Skip to comments.How America became a superpower (long)
Posted on 03/15/2003 5:22:04 PM PST by knak
The historical view: By Allan Little
Get ready to be shocked. Prepare yourself to be awestruck. For shock and awe are what the United States military say they hope to achieve in the opening minutes of the coming campaign against Iraq.
It will if it goes to plan be a war like none the world has ever seen. Washington is about to test drive the early prototype model of a military juggernaut that will be so powerful that it will eventually make any talk of military balance redundant, even laughable.
In Washington, where the talk is all of power projection, a new ideological conviction is taking shape. It is being driven by technological advance. Technology, increasingly, is shaping what America can do, how America defines itself, and how it engages with the rest of us by providing the means to impose its will through sheer force of arms anywhere in the world where it feels US interests are threatened.
The sheer scale of American supremacy is written in the numbers: the US military is larger than the next ten national forces combined. Its annual budget is 400 billion dollars. It has five hundred bases. And still this is not enough. The Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is planning such sweeping changes in the military that they amount not to radical reform, not even to a revolution but to transformation.
What weve got now is a kind of third age of the American military, says Michael Clark, a globalised military that can now do pretty much anything it wants. And were also seeing the development of a political ideology which backs up that military dominance. And thats a pretty uncomfortable situation for the rest of us to be in. For the rest of the world its rather like being in a bath with an elephant no matter how sensitive the elephant tries to be, the rest of us in the bathtub are going to feel pretty uncomfortable.
Washingtons current impatience with its reluctant allies emerged first in the seventy-eight day air campaign NATO fought in Kosovo four years ago. Many of the allies were squeamish to begin with about going to war at all. France intervened to impose political restrictions on what the military could do, to declare some targets not matter how militarily legitimate politically unacceptable. Many senior US generals came away from that experience feeling bruised. General Mike Short, who commanded the air campaign from Italy, told me I never fought a war by committee before I dont want to have to do it ever again.
The talk now shifted from formal coalitions of partners bound by Treaty, towards informal short lived partnerships of expediency so-called coalitions of the willing.
That impulse toward unilateralism only reflects what is happening technologically. America is entering a new age of hi tech weaponry of precision bombing, of lazar guided missiles, of aircraft dropping bombs in the Gulf, while the pilot sits a thousand miles away or more possibly even in the Pentagon and going home to his wife and kids in a Washington suburb at the end of his days remote controlled combat.
I asked a US Air Force General about the transforming power of pilot-less aircraft. And it brought me a swift ticking off. They wont be pilot-less. Theyll have a pilot. He just wont be in the plane.
The accuracy with which modern aircraft can attack their targets is astonishing, says the military historian John Keegan. They can at last do what they always said they could do. They always said they could hit a target from 10,000 feet and it actually wasnt true they were always missing. There was a very high inaccuracy factor there isnt any longer. Weapons are so accurate nowadays when an aircraft wishes to hit a target it does hit it.
There is a battlefield National Park on the outskirts of Washington DC at a place called Manassas. It was here, on a sweltering July day in 1961 that the United States first began to emerge as a military power. This was the first battle of the Civil War.
Six hundred thousand people were to lose their lives in that conflict as many as in all of Americas subsequent wars put together. Its legacy still runs through the American psyche. For when the Battle of Manassas was fought, few who turned up that day on either side had the slightest idea of what they were about to get into.
There were 30,000 troops on the Union side. They expected a quick skirmish, a swift victory and then a campaign to crush the rebellion in the southern states. After twelve hours of vicious combat, backed by devastating field guns, they understood that they were living in a new age of warfare. For this was the first war of the Railway Age. Armies could now be supplied with heavy machinery and weaponry fast. The war effort could reach in the very heart of the nations industrial muscle, enlist that muscle in the military campaign. The age of total war opened on Manassas Field that day. From now on war would mobilise not just armies of farm boys and factory hands anxious to be getting home, but whole societies, whole economies, whole nations.
This field at Manassas the Parks historian John Reid told me is in a sense the birth place of modern warfare.
When the Civil War was over, America traumatised and weakened demobilised, trying to turn itself back into a civilian society. It scaled its armed forces down, trusting geography to protect it, relying on two wide oceans to defend it from hostile forces. There was a short foreign war against the Spanish at the end of the nineteenth century. There was a swift and in Europe welcome intervention in World War I in 1917. But when that was over, America again reverted to type, demobilising, retreating to its distant fastness.
As late as the 1930s, when fascism and communism were sweeping Europe, the United States was militarily insignificant. It ranked eighteenth or nineteenth in the world. Dr Richard Stuart is the chief of the histories division at the Centre of Military History.
