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[Uncle Sam Wants You] We present herewith a paper adapted from a talk delivered by Professor Davis at a seminar of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies held at the National Humanities Center, Research Triangle Park, NC, on September 10, 1997.

The author, who earned his PhD at Princeton University, served as a carrier pilot during the Korean War and, after thirty-four years in the Naval Reserve, retired as a captain.

Now holder of the Patterson Chair at the University of Kentucky, for twenty-two years he was also director of the University’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce.

Professor Davis invites comments from readers,
by e-mail directly
or forwarded to him through American Diplomacy.

~ Ed.

Sources of American Conduct
in the Post-Cold War World

By Vincent Davis

E V E R Y W H E R E   T H A T
international relations specialists work — in government, academic life, or elsewhere — we can see a frantic scramble to come up with new concepts, new theories, new paradigms, and new looks at history in an effort to understand and guide us through the mysteries of this suddenly unfamiliar terrain called the post-Cold War era.

Old-timers who ought to know better than to fall into a trendy competition for the key to unlocking the future are leading the pack. People such as George Kennan, Sam Huntington, Bruce Russett, John Mueller, and Kenneth Waltz have entered these lists in recent years with their published spins on our current circumstances and foreseeable futures. Speaking of Bruce Russett, he tested his forecasting talents in a slender Yale-generated Macmillan paperback entitled Trends in World Politics. The last chapter, “Possible Future Worlds,” was not such to encourage much in our ability to do this sort of thing very well. Check it out.

We are much better at descriptive concepts than explanatory and predictive hypotheses, and we can waste tons of paper on generalized versions of specific statements that we then call “theories.” These so-called theories have a shelf life about as long as half a semester, or a half-life that ends when tenure is or is not awarded. Theories are rarely revisited. Who, for example, can remember what the fuss was about then Mort Kaplan’s System and Process was all the rage in our professional conversations forty-plus years ago? Or, similarly, Dick Rosecrance’s Action and Reaction thirty-five years ago?

Most of our predictions over the past half-century look like linear extrapolations from yesterday all the way out to tomorrow. Russett, for instance, didn’t see much prospect for China as a significant international player for the foreseeable future — rather, as more like an occasional regional nuisance. This anticipation began to unravel with Kissinger’s trip to China a half-decade later.

“The World Ahead”

Current examples of our forecasting impulses and talents can be found in the seventy-fifth anniversary issue of Foreign Affairs quarterly (September-October 1997) wherein fourteen prominent professional colleagues respond to an invitation to speculate under the generalized rubric “The World Ahead.” Sam Huntington is wringing his hands about multiculturalism, charging that it is causing the United States to suffer from a deteriorating sense of national self-identity, and advising that we quit wasting our money on foreign adventures unless and until some clear-cut enemy or similar threat galvanizes us into a new appreciation of the national interest.

Thoughts from Huntington’s longtime friend Zbigniew Brzezinski are also printed in this issue of Foreign Affairs. (Brzezinski is the only former National Security Advisor later able to install a student and protégé as secretary of state, a record almost as good as that of his lifelong arch rival Henry Kissinger, who, of course, held both jobs himself.) This new Brzezinski essay affords him a chance to dust off and reconfigure his old “Arc of Crisis” concept, sounding very much like Sir Halford Mackinder (“He who rules the heartland . . . .”) eighty years earlier.

As for Brzezenski’s record as a forecaster, we may recall his piece in the April 1961 issue of Foreign Affairs in which he assured us that something called a Sino-Soviet split could never occur, just as this idea was becoming the conventional wisdom. Instead, he explained, we would see a phenomenon that he labeled “divergent unity.” Interestingly, he soon found himself joined on the Columbia faculty by Don Zagoria, who had first floated the “Sino-Soviet split” concept while working at the CIA.

I have not had time at this writing to study carefully all fourteen of the crystal balls in the new anniversary issue of Foreign Affairs. But among those I have seen, the one I like best is by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. He makes the central point that nothing has significantly changed so as to prevent a repetition in the twenty-first century of the bloody horrors of the twentieth. I am a little surprised at myself here. My confidence in Schlesinger the Younger eroded some years ago when he concluded that an “imperial presidency” was a worrisome thing — unless headed by the likes of his hero, FDR. Yet, in his new 1997 essay, he seems to return to the notion that only a strong central government can save us. He is correct, however, that the nineteenth century ended with much of the same buoyant optimism now characterizing the end of the twentieth, even though the intervening hundred years turned out to be what Sir Isaiah Berlin called “the most terrible century in Western history.” Schlesinger is probably right that bad things that happened before could happen again, maybe even worse next time.

