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Monday, January 31, 2005

Quagmires in Perspective

For ages, historians have noted a curious fact: military men are always fighting the last war. Today, this rule seems to apply more accurately to the American media than it does to the American military. It’s easy to see how the reporters got gulled into trading places with soldiers.

When US troops arrived in Korea immediately following World War II, they
faced fairly serious opposition. The Koreans had just finished thirty years
of Japanese occupation. They wanted self-government. What they got was American and Soviet occupation, a division of their country agreed to at Yalta, a meeting to which Koreans had not been invited. So, the South Koreans got government administrators who were Japanese hold-overs, while North Korea watched the Soviet Union steal everything that wasn’t nailed down.

Syngman Rhee, the Christian Korean leader in the south, had spent his life fighting the Japanese and the Chinese with a rifle in his hand. Kim Il-sung, the Soviet leader in the north, had spent his life in American exile getting a Princeton education. As Korea’s leaders, each kept threatening to invade the other, and both sent agents into the other country in order to maintain a native “insurgency.”

Chinese Communist leaders, who obtained their news exclusively from Soviet broadcasts, had no particular love for either Korean leader. But America had made clear it wasn’t interested in protecting Korea or Formosa, which opened the door for both China and the Koreas to start wars of unification. All three were planning invasions for 1950 and 1951, it was just a question of who got off the mark first.

Surprise, surprise, America turned out to be against the whole idea of anyone in the East accomplishing anything militarily. Received wisdom in Washington said any new conflict was likely to end in world war. After all, the last two had. The trend seemed pretty clear. So, when Kim Il-Sung jumped off the mark before Rhee or the Chinese, America ignored its own rhetoric and suddenly decided that Korea was, in fact, inside its sphere of influence.

Truman had seen in the Berlin air-lift how effective a quick response could be, and MacArthur responded quickly to the provocation. So, the Seventh Fleet suddenly found itself patrolling the straits of Formosa in order to keep the Chinese quiet while American troops poured into Korea. Meanwhile, from the Chinese side of things, China was dealing with a major rebellion along the Hunan river and was concerned that American successes resulting from the Inchon landings would provoke a major civil war.

As a result, when American troops approached the Yalu river, they suddenly found themselves face to face with tens of thousands of screaming Chinese. In fact, the Chinese armed response was so large that the American method for determining whether or not a battle was a victory officially changed before the Korean war ended. It no longer mattered who stood on a piece of ground when the last shot was fired. What mattered was the ratio of American corpses to enemy corpses. Few people realize the Vietnam-era “body count victory” rules originated in the Korean War.

Similarly, Vietnam was an exercise in using lessons learned in Korea. Like Korea, Vietnam was a country split into two, with the northern communist half sharing a border with China. Like Korea, agents were constantly being infused in order to destabilize the respective governments with “insurgencies.” But, like Korea, the “insurgencies” were not particularly effective without mainline troops to nail things down.

So, as real soldiers began fighting one another, the American troop presence increased. But, though the American military won every battle they ever fought against the North Vietnamese, they were unwilling to invade the north – it might bring the Chinese down on them again. The Chinese, for their part, had lost such an enormous number of men in Korea that they actually had a serious population dent in their male demographic for years following the war. They had no desire to make Vietnam another Korea, and thus never sent serious numbers of troops into battle in support of the Vietnamese. But America didn't know this. So, America, as in Korea, was faced with two standing armies: the native army of the north and the Chinese army. It could seriously damage or destroy the first army because it could take the territory necessary to do so, but invading China was out of bounds, so it could never take out the second. The standing army that couldn't be destroyed guaranteed that those two wars couldn't be decisively won.

But the North Vietnamese lost every battle. How did they manage to win the war? Easy. They captured the hearts and minds of the American media, who had a stranglehold on information transfer in the United States. The American media, in turn, convinced a substantial number of Americans that the United States should leave South Vietnam to be raped by their North Vietnamese brothers.

It is worthwhile to point out that “rebellions” and “insurgencies” almost never succeed unless there is a standing army to back up the rebels. The whole history of modern warfare demonstrates this truth. The American Revolution succeeded only because Washington maintained a standing army and had enormous military assistance in the form of French naval ships and trained military troops. The final victory at Yorktown could not have been achieved without French help.

Similarly, none of the resistance movements in World War II were very effective in holding significant numbers of German troops out of the line. If it were not for the Normandy invasion, the French resistance would have inevitably been crushed. The Korean and Vietnamese experiences point to exactly the same conclusion – the “insurgents” in both cases were only successful because there was a fully-equipped
army standing behind each, trained and ready to invade.

Korea, Grenada, Panama, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq: in each of them, American military forces destroyed anything that vaguely resembled a standing army within weeks or days of the start of hostilities. Korea would have been over within a few months if a second standing army had not suddenly appeared from across the Yalu. Vietnam would have been over in months if Washington D.C. did not seriously fear any invasion of North Vietnam would bring a second intervention by the Chinese.

Korea and Vietnam both became quagmires precisely because political considerations (the possibility of a third world war with China at the center) prevented the American military from completely destroying the standing armies they were forced to combat. Iraq is not Korea or Vietnam precisely because there is no evidence that any standing army will come to the assistance of the Iraqi insurgents. Every nation knows we will completely obliterate anyone foolish enough to supply a standing army to support the insurgents.

American military forces have been essentially irresistible since World War II. With the possible exception of China, there is nowhere on earth, no nation on earth, capable of preventing American military forces from going where they please, when they please, and with very little loss of American life. With the possible exception of North Korea, every government on earth recognizes this. The Iraqi insurgents will never have the support of a standing army. They will never succeed.

But the American media, inflated with their success in the Vietnam conflict and unwilling to consider that this success was due more to international political considerations than it was to their own innate power, simply won’t accept this.

Even though the media no longer has a stranglehold on information flow within the country, even though that media is weaker today than it has ever been, even though there is no military reason to believe that Iraq will ever be a quagmire, they believe they can turn it into a quagmire simply by repeating the idea that it is a quagmire over and over again.

In short, they have the Stalinist technique of the ‘big lie’ down pat, but they have failed to ask an extraordinarily pertinent question, a question that Stalin never failed to ask, “How many divisions has the New York Times?”


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