their defenses on the shoreline and thus prey to American firepower, the Japanese commander pulled them back inland and built a series of defensive lines across the island. The American forces would be pincered between looming presence of Mt. Suriabachi in the south and a series of lines in the broken terrain of the north. He conceded the beaches to save his forces and focused on preventing the Americans from breaking out of the beachhead. The result was when American marines of the 4th and 5th Divisions went ashore on 19 February 1945 in Operation Detachment, they found the beaches largely undefended. Only as they began to push inshore did they trip into the intricate networks of tunnels, trenches, foxholes, and bunkers that the Japanese had set up. The fight, which started off slowly, quickly achieved a horrendous intensity. Iwo Jima was technically considered part of the Japanese Home Islands and the defenders fought fiercely. The Marines pushed deeper onto the island, using flamethrowers and hand grenades to clear the bunkers and caves of defenders. When these failed, Nisei linguists sometimes managed to convince Japanese soldiers to surrender, but most preferred suicide or death in combat. The island was only finally declared secured on March 25, after five weeks of intensive fighting, and even then several thousand Japanese remained at liberty. The final Japanese holdouts would not surrender until several years after the war was over.

There were 27 Medals of Honor awarded for Iwo Jima (23 Marine and 4 Navy). The 23 Marine awards constituted about 30% of the Medals given to Marines during the entire war. American casualties were roughly 28,000 (with over 6,000 dead). Japanese casualties were over 21,000, almost all of whom were killed. After Iwo Jima, the American staff officers turned planning the invasions of Okinawa and Japan itself.

Memory

The memory of both has lasted, though in different ways. Iwo Jima has become perhaps the iconic land campaign of the Pacific War, symbolized by the famous photo of the the flag-raising on Suriabachi. The Marine Corps Memorial in Washington, DC specifically reproduces the flag-raising and many more movies have been made about Iwo Jima than about Okinawa. The movies themselves have ranged widely, from the uncomplicated patriotic remembrance of John Wayne’s Sands of Iwo Jima to the complex dual projects of Clint Eastwood, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima.

The memories of the internment have been more contested. Though never forgotten, the American memory of World War II as “The Good War” tended to slide into the background things that did not fit. The 1955 Hollywood movie “Bad Day at Black Rock”touched on the issue, but from the point of view of Spencer Tracy, not the murdered Japanese farmer or his dead son, neither of whom appear in the film. It was not until the 1980s that Congress, under pressure from the “Redress Movement” acted to apologize and compensate the internees, with a lump sum payment of $20,000 for all those sent to the camps. Even now, however, the history is being fought over. Similar fears of an American “fifth column” post-9/11 have lead to the appearance of an internment-denialist literature, which argues that 9066 was justified.

Less than War, More than Peace

February 17, 2009

The United States has focused so closely on conventional warfare in all its forms–land, sea, and air–that it has trouble when forms of warfare that are resolutely unconventional crop up. American weapons, doctrine, and training are unprepared to react quickly to situations that do not fit into the preconceived mindset. Even worse, the American government as whole often uses the military in areas for which it is not prepared and in ways that would be better served by non-military solutions.

This past month has seen two particular examples of this. First, groups of pirates sailing in small craft from the Somali coastline have begun hijacking ships from the busy sea lane that runs along the Indian Ocean side of the African continent. Armed with little more than assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, the pirates have proven successful at taking enormously large ships like oil tankers hostage and extracting millions of dollars of ransom from the companies that own them or their cargos. This is insurgent war at sea, aimed not at other warships but at more vulnerable civilian vessels. The pirates’ craft are stealthy by virtue of their smallness, they can dash out from the coastline quickly, and can out run and outmaneuver the civilian ships they are chasing.

The required naval response is–as it always has with pirates–to patrol the sea lanes in which the pirates operate and escort the intended targets through the danger area. But this requires the kind of forces that the United States Navy has avoided building over the last two decades: a plentiful number of small craft armed with the most basic of weaponry. The AEGIS air defense weapon system of the billion dollar Arleigh Burke destroyer class is less effective against a speedboat loaded with pirates than a .50 caliber machine gun on a tiny patrol boat. But, while the Navy has a large number of the former, it has few of the latter. The result has been a largely ineffective response off Somalia.

The second form of warfare is even more unconventional and perhaps should not be considered as warfare at all, but somewhere across the divide into politics on the Clausewitzian-scale that puts war and politics at opposite ends of the same scale. In this case, the US was surprised to hear that the government of Kyrgyzstan was planning on ejecting American forces from their use of the air base at Manas. Manas is the critical link in the American supply line to its forces in Afghanistan. Through here are carried enormous amounts of food, ammunition, and the other logistical requirements that keep the effort in Afghanistan going. There is another supply-line, but it goes through Pakistan and the Khyber Pass and has proven vulnerable to Taliban attacks in recent months. Manas is thus doubly critical.

What was behind the sudden action? Fingers are being pointed at the Russians, who have recently made large loans to Kyrgyzstan. The quid pro quo seems to have been eviction of the Americans. Why would the Russians want to force the Americans out? The answer has less to do with the recent state of relations between the two countries, which has been reasonably good, than it has to do with the continuing effort by the Russians to reestablish themselves as the preeminent power in the countries on their border. The Georgian War was one such effort and it effectively showed not only the Georgians but the Ukrainians and others that the west could not protect those countries if the Russians decided to invade. Evicting the Americans from Manas would start the same process in Central Asia. Even if the Americans manage to hold onto the base by paying the Kyrgyzstanis off, the Russians have made an unmistakeable point about who carries weight in that area of the world.

This is not simply a problem of the military. The neglect of anything other than military (and conventional military at that) solutions to problems is a long-standing problem for the United States. Alternative methods–law enforcement, diplomacy, or aid–have for the most part been mocked and underfunded. The result is often that the only available option is the hammer of the military, and so every problem becomes a nail. This process only accelerated during the Bush Administration, when the marginalization of the State Department under Colin Powell and the increased militarization of law enforcement pushed even more responsibilities onto the back of the Pentagon, some of which it has been capable of dealing with, and some not. One of the most important responsibilities of the Obama administration will be to revitalize American ability to respond across the spectrum of problems, from smallest to largest, from diplomatic to military, from economic to social. If the U.S. uses its military power to the exclusion of all else, it virtually guarantees a continuing imperial overstretch and a strong tendency by the world to respond in the same way.

Shorter George Vecsey:

February 17, 2009

“Don’t blame us for sucking at our jobs.”