One of the most thoroughly annoying things about American strategic debate is its thoroughly theological character. Landpower advocates will whip out their T.H. Fehrenbach quotes, ignoring the fact that Americans found the idea of putting their young men in Korean mud to be a distinctly undesirable notion. Seapower advocates will wax nostalgic about Mahan and the Great White Fleet, ignoring that even J.C. Wylie rendered tribute to the man on the scene with the gun. Of course, sacred texts and liturgies also closely intertwine with distinctly Earthly problems. Because the taxpayer must render unto Caesar’s what is Caesar’s, the strategic theologian strives to convince the flock that the needs of the nation are similar to those of the divinity.
Of course, Americans, while famous for bible-thumping, are also fairly pragmatic people. And when it comes to money, few can beat American pragmatism. Which is why any strategic debate about geographical models of power has to return to political economy. My Twitter and RSS feeds lit up with debates over James Lacey’s latest on the necessity of landpower. The resulting discussion, while eloquent, ignored the central issue: Americans don’t care about Mahan and save nostalgic imagery of infantrymen struggling through crater-strewn landscapes for the History Channel. Americans care about stacking that damn paper.1
Take China, for example. Does Chinese military power pose a big threat to American strategy? Sure. But Americans aren’t upset about the People’s Liberation Army. No Presidential candidate in 2012 ran on a platform that promised to reduce the very real risk that the PLA will missile Kadena Air Force Base into a smoking crater. But Americans are eager for a currency war. They see Beijing as an obstacle to that that most sancrosanct of national goals, waking up to get one’s cake up. Whether your favored explanans is the Anglosphere or the collected works of Young Jeezy, it’s hard to avoid the impression that Americans are an aggressive, mercantilist bunch that are singularly devoted to the paper chase.
Those who get in the way of building a Rack City on a Hill have never quite faired well. The French may have helped us gain our independence, but war drums were beaten the moment that French commerce raiding began to negatively impact our commerce. We may have shared a common culture with the British, but impressment of sailors (and our desire to get Canadian land) caused us to pick a fight with a superpower. This brings new meaning to the saying that being broke can make you delirious. And our historical relationship with Latin America is the geopolitical equivalent of Paulie’s loan and repayment rubric.
So what does this mean for strategy? The problem with the landpower vs. seapower debates have always been that they are conducted from the standpoint of landpower and seapower as strategic theory. This is never going to go anywhere, because both landpower and seapower theory derive from Europe. The great theorists of continental landpower were never American, because the threat of land invasion by large armies of Germans, Frenchmen, and Russians tends to have an awfully stimulating effect on the military theorist’s imagination. Alfred Thayer Mahan may have been an American, certainly, but his work was primarily on British sea power. Likewise, many of the counterinsurgency theorists that were fused to American landpower by 21st advocates are Europeans involved in colonial wars. If American empire exists, we can at least agree that actual colonies were never part of the game.
The fact is that American power has been traditionally oriented around the political goals of preserving American freedom. But not just political freedom, in the cliche often raised that Americans fear large land armies. Freedom to make money. We’ve built our political-military institutions around the necessity of limiting the societal political-economic disruptions that war entails. Using median voter theory, John Caverly notes that the electorate is much more likely to support a technology-heavy, labor-light military force. Hence the prominence attached to naval power projection in American history and coastal fortifications is unsurprising. Ships are expensive, but are primrily capital rather than labor investments. Coastal forts allowed the US to defend the coastline from European invasion without a large and costly mobilization framework.
Of course, someone has to pay the butcher’s bill. In this, landpower advocates are certainly correct. But politians have always strove to put someone else‘s kid in the mud. Russia was the preminent continental warfighter of World War II. American mobilization in World War II was more of a domestic industrial mobilization than a military one. The vast majority of draftees, too, ran the capital-intensive process of making the war machine function. A hardy few fought hard in land, sea, and air. Waging war in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Pakistan would be impossible without a preponderence of locals to do the fighting, dying, and intelligence collection. Drone critics, of course, would rather blame robots instead of a far more morally dubious practice of risk-shifting. We do not replace pilots with drones. We are replacing land forces with Pakistani conscripts and vulnerable tribesmen that plant tracking devices for drones to target.