The US army was truly pitiful between the two world wars the US military historian Richard Stuart told me. It was somewhere beneath the Bulgarian army. The Argentinians would have been able to whip us in a fair fight. Because the mission that was driving the US army at the time was hemispheric defence Fortress America stay behind our walls, the rest of the world can go to hell, but well be here in the middle, with our airforce, our navy and our coastal defences; we dont need a large military - were safe behind our borders.
In 1927 Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic. The ocean was no longer wide enough. But still the US military slept. It took Franklyn Delano Roosevelt, as president, to see with clarity what was happening in Europe. Against the overwhelming impulse of American public opinion, which was fiercely isolationist and averse to military involvement, he ordered the transformation of the US military. He appointed General George C Marshall who as Secretary of State to Harry Truman in the 1940s would give his name to the plan to rebuild western Europe to see the task through.
By 1941, when America entered the Second World War, it did so as a military power capable of defeating both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
After 1945 and for the first time in its history - America decided that it needed a massive standing army in times of peace, as well as an army of civilians, temporarily mobilised, in times of war. What forced America against all its isolationist impulses to do that was Korea. In the Cold War, America would sustain, for half a century, a massive standing professional army, supplemented with conscripts when needed.
Vietnam was a Cold War conflict. 58,000 American servicemen lost their lives. What was worse for the military is that they lost their lives in pursuit of a victory that never came.
Returning servicemen expected a heros homecoming and found themselves, instead, derided and despised. It was the most traumatic experience for Americas armed services since the Civil War.
When it was over, the countrys military leaders asked how it had been possible for the politicians to send conscripts to a war that had so evidently divided public opinion. They resolved to try to make it impossible to go to war again, without bringing civilian America along too. In Vietnam only professional soldiers and conscripts had fought mostly young men in their late teens. The head of the army, General Creighton Abrams, now restructured the armed forces to make it necessary in the event of war to call up the countrys reservists and the national guard from each of the fifty states. That would mean mobilising civilian America not just young men, but middle America, school teachers and postal workers from small town America, shop keepers and businessmen from Main Street USA. Abrams idea was to knit the military back into the fabric of civilian life.
But once bitten, twice shy. The trauma of Vietnam affected a generation of military leaders. Vietnam created a situation in which the American military, particularly the army, was frightened to do anything says Professor Michael Clark. Its job was to sit in Europe and hold off the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union. They knew how to do that. But anything else around the world they felt very very uncertain about. The American army seemed to spend its time discussing what it couldnt do. We dont do jungles, ok? We dont do mountains, we dont do cities. And the question was often asked in Europe what do these guys do?
It took the desert sands of southern Iraq to lay the ghost of Vietnam. Saddam Husseins invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and his refusal over five months to bow to diplomatic pressure to withdraw, gave the US military the chance to demonstrate what they were capable of in this changed, post-Cold War environment.
But for all its high tech, video-game appearance this was still not a war of the new age. The Gulf war in 1991 was very much a battle of the Cold War fought out it desert conditions says Michael Clark. It was a battle of the Cold War because it took forces from Europe, that were trained for Europe to the desert and they fought as if they were in Europe only more simply because they didnt have many of the obstacles in the way. And funnily enough too the Iraqis were armed with Russian equipment and they fought according to Warsaw pact tactics. So in a sense, what you had in 1991 was a NATO-style force, fighting a Warsaw Pact-style force in the desert; in that respect it was a very old fashioned war.
But there was something about it that was far from old fashioned war from a distance. Vietnam had bequeathed a new political imperative: no body bags. In Iraq, those on the ground felt the awesome might of a military machine so high overhead, controlled and operated from so far away, that they could not see, and could barely even hear it.
America now dominated the military stage as no other power ever had. This fundamentally changed Washingtons attitude towards allies toward the very idea of alliances. George Bush Senior stated it boldly : America will act with allies where possible, without them where necessary.
So America is entering the brave new world of futuristic hi-tech warfare, and it is doing so alone. None of its allies even try to keep pace. In the not too distant future, the military kit that the allies can bring to any potential battle field will be second-rate at best, and at worst a positive hindrance. No matter how desirable allies might be politically in future wars, militarily they will make no sense.
Take this anecdote from the defence analyst Dan Goure, until recently an adviser to Donald Rumsfeld: A senior air-force general, who was operating in one of the recent coalition operations, told me he basically said to his European counterparts, the American military is going to do the following job, and you have to get the hell off the road, cos youre just in my way.
