The Limits of Force

In thinking about Afghanistan for my last post, I began to wonder about the history of large land invasions since World War II. My first thought was: have any been successful? Nothing spung to mind, so I decided to explore the subject with an eye towards determining whether occupation is an effective strategy given universal nationalism and the proven effectiveness of asymmetrical warfare.

I would like preface this by saying that I am not interested in universal pacificism or the morality of war. While the nuclear peace theory has proven to be effective, I think that American super-abundance of conventional military strength has led to perhaps the most peaceful time in world history. To what degree America must maintain its military hegemony is debatable, but the benefits of the strength itself is not. Rather, I wonder if there is any merit to the perma-hawk attitude of Bill Kristol in the arena of furthering American interests. Did the first President Bush find the proper balance between strength and prudance, or is long term foreign projection of power beneficial to the U.S.?

In addition to the five major U.S. military interventions since World War II- Korea, Vietnam, The Gulf War, The War in Afghanistan and the Iraq War- there have been eight smaller U.S. interventions (I limited it to inventions of more than 1,000 troops) in Lebannon (twice, once in 1958 and again in 1982-83), Dominican Republic (1965, 42,000 troops), Panama (1988-90, a total of 13,000 including a permanent 10,000), Somalia (1992-95, 28,000 UN troops, mostly from the US), Haiti (1994-95, 20,000 troops) and Bosnia (1995-2004, 60,000 NATO troops, though far less of a US presence). Before I examine the wars, it must be pointed out that nearly all of the smaller inventions were successful, with the lone exception of Somalia, where the casualties were small but still more than the public could stomach. One of the underrated drawbacks of fighting two huge land wars is that it prevents the U.S. from smaller interventions that would are usually less ambiguously productive. For example, perhaps much of the loss of life in the Sudan could have been prevented if we did not have so much on our plate.

The modern American wars can be split into several periods and I will discuss each war at length over several posts. Today I will focus on the first Cold War proxy conflict, the overlooked and underrated Korean War.

The Korean War lasted three years, involved over 480,000 U.S. troops and resulted in the deaths of 36,000 with another 90,000 wounded. It cost $64 billion dollars, which is the equivalent of $500 billion today. It was the first true proxy war of the Cold War, and it as such the rules of the game were still in flux. China’s direct intervention in the war is the last true military contest between great powers, after that support would take the form of weapons, intelligence and training, but never boots on the ground. It is a war that deserves more attention, not only because it has basically no cultural significance, but because its first year and a half is a great read as it was conducted at break-neck pace. Seoul changed hands four times, and the U.N. coalition controlled as little as 10% of the country at one point and then more than 80% two months later! The world was still in flux then, so it is no surprise that it fell between the cracks of WWII and Vietnam.

The clearest lesson from the war is economic rather than military, as the economic power of a market economy versus a pure command economy has been demonstrated in stark relief. South Korea is now the 14th