My own sense is not quite so apocalyptic as Schlesinger’s view, but it’s not much brighter. For the last couple of decades now, I have at some point in my foreign policy and security policy classes asked my students to give me a show of hands in response to the following two questions:

  • How many of you expect that someday you will be ordered by your president to put on a uniform and bear arms in harm’s way for your country?
  • How many of you expect that someday the economy will collapse, you will have no means of support, and you could easily become a “street person” for at least a year or two?

The usual response is no hands at all. I think we have raised several generations now with a kind of unstudied confidence that all problems are fungible if not fixable, and that nothing truly bad is ever going to happen.

Back during one interesting week in October 1962, I asked my class for a somewhat different show of hands. Air Raid Shelter signs were being hurriedly slapped on buildings across much of America, particularly on campus buildings. The front pages of almost all newspapers showed a 1500-mile arc revealing that about half of the United States was within range of the newly discovered Russian missiles in Cuba. I put the following question to my students, using my best rally-round-the-flag voice:

  • How many of you think now is the time for us to go down and get rid of this S.O.B. Castro, once and for all?

I got universal enthusiasm, with whistling, foot stomping, and shouts of “Yeah, yeah!” Then I hit them with the reality check:

  • OK, how many of you are willing to be in the trenches in Cuba by around Christmas time?

No hands. Their obvious assumption was the we could somehow promptly dispatch Castro and surgically solve this problem in short order, requiring no sacrifices on their part.

The United States got the same reaction earlier, in May-June 1898, when thousands of young American men flocked to the embarkation wharves in Tampa, eagerly volunteering for a piece of the action with Colonel Teddy Roosevelt in Cuba, only to riot a few weeks later for immediate release from military service in the winter-weight woolens which were the only uniforms the army had available for duty in the tropics.

The situation was somewhat similar in the days following June 25, 1950, when thousands of mainly Marine Reserves were instantly mobilized for duty in Korea. Again, everybody expected prompt success. It was probably the last time in American history that high-spirited civic parades would send American boys marching off to war with massed high school bands down Main Street to the troop trains waiting at the depot. (Incidentally, Korea was also the last war in which any substantial number of U. S. troops slept under canvas. One thing that made Vietnam so expensive was taking along the American comfort envelope.) The public soon discovered, however, a strong distaste for something called a “limited war,” particularly in Asia — a lesson unaccountably forgotten a decade later, when political leaders in Washington escalated intervention in Vietnam, but remembered again by 1990-1991, when the leadership removed many limits for the Persian Gulf action. Saddam Hussein may be the dumbest, but also the luckiest man alive.

The typical attitude of optimism among young Americans, expecting nothing bad ever to happen to their country, may be another example of the familiar assumption of immortality — the belief that bad things surely happen to other people, but not “to me.” It’s quite touching in its innocence, but it’s also worrisome.

  • What would be the politics of innocence if in fact bad things happened?
  • What would be the imaginative resilience?
  • Would these people find the reserves of strength and commitment that have allowed earlier Americans to triumph over hard times?
  • Would this be so especially in view of other changes in American society and the likelihood that a future major crisis would allow little if any time to get mentally and physically ready?

These questions are all the more troubling if one believes, as I do, that the mortal challenge of bad things happening is at least a fifty-fifty bet for sometime within the next decade. If I were asked whether I think the end of the Cold War has fundamentally altered things, or if we are still operating within recognizable long-term patterns, I would say that we can see far more continuity than change.

One of those recognizable patterns is chronic American optimism, including expectations for utopias, for example, President Bush’s happy anticipations a few years ago about a “new international order.” By this he seemed to mean that the whole world would quickly emulate the best of America and gratefully follow America’s lead. Our old friend and colleague Ken Thompson, for many years the one and only vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation, but more recently the director of the White Burkett Miller Center on the University of Virginia campus, has been saying: “The trouble with making a ‘brave new world’ is that you would have to do it with all the same old people.”

For a critically significant example of a massive continuity rather than change, I would argue that five countries largely dominated the world stage, in terms of what they did and did not do, for more than the past century, and these same five remain cast in the heavy roles for the foreseeable future. Other countries and places will occasionally make news, and maybe one or two will sometimes seize our attention, but it won’t be overly important unless one or more of the Big Five thinks it is important. The Big Five, of course, are, west to east, the United States, Germany, Russia, China, and Japan. All of them show every evidence of expecting a seat at the table when the global deals are cut in the twenty-first century. Few other countries are expecting similar chairs — with the possible exception of France, which has lived within its fanciful imagination for most of two centuries.

