This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
Words matter, as candidate Barack Obama said in the 2008 election campaign. What to make, then, of President Obama’s pep talk last month to US troops in Afghanistan in which he lauded them as “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known”? Certainly, he knew that those words would resonate with the troops as well as with the folks back home.
In fact, this sort of description of the US military has become something of a must for American presidents. Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush, for example, boasted of that military as alternately “the greatest force for freedom in the history of the world” and “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known.” Hyperbolic and self-promoting statements, to be sure, but undoubtedly sincere, reflecting as they do an American sense of exceptionalism that sits poorly with the increasingly interconnected world of the twenty-first century.
I’m a retired US Air Force officer and a historian who teaches military history. The retired officer in me warms to the sentiment of our troops as both unparalleled fighters and selfless liberators, but the historian in me begs to differ.
Let’s start with the fighting part of the equation. Are we truly the world’s greatest fighting force, not only at this moment, but as measured against all militaries across history? If so, on what basis is this claim made? And what does such triumphalist rhetoric suggest not just about our national narcissism, but Washington’s priorities? Consider that no leading US politician thinks to boast that we have the finest educational system or healthcare system or environmental policies “that the world has ever known.”
Measured in terms of sheer destructive power, and our ability to project that power across the globe, the US military is indeed the world’s “finest” fighting force. Our nuclear arsenal remains second to none. Our air forces (including the Navy’s carrier task forces, the Army’s armada of helicopter gunships, and the CIA’s fleet of unmanned aerial drones prosecuting a “secret” war in Pakistan) dominate the heavens. Our Navy (“a global force for good,” according to its new motto) rules the waves—even more so than old Britannia did a century ago. And well should we rule the skies and seas, given the roughly one trillion dollars a year we spend on achieving our vision of “full spectrum dominance.”
But this awesome ability to exercise “global reach, global power” hardly makes us the finest military force ever. After all, “finest” shouldn’t be measured by sheer strength and reach alone. First and foremost, of course, should come favorable results set against the quality of the opponents bested. To use a sports analogy, we wouldn’t call the Pittsburgh Steelers “the finest team in NFL history” simply because they annihilated Penn State in football. Similarly, we can’t measure the success of today’s US military solely in terms of amazingly quick (if increasingly costly and ultimately dismal) “victories” over the Taliban in 2001 or Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces in 2003.