The original Thirty Years War occupied the attention and wealth of Europe for much of the 17th ©. Like most wars, it was an exercise in greed and ego that settled little. Given the carnage possible with mass use of gunpowder, it served as an ugly template for various derivations for the next three hundred years, until Europe stopped periodically squandering its young men, wealth and talents after Hitlerwas humble in the ruins of the Third Reich.
In the seventy-five years since, Europe has largely beaten its swords into ploughshares and set an example for the developing world. Unfortunately, part of that developing world sits on the largest reserves of oil known to man and they have, as yet, not got religion along those lines.
Though there has been warfare in the Middle East since records began, it was a series of imbroglios among locals. Their Thirty Years War started on August 2nd thirty years ago when Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait. The fact he then controlled some 40% of the world’s oil reserves had the West scrambling for a moral codpiece to conceal their paranoia about a dictator in control of their main fuel supplies.
Hussein gambled—much as the Japanese gambled in 1941—that if the objective was captured swiftly, then defended with massive forces that the West would see the cost in lives of re-taking the prize would make even the mighty USA balk. His timing was bad. Not only was a resurgent USA ready to reassert its role as global superpower after the humiliation of Vietnam but Russia, the only other superpower at the time was preoccupied with salvaging what it could from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Getting the Israelis to lay low and stay out of it allowed George Bush to cobble together an unlikely alliance of over 30 countries includingt Arab states. It was the broadest coalition seen since the Korean War, the last time that Russia stood aside and allowed the UN to take real action.
History relates that the Gulf War did not last long. After an intense air campaign of several weeks, the massive Iraqi forces were so damaged and demoralised that the ground war took just five days. Thousands of Iraqis died for the cost of under 300 coalition combatants. But that was not the end. It was not even the end of the beginning.
By liberating Kuwait, but leaving a weakened Saddam Hussein still there was like slapping on a plaster without first cleaning the wound. In 1951, when Truman stopped General Macarthur before he could take the Korean War over the border into China, he did the world a favour by avoiding World War 3. In 1991, George Bush Snr. stopping General Schwarzkopf for what he regarded as similar reasons was a mistake. The limited objective of deposing Hussein while his army was prostrate was a limited and quite feasible objective.
As it was, 13 years later, once the USA was angrily searching for the culprits of the 9/11 destruction of New York’s World Trade Center found George Bush’s son “Dubya” incensed enough by 2003 to try to complete that unfinished business with what Congress called “The Iraq War”, but which was, in fact, Gulf War 2, in much the same way that WW2 is sometimes seen as an unavoidable completing unfinished business of WW1. But, this time there was no broad Arab coalition in active support, nor a pliant Russia standing helpfully aside.
Once again, military “shock and awe” overwhelmed a numerically superior army in short order, with minimal casualties—except for the Iraqis. No evidence of support for terrorism, nor “weapons of mass destruction” were found. But they did find and dealt with Hussein. But in the press and public’s mind—especially in the USA—both conflicts had played out like a Hollywood script. Forget the stalemates of Korea or Vietnam. America was back as top dog with the military muscle to prove it. And, as in that other clean-cut final result of WW2, like a second Marshal Plan would bring 38 million Iraqis and their shattered country/economy into the affluent folds of the western world, as they had with Germany and Japan.
That it didn’t work out that way lies largely in the American presumption that the rest of the world wants to be like them. The Madrid Conference of 2003 was to co-ordinate reconstruction among 25 countries involved. Unfortunately, as Wikipedia describes it:
“While reconstruction efforts have produced some successes, problems have arisen with the implementation of internationally funded Iraq reconstruction efforts. These include inadequate security, pervasive corruption, insufficient funding and poor coordination among international agencies and local communities. Many suggest that the efforts were hampered by a poor understanding of Iraq on the part of the international community assisting with the reconstruction.”
In the course of the original engagement, plus the 2003-11 extended occupation, plus the 2014 return, the USA alone spent over $1 trillion (a one with twelve noughts), or half again the entire UK budget, on military operations and investment in ‘rebuilding’ the country. Despite all this, there is still neither peace, nor prosperity. Mishandling of the Sunni vs Shia factions, mishandling of the Kurds, intrusion by ISIS all contributed to continuing unrest and occasional bloodshed, of which there is still no end in sight.
The underlying problem appears to me American ineptitude in its largesse and clumsiness in its military engagement. Combined with dogged support for Israel and ill-judged and unsuccessful incursions in Lebanon, Somalia an Afghanistan, the Gulf version of the Thirty Years War has imprinted the USA as an intrusive and arrogant pack of unbelievers among muslims from Marrakesh to Malacca.
Quite apart from military intrusions, the aftermath of the fall of Hussein in 2003 saw a flood of American companies, opportunists and soldiers of fortune tapping into the bounty flooding Iraq. This led to opportunism and corruption among the Iraqis themselves—hardly surprising since the people had scant experience of either democracy or the rule of law since the British empire shrank to nothing half a century before. That a country with a tenth of the world’s oil should stagger on in chaps and poverty is a travesty of what the Marshal Plan did for Europe. And that cost the USA just $12 billion ($132 billion at today’s rates). Their Thirty Years War is not yet over.
But perhaps the worst outcome from the whole sorry story is that the US military think they have rediscovered their mojo, that nuclear carriers, Abrahams tanks, Apache helicopters, cruise missiles and laser-guided Paveway bombs make the world secure under their guidance. It is understandable that the rankers who man these things should be gung-ho and convinced in their invincibility. But that the top brass suffer the same delusion is dangerous. It is doubly dangerous if the Administration suffers the same delusion and believe the USA is the global policeman.
Instead of studying WW2 and the Gulf at West Point NY, Annapolis MD and Montgomery AL to study big toys to deliver shock and awe that costs over $710 billion each year, they should consider the realities of war in the 21st century. War against powers like China or Russia would be either unthinkable or cause nuclear annihilation. A recurrence of favourable circumstances for a short, ‘good’ war like 1991 or 2003 will be rare. Far more likely are repetitions of Korea, Vietnam or Afghanistan, for which US forces are singularly unsuited and staff studies inadequate:
- Most wars are ‘brush wars’, involving guerrillas, combatants indistinguishable from civilians, with ill-defined battlefields and few clear objectives for victory.
- Gulf Wars were flukes; large scale operations against a conventionally armed enemy, fought over open desert with clear fields of fire and few civilians.
- Strategic air power is futile. Douhet, Harris et al got this badly wrong. No war has been won by air power alone. Intimidation by bombs does not work.
- Tactical air support does work—but only in open terrain and is expensive. F/A18s cost $70m each and need a $3bn carrier or air base to fly from.
- The logistical ‘tail’ of US forces is massive and clumsy. Not only is this also expensive, but it tends to restrict operations to roads and deserts.
- The cultural awareness and language abilities of US forces is negligible, creating barriers with and resentment from locals in overseas deployments
It seems the Pentagon and the staff academies are either not conversant with 21st © military home truths like the above or suffer from the trap into which many unchallenged powers fall—believing their own propaganda. Examples: the Russians at Tsushima; Bomber Command in 1939; the Soviet Army in 1941; the French at Dien Bien Phu—all thought the knew the key to success and planned on that basis.
Someone in the US top brass must surely be aware of this. But the immense flywheel of inertia created by officer ambition, Congress pork barrel and massive corporate interests like Boeing ($29bn), Lockheed Martin ($47bn), Northrop Grumman ($26bn), Raytheon ($24bn_ General Dynamics ($22bn) make change unlikely. That’s just the top five, who accrue $148bn of lucrative business from the military every year.
It is hard to see how such a dripping roast could be turned off with hot spots erupting around the world on a regular basis. The pressure from all above (but not taxpayers) to fund the best defence systems for the world’s policeman is irresistible.
But this new Thirty Years War rolls on. Because what the world needs is a bobby on the beat who knows the patch, the local villains and how to put the squeeze on them. But what the US has created is the equivalent of donut-laden guys in a heavily armed squad car. They can patrol and intimidate the neighbourhood all they like. But they will not find the bad guys, let alone end the war.