The Big Five on the World Scene

I tell my students that a fairly reliable way to sort out what’s important and what’s not in the floods of global news available to us every day is to ask which if any of the Big Five countries are interested, and how interested. At least four of the Big Five are facing severe social, political, and economic problems — and some would want to add the final, fifth country, the United States, to the list. In addition to threatening internal trends, all five also share another potentially staggering problem with regard to a sixth part of the world. Here I mean energy supplies from the Middle East. Perhaps the most important but least-noticed geopolitical fact of 1995 was the announcement that China had become a net importer of energy supplies, mainly oil and gas from the Middle East. For the Big Five, dangerous instability seems to lurk everywhere, although for America a fifteen-year prosperity wave has made it easy to practice forms of denial that such good times could be built on shifting sand.

In the space available to me here, I cannot touch on the many complexities and nuances pertaining to almost every aspect of this allegedly new global ball game. Instead, I will be forced without much qualification simply to assert below major points in somewhat dogmatic fashion. I will address mainly the basic question concerning military force, mainly in the American context, without demonstrating in detail the linkages I see to other key factors in the overall picture.

*   *   *But first, if those people are right who say that the end of the Cold War changed everything, and that this fact along with galloping technology will mean a revolutionary new situation in the new century, then one little implication for me personally is what to do with the several thousand books in my own professional library. I anticipate institutional retirement before too long, and I may want to move into a smaller house with less book space. Would some campus library like to receive my twentieth century collection, if all of this paper has been rendered obsolete, overtaken by events? Who but an archeologist constructing a time capsule could be interested in it?

Yet, in surveying my old books, many of them hold up surprisingly well, adding yet another support for the proposition that we are not engulfed by revolutionary change: significant change, yes, but revolutionary, no. Among all my old books, the one with a few words most relevant to my thesis in these pages — Military Policy and National Security — was edited and written forty-plus years ago for the Princeton Press by William W. Kaufmann, who went on to a long and distinguished career at MIT as the senior political scientist specializing in military studies. Bill Kaufmann is also the person who drafted most of the annual defense posture statements for secretaries of defense in both Democratic and Republican administrations from about 1961 to 1981. Here is what Bill said in his essay written in late 1954 and published some eighteen months later, in 1956:

Military power, it might even be ventured, has been absolutely essential to the working of the political process on the world stage. . . . On the face of it, indeed, there is some difficulty in imagining international politics operating at all in their traditional sense or through their historical institutions without the lubricant of military power. It is even possible that putting something in it s place would result not simply in the substitution of new means but in the construction of an entirely different political mechanism.

Is Kaufmann’s argument valid today? Is military force or power still an “essential lubricant” in the international game as we see it played in the post-Cold War era? The answer, I believe, is self-evidently yes, with with several dozen small wars or warlike crises now simmering around the world. For all those who think that the end of the Cold War also ended substantial warfare, the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict gave wide distribution in the fall of 1997 to one of the promotional fliers containing the following statement in very large bold type: “War is still a booming business: Over 4 million people have died in violent conflicts since 1989.” However, the precise nature of the military force that may be used — the way it is structure, deployed, and employed — will probably be somewhat different than the patterns we have recognized over the past forty-plus years.

Americans’ Attitudes Toward War

I know that politicians often get elected to major offices by promising “change.” And I have noticed television commercials hyping products by claiming: “The rules have changed . . . this changes everything.” But if those “hypsters” were talking about my field of work, they would be mainly wrong. Given our overall focus here on the uses and limitations of military force, now and in the foreseeable future, I will begin by discussing several persistent central tendencies in the attitudes of Americans toward war — what we might call America’s corporate culture regarding armed involvements.

A fundamental fact seems clear: Americans do not personally like to fight in wars, especially and most particularly in ground forces. Americans have strongly and often passionately, sometimes even violently, resisted personal participation in combat, and have used various means, including political efforts, to avoid circumstances that could require such participation. The major evidence supporting this basic assertion can be found in any decent book on American military history. Revealed are seven basic patterns:

