Thursday, August 1, 2013


First, let me confess, I have never served in the military, never fired a gun, never killed anything larger than a mouse (except for one terrible accident when I was about 8 years old when, mischievously tipping a big oil barrel to see what I could spill out of it, I was caught in the act, and in dropping my side of the tilted barrel, caught a curious piglet beneath it. It is one of the worst memories of my life.  So in addition lacking any warrior experience, I am squeamish.

Nevertheless, in a 50+ year career in journalism, I have seen warfare and its consequences (on the streets of New York, Newark, and Kent, Ohio, as well as in the Balkans, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Rwanda, and have spent a lot of time talking with troops and their commanders.

Not enough to make me an expert, but more than enough to conceive these ideas.

1)    Power Projection Is Over:  Wikipedia says that power projection and force projection are the same thing, and that “soft power” can also be successfully projected.

This is, to me, very confused thinking.

Power projection, once upon a time, meant the ability of a distant state to control other states.  The apex of power projection was the era of colonial empires, when the economies and polities of distant, usually African, Asian, Middle Eastern or Latin American nations, and the daily lives and ultimate fates of their people could be controlled from places like London, Paris, Lisbon, Madrid, Moscow and, yes, Washington.

Force projection is a lesser capability.  It can intimidate, punish, oppress its targets, but it, as we have learned to our sorrow, cannot control them.  One way of looking at force projection is that it is power projection without empire, since force projection does not imply the durability or the continuity of power projection.  For its targets the difference between force projection and power projection is the difference between a sock in the jaw and life in prison.  For its projectors, the limited power of force projection was nicely summed up by American fighters in Vietnam (or Afghanistan): “We control the day; they control the night.”  

Soft power, which eschews brute force, conveys influence, which can have both durability and continuity, but neither controls nor intimidates or oppresses.  The soft power of “rock and roll, blue jeans, Coca Cola,” is impressive, whether you see it as liberating or annoying, but it, even in its state-directed iterations of diplomatic alliance or exclusion or economic sanctions allows it targets to choose their outcomes.   

What power projection controlled was not just territory, but equally important, communication.  The armies of empire had superior firepower, but, more important, they knew, both strategically and tactically, what they were doing.  By and large, their victims did not.  Imperial fleets could move with speed and stealth, outpacing both warnings and preparations.  Once landed, imperial troops could overpower territories and kill or corral their inhabitants and move on, before their next targets knew they were in danger.

And control of communications was a 2-way street.  Not only were power projections‘ victims ignorant of their future, the projectors’ folks back home could be kept completely in the dark about the crimes and brutalities being committed in their names.

Which brings us to maxim #2:


2)    There Are No More Secret Wars:  Back when power projection worked, wars were a secret to their victims until it was too late, and they could be kept secret from disapproving citizens of colonial powers until the state decided otherwise, or until the disapproval was of faits accomplish, which are harder to argue against, and much harder to undo.

Now, like God’s sparrows, not a bomb or missile falls unobserved, and news of the damage done can be communicated both locally and globally, instantaneously.  For the would-be projectors of power or force, even their most incurious or controlled news media must now contend with other media voices, with other, likely often opposing, points of view, and with an anarchic world of video-capable mobile phones, cameras, computers and satellite links to tell the world of every death, every burning building.

As the Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden cases make obvious, secret attempts to project power or force can be revealed to the world, not just after the fact, but in the planning or even pre-planning stages.

As I have said before, as long as institutions involve human beings in conceiving or executing their plans, the betrayal of secrecy is not just possible, but predictable.

The cruel depredations of perhaps the world’s last empire, the Soviet bloc, its oppression, corruption and bureaucratic paralysis, were so well known that it was rejected by its own people, and shunned by the rest of the world. 

Now, with all the world witness to our projections of force in Iraq and Afghanistan (and our airborne killings in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and our connections to coupsters in Honduras and Egypt) and the threats of force against Iran regularly made by belligerent blowhards in Congress, there is a widespread sense of, “There, but for the grace, or lack of interest, of the Pentagon and the White House, go I.”

In addition to the projection of power, force or influence, there is their opposite, the projection of repulsive arrogance.  This kind of arrogance and ignorance can only be remedied by my Third Maxim.


