The Arm of Decision
Posted by Stephen Green · 8 November 2005
Four years into the Terror War, "What's the most important element for victory?" is a question long overdue. It's also a question our national leadership, nearly all of our intellectuals, and none of our mainstream media have yet to answer.
President George W Bush hasn't told us, because he doesn't know. His rivals for the Oval Office never answered the question – either because they also don't know or because they don't like the answer. Our Congress and Senate ought to be debating this issue, the most important of our postmodern era. Instead, they're doling out the pork, posing for the cameras, or busy keeping the campaign dollars flowing in by treating small, partisan differences as matters of life and death. Here we are, with a real life-and-death struggle on our hands, and our leadership fiddles while the barbarians beat us at our own game.
Our public thinkers – pundits, intellectuals, whatever you want to call them – are the people we should most rely on for guidance in times such as these. However, they've come up short even using the pathetic standard by which this blogger measures them. Too many of our intellectuals are caught in the past, real or imagined. Most liberal thinkers think one of two things: That this Terror War can be safely ignored (or treated as a police matter, which is effectively the same thing) or that "America isn't worth dying for." Either path leads to defeat – but at least Cindy Sheehan is cheering openly for the other side. Conservatives fall into three camps. Paleoconservatives, like Pat Buchanan, have joined in the loony left's "blame America first" chorus. If only we'd cut off Israel, buy off the Arabs, retreat behind our borders, and act a lot more like France – then we wouldn't be in this mess. Neoconservatives hold the naïve hope that if we just topple the dictators, democracy will sprout like shiitake mushrooms after a cool rain. Vanilla conservatives might have some reservations about singular campaigns in this war (George Will's reservations about Iraq, for example), but usually get all gung-ho whenever and wherever the troops are involved. But as I discussed in an essay called "Game Plan" last year, this war is about a lot more than combat.
Our mainstream media haven't answered the question, because they know the answer – and they're deathly afraid you'll find out what it is. But we'll get to them in a moment.
We've suffered three global wars in the modern era, and now we're in a fourth. Before trying to define the arm of decision in the Current Mess, it would help it look at how we got where we are today.1
The First World War was the first war to be decided by chests – and I don't mean war chests. It was the age of wool uniforms and of the machine gun. It was the age of mass production and mass conscription. Young men by the millions put their wool-covered chests up against machine gun nests. Whichever side ran out of young, male chests first, lost. Unlike its sequel conflicts, World War One was distinctly non-ideological. Several basically like-minded nations waged total war over trivia, and millions died in the resulting slaughter. What ended the stalemate on the Western Front was the arrival of 30 American divisions – each worth two of Europe's, degraded by four years of constant losses. Most demoralizing to Germany was the fact that 30 more American divisions were on the way – and 30 more after those. No wonder the Germans cried "uncle!' before a single Entente soldier crossed their frontier. In the end, crudely put, we won the war because we had more chests than they had bullets.
In the Second World War, chests still mattered – but not nearly as much as before. Combined, Germany, Italy, and Japan could never have mustered the manpower to conquer the world. Yet they still came within a hair's breadth of doing just that in 1941-42. They came so close because the WWII was much more about stuff than it was about chests – and the Axis powers had a head start on the Allies when it came to building world-class guns and tanks and ships and planes. (Doctrine also mattered in the early years, but by 1943 all sides enjoyed solid warfighting doctrine. The Allies were lucky to have survived long enough for the Axis doctrinal advantage to even out.) Immediately after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Winston Churchill said famously, "The war is won." What he meant was: America's productive might had been forced onto the Allied side, all but guaranteeing victory. Churchill wasn't counting our divisions – he was counting on our factories. Production had become the arm of decision.
The Cold War lasted 45 years, but our losses totaled a "mere" 93,000 men. When you consider we lost five times that number in the 34 months we waged WWII, it's clear that in the Cold War, manpower mattered far less than before. Our factories didn't matter as much, either. The Soviets out-produced us in every measure that mattered in WWII: Steel, chemicals, tanks, planes, bombs… the Soviets made more of them, and sometimes even their quality was better. In fact, it wasn't until the 1980s that we gained a solid qualitative edge over the Russians – and by then the Cold War was already waning. Were quality weapons and winning the Cold War related? You bet your macroeconomic ass, they were.
The Cold War was the first – and perhaps only – macroeconomic war. For us, quantity counted, but only up to a point. To maintain a stalemate, we needed only enough men and machines to make the Soviets think twice. To win, we needed a quality of men and machines that the oppressed men of the creaky Soviet machine couldn't match. We still needed men and we still needed stuff – but our free economy was the arm of decision. Only a free economy could produce the quality needed to defeat the Soviet Union's quantity. Although our economy was never as free as I would have preferred, it remained free enough to put Communism into "the ash-heap of history."
