Neocons and candidates for president and others trying to establish their patriotic bona fides bray for war — with ISIS, or Iran, or China or Russia, virtually anyone will do. When those of us who have either experienced war, or read a book about it, object that to choose war is lunacy, they condescend to reassure us. It will be a surgical strike, they say; or we will just train and advise a surrogate country, and it will do the messy part; we’ll use air power, so neither you nor any of your children (Wait, none of them is a pilot, right? Good.) need worry about it.
Well, for the same reasons that you cannot do surgery with machine guns, bayonets and grenades, there is no such thing as a surgical strike by bomb, rocket or artillery shell. Unintended consequences abound, and rebound, creating new mortal enemies and assuring that what was meant to be quick and surgical becomes a long janitorial slog.
The mantra of American policy during the first few decades of the First Iraq War was, “When they stand up, we’ll stand down.” We were teaching their army to fight, you see, and as soon as they got the hang of it we would leave. Last summer, during the runup to the Second Iraq War, when units of the Iraqi army actually got into a fight with ISIS, tens of thousands of them left not only the battlefield, but their uniforms, behind. They had put on their civilian clothes under their uniforms, just in case. How long, do you think, will it take to train them not to do that?
So we must once more unto the breach, dear friends, but fear not. We’ll use air power. Now, air power is just another form of artillery. Permit a story or two about artillery:
Historians say that the largest, loudest and most intense artillery barrage ever seen in North America — 164 cannons firing for 90 minutes — killed no one and had zero effect on the outcome of the battle at hand or the war in progress. It was intended, as artillery barrages usually are, to “soften up” the enemy position to ensure the success of the follow-on infantry attack. (Until recently, there was always a follow-on infantry attack.) But in this case, on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, the follow-on was Pickett’s Charge. Which failed.
Not at all an unusual occurrence. I spent eight years researching, editing, writing and presenting Civil War material — twice as long as anybody had to fight in the damn thing — and never in that time did I find an example of a battle that was decided by artillery.
Nor am I convinced that flying cannons do much better. Every Pacific Island that was attacked by the Allies in WWII experienced a preliminary “softening up” by naval guns and bombers until the island seemed to consist of a heap of rubble, bouncing. Then the Marines went ashore — and were met by ferocious resistance from entrenched Japanese who it seemed has been merely annoyed by the bombardment. Even the effectiveness of the vaunted Eighth Air Force pounding Germany late in the war — among the bravest and most costly assaults of the conflict — is open to debate. The bombing and at least partial destruction of every major German city, according to Albert Speer, chief of the German war economy at the time, did not weaken morale, but “spurred us to do our utmost.” Through it all, German war production kept rising until the end.
It is self evident that neocons and war lovers do not read. You think I exaggerate? The entire Vietnam War was fought by presidents and secretaries and commanders who thought Vietnam was a client of Communist China. Any single book on the subject would have revealed to them that the two countries were and are thousand-year, bitter adversaries. BTW, those leaders of the free world also believed, fervently, that air power would carry the day. The B-52s bombed North Vietnam down to sea level and still lost the war.
So let’s do the same thing all over again and see if the results are different. Let’s just bomb ISIS until it quits. Failing that — and that is failing as we speak — we’ll train more Iraqis to stand up so we can sit down, or however that saying goes. We’ll bomb the Houthi rebels in Yemen — along with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, oh, and ISIS in Yemen — until they all give up. It will be easy, and they’ll greet us as liberators.
Wars, like illicit affairs, are easier to start than to end. They can be started a thousand different ways, but they are always finished by the infantry. They always, without exception, last far longer and kill far more people and do far more damage to everyone involved than anyone imagined at the beginning. They always surprise people who never read books.
Before you assent to the clarion calls to war, whatever its beginning, however “surgical” its intent, however grave the threat to the “homeland” that is portrayed, make the trumpeters read a few books on the subject. Including the one in which a guy named Hemingway said, “Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime. Ask the infantry and ask the dead.”