First, a basic reluctance by American political leaders, in response to public opinion, to involve the country in war in the first place.
Second, a reluctance by those leaders to force American to serve in uniform once the country is involved in a war.
Third, persistent efforts to utilize machines in lieu of people in our armed forces, exploiting what we like to think of as our eternal technological superiority.
Fourth, the ineffectiveness of many if not most techniques to coax substantial numbers of Americans to serve in the military in general, in wars in particular, and in ground combat forces most particularly. (I note here that even the glamorous high-tech forms of military service are now experiencing severe difficulties in recruiting and retaining needed numbers. JCS Chairman Shalikashvili has warned Congress about a substantial overall deterioration in military readiness, although his solution, to close more bases to free up money for readiness purposes, has already been shown to cost more money than it saves.)
Fifth, as further evidence, we can see the great effort by many Americans, once they have found themselves at war and especially in ground combat, to get out as quickly as possible regardless of the consequences for the war effort.
Sixth, American wars lasting more than a year or two have typically generated substantial and sometimes massive unpopularity. In this respect, there was nothing unusual about the Vietnam War.
Seventh, rapid and often large-scale demobilizations and downsizings have followed almost all American wars, although not always immediately.
As partial evidence for these seven points, one could note that American military leaders have at critical moments often been left with virtually no troops. It happened to George Washington at Valley Forge and to other colonial officers at various times during the American Revolution, as the Continental Congress and other authorities experienced great difficulties in raising and maintaining ground forces. It happened again in 1812, when the British enemy got close enough to burn the White House. In 1847, General Winfield Scott was poised for the final triumphant attack on Mexico City when his troops simply walked away and straggled back toward the U. S. border as their enlistments expired, resulting in a suspension of the war and ultimately great loss of life.Calls for volunteers were never fulfilled in our Civil War, and the Congress, after many unsuccessful efforts, finally passed a conscription bill because the dwindling response to calls for volunteers was extremely alarming. But this legislation led to major anti-draft riots, especially in New York City, and the sons of wealthy fathers were allowed to buy their way out of serving.

The Spanish-American War was the only U. S. conflict in which more than enough volunteers signed up, but, as already indicated, this brief war lasted only three months in the summer of 1898, and even so, the volunteers rioted for immediate dismissal from service. The Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991 was our second-shortest war: five months long if we count Desert Shield and Desert Storm as one combined operation. Old-fashioned volunteers were neither solicited nor used. But public, political, and professional acrimony over various aspects of our actions began even in the midst of celebrations over what appeared to be a glorious victory.

The late eighteenth and the entire nineteenth centuries thus witnessed a continuing American dilemma between efforts to raise military forces by volunteer methods, which were successful only in the early summer of 1898, and conscription methods, which were always highly unpopular and sometimes bitterly resisted. This same dilemma has persisted to the present day.

In some respects, however, a subtle but significant shift in the personal values that sustained American combat personnel seemed to occur in the twentieth century in contrast with earlier times. [U.S. Marine recruiting poster] Prior to 1900, the American fighting man generally tended to believe he was better than his enemy in one or more of the following ways: part of a superior civilization, a superior race, a superior nation, advantaged by a superior military technology, serving within a superior military organization, and representing a superior set of religious convictions. By the turn of the twentieth century, these senses of superiority began gradually to erode. A steady shrinkage occurred in the size of the primary group or basic unit of social cohesion with whom the American soldier identified and for whom he thought he was fighting. By the time of the Vietnam War, the typical American soldier was fighting almost entirely for his own individual survival. Larger values and loyalties for the most part had seemed to disappear.

If the trends and tendencies suggested here are at all accurate, how to explain them? One explanation advanced by scholars such as Sam Huntington and Gary Wamsley has contended that the American reluctance to serve in uniform, especially in combat, is derived from a continuing “antimilitarism” within the nation’s political culture originally transmitted to North America by the early colonists. This explanation feels at least partially satisfying insofar as it pertains to those beliefs, attitudes, and pervasive values which could be described as public perspectives often institutionally articulated and enshrined in the country’s laws, declarations, sacred treatises, policies, and official rhetoric. But the explanation is less satisfying with respect to those essentially private individual and personal values tending to sustain a person in combat.

Explaining Americans’ Attitudes

Nevertheless, the idea that the public values of antimilitarism were communicated from Europe to American by the early colonists stimulates some related comparisons between Europe and America. A casual reading of novels, poetry, plays, and private memoirs by Europeans pertaining to their nations’ involvements in wars interestingly reveals essentially the same trends evident in the counterpart American literature. Indeed, in many respects the erosion and shrinkage of private personal combat-sustaining values was even more pronounced in Western Europe than in the United States after 1900 — and both regions, broadly speaking, matched each other in avid disinclinations to participate in the two world wars. With Germany as the obvious occasional exception, most Western European nations appeared as reluctant to go to war as the United States, and were generally as ill-prepared for it when they ultimately became involved. Even before 1900 and for much of the nineteenth century, most Western European nations seemed as unenthusiastic about going to war as the United States.

