“War is the great auditor of institutions,” the historian Corelli Barnett once observed. Since 9/11, the United States has undergone such an audit and been found wanting. That adverse judgment applies in full to America’s armed forces.
Valor does not offer the measure of an army’s greatness, nor does fortitude, nor durability, nor technological sophistication. A great army is one that accomplishes its assigned mission. Since George W. Bush inaugurated his global war on terror, the armed forces of the United States have failed to meet that standard.
In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Bush conceived of a bold, offensive strategy, vowing to “take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge.” The military offered the principal means for undertaking this offensive, and U.S. forces soon found themselves engaged on several fronts.
Two of those fronts — Afghanistan and Iraq — commanded priority attention. In each case, the assigned task was to deliver a knockout blow, leading to a quick, decisive, economical, politically meaningful victory. In each case, despite impressive displays of valor, fortitude, durability, and technological sophistication, America’s military came up short. The problem lay not with the level of exertion but with the results achieved.
In Afghanistan, U.S. forces failed to eliminate the leadership of Al Qaeda. Although they toppled the Taliban regime that had ruled most of that country, they failed to eliminate the Taliban movement, which soon began to claw its way back. Intended as a brief campaign, the Afghan War became a protracted one. Nearly seven years after it began, there is no end in sight. If anything, America’s adversaries are gaining strength. The outcome remains much in doubt.
In Iraq, events followed a similar pattern, with the appearance of easy success belied by subsequent developments. The U.S. invasion began on March 19, 2003. Six weeks later, against the backdrop of a White House-produced banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished,” President Bush declared that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.” This claim proved illusory.
Writing shortly after the fall of Baghdad, the influential neoconservatives David Frum and Richard Perle declared Operation Iraqi Freedom “a vivid and compelling demonstration of America’s ability to win swift and total victory.” General Tommy Franks, commanding the force that invaded Iraq, modestly characterized the results of his handiwork as “unequalled in its excellence by anything in the annals of war.” In retrospect, such judgments — and they were legion — can only be considered risible. A war thought to have ended on April 9, 2003, in Baghdad’s al-Firdos Square was only just beginning. Fighting dragged on for years, exacting a cruel toll. Iraq became a reprise of Vietnam, although in some respects at least on a blessedly smaller scale.
A New American Way of War?
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Just a few short years ago, observers were proclaiming that the United States possessed military power such as the world had never seen. Here was the nation’s strong suit. “The troops” appeared unbeatable. Writing in 2002, for example, Max Boot, a well-known commentator on military matters, attributed to the United States a level of martial excellence “that far surpasses the capabilities of such previous would-be hegemons as Rome, Britain, and Napoleonic France.” With U.S. forces enjoying “unparalleled strength in every facet of warfare,” allies, he wrote, had become an encumbrance: “We just don’t need anyone else’s help very much.”
Boot dubbed this the Doctrine of the Big Enchilada. Within a year, after U.S. troops had occupied Baghdad, he went further: America’s army even outclassed Germany’s Wehrmacht. The mastery displayed in knocking off Saddam, Boot gushed, made “fabled generals such as Erwin Rommel and Heinz Guderian seem positively incompetent by comparison.”
All of this turned out to be hot air. If the global war on terror has produced one undeniable conclusion, it is this: Estimates of U.S. military capabilities have turned out to be wildly overstated. The Bush administration’s misplaced confidence in the efficacy of American arms represents a strategic misjudgment that has cost the country dearly. Even in an age of stealth, precision weapons, and instant communications, armed force is not a panacea. Even in a supposedly unipolar era, American military power turns out to be quite limited.
How did it happen that Americans so utterly overappraised the utility of military power? The answer to that question lies at the intersection of three great illusions.
According to the first illusion, the United States during the 1980s and 1990s had succeeded in reinventing armed conflict…
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Andrew Bacevich, professor of history and international relations at Boston University, retired from the U.S. Army with the rank of colonel. This piece is adapted from his new book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (Metropolitan Books, 2008). He is also the author of The New American Militarism, among other books. His writing has appeared in Foreign Affairs, the Atlantic Monthly, the Nation, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal. A TomDispatch interview with him can be read by clicking here, and then here.
From the book The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism by Andrew Bacevich, copyright © 2008 by Andrew Bacevich. Reprinted by arrangement with Metropolitan Books, an Imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. All Rights Reserved.