3)    WHERE YOU CANNOT TELL FRIEND FROM FOE, DO NOT GO:  I was going to propose as my Third Maxim, There Are No More Short Wars, but the exception proves the rule promulgated above.  The US military did conduct short, successful wars in Grenada and Panama in the 1980s.  What made these “incursions” short and successful was not just that they occurred before the globe was digitally interconnected but because in both cases, our troops, and almost all the citizens in both places knew who the “bad guys” were.  In Panama, there were few remaining supporters of the corrupt and criminal regime of Manuel Noriega, while in Grenada, the Stalinist Bernard Coard was almost universally seen as an oppressive, vicious usurper who had overthrown -- and unforgivably, killed -- the perhaps unsteady, but still widely-liked, Socialist Maurice Bishop.  In neither place did American forces face popular or dogged opposition, and we were in and out too fast for particular factions to use us to target their political or personal rivals or enemies.

Would that had been the case in either Iraq or Afghanistan!  In both of those places, we invaded in support of allies, most of whom had been out of their countries for years or decades before we projected our forces.

They told us who our enemies were, when in reality, they were theirs.  Think of Ahmed Chalabi conning ignorant fools like Paul Bremer and his boss, Donald Rumsfeld into disbanding the Iraqi Army, which they defined as “Baathist,” while most Iraqis defined as “ours.”

Then there were the “night raids” launched in Iraq and Afghanistan against people who were fingered by “our friends” for what frequently turned out to be very private beefs. Every household we overturned, every prisoner we took and held, often for years at a time, did indeed become our enemy, for reasons we gave them.

Now, the latest Inspector General’s report from Afghanistan chronicles a waste of billions given to people we knew or later learned were already against us.  And still the dollars spill across the country where they cannot be traced, much less monitored, because it is completely unsafe for Americans to go beyond Kabul.  Because we don’t know who is on which side, and a misjudgment can mean death.  Which leads us to the Fourth Maxim, which is actually the first and foremost rule of warfare in our time.


4)     IN TODAY’S WARS, THE VISITING TEAM NEVER WINS:  The former advantages that made Power Projection work, an outsider’s preponderance of firepower and control of communications no longer work.  Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warns, budget cuts may force him to reduce the US Navy’s aircraft carrier battle groups and the size of Army and Marine forces.  So what?  Those carrier groups are primarily useful for force projection, which is, as I’ve argued, something we should be reducing anyway, and the days of massed troops overrunning opposing hordes on big battlefields is as dead as the harquebus and halberd.  In fact, these days, with remote-controlled, satellite guided munitions, any mass of forces is simply an inviting target.  Enemies will no longer mass against us.  It’s much easier and more effective to pick us off with small groups, carrying portable, often “improvised” (meaning home-made, not put together spur of the moment) weapons.

Massive numbers of soldiers are now chiefly useful for military occupations (as Rumsfeld tragically refused to recognize when he invaded Iraq).  Even the small, mobile forces Rumsfeld championed there served principally to drag us deeper into the briar patch.  Once there, we discovered that occupation is a thankless, often hopeless task, which, one devoutly hopes, we will avoid in the future.

And the thing about occupations, and about power or force projection, is that they are temporary.  Everyone knows that: especially the home team, whether they be our enemy, our friends, or just innocent civilians.  In Afghanistan from the day the war began, the Taliban have been telling the people they live among, or within arms’ reach of, “The foreign forces will leave one day.  We will not.”

It’s not hard to draw the conclusion inherent in that formulation, and Afghans, whether horrified or pleased by that prospective outcome, live every day in its shadow.  That’s why so many of “our friends” prove perfidious.  They want their children to survive.

Everywhere we have projected power since the 1990s, our control of events has disappeared as soon as our troops have left.  In Bosnia and Serbia and Kosovo, in Iraq, Somalia, and soon in Afghanistan, the projection of force leaves only one certainty behind: the rule of force, usually the force we fought to defeat.

The cost in blood and treasure and in America’s international reputation has been catastrophic.  The benefits to ordinary people are very hard to find.    

1 comment:

  1. Oh, but "ordinary people" include the shareholders of Halliburton and all the other companies that have benefited from these "power projections," and they have benefited greatly.