Australia’s alliance wars – their respective causes, conduct, and consequences – are overdetermined by the politics and strategies of the United States. In general, though they consist of few battlefield successes, the overall record is one of failed campaigns informed by repeatedly failed – indeed, ‘dead’ – ideas that for various reasons maintain their currency. The purpose of this and associated posts – Parts I, 2, and 4 – is to conduct a limited coronial inquiry – that is, to establish just how the death occurred.
In the light of the role of the United States as an engine of authority, change, influence and power in virtually every realm of global politics in general and in the conduct of Australia’s alliance wars in particular, the following focus on the military of United States is imperative. Accordingly it is important to identify its three defining features over the last four decades.
The first of these is the reality of the post-democratic US military. Here, “post-democratic” is used in strict accordance with the tenets of accountable and responsible government. Contrary to democratic tenets and the constitutional history of the United States, the concept of the citizen-soldier has no referent. Members of the US military now rejoice in their description as “warriors” without even a suspecting glance back to the Federalist Papers, let alone to centuries of history wherein the warrior was a caste in an otherwise militarised society.
Within the “warrior” culture, furthermore, are the elite forces of the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM): some 70,000 personnel operating in 150 countries, mainly from the 800 bases of various descriptions that the Pentagon maintains. Understandably the present is seen, in the words of SOCOM commander General Joseph Votel III, as “a golden age for special operations”. He went on to say: “We want to be everywhere”. And everywhere includes Australia, now part of “a Global SOF network of like-minded interagency allies and partners” and thus hosts Special Operations Liaison Officers who are embedded in the US Embassy as advisers to the Australian military. Ironically, in some quarters SOFs are seen as the US military’s “Jesuits” – a metaphor, if taken to heart, which would concern any democratic polity with its origins in the Reformation and which was historically literate enough to know just how unwelcome the Order was in so many places.
Over time, with the indulgence of both Congress and the Obama administration, followed by the infatuation of the current President and his deferrals on many strategic issues to those he called “my generals”, the military has acquired unprecedented political appointments and influence. It is, however, a counter-intuitive ascendancy: at the basic level the need for Army manpower – now running at 80,000 “volunteer” recruits per year – to service the demands of permanent war in the absence of a national service obligation and bleak employment prospects for the relatively uneducated, has produced what is in effect a “poverty draft”. More recently, even this solution has proven (word missing?) given the Pentagon’s decision to recruit people into the armed forces who have not only failed the relevant aptitude tests but have histories of mental illness, drug abuse, and self-mutilation. Logical conclusions have followed: the military has become self-selecting and separate from society at large.
At the level of senior commanders and policymakers, it has come with a worrying arrogance out of all proportion to their records, given that none of the serving and former military officers in question have been associated with a decisive victories. Certainly they have served successfully in terms of their promotions to high ranks but it has been success without the distinction which accompanies decisive military campaigns. The phenomenon is essentially one of “failing up”, a practice more commonly associated with politics in general and the higher management of universities. Not infrequently, therefore, it is accompanied by hubris, as instanced by Chief of Staff (and former General) John Kelly’s recent outburst denigrating civilians who had not served in the military.
In combination it is politically toxic, as witnessed when Secretary of Defense (and former General) James Mattis, in company with Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Trump Administration had all the legal authority it needed to conduct warfare anywhere in the world, and for as long as the Administration determined on the basis of a Congressional authorisation passed just 17 days after the 9/11 attacks.
This claim, it must be noted, was made despite the fact that current operations, especially in Africa, and against ISIS, and some of which involve Australian forces, are being undertaken in countries that were never envisaged as theatres of war, and against enemies that did not exist in 2001. Moreover the same operations are being conducted in breach of the United Nations Charter and the War Powers Resolution of the United States itself.
Failure, however, needs to stand alone as the second and chronic condition defining the US military. Specifically, the legacy of defeat in Vietnam comprises an inescapable history. It has, moreover, preoccupied the most senior officers: both David Petraeus and H.R. McMaster devoted years of their life to PhD theses on the lessons to be learned from that history for the fighting of future American wars.
And though defeat in Vietnam remains an ongoing stain, it has not been, and cannot be, assuaged in any way by the outcomes of subsequent interventions and wars in Lebanon, Grenada, Iraq and Panama simply because, while they all had moments of triumph, their translation into victory was either no test of competence, or simply illusory.
Both the first and second features foretell the third: basically the US military, and specifically its troop commanders, have no recent usable history. There is neither an Eisenhower, Bradley, Marshall, nor even a Patton (non-military aspects of his character notwithstanding) all of whom knew, and were lauded for, their leadership, strategic acumen and lasting achievements in and through wars which resulted in Clausewitzian victory – where the enemy was forced to fulfil the will of the victorious allies.
The traverse to the present is instructive. As a consequence of American strategic overstretch, its military is over-extended and strategically confused as to the ultimate objective. The mantra of fighting to degrade, destroy and defeat the current spectrum of enemies might have alliterative appeal but it says nothing about what should follow. Is it another transient triumph or peace? That is unmentioned. All that the allies have is wishful thinking based on capabilities that have so far proven of questionable decisive value masquerading as strategy.
From 1982 to 1988, Michael McKinley taught international relations and strategy in the Department of Politics, UWA. From 1988 to 2014 he taught international relations and strategy at the ANU. He is currently a member of the Emeritus Faculty at the ANU.