The lack of a clearly defined strategic objective resulted in the move into Iraq. After a quick march to Baghdad the war could have ended with “mission accomplished” and a U.S. exit. Instead, the decision was made to remake Afghanistan and Iraq into bourgeois democracies; these were doomed objectives, given that neither society possessed a viable middle class, history of democratic politics, or a mindset inclined to accept fundamental human freedom and liberty. Forgetting that Afghanistan had long ago earned the reputation of being “the place where empires go to die,” the U.S. found itself in two wars simultaneously, fighting enemies adept at asymmetric strategies and who were determined to destroy infidel invaders.
While American commanders eventually concocted fairly effective operational strategies in Afghanistan and Iraq, in neither case did U.S. forces benefit from clear strategic goals or useful operational milestones. Salient lessons from Vietnam were forgotten: A strategy focused on “not losing,” rather than pursuing victory, results in defeat and small tactical victories cannot overcome a weak strategy. Meanwhile, a legion of lawyers, backed by policy wonks, looked over our commanders’ shoulders as they tried to figure out ways to defeat a tough collection of international enemies from the mountains of Afghanistan to the streets of Benghazi. Moreover, because President Barack Obama has been unwilling to make the critical financial investment needed to keep the U.S. a top military power, the American defense establishment entered its current death spiral.
The Army is smaller than it was in 1950, when North Korea invaded South Korea. The Navy has half the combat vessels it had 15 years ago. American combat aircraft—Air Force and Navy—are rusting on the runways. The American nuclear arsenal, last updated in the early 1990s, ages while Russia modernizes its arsenal and China expands its global reach. Combat tested junior and mid-level officers and non-commissioned officers, vital to the future leadership of our armed forces, are opting for more promising careers elsewhere. Senior officers courageous enough to resist the inanity of politically correct polices are retiring—if they haven’t been forced out already.
The military weakness admired by the extreme left invites aggression from terrorists and possible hegemons in Teheran, Beijing, and Moscow. The potential costs of weakness are far greater than the expense of being strong.
Earl Tilford is a retired Air Force officer and college professor who lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of several books on the air war in Vietnam. His latest book, Turning the Tide: The University of Alabama in the 1960s has been accepted for publication by the University of Alabama Press.