What explains this popular reluctance to become involved in war on both sides of the Atlantic? Common elements in public and civic value systems is the most obvious answer. Both areas were committed to economic growth through private endeavor that was encouraged and supported by government. The so-called “Protestant work ethic” was clearly not confined to Protestants, as peoples of virtually all religious and ethnic backgrounds were caught up in the individualistic search for material gain and prosperity. Rationalistic and scientific procedures were the common heritage from the Renaissance and the Enlightenment; science and technology became the servants of the quest for economic growth. The Industrial Revolution generated its own requirements in terms of daily values-in-practice and lifestyles regardless of residual rhetorical commitments to more transcendental, metaphysical, and spiritual values.

In simpler terms, the industrialization of Europe and North America was accompanied by the ever more vigorous and successful pursuit of materialistic comforts, to the point where sustained high consumer demand was necessary for economic stability and further growth. The spiraling commitment to private gain and prosperity required lifestyles for the average person which were increasingly at odds with those required in military organizations, and starkly at odds with the lifestyles of those engaged in combat. Western European and North American countries were accordingly compelled increasingly to seek their military manpower — most especially their volunteer recruits for the ground forces — from the least industrialized sectors of their societies, meaning mainly the traditional rural agricultural sectors.

But agriculture itself became increasingly mechanized and industrialized, particularly in the United States, thereby drying up the last remaining source of readily willing and able recruits for military careers or even short-term military service in peacetime, let alone during wars. The problem was therefore addressed from the other end, maximizing the numbers, kinds and forms of military service that resembled high-tech work and skills found in a modern plant or factory. This effort continues, but remains only somewhat successful, in part because substantial numbers of hours in military work are still in an outdoor stand-up environment, whereas the great majority of American civilians spend virtually their entire lives indoors and sitting down, increasingly staring at pieces of glass across the front of cathode ray tubes.

In short, ordinary civilian life at home in America poorly prepares adequate numbers for military service. And military life inherently requires a degree of regimentation that few Americans past the age of sixteen, with the assertive independence that comes with holding a driver’s license, are willing to accept. Aside from original impulses toward things called equity and social justice, the increasing gender integration of the American armed forces is compelled by the simple inability to recruit enough appropriately qualified males.

If a steady shrinkage of combat-sustaining values and a parallel erosion of other circumstances have reduced the numbers able and willing to serve in uniform in potentially dangerous situations, why have European countries and the United States nevertheless become so frequently involved in wars in the twentieth century? As to the frequency of wars, the same processes of industrialization that have made Americans and Europeans less willing to serve in wars have paradoxically increased international interdependencies, which in turn have led to violent competitions for resources and other requirements for sustained prosperity. As for the violence of modern wars, once again the same industrialization processes that lower individual ability and willingness to serve in wartime have increased the resort to weapons of mass destruction.

Given the reluctance to serve, how have U. S. military managers recruited and maintained what they have regarded as adequate human resources? As already suggested, one technique has been to seek out and exploit previously disdained categories, with females as the most recent previously untapped group now being actively recruited. The only remaining unutilized group that might be sought in the future could be new immigrants. Not much imagination is required to see that anti-immigrant legislation could be popularly combined with a requirement for military service in order to become eligible for American citizenship, even though this would probably involve some Constitutional hurdles.

Offsetting Reluctance to Serve

The one most efficient short-run circumstance offsetting the general American reluctance to serve in uniform historically has been some great shocking catalytic event which temporarily outrages the public. In 1898, the sinking of a single major American warship in Havana harbor was largely sufficient, although the jingoistic Hearst newspapers had helped to arouse public opinion. In 1917, the sinking of several ships by hostile submarines was the catalyst required for overturning Wilson’s 1916 campaign promise to keep the United States out of World War I. By 1941, the sinking of the greater part of the Navy’s war fleet was the requisite catalyst.

No such event of single dramatic proportions, clearly seen as such by most Americans, was provided by adversaries in Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf. Korea and Vietnam were therefore bitterly unpopular back home in the United States, almost from the beginning, and all the more so because of the discovery that they could not be resolved with heavy high-tech weaponry alone, but rather would require old-fashioned ground troops. Public opposition, although sometimes accompanied by thick layers of moralizing and legalizing, tended to correlate directly with casualty figures. As soon as draft boards began taking more and more upscale college youngsters for service in Vietnam, influential parents used their political muscle successfully to press for steps toward termination of the war.

