The Army's Empire Skeptics | The Nation


The Army's Empire Skeptics

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Over the past year the American intelligentsia has expended no small amount of cerebral capital in an effort to articulate, if not delineate, visions of empire. Whatever form a Pax Americana might take, it will almost certainly require expanded use of the US military. Although there is virtual unanimity of opinion in the ranks of the Army's officer corps that war with Iraq--the cornerstone of the new order--will likely result in a US military victory, Nation interviews with dozens of active-duty and retired officers, as well as reviews of recent military studies and articles, found that there is, nonetheless, a marked lack of enthusiasm in some segments of the officer corps not just for the Iraq mission but for its greater implications for the military as well as the society it defends.

Research support provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation

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Jason Vest
Jason Vest writes on national security affairs for The Nation.

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Within military ranks, according to one midlevel officer, "one group believes that our Constitution is the right way to go for everyone and that we have a moral imperative to give everyone the world over the opportunity to have that device. You have another group that sees our military as a defensive weapon to use in the face of an actual threat to the nation, which means in this context enthusiasm about taking on Al Qaeda but not Iraq. Then there's a smaller group that believes political leaders, instead of really addressing problems and resource issues, are going to go out and empire-grab and disguise it as something else so we can feed a warped version of the American dream, in which we continue to consume more resources and produce more waste, rather than really struggle with what it takes to keep the American dream viable and inspirational in a world of 6 billion people."

Such opinions, said the officer--a respected, active-duty combat veteran and analyst well-known in military circles--are all subordinate to sworn oaths; "wherever any of us are told to go and fight, we will," he said. But, he added, what concerns many officers is how the debate over visions of empire overemphasizes the role of technology and ignores certain variables that just might make "empire-building" a bit more complex--and consequential--than many imagine. If not acknowledged and responsibly addressed now, these issues very well could mushroom into much larger problems, not just for the US military but for America itself.

The arcane nature of these problems all but assures their lack of wide recognition. Take, for example, the matter of personnel. Despite the wishing-will-make-it-so qualities of some in the pundit class (perhaps best summed up in one Slate contributor's declaration that "a condition of the new imperialism" is that troops "will not stay too long"), the most conservative estimate for the number of troops required in a post-Saddam Iraq is 50,000 for at least one year. Many military officers and civilian analysts--including some leading hawks--privately acknowledge that the number and time requirement will be vastly greater, perhaps lasting years and requiring forces that run to six digits. British troops have been told to anticipate at least three years of post-Saddam occupation duty.

While the Iraqi people may initially respond to the deposing of Saddam Hussein and his clique with euphoria, many officers do not expect a quick or easy transition to anything resembling stability or democracy; indeed, some who have made a close study of the region anticipate "spheres of simultaneous civil conflict all over Iraq," as one put it, that will tax resources as well as US public opinion. Officers also have real concerns about anti-US backlashes or acts of terrorism down the road--not just against occupation forces in Iraq but against Americans all over the world. These situations may require the dispatch of anything from small special operations detachments to scores of smaller expeditionary forces.

Yet today, infantry forces--to take just one part of the military--are less than half their Vietnam-era strength. An August 2002 Army conference found that two-thirds of the Army's Special Forces are currently spread out over eighty-five countries, and that "the rate of increased employment since 9/11 cannot be sustained within current structures." The conclave also concluded that "many military occupational specialties and organizations that are important...for winning the global war on terrorism, are of low density," and that the current force structure does not meet "the exigencies of the global war on terrorism," let alone long-term operations in Iraq. Robert Barry, the US diplomat who headed the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission in Bosnia from 1998 to 2001, recently noted in London's Observer that "given the need to rotate units to their home bases and maintain readiness elsewhere," the United States and Britain won't be able to sustain an adequate Iraq occupation force.

Indeed, the manpower situation is so tenuous that in a recent issue of the Army War College's journal Parameters, one officer essentially called for accelerated outsourcing of war to entities that some refer to as "private military corporations" (PMCs) and that others less charitably characterize as mercenaries. As "the United States continues to pursue a national strategy of engagement and needs the ability to generate forces that can respond across the spectrum of conflict," Lieut. Col. Eugene Smith writes, "either a large force must be maintained or alternate solutions must be found. Private military corporations provide the United States the ability to respond across the spectrum of conflict by contracting out for required non-core or emerging capabilities.... Rather than a usurper of state legitimacy, the PMC can become an extension of the United States as a tool to further American strategic interests."

Given the dubious track record of PMCs (for example, DynCorp's women-trafficking in the Balkans; Airscan's involvement in the Colombian Army's bombing of civilians), this is the type of suggestion that cries out for more debate and consideration. "Is this really the direction we want to be going in, philosophically and practically?" asks one Special Forces captain who's seen service in the Balkans and Afghanistan. "Speaking from experience, locals can be hostile to or alienated by the sight of American troops. Put people in who are seen as America's Hessians, and it adds another dimension to perceptions of American arrogance. Americans might also want to think about why, when we're spending more money on the military than the next three dozen countries' combined military budgets, we don't have enough people--or enough people who know what they're doing, or enough basic gear for non-elite forces--to do the jobs at hand."

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