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American Pie: To War, To War

"With Iran, Iraq and Palestine on the boil, one has to hope that the next administration will embrace military restraint. If it doesn’t we may well be looking at a real Armageddon,'' writes a sombre John Merchant in this balanced review of America's military strength and commitments.

The US Military probably is subject to more scrutiny now than at any time in its history. The reasons are many and various; a mixture of approbation and national doubt. Though the troops got a proud and enthusiastic send-off to Iraq and Afghanistan, many citizens are doubting the wisdom, even the legitimacy of such conflicts. And of course, there always was a silent majority who were suspicious of the Bush administration’s motivation.

The “Shock and Awe” of the Iraq invasion soon deteriorated into street skirmishes that bewildered the Generals, who are the most educated, sophisticated military leadership America has ever fielded. Troops under their command were being bested by a Biblical era, ragtag militia comprised of Iraqi army deserters and untrained citizens.

The flag wavers now are subdued; torn between their dismay over the way these wars played out, and a determination to continue their support for the troops, if not for the misguided politicians who sent them to war. Above all, US citizens are determined to avoid the disastrous treatment that soldiers returning from Vietnam were subject to. That shame still lingers.

Just as the wars have been reported in high definition, so the returning troops are being followed intimately through their adjustment to civilian life. What makes this time so different from other wars is the high survival rate of the critically injured, and the willingness on the part of the military medics to openly acknowledge psychological trauma.

Accordingly, almost every day, there is reportage about the recovery, or the fight to recover of men and women who lost limbs and/or their sight, or part of their brain, or their mental equilibrium. And then there are those who slip through the cracks of the creaky Veteran’s Administration, who are charged with classifying and treating the wounded.

Some wounded veterans have been mistakenly sent back into the conflict; others have not been appropriately diagnosed, resulting in a failure to grant them the proper benefits.

Unlike Vietnam, today’s US forces are all volunteers. Initially, the military set a high standard of acceptance, but gradually those standards have been relaxed as the flow of admissible volunteers has slackened. So today’s recruits are not all the brave young warriors of the recent past. Their reasons for wanting to join one or other branch of the Services are much more diverse.

Some seek an opportunity for a free education. Others are directed towards recruitment as an alternative to prison. Many are escaping a civilian life that they find unbearable: a lack of structure, an abusive home life, a marriage gone bad, a failure to be accepted into law enforcement etc.

This changes the character of the armed forces and leads to behavior like that which occurred in the Abu Ghraib prison, and in separate incidents of civilian abuse. But such lack of military discipline has been relatively rare given the stress and provocation of street fighting.

Today’s military are made vulnerable by the false sense of security provided by the cocoon of powerful, high-tech weapons and equipment that surrounds them. It comes as a devastating shock to discover that all their firepower and technical wizardry can be brought down by an old Kalashnikov, a randomly placed, homemade bomb, or a World War II Bazooka wielded by a fanatic in sneakers and turban.

The generals and strategists have been ham-strung by their war schools, that educate them well to fight World War II all over again, but not how to deal with religious fundamentalists who want to die in battle, and are indistinguishable from the general citizenry.

It remains doubtful if such wars as Iraq and Afghanistan can ever be won, and the experiences of the past 100 years bear that out. First the British, then the Russians discovered that to their cost. So where is the intelligence that says the US would prevail in their invasion of Iraq, or do better than the Russians who wore themselves out in Afghanistan?

For all the CIA’s gigantic budget and their omnipotence, their satellites and spy planes, the intelligence they have delivered in the past several years would shame a Civil war scout with a brass telescope. Thus many decisions have been made and strategies predicated on false information. Therefore a military command, already hobbled by their World War II thinking, doesn’t stand a chance of getting it right.

Anytime the idea is voiced of the US pulling back from its global do-gooding , the Greek chorus wails “Isolationism.” But isn’t it time to get serious about non-interference. There have been signs in the Obama administration that this is being considered, as in the case of the Egyptian, Syrian and Lybian conflicts, but all it takes is a change of administration to reverse the trend.

With Iran, Iraq and Palestine on the boil, one has to hope that the next administration will embrace military restraint. If it doesn’t we may well be looking at a real Armageddon. The US has had enough lessons in recent history to know that preemptive war in the name of democracy is doomed to disaster.

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