Fast Forward to the Past

What does a Superpower that has been defeated in war do? Proclaim that it had been fighting the wrong enemy, that’s what. An example par excellence comes from the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1973, after a decade of war, the last US troops fled from Vietnam without having accomplished their mission. Two years later the same scenario repeated itself in Cambodia. In both cases the victors were little brown men (“Coons,” as President Johnson once called them) fighting in what President Trump has so delicately called s——e countries. Men who, by right, should never have been able to challenge, let alone vanquish, the mightiest and most beneficent power on earth. However, that power refused to confront the problem head on. Instead, having made up its mind that over a decade of continuous warfare had been of no importance, it was happy to go back to “real soldiering” on what was then known as the Central Front.

In the event, there was no war on the Central Front. Forty or so years later, events seem to be repeating themselves. First, in September 2001, came the Islamic terrorists who attacked the Twin Towers in New York, bringing them down and killing about 3,000 people on US soil. This marked the beginning of a decade and a half during which the US was busy waging counterinsurgency; first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq, and finally in Syria. True, none of these wars ended as disastrously as Vietnam and Cambodia did. Looking back, though, neither did the US forces involved have much to show for their efforts and the losses they suffered.

Next, President Trump and his national security team decided that enough is enough. Having spent perhaps a trillion dollars fighting terrorists in various countries, it turned out that America’s main enemies are not terrorists at all. They are Russia and China, acting either together or, which is perhaps more likely, separately. And let’s not forget North Korea and the Little Rocket Man, of course. The former two have long had nuclear weapons capable of reaching the US. The third will have them soon enough. All three also have formidable conventional armed forces that are improving (“modernizing,” is what this is called) all the time. They are preparing for hybrid war, space war, robot war, cyber war, war without limits, and God knows what other kinds of war their nefarious leaders can dream up. And they must be outgunned, or else.

Already long-forgotten ideas are beginning to make a comeback. The Cold War, this time waged not on one front but on two. Brinkmanship, the only way to describe the games played by Washington DC and Pyongyang. Arms races, expensive but necessary and very good in providing employment. The strategic balance, which may be stable (or not). Deterrence, which may work (or not). Escalation (which, if nuclear weapons are used, will almost certainly follow). High-speed “precision strikes” against the other side’s missiles, launched in the hope of destroying them before they can be used.

Coming along with the old phrases are old/new weapons. A new generation of low-yield, “usable,” tactical nuclear weapons supposedly small enough as to masquerade as conventional ones. A new bomber, the B-21, which is going to be assembled in the same factory hall where (the largely useless) B-2 was built. A new fighter, the PCA (Penetrating Counter Air), supposed to help the B-21 reach its target. Anti-missile defenses (remember Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars?). A new class of aircraft carriers, as useful or, given the submarine menace, as useless as their predecessors. And so on and so on.

Without exception, all these developments are déjà vu. All rest on the (correct or not) assumption that future wars will be fought primarily by states and armies, not guerrillas or insurgents or terrorists. Also that America’s opponents are going to be without a credible second-strike capability; or else it is hard to see how nuclear escalation can be ruled out and how the wars in question can be fought. Also that they are going to be relatively small and weak; or else it is hard to see why they should not build an offensive nuclear capability and become untouchable, as all previous nuclear countries also did.

Suppose they are small and weak, however, why fight them in the first place? Unless we are back to salami tactics, of course.