Sensitivity And Sgt. Rock

Whither The Military?

I wonder whether we hadn't better think about the military. A lot of people, both in and out of uniform, suspect that we have become complacent, that we have grown accustomed to bloodless wars, that the country is no longer prepared to accept casualties, nor our troops, in many outfits, to endure the hardships of combat. Again and again these men worry that the military is concerned too much with sensitivity, too little with the hard training that saves lives in combat.

Underlying the debate are two differing ideas of the nature of war. The first holds that war has changed fundamentally in recent years, that henceforth it will be Nintendo. That is, the United States will fight from a safe distance, using technology instead of men. Automated weapons controlled from computer consoles will take the chances and the casualties. The enemy will not have weapons that can threaten our aircraft or our distant carriers and bases. War, for us, will therefore be safe, antiseptic, remote, and physically effortless.

Recent wars lend plausibility to this view. The Gulf War entailed few American casualties and was largely fought from the air. The mini-war in Yugoslavia and the current campaign in Afghanistan continue the pattern: Aircraft and overwhelming technological superiority have allowed victory almost without loss to friendly forces.

Certainly the technological trendline points in the same direction. Remotely controlled, expendable aircraft now have sensors and data links good enough to allow them to find targets and fire serious missiles at them. These weapons as a class are in early development and, to judge by frequent stories in Aviation Week, improve rapidly. Surveillance of battlefields by drone aircraft at high altitudes further decreases the need to have men on the ground. Sensors get better, computers faster. Each year it becomes harder to hide. Soon, say those who accept the theory of war-as-Nintendo, GIs will sit safely in air-conditioned comfort on ships safely at sea, drinking coffee and driving unmanned aircraft five hundred miles away. There will be no danger, no casualties.

Nice if you can get it.

The second school holds that the recent easy wars were, if not freaks, then not typical. We are, they say, lulling ourselves into unpreparedness that will cause disaster if we get into a real war. They point out that Iraq set itself up for catastrophic defeat by fighting, with a fifth rate military, exactly our kind of war, at the peak of Reagan's buildup, after giving us all the time we wanted to get our forces in place. As military stupidity goes, it ranks with invading Russia. Afghanistan had no modern weapons. And – crucially -- no industrially competent adversary is supplying our enemies with advanced weapons.

What if this changes, or we come up against a better enemy? In circumstances not conducive to Nintendo war? Can this happen?

Oh yes.

The way to defeat a superior enemy is to force him to fight in circumstances that keep him from using his superiority. The question arises: In what conditions would our technical mastery cease to be decisive?

Cities. The Marine Corps has noted that a high proportion of the world's population now lives in cities or city-like conurbations. Many of these are near oceans, which makes them of interest to the Corps. The Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, has consequently given a lot of thought to urban warfare. I interviewed some of the men involved a few years back on a story for Signal magazine, which covers military electronics. They were sharp. They knew about Stalingrad, knew tactics, knew that fighting in cities has historically produced lots of dead.

There are reasons for this. To begin with, normal weapons often don't work well in cities. You can't easily use artillery because the buildings get in the way. Finding the enemy is difficult when he hides in buildings. A bomb hitting the top of a ten-storey building will do little to urban guerrillas on the first floor. Tanks are easy targets as they move down streets in what the Marines call "urban canyons." Every window is a potential sniping post or rocket site.

It's spooky. In a former life as a military reporter, I patrolled with the Marines in Beirut (weeks before they were blown up) and with the British Army in Belfast. No fighting was going on in either place. You find yourself watching windows awfully carefully, looking down alleys. Thre's too much cover, too close to you.

There are other problems, ones that soldiers don't always quite grasp. For example, civilians. The enemy would likely be mixed with the normal population, and perhaps use them as shields by not letting them leave. In today's world you can't kill thousands of civilians to dig out the bad guys – particularly if you have been invited in to eliminate terrorists or revolutionaries.

Like it or not, global television is now a force to be dealt with. The enemy would make sure that every little girl screaming with her entrails hanging out would be on the five o'clock news around the world. This does matter, and the Marine Corps knows it, though I'll get lots of mail saying who cares, nuke'm, let God sort'em out and suchlike grrr-woof-woofery. It wouldn't take much of that kind of footage to turn the public against intervention.

The only practical way to defeat a capable urban enemy holding the population hostage, without killing large numbers of civilians, is the hard way, with disciplined, trained small units on the ground. This is bloody, nasty work, physically demanding, and slow. As the Marines were perfectly aware when I talked to them, technology can help. For example, small-unit leaders would profit by being able to get quick access to maps of utility tunnels and so on. But men would still have to clear areas building by building. It's not a job for the sensitive.

In short, there are places where gadgetry isn't enough. If we get involved in such places, and have to send non-elite troops, GIs will come back in body bags and, if units aren't psychologically prepared and well trained, even more will die. Can the military, or the country, any longer handle it? Some think so, and some don't.

Now, if you said, "Fred, what city are we going to fight in?" I would answer without hesitation, "I don't know." Maybe we never will fight in a city. I hope not. Yet wars are not easy to predict. Ten years before any of our wars, probably five years before, we didn't know it was coming. Iraq and Afghanistan erupted from nowhere. Others may and probably will.

And we don't seem to get to choose the location.

Marine Corps Warfighting Lab