And if we fight with production power and machines, we have a long and sordid history of targeting the enemy’s productive power and machines as well. It is commonplace for critics of American strategy to say the American way of war is brute force, and that we should really be thinking like Sun Tzu or fighting “political and social” wars. Well, Americans are one of the few strategic cultures that are just as faithful adherents to the maxims of the old Chinese master as the Chinese themeselves. We attack the enemy’s strategy. Americans have destroyed their opponent’s food supplies, sent merchant shipping to the bottom of the ocean, accepted incredible losses to destroy industrial supplies, and divide enemy territory into a set of fortified population concentrations criscrossed by security stations and firebases with interlocoking fields of preregistered fire points. You can’t get more “political and social war” then burning an enemy’s food supplies, destroying his industrial infrastructure, and other material bedrocks of his society.
And when the enemy develops an industrial economy that channels millions of peasants into a large land army, we resort to nuclear threats and powerful conventional weapons designed to devastate formations deep beyond the forward edge of the battle area. It’s worth noting that the political winds, shifting towards ideas of “burden-sharing,” are in many ways reverting to the mean. They are also phrased in economic terms. The Asians and European need to pick up their defense spending, we are told, because they are free-riding off American largesse. This is the national security equivalent of Reagan’s diatribes about welfare queens, cadillacs, and food stamps. This is admittedly a fairly monocausal explanation. It leaves out the powerful influence of ideology on American strategy and war-making decisions. But it is a powerful reminder of one of the driving forces beyond American strategy. Garrison states are for Europeans. Not for the land of the freedom fries.
As long as landpower advocates cast their worth in the imagery of themselves as the powerful arm of decision, destroying enemy land armies or pacifying unruly foreign populations, they are going to lose the budget battle. The average American is far from the cultural origins of continental landpower as they are from French ideas about economics. The seapower advocate might hope that seapower’s historic role in projecting American power abroad and guaranteeing commerce abroad will appear to the American public. But in an environment of rare and unprecendeted external stability, Americans are unlikely to commit to a robust ship-building regime if it requires slashing the big state entitlements that structurally undergird the postwar political model. The slow erosion of that model is all the more reason for the public to cling to it.
Granted, it’s hard for Americans to care too much about defense in general with the current state of external stability. But landpower advocates are likely to get a better hearing if they stop harkening back to an imagined past in which the American, not the Soviet, man on the scene with the gun destroyed the Third Reich. Not only would doing so give GI Ivan his due, but it would help landpower theory productively advance. I continue to believe that Antulio Echevarria’s minimalist idea of “extending the reach of policy” is the best card landpower can play. American policy will require robust land forces, but landpower theory needs to move beyond its industrial era obsession with large armies, total war, and unlimited political objectives.
Meanwhile, seapower theories that cast their worth in terms of non-combat tasks like aid, relief, soft power, and international cooperation are unlikely to gain traction in a harsh budget environment. In a time in which foreign aid is going to be slashed by senators who view aid as welfare, the idea of maintaining a navy for the purpose of stregthening stability through relief and soft powers is not going to fly. Seapower advocates need to make their case directly to the economic side. You cannot keep Iran from messing up the oil flows in the Gulf without powerful naval and air forces to turn the Iranian military into a rubbish heap.
Of course, we may see a shift in the strategic situation that changes this political calulus. Massive retrenchment (although what is going on today is certainly not massive retrenchment) is sure to have disruptive shifts in the international system, although what kind are anyone’s guess. But until we cross that bridge, we are in the realm where both landpower and seapower advocates will have to deal with the reality of an American way of war shaped by the desire to maintain a domestic liberal political economy.
1 My blog readership, if judged by the Twitter response, likes rap refences. I’m going to go with it. Plus, the subject of liberal political economy goes to the foundation of rap’s subject matter.