Clearly Goure adds, the problem is that the allies are in many cases irrelevant, in some cases a hindrance, and a few cases positively dangerous.
This emerging unilateralism worries many in Washington even some old war horses. I went to see Laurence Eagleburger, who served as Secretary of State to George Bush Senior. What you do not want to see is a united states that becomes accustomed to try to run the world all by itself, he told me. We need to have the advice, and - Ill say it - the wisdom, the caution that others will bring to the picture. I dont want the United States to get into the habit of being the judge of everything. I want countries around that will remind us that we put our pants on one leg at a time.
This is pure BS. The United States was a world-class power by the 1930s and had we not had an isolationist policy at the time, WW2 could easily have been prevented. Hitler feared us but felt safe that we would not involve ourself in a European conflict due to the pacifist sentiment in America at the time. The entire world knew even then that the United States was the "arsenal of democracy." When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Winston Churchill got the first good night of sleep in years because he knew at the moment that the war was won. And Japan knew right away that they had awakened a sleeping giant.
Sometimes I wish that those who are honestly concerned about US imperialism (as opposed to those that just hate us) spent some time here. What they would find, even among the most strident hawks, is a real concern for how fast we can get out of Iraq.
We're determined to do the job right this time, but no one wants to stay one minute more than necessary.
Funny. I was a kid in 1961 and I don't remember anything about this.
You claim that the proof that we were a world power is that Churchill got a good nights sleep and that Yamamoto feared they had awakened the sleeping giant. But they did not fear our then current military might. The Japanese knew that they had completely knocked out or ability to enter the war at all, which was true. What they feared was our industrial might. An industrial giant the world had never seen protected by the greatest moats in the world.
Why if we were such a great military power did it take us so long to enter the war after that day of infamy, Pearl Harbor? Pearl Harbor was December 7, 1941 it was not until June 6, 1944 that the D-Day invasion was begun. Where was this great military power that you speak of for 3 years? It was being built. America became a great military power in the first 6 month's of 1944 when it's armies were amassed in Britain for the D-Day invasion.
This quote, after describing a military that clearly CAN put its pants on both legs at once, so to speak?
Empires are sometimes created by power vaccuums. The American Imperium was not created by a series of successful wars of conquest (i.e, we didn't knock off in turn Carthage, Macedon, the Seleucids, etc.). A Europe that chose comfort and cradle to grave social welfare states flatly did not want to be bothered with creating world class militaries. They were all to eager to devolve that grunt work onto the uncouth Americans. It never entered their heads that a substantive conflict would appear between them and America in which the US would decide to ignore their wishes. They thought they were getting a free ride.
Europeans can march in the streets but they do not want to pay the costs and make the sacrifices necessary to seriously challenge American power. They want to take on the US in an August-off, 35 hour work week kind of way. With pieces of paper and lectures. The American superpower has been created more by European fecklessness than anything else.
Do you mean when NATO bombed schools, hospitals, and passenger trains from high altitude for no clear or good reason???
Be thankful that the United States is lead by George W. Bush--a great leader and a man of profound morality--and by neither a fool nor by a scoundrel, as has been the case in the recent past.
George W. Bush has done everything possible to do this, but in the final analysis, as he said right after September 11: "I'm a loving man, but I have a job to do."
Thank God that George W. Bush is the leader of the world!
Thank Almighty God!
But it doesn't have to be that way. Were a friendly nation, however small, to discuss with our military leaders a specific mission that would be appropriate for the capabilities that a nation of their size can muster -- given a commitment to a level of military expenditure proportionate to that of the US -- and if they would be willing to train with us regularly and coordinate in every way, then it is quite likely that they could field a unit that would be of use to us. The problem is that almost nobody is willing to do even that.
Your recount of history leaves a few gaps. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, what was left of the U.S. Navy destroyed the Japenese fleet in the battle of the Coral Sea and the battle of Midway. Long before D-Day, there were some important battles going on in the pacific, North Africa, and Italy. In case you forgot, we were at war with Japan and Italy as well as with Germany. We didn't just bide our time until D-Day.
By D-Day, the war was pretty much won on both fronts for the Allies thanks to the might of the United States. The battle of Midway occurred in mid-1942 and we gave the Japanese a far greater blow than they gave us at Pearl Harbor. All their aircraft carriers were pretty much destroyed at Midway. After that, we went island hopping and never looked back. On the European front, the United States troops were already on the move in Italy before D-Day. But before D-Day even happened, the only real question was how long it would take us to get to Berlin and whether or not we could beat the Russians there.