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March 7, 2014 - Harry Eagar
Reports that Secretary of Defense Hagel wants to shrink the Army to its smallest size since “before World War II” are somewhat misleading. The 1940 Army was already far bigger than the 1938 Army, because it was inducting hundreds of thousands of men in our first peacetime draft.
RtO will review the (widely unknown) history of the American standing army but the point is that Hagel is wrong, the generals are wrong, the previous administration was wrong. The United States needs a bigger, less capable army. Didn’t we learn anything in Iraq, in Vietnam?
No, we didn’t. Or, more precisely, our high commands, civilian and uniformed, took away lessons but they were the wrong lessons.
It is probably correct to doubt that massed tank battles will occur again -- the last was in 1973; just as carrier-to-carrier naval battles are not going to recur -- the last was in 1944.
But the need for lots of infantry will never cease. I said so before the Second Iraq War (before there was an RtO), and was proven correct.
We lost that war for lack of infantry (and competent leadership), lost inAfghanistan for the same reasons; and lost in Vietnam for the same reasons.
You can liberate France (in 1944) without needing to leave a lot of infantry behind. You cannot do the same in Germany in 1945. You can liberate Ukraine in 1941, but if you make the Ukrainians hate you, you cannot hold it without a lot of infantry.
For reasons that are obscure, Americans have always been afraid of a standing army, and even more bizarrely, of a standing navy. Congress would not recognize the rank of admiral for nearly a century, although the number of times a functioning democracy had been overthrown by an admiral could be counted on the horns of a unicorn.
After the Civil War, the Army and Navy were immediately shut down. Until 1917, the largest formation in the Army was the regiment, about 3,000-5,000 men. And the US didn’t have many of them. European and Asian armies had scores of divisions of 10,000-12,000 men, and when they mobilized their reserves, hundreds.
Before the Selective Service Act of 1940, the American Army was smaller than Romania’s; and until the famous Louisiana maneuvers of 1940, no American general had commanded a force as large as a division in the field since 1919.
(The garrison on Oahu, variously called the Hawaiian Division or the 24th and 25th Infantry Divisions, were fortress troops, not called on to maneuver across large spaces. The US Army has always differed from other modern armies in forming only front-line divisions. Although at times understrength or underequipped, all American divisions are expected to be capable of front-line service. Our army did not field divisions of old men or invalids for restricted duties.
(Although we tend to rate the World War II generals highly because they fought and won a big war, they were not very impressive. When the Marines wanted to form divisions in 1942, the Army resisted, on the grounds that Marines did not know how to manage large formations, even though no Army officers had experience at that either. In the event, the Marine divisional commanders were better than the Army National Guard commanders and most of the regulars; and in Korea in 1950 the only competent divisional officer in the whole American expeditionary force was a Marine, O.P.Smith.)
After Japan’s surrender, the Army and Navy were shut down again, shrinking to a size that Chief of Staff Marshall said left him unable to defend Alaska.
The police action in Korea reversed this traditional policy, and the standoff with Russia led to a novel policy: For the first time in its history, the United States would maintain a very large, uncommitted military establishment.
But it did not, in fact, have much to do (duty in the ‘50s was a cushy job for the uniformed services), and business resented the idea of tying up millions of workers to do nothing but march around. The economy was expanding and labor was in demand.
However, though large by former American practice, the Cold War military still did not absorb manpower at the rates European states were accustomed to.
In the USSR, labor was even more desperately needed, to rebuild from the sacking by the Germans and because Russian work was less mechanized and Russian labor was less efficient; nevertheless, Russia felt obliged to keep a huge army. (Anyone who had looked at the situation from a labor perspective would have foreseen what was to come: Russia, which used almost half its labor in agriculture, would face a crisis of food production which would bring down the regime. This is what happened. Ronald Reagan had nothing to do with it.)
The reason the American military was comparatively small was that in the late ’40-‘early ‘50s, it was decided that a nuclear strike force could serve the same functions as an army, and more cheaply. This was the deciding factor in going ahead with the Super (the H-bomb). Whether the nuclear strike force was really cheaper than a large army is debatable. Since we ended up with two nuclear strike forces, probably not.
But large armies are so expensive that even with a nuclear air force and a nuclear navy, the overall military budget might have been smaller than for a Russian-size army. And that does not count the cost of starving American business of labor, which would have been severe.
In theory (there was always a lot of theory available, most of it, in retrospect, nonsense), the Department of Defense was capable of fighting “two and a half wars” simultaneously. In reality, because we were unwilling to use our two nuclear strike forces, America was incapable of fighting even one war -- not when the enemy was numerous, tough and dedicated.
It might have been different if the South Vietnamese army had been tough and dedicated (it could have been large, on our dime). But the South Vietnamese were not fools; they did not want to die for Madame Theiu’s racehorses.
The American army sent to Southeast Asia was necessarily small -- 525,000 at its biggest (and many of them stationed in places outside Vietnam). This was a miniature force compared to what was thought necessary in World War II (13 million).
American generals, who were both incompetent and widely corrupt, complained that they had only a small combat force (about 200 infantry battalions at the most), but they did not understand that what they required was not more assault formations but more -- many, many more -- rear area guard formations.
The fact was forced, dimly, onto American political leadership when President Johnson sent Clark Clifford to the theater. The Pentagon was demanding another 100,000 men. Clifford told Johnson, correctly, that 100,000 more men would not do the job. It is unfortunate that only Democrats (and not all of them) learned this lesson.
Although Nixon decided to bug out (called Vietnamization, actually surrender), the lasting opinion among rightwingers has been that we were on the verge of winning and gave up too soon. (Probably no victory was possible so long as the masses were unpersuaded that we were on their side, an unlearned lesson that we have failed to learn again in Afghanistan and again in Iraq.)
In any event, Vietnam shattered the Army, and no serious steps were undertaken to remake it. No American Scharnhorst or Gniesenau appeared to make fundamental changes.
The lesson the Army thought it learned was to be ready to fight small wars. It wasn’t even good at that as the fiasco in Grenada proved, but against an inert opponent in Kuwait, it worked on the tactical level. Gulf War I was a strategic failure because Bush I was unable to fulfill the first principle that is taught in even the ROTC manuals for children: the object of warfare is to impose your will on your enemy.
The US Army had no infantry. The high command, obsessed with a massive armored thrust into Europe, had put all its strength into 7 armored divisions. In Kuwait, it had to borrow infantry from small nations who were unwilling to get involved in an occupation of Iraq. That is why, whatever else is said, Bush did not push on to overthrow Saddam. He could not.
With a genius for failing to learn from experience, the United States revamped its army so that it was incapable of any mission: not enough armor to fight a tank war, not enough infantry to fight an infantry war, and, especially, not enough garrison troops to hold ground occupied.
History repeated itself. Badly beaten in Iraq, Petraeus (another MacArthur in some ways) advocated a “surge.” This acknowledged that General Shinseki had been right, we did not have enough infantry to go to war; but the numbers were laughable -- about 30,000.
It failed but accomplished its real purpose of covering another bug out. The Iraqis cooperated by being smart enough to realize that if they just held still for a few months, we would do what they were fighting to have us do: leave. (The Taliban have not been so sophisticated.)
That left only one doctrine: the surgical strike.
This has been the favorite delusion of the advanced thinkers for about 75 years, sometimes more prominent, sometimes less, but now elevated into the sole function of the military.
It began with the airmen and their preposterous claims of being able to “put a bomb in a pickle barrel from 30,000 feet.” MacArthur bought into this completely and was lauded for being “air minded.” He really did think he could master east Asia with a couple hundred B-17s (but did nothing to either use or protect them when the fighting began).
As World War II proved, even tens of thousands of strategic bombers cannot win a war.
In Vietnam, all sense of discipline, compassion, analysis and competence collapsed. The citizenry was told, simultaneously, that we would win a limited war through surgical strikes and control the populace with the surgical strike’s opposite, the free-fire zone.
In the end, neither.
Now we are told that the surgical strike will be adequate to respond to any threat; apparently, our enemies have agreed to dispose themselves to be vulnerable in just this way.
This was inevitable with the volunteer army. No one (except time servers) wants to volunteer to be a lightly-armed infantry grunt patrolling whatever disease-ridden hellhole we have decided to corral this time. They all want to be SEALs and Rangers (as a survey of women in uniform revealed last week).
And why not?
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