One of the lessons we should have learned over the last three years is the undiminished importance of ground forces, both having enough of them and for utilizing them effectively where they are needed. You can argue all day long about a lot of things, but when a large percentage of your ground forces are engaged, a nation’s options are limited elsewhere. George Friedman, writing for the Strategic Forecasting think tank, says North Korea and Russia have taken advantage of that fact with the U.S., and we know Iran has also done so—intentionally exacerbating our problems in Iraq, so they gain a freehand and advantage elsewhere. Ironically, when ground forces are engaged in large numbers, options are limited elsewhere, no matter how big your Navy and your Air Force are. These sister services are needed to support the land force; and further, boots on the ground are what matters at the end of the day. They determine who rules. If you embark to fundamentally remake another nation or society, you must rule and rule for a long time in order to accomplish your goals. You cannot, indeed must not cede sovereignty in short order after you’ve won it. If your goals are so all encompassing and comprehensive as to aim at erecting democratic institutions where there are none, to rebuild a military whom you have vanquished (twice), to make warring ethnic and sectarian factions live peaceably together, and to transform the Middle East by example—you cannot hope to do so on the cheap, in terms of the numbers of troops or the extreme level of force those troops will have to exert. Of course, your objectives may well come into question, as indeed they should, if you are given to self-analysis or to constructive reassessment.
Historically, a standing army on our soil helped foment the American Revolution, even though we were part of the British Empire and British troops were “here to help.” Funny thing about them boots on the ground: if insufficient to quash all resistance, they virtually ensure the unity and persistence of violent opposition aimed at foreign occupiers and the removal of any political fence sitters. Taking a slightly different tack, boots on borders are what nations worry about too, unless you happen to be a very big McDemocracy, and boots on borders mean a lot of friendly undocumented guest workers coming in for ‘a better way of life.’ Be that as it may, most nations do care about borders. Borders define their space for who they are and where political, ethno-cultural and economic sovereignty lay. Borders define a lot of nations we like and many we don’t like. Hypothetically, if we were to put troops in a country bordering on some we dislike, with the express intent of remaking the one we’re in before proceeding across its borders to remake others too, we might be in for some complications and a surprise or two. All hypothetical, mind you: far be it from me to suggest decisions have consequences, or that foreign policy mistakes are possible, or that some international idealism is plain stupid. But if this were what you wanted to do, there’s really no way to do it without several hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions of troops, as well as a willingness to employ extreme violence, even to risk a broader war.
Nations also recognize that an investment of troops by another nation is practically the most it can do. You don’t easily get them out, once men and women are stationed in a place and particularly where they are fighting for very long. The expense of sending, sustaining, reinforcing and rotating troop units is astronomical, the support network immense. Moreover, the impact on a homeland that sends troops is substantial, especially the longer its deployments go. For individuals and families involved, the experience is life changing; for the government it becomes consuming, to the point of setting aside important priorities and allowing serious economic and social problems to grow. For the life and direction of nations, wars involving deployment of troops are historic by their nature. Even when wars like that are necessary, they can never be said to be a good thing. There is death and devastation to be sure, but we are all conditioned to get past that relatively quickly—and some things are admittedly worth that much. But there are also the tragic and largely unknown opportunities lost, as well as the many negative unintended consequences.
Thank God we do have an Army, however. If anyone seriously thinks we’d be free one day without one, then he doesn’t understand either the harsh reality behind international relations or the base drive and instincts attendant to human condition that give way only to force. But an Army is a terrible thing to squander. For the United States, the crucial problem is our freedom of action under the current circumstance, whether a freedom to respond or take the initiative to the enemy—the enemy we know or the one on the horizon. For all the early talk of preemption after 9/11, we’ve virtually given it up, because we’ve lost that ability with troops. Friedman again: “The military reality on the ground in Iraq severely constrains U.S. options around the world. That, in turn, constrains U.S. diplomacy. Diplomacy without even the distant possibility of military action is impotent…. Since the possibility of unilateral action by the United States also does not exist, neither North Korea nor Iran need take the diplomatic initiatives seriously. And they don’t…. Americans either must dramatically increase the capability of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps or else decrease their commitment in Iraq. If the United States does neither, its ability to control and influence events in other regions will decline.”
Wesley Allen Riddle is a retired military officer with degrees and honors from West Point and Oxford. Widely published in the academic and opinion press, he ran for U.S. Congress (TX-District 31) in the 2004 Republican Primary. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.