Senator Albert Gore, Sr., was one such influential father who, in order to enhance his son’s prospective political career, was able to get the boy a relatively short and safe job in Vietnam (roughly ninety percent of Americans serving in Vietnam were in relatively if not absolutely safe situations), whereas Bill Clinton of Arkansas lacked a father and therefore had to use other means to avoid the hazards of Vietnam.

American war managers sought to avoid a repetition in the Persian Gulf of the grim nature of the Korean and Vietnam wars first by using no conscripts and very few reservists, and by throwing massive forces at a relatively tiny and isolated adversary. The one hundred-hour combat phase of that conflict was the result.

A second efficient short-run circumstance occasionally offsetting the overall American reluctance to take up arms is the tendency to give the President the benefit of the doubt in the familiar “rally around the flag” phenomenon. But this kind of fervent unquestioning patriotism tends to be an emotional jag which seldom produces public support for more than a short and dwindling period of time, especially since provocative catalytic events have gotten progressively smaller since World War II.

A third thing political leaders have done to drum up public support for military action has been a range of methods for manipulating or deceiving public opinion. Several successful Presidential candidates have run for office on platforms promising no or very limited American involvement in ongoing or prospective wars, only to break these promises soon after winning election. Examples include not only the aforementioned Wilson in 1916, but also Roosevelt in 1940 and Johnson in 1964, with less clear cut examples provided by Truman in 1948 (i.e., Acheson’s 1950 declarations that Korea was outside America’s defense perimeter) and Kennedy in 1960 (initiating a major military buildup). Nixon provided a somewhat similar example when he suggested in 1968 that he would promptly extricate the United States from Vietnam if elected — and “promptly” turned out to be seven years later.

Another form of public opinion manipulation once widely used was official governmental encouragement and assistance to the entertainment and journalistic media in producing plays, movies, newsreels, publications, and ultimately radio and television programs designed to vilify adversaries while glorifying American actions. This positive form of media manipulation was widely used in both world wars, especially by FDR in World War II, although less so in Korea and Vietnam, possibly because of the inherent difficulties in restraining the increasingly assertive television journalists. Furthermore, growing numbers of troops in Vietnam owned video cameras and were prepared to sell private tapes to network news organizations. By the time of the Persian Gulf War, both government/military leaders and senior media representatives realized that they needed a constructive truce. Some progress was made, more after the conflict than during it, although large inherent tensions are likely always to remain between war managers and the media.

A negative kind of media manipulation generally included various techniques of direct or subtle media censorship. The FDR administration, for example, issued an edict almost immediately after Pearl Harbor that prohibited photographs of American war dead, understanding that such pictures could quickly erode public support for the war effort. This prohibition began to break down in mid-1943, but by then the war effort was virtually total and could not easily be deflected. Later, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations attempted to discourage media publication of “bad news” from Vietnam, although with no great success, as widely reported at the time by David Halberstam and other journalists. Political manipulation of public opinion seems to be effective only for shorter and shorter periods of time, unless official “good news” is corroborated by independent sources. Rapid progress toward winning a decisive victory in a popular cause can help in avoiding a “credibility gap,” but even in this situation there appears to be a finite limit on American public support even for victorious and popular wars, especially if high casualties are sustained. Secretary of the Navy Forrestal began worrying in late summer 1944, even with a historic victory in sight, that the edge in “psychological mobilization” was being lost on the American home front.

A fourth circumstance or technique utilized in the United States to offset popular unwillingness to bear arms has been an effort to make military service as comfortable as possible, including a variety of pre-, in-, and post-service incentives (e.g., the G.I. Bill and similar programs). Other measures include some relaxation and reduction of traditional military rigidities and providing the maximum possible creature comforts to deployed forced. The problem is that these efforts sharply increase the cost of military action. In Vietnam, for example, it cost approximately the same to maintain a relatively low-tech army division in the field for a year as it did to maintain a large high-tech super-carrier in the theater for the same time.

*   *   *

Limitations on Applying Military Force

Here I use everything above, largely a recitation of historical developments, as a foundation for listing some major limitations on the application of military force to solve perceived foreign policy problems, particularly by the United States in the global environment of the post-Cold War period.

Limitation No. 1.

Military force is too expensive, mainly for four reasons:

  1. we in the United States insist on having the technologically most advanced capabilities, understandably enough;
  2. we insist on taking the maximum feasible amount of the comfortable American home environment along with the troops (hot water, cold beer, etc.), again understandably;
  3. we insist on “gold-plating” every weapon, i.e., making it the perfect all-purpose military device in its general category, one capable of all missions, which has a certain logic but is incredibly costly; and
  4. we have essentially a one-buyer monopsony in defense procurement.

These four factors mean that we have largely priced ourselves out of the market for wide arrays of potentially desirable military capabilities. We can spend ourselves into oblivion as a nation if we don’t tightly control costs and carefully husband resources, while increasing savings and investments. All this significantly reduces the enthusiasm of commanders for getting their nice and shiny but scarce pieces of equipment banged up in willy-nilly combat. Buying replacements could be tough.

A related development here is the tendency by all countries, including the United States, to drive down the costs of, for example, a new jet fighter by “outsourcing” major components from manufacturers in other countries. Aside from the problem of maintaining technological secrets, this raises the serious question whether replacement parts would be available in conflict, particularly if trading partners in peacetime become enemies in wartime.

Limitation No. 2.

The trends noted under Limitation No. 1 lead directly to the next limitation. In an effort to drive down the unit cost of new weapons, the United States (and most other advanced arms-producing countries) will sell as much as possible to overseas buyers, some of whom will quite likely be our adversaries in future conflicts. We are naturally discouraged from going into combat whenever we might face an enemy perhaps enjoying numerical superiority and geographic advantages while using weaponry almost as advanced as our own. This is quite aside from the fact that the United States has trained most of the officers of most of the modernized military organizations around the world.

Limitation No. 3.

This is a corollary to No. 2. If we can assume that most adversaries for the foreseeable future are likely to be relatively small groups of fanatics motivated by a crazed devotion to a dominant leader or clan or tribe or ethnic group, usually propped up by some kind of ideological or religious faith. If this kind of group possesses the usual advantages of insurgent guerrillas — fighting on its own territory with terrain difficult for outsiders — then this adversary can often do better with simple old-fashioned weaponry rather than the hot new stuff we are likely to carry.

Limitation No. 4.

This is probably the most severe limitation of all, because it refers to the previously mentioned attitude deeply embedded in American thinking from the earliest days of the Republic. The hard fact is that Americans do not personally like to engage in the hazards of combat and will turn strongly against it as soon as the first drop of blood has been spilled.

Limitation No. 5.

Because of Limitation No. 4, President Nixon moved the nation away from reliance on either draftees or reserves, implementing the so-called “All-Volunteer Force” concept. But in practice this has meant a hired-hand military system, relying essentially on the normal workings of the labor market for recruiting. However, since American labor is not cheap, we cannot afford many of them. The misnamed “All-Volunteer Force” is therefore a relatively small group of people, and it is getting drastically smaller as President Clinton works to reduce defense spending. Limited forces reduce the size and number of scenarios where these forces can be utilized.

Another technique for overcoming Limitation No. 5 in recent years has been the invention of a new form of mercenary personnel. Up-to-date and high-quality individuals recently discharged or retired from active duty in the U. S. armed services have been privately recruited to make themselves available for relatively short periods of contract work — typically for a year at a time — in military-type assignments. This is not the “rent-an-army” joke, but a new kind of “do tank” (parallel to a “think tank”) hired to take on special tasks where the President as commander in chief wants American military personnel substantially involved, but not as active duty service people.

The most publicized American example is a private corporation called Military Professional Resources, Incorporated (MPRI). One of MPRI’s major contracts has been to train the Bosnian Muslim army. While this makes sense on many political and economic grounds, it also raises serious questions about command and control and civil-military relations. Furthermore, these questions can be raised to a new level when, unlike MPRI, this sort of “do tank” consists largely of officers and personnel from other countries, one example being a much publicized company (Executive Outcomes) operating out of South Africa.

This limitation on applying military force is rendered ever more restrictive by the growing tendency of the Congress, basing its claims on provisions in the Constitution, to micro-manage foreign affairs and military involvements. The dramatically growing capabilities of the mass media for focusing public attention on, or diverting it away from, specific situations adds even more weight to the difficulties experienced by the U. S. Government in trying to form a united front for dealing with seriously challenging international situations of all kinds.

Limitation No. 6.

In an effort to ameliorate Limitation No. 5, and also because Americans tend to feel morally superior if joined by friends and allies in combat situations, we have routinely sought coalition partners ever since World War I when, for the first time, we discovered that the alliance system was our preferred way to wage war.

The problem here, however, is that we want others to provide increasing percentages of the deployed personnel while we provide the strategy, tactics, leadership, and overall force management. Fewer and fewer countries seem eager to play the game by these rules, donating the cannon fodder while we control headquarters. It becomes even harder when we want to do all of this under the U.N. umbrella, while we remain substantially in arrears in paying our U.N. dues.

Limitation No. 7.

As we want the U.N. to take on more and more burdens while we hold back on our dues, the other big limitation is that while we can quickly assemble a mixed lot of soldiers who have never trained or worked together, who do not share the same doctrines and equipment, and who speak no common language, we cannot then expect the mixed bag to perform like a smoothly orchestrated force. This is hard enough to do if we are talking about mixed American army and marine elements, but it’s far harder if we are talking about mixing Norwegian and Pakistani units.

Limitation No. 8.

This is our gradual discovery that military force can accomplish very few useful things if we stick to our tendency toward hit-and-run involvements. Viable democracies with long-term sustainability account for only about twenty-five governments. The other 160 countries, plus or minus, which sometimes try to resemble democracies, are governed by various forms of firm central authority ranging up to dictatorships and garden-variety tyrannies. Our hit-and-run interventions are typically in countries of this general type, and we typically leave these situations in as bad if not worse shape than before we arrived. The only alternative would be to settle down, dig in, and impose a form of imperial rule. But we have already learned that the costs of imperial rule ultimately are not worth the candle, even if Americans had a taste for it — which we decidedly do not.

How Nevertheless to Use Force

But, agreeing with MIT professor Kaufmann that military force and power remain the “essential lubricant” in the international system as we have always known it, what can we say about how, when, and where it is likely to be used, especially by the United States, in the face of all the limitations?

The motivations for any specific armed conflict can vary from place to place and era to era. Sam Huntington has covered this issue fairly thoroughly; any interested person should see his comments and those of some of his critics in the final three issues of Foreign Affairs for 1993 and the September-October 1997 issue of the same quarterly.

Seeking to locate a generic overall motivation, the late great economist Kenneth Boulding said that “the way to establish a pecking order is to peck,” implying there is something in the human condition that compels this constant search for hierarchy. Berkeley professor Ken Waltz contends (International Security, Fall 1993) that whatever the specific motivations in any particular conflict, the logic of the international system drives nations — particularly after they discover that they have attained great eminence in some one aspect of the international rankings — to “peck on” each other, that is, to try to move up in all the other rankings, eventually to gain widespread recognition as a superpower or at least as major power.

Waltz suggests that this same kind of competitive rivalry can exist among the smallest political units — clans and tribes — as well as among the larger and largest units. Moreover, whether we are talking about large or small political units, credibility and stature can be maintained by the successful use of, or even brandishing, military capabilities, although this bankable form of respect can quickly be dissipated by any appearance of vacillation.

What it comes to is that the President of the United States in his role as commander in chief will often enough be tempted to use or threaten to use military force, partly because the Pentagon phone number is the only one he can call while reasonably expecting a prompt and generally obedient response to his preferences. In confronting any situation ranging from a natural or civil disaster up to a serious international crisis, the Pentagon is the only agency of government with disciplined personnel and diverse equipment likely to be at least somewhat useful in any demanding emergency.

Beyond this, the President will need to maintain at least enough nuclear capability to assure whatever the experts think is sufficient for deterrence, and then enough for a variety of “little wars” possibly occurring anywhere around the globe, but probably in less-developed areas. On this last, he will need to be very choosy because the number of heartbreaking emergencies that could appeal to our compassion for one or another side is far less limited than our capacity to help. The President’s criteria for deciding where, and where not, to intervene will be one of his most difficult continuing dilemmas.

*   *   *This essay has barely scratched the surface of major issues, not to mention a whole array of only somewhat less important questions, littering the agenda of foreign and security policy questions in the post-Cold War era. Resorting to military force in situations ranging from small not-quite wars (Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia) up to large-scale survival-level scenarios will always be an excruciating dilemma. The President will always face an extraordinary challenge in creating a supportive political and public consensus lasting more than a few days in terms of any significant use of American military force, unless the fate of the nation seems to hang in the balance.

Finally, this essay has tried to explain why America’s next war or substantial military involvement will take us by surprise. It always has in the past because fundamentally we don’t want to go, and will therefore move to almost any length to presume no such crisis exists, is likely to exist, or should exist. Our intelligence agencies have ordinarily provided fairly adequate warnings, but warnings don’t work when people are determined not to hear the bell that John Donne told us “rings for thee.”

© Copyright 1997 by Vincent Davis

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