The West had to drum up nearly 300 divisions of poorly-armed men to win the First World War, but only half that many for the Second – even though the fighting was more global. At the end of the Cold War, the US and Western Europe combined mustered fewer than 100 exquisitely armed divisions. Over the last century, it's obvious that manpower has mattered less and less. "Stuff" took the spotlight for a while, but has been replaced over the last 30 years by the high-tech weapons systems made possible by market economics.
Today we face a new global threat. Like the Soviet Union of old, our threat is ideological. Unlike the Soviets, our new threat isn't a nation-state. The enemy has no divisions. It has no tanks, nor fighter jets, nor nuclear missiles. Our threat is repressed young men with the desire to die for Allah, and to take as many infidels with them as they can on their road to Hell.
America's "Army of One" is nearly that – we have a mere ten regular divisions on hand. Our Air Force isn't much over half the size it was just a dozen years ago, and future procurement of ever-more expensive planes promises an ever-smaller USAF. The US Navy isn't just shrinking – its ships are aging faster than the denizens of a Miami retirement condo. But size doesn't matter like it used to, not even as recently as September 10, 2001. And our free economy? It's still succumbing to state intervention on an asymptotic curve – but, speaking in strictly military terms, our economic might has lost its importance, too.
So what does matter? What is the postmodern arm of decision?
Previously, I wrote that in order to win the Terror War, we must "prove the enemy ideology to be ineffective," just as we did in the Cold War. In that conflict, we did so in three ways: by fighting where we had to while maintaining our freedoms, but most importantly by out-growing the Communist economies. I argued that similar methods would win the Terror War. We'd have to fight, we'd have to maintain our freedoms, but the primary key to victory in the Current Mess is taking the initiative.
What I didn't see then - but what I do see today - is what "taking the initiative" really means.
It means, fighting a media war. It means, turning the enemy's one great strength into our own. Broadcast words, sounds, and images are the arm of decision in today's world.
And if that assessment is correct, then we're losing this war and badly.
Vietnam was the first war reported in real-time. Not coincidentally, Vietnam was the first war this nation lost2. Neither Lyndon Johnson nor Richard Nixon had a media plan for waging a partly-media war. What little info-management there was, was mostly WWII-style propaganda – hardly appropriate for the media-savvy Sixties. Vietnam was largely an ideological-nationalistic conflict. The media wasn't yet the arm of decision, but it was obviously gaining strength in comparison to older means of waging war. A war properly geared for TV (we'll get to what that means shortly) was probably still unwinnable in Southeast Asia, but we would have come away with fewer losses – on the battlefield and in "hearts and minds."
Thirty years on, the media has done nothing but grow in strength. And yet for the most part, war supporters (myself included) trivialize the media, ridicule it, or ignore it. Meanwhile, for all their crude technique, our enemies understand the power of media, and use it to their great advantage.
Noted author, intellectual, and former Army intelligence officer Ralph Peters described the First Battle of Fallujah as
an example of how to get it as wrong as you possibly can. We bragged that we were going to "clean up Dodge." And the Marines went in, tough and capable as ever. Then, just when the Marines were on the cusp of victory, they were called off, thanks to a brilliant, insidious and unscrupulous disinformation campaign waged by al-Jazeera. I was in Iraq at the time, and the lies about American "atrocities" were stunning. But the lies worked and the Bush administration, to my shock and dismay, backed down.
Let's be honest: The terrorists won First Fallujah. And for six months thereafter Fallujah was the world capital of terror – a terrorist city-state.
That's the power of the media, the arm of decision in action. Using little more than video cameras, terrorists convinced The Most Powerful Man on Earth™ to back down and grant them a victory they hadn't earned on the battlefield.
A loss like that one should have come as no surprise, after Bush's "Mission Accomplished" fiasco on May 2, 2003. Back then, I called Bush's aircraft carrier landing/victory speech "brilliant" as "pure political theater." I was wrong. And I should have known better, since just three weeks before (after the seizure of Baghdad), I wrote:
That's not to say we're finished. Far from it; the real work has yet to begin. We've bought the deed to a crack house in a bad neighborhood, and now we've got to turn it into a place where decent people can live decently. The folks next door aren’t going to be too happy with our gentrification efforts, either. We can expect lots of drive-bys while we pull the weeds and put up new drywall.
That's typically glib VodkaPundit prose, but no less prescient for being so. Bush should have known the same thing – and used the media to prepare us, and our enemies, for what was to come. Instead, Bush empowered his critics, the mangy-haired protest-anything types, and every single "I told you so" columnist sitting to the left of Bill Buckley. Bush also empowered the terrorists with that speech, and it's to my very great shame that I once applauded it.
Am I saying that Iraq is a lost cause? Far from it. While the White House remains clueless, our armed forces have been busy analyzing the After Action Reports, and adjusting their tactics accordingly. Again, we go to Ralph Peters. This time he's talking about the Second Battle of Fallujah:
It was evident to all of us who had served that we'd have to go back into Fallujah, but the administration – which I support – made the further error of waiting until after the presidential election to avoid casualties or embarrassments during the campaign. Well, fortunately, in the Second Battle of Fallujah the Army and Marines realized they had to do it fast, before the media won again and the politicians caved in again. The military had been burned once and they were determined not to get burned again. And they did a stunning job--Second Fallujah was a model of how to take down a medium-size city. Great credit to the troops, mixed reviews for the politicos.
Now that is what I meant by "a war properly geared for TV."
Washington was geared up right for the Blitz to Baghdad in 2003. Instead of the broad front of a "stuff" war, our digital troops raced north with almost reckless abandon, heedless of their flanks – and MSM embeds went along for the ride. As a result, reporting was, for a few short weeks, "fair and balanced." Their lives quite literally on the line, frontline reporters filed their featured bylines with everything from admiration to honest criticism. And they did so virtually always as Westerners first, reporters second.
Today, too many reporters report from the relative safety of Baghdad hotels. Their reports – and the public's understanding of the war – have suffered as a result. And too few of the original embeds remain reporting for duty. When reporters who don't see what's going on write stories without context, they fail to steel the public for bad news and to put the good news in perspective.
It's fair to ask if the Iraq Campaign was a necessary component to the Terror War. It isn't fair to compare Iraq to Vietnam, when the two wars have nothing, zero, nada in common. It's fair to ask if our soldiers are dying in vain, or because of stupid policy, or because of inferior equipment. It's not fair to run headlines like "Battle Deaths Continue to Mount." No shit, Sherlock? A real story would be, "Battle Deaths Decline as Fallen Soldiers Miraculously Resurrected." It's fair to question Bush's policies. It's not fair to act as a conduit for enemy propaganda. It's fair to ask if Iraq is draining resources from our efforts in Afghanistan. It's not fair to complain that Afghanistan isn't perfect yet. It's fair to complain about indecencies at Abu Ghraib. It's not fair to virtually ignore atrocities committed by the other side everywhere else in Iraq.
But our media, aware of their power but ignorant as to its uses, would rather play "gotcha" than provide critical perspective.
Germany lost WWI because they couldn't match our manpower. They lost again in 1945, because they couldn't match Allied productive might. We could very well lose this war, because our leadership has so far failed to recognize the power of the media. We might also lose because our enemies are oftentimes more media-savvy than we are. We could lose also because our mainstream media seems to find terrorists less unattractive than having a conservative Texan in the White House.
There is no "fixing" the American mainstream media, unless change comes organically. When I wrote last year that we can't win this war by giving up our freedoms, I wasn't kidding – without a free press, we're doomed.
But I do mean to serve notice to the MSM.
When a nation loses a war, it looks to punish the people it believes are to blame. After Vietnam, neither Washington nor our Armed Forces were ever the same again3. But if we lose this Terror War, our media will be seen as largely to blame. They'll suffer blame for their ignorance and for their petulance. They'll suffer blame for seeing al Jazeera as comrades closer than the privates and NCOs and officers fighting to protect the First Amendment. They'll suffer blame for putting their hatred of a Republican President before their love of country. Whether that assessment is fair or not, it is how the public will see things.
Then the public would demand changes. And they'd probably get them, courtesy of a government looking for scapegoats, real or imagined. Should that day come, we'd lose our free press, and we'd lose our freedoms. We'd lose our country.
I don't mean to imply that the MSM needs to hop on board the bandwagon and cheerlead for any President along any military campaign, no matter how foolhardy – far from it. In case you hadn't noticed, I used a good portion of this essay to complain about Washington, and that's something the media can do a whole lot more effectively than one small blogger. Criticism isn't just necessary, it's a necessary good. But the MSM needs to relearn constructive criticism, and they need to remember which country defends their rights, and which group of people would gleefully slit their throats4.
Today, the arm of decision is the media, and it's impossible to predict what new power will someday eclipse it. But if our media companies lose their First Amendment freedoms in a populist spasm of government power, they'll have only themselves to blame.
The media have the power. They wield the arm of decision. Even if only for our own sakes, let's hope they learn to use it with more wisdom and foresight than they have these last four years.
1These brief historical summations are meant to be very brief – and thus woefully incomplete. Also, things weren't as cut-and-dried as I've presented them, and there was a lot of overlap between the eras I've described. But the larger point, concerning the arms of decision of various wars, still stands.
2Don't get me wrong here. Most days, I'm mostly certain that going into Vietnam was a mistake. And on any day, I'm damn certain that the Draft was a moral and political abomination. So let me preempt any talk that I'm accusing Vietnam War protestors or Walter Cronkite or anyone else of being unpatriotic. What I'm trying to do is examine dispassionately some of the mistakes made in the past, and try to figure out how we can do better in the future.
3To the broad public, neither the White House nor the Pentagon is held in the same esteem they were before Vietnam. The military has regained much lost ground since 1968, but at a price steep in blood and treasure – and mostly because the military has long understood the power of the media. They learned that lesson the hard way, and changed themselves from within.
4Why is it that one nobody writing in his basement can see that, but your typical MSM editor with an entire news department at his beck and call can't? Or is it that he can see it, but would rather score points than save his own neck?