During the past seventy years the United States has fought more wars and battles than I can count on the fingers of one hand. None of them have been authorized by declarations of war as prescribed by the US Constitution. The Korean War was termed a “police action”. The Vietnam War was authorized by the “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution”. And so forth. Only one war, the 1991 Gulf War, could be considered a success. The others ended in stalemate or defeat. And each of them could be described as an alien war. That is, wars and battles that were fought in countries where Americans were clueless in regard to local cultures and languages.
Dominic Tierney has written an article in the March/April 2015 issue of The National Interest that explains this history with great insight. The article is titled “The Rise of Alien Warfare”. I would suggest that it be required reading for all of the candidates for president in 2016. Or specifically for those candidates who appear to champion our engagement in further alien wars in the Middle East. Mr. Tierney has written a book on the subject, “The Right Way to Lose a War: America in an Age of Unwinnable Conflicts”. The book will be published in June 2015. Here are excerpts from Mr. Tierney’s article in The National Interest.
From the War of 1812 to today’s campaigns in the Middle East, both Washington’s enemies and the local populations have become steadily less familiar in terms of language, religion and social traditions. Alien warfare reached its apogee with the post-9/11 mission to refashion Afghanistan—a landlocked country seven thousand miles away, with a largely unknown culture and a literacy rate lower than that of America in 1650.
OVER THE last two centuries, America’s major wars have become increasingly alien experiences. Alien warfare refers not only to the unfamiliar nature of the environment, but also to the degree of direct engagement with another culture.
From 1945 to the present, is the era of alien wars, where conflict became a far more exotic undertaking than in the past. During this time, Washington fought five major wars: the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the war in Afghanistan and the Iraq War. Every campaign occurred at least five thousand miles away from the continental United States. The climate and terrain were starkly different from those of the United States, from the thick jungles of South Vietnam to the barren moonscape of Helmand Province in Afghanistan.
For most Americans, the new battlefields were cultural terra incognita. Adversaries, including North Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese Communists, Iraqi guerrillas and Afghan insurgents, had vastly different religions, traditions, ethnic politics and languages. Unlike former imperial powers such as Britain, the United States lacked preexisting colonial networks. Washington was flying blind.
During the 1960s, only a handful of American universities taught Vietnamese history or languages. By 1968, over half a million U.S. soldiers were deployed in South Vietnam. Later, in 2006, at the height of the violence in Iraq, there were about one thousand U.S. officials in the Baghdad embassy; a mere thirty-three of them spoke Arabic, and only six were fluent.
American troops engaged more directly with alien societies through counterinsurgency and nation building. After 1945, three out of five major wars—Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan—involved extensive guerrilla fighting. Washington tried to mold unfamiliar societies by creating new institutions, overseeing elections and building infrastructure.
Today, nearly nine out of ten wars are civil wars. For Washington, foreign internal conflicts have become a major security challenge, producing humanitarian crises, refugee flows and terrorism. The 2002 National Security Strategy asserted, “America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones.”
THE RISE of alien warfare has severely eroded America’s performance on the battlefield. If we define victory as the achievement of core aims with a favorable ratio of costs and benefits, before 1945, the United States won most of its major wars.
By contrast, since 1945, most major U.S. wars have ended in stalemate or defeat. Washington achieved a successful outcome in the Gulf in 1991. Korea, however, was a grim stalemate, in which nearly thirty-seven thousand Americans died to restore the prewar status quo. Cartoonist Bill Mauldin called it “a slow, grinding, lonely, bitched-up war.” Vietnam was an even more punishing experience, where the United States faced outright military defeat for the first time in its history. Despite the deaths of fifty-eight thousand Americans, South Vietnam still fell to Communism.
In 2001, the United States swept aside the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. But the Taliban recovered, setting the stage for today’s stalemated conflict. After a dozen years of tough fighting, with over two thousand Americans killed and twenty thousand wounded, and the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars, the campaign has been far too costly to be considered a success.
Meanwhile, the Iraq War was a clear failure. The conflict killed 4,500 Americans, injured over thirty thousand, presented Al Qaeda with a new battlefield, strengthened Iran by removing its nemesis Saddam Hussein, and triggered a spike in anti-Americanism. Overall, the United States has only won one of its five major wars since 1945.
The combination of culturally unfamiliar environments and sustained nation building and counterinsurgency proved toxic.
The “war on terror” frame presented Al Qaeda and the Taliban as fundamentally identical, even though Al Qaeda’s goals are international and revolutionary whereas the Taliban’s goals are mainly restricted to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
When Washington wades into a distant civil war, cultural differences damage the United States far more than the insurgency. The two sides battle for the loyalty of the people, but the rebels understand this prize much better than the Americans. The United States needs accurate intelligence to separate the guerrillas from the people. Washington, however, has limited knowledge of local social dynamics.
The other problem with alien warfare is that the local people do not understand Americans. For the indigenous population, Americans are the aliens. U.S. soldiers descend from nowhere and start reordering their society. America’s destructive machines of war may seem like the Martian tripods in H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. Armed to the teeth and shouting in a strange tongue, American soldiers can be a terrifying sight. U.S. intervention may provoke an antibody response as the local people rally against the threatening intruder, creating “accidental guerrillas.”
Alien warfare runs headlong into the most powerful political force in modern history: nationalism. The idea that every nation should decide its own fate free of external compulsion is now widely accepted—and is even inscribed into the UN Charter. After 1945, national self-determination was the insurgents’ ace card. During the Cold War, Communist insurgents combined nationalism and Marxism in a “national liberation movement.” More recently, the Taliban fused together nationalistic appeals against the foreign occupier with calls for stricter forms of Islam. As the United States found in Vietnam, trying to hold back the tide of nationalism can be a futile endeavor.