How to Win Wars
Reading Lynn Parramore’s recent article comparing the frustrating congressional response to the fiscal crisis in education with the size and scope of military funding triggered a neural connection in my brain. To describe the insight which emerged, I must confess to some aspects of my personality which I rarely share with others.
You see, I suffer from a gender-linked affection for thousand page military histories. Worse, I must reveal a few encounters with the literary works of Tom Clancy. (I cling tenaciously to the defense that, each time, it was the only available option in the airport bookstore.)
Since the Revolution, there have been only three wars which posed an existential threat to the United States: the Civil War, World War II and the Cold War. Note that the “War on Terror” is not on the list. It is not even a war. It is a police action to punish and deter domestic criminal activity which has extraterritorial features. (This might make Dick Cheney smirk knowingly, but it can’t be helped.) It seems that we need it to look like a war, so we invaded Iraq and sent large numbers of troops and equipment to Afghanistan. The only existential risk is to our core values, which could be abandoned out of irrational panic. But that would be a self-inflicted wound, so I won’t count it.
These existential wars were not won because of superior weapons and tactics. Sometimes the US had the upper hand, and sometimes it did not. This by no means diminishes the valor of our soldiers, sailors and airmen or the strategic skills of our generals and admirals. Nor would I ever suggest that we have a second class arms industry. It is simply an observation that there was another factor that was far more significant to victory.
In the Civil War, the Confederacy had superior military leaders, most notably Robert E. Lee and his staff. The Union soldiers produced marginally better rifles, but this was not decisive. The Union’s real advantage was its economy. It produced overwhelming numbers of weapons. The North’s road and rail networks provided incomparable logistics capability. Employment opportunities and prospects for freedom attracted hordes of emigrants and former slaves, swelling the Union army’s ranks. Northern shipyards were adapted to provide a navy which blockaded southern ports. Grant and Sherman did not defeat the Confederate armies with clever tactics. They crushed the secessionists with headlong assaults, casualties and tactics be damned. The use of the brute force of the Union’s economy achieved total victory and avoided a long guerilla war (advocated by Jefferson Davis) which would have killed and maimed many more.
The German military fielded better weapons, for the most part, in World War II. Their tanks were larger and had greater firepower and armor. The individual soldier’s arms were generally better. Even their air force had some technical advantages. The German general staff was talented, at least a match for Eisenhower, Bradley and Patton, notwithstanding Hollywood’s account of history. The decisive event for the American military was the breakout from Normandy in the weeks following D-Day. It involved far higher casualties than the invasion itself or any other US action in the war, rates comparable to the Russian front. Breakout was achieved by using overwhelmingly large numbers of (less experienced) soldiers, airplanes and (decidedly inferior) tanks. America simply out-produced the Axis nations and overwhelmed them with quantity. The same thing happened in the Pacific theatre and in the Russian campaign. The United States could replace naval losses while Japan could not. And it is a lesser known fact that the Soviet economy, in reality, out-produced the Germans, building many more tanks, trucks and aircraft.
Ronald Reagan did not win the Cold War with blustery speeches and aggressive deployment of Pershing and cruise missiles at NATO’s frontier. Mutually assured destruction meant that marginally superior ICBMs and generalship were inconsequential so long as the inferior Soviet missiles were sufficient to annihilate NATO. Even in the proxy wars, American weapons and tactics had mixed results. American air and sea power could not defeat the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese. However, the Israelis overcame Soviet weaponry. Arming the mujahedeen with Stingers worked in Afghanistan, but the Soviet Union was already doomed by then. It was hardly worth inadvertently spawning Al Qaeda as a byproduct. The AK-47, churned out by the Soviets in the millions, was far more significant to America’s proxy opponents. The Cold War was lost because the Soviet political system could not abide the wide distribution of information technology. As the American IT industry was re-defining a modern economy, the Soviet economy was sclerotic and outdated, frozen in the sixties. It collapsed from the strain of subsidizing its eastern European empire in an effort to maintain even minimal late 20th century living standards.
Mr. Clancy’s books, filled with patriotic valor and high tech weaponry, stimulate certain primal urges in much of the male minority of our population. It seems that some congressmen are fans. The military’s budget, filled with lethal gadgetry, is politically sacred, subject only to pruning and shaping. Its special priority is based on the belief, dating from the Second World War, that a well equipped and motivated military is the most important factor for our security. Perhaps Roosevelt was so inspiring, as he led the Allied armies to victory, that some of us still yearn for the heroic battlefields of his day.
History instructs us on military policy. Certainly, weapons, tactics and training are useful, but they are merely adjuncts to our primary advantage in warfare. History’s real message is that an educated, healthy, egalitarian and productive population is our best defense against external threats. Funding education, energy, health care, the environment, industry and infrastructure is the most effective military expenditure of all.
It would make more sense if the defense budget, as we know it, were funded only after those needs were taken care of.
After all, it is a matter of national security.
Wallace C. Turbeville is the former CEO of VMAC LLC and a former Vice President of Goldman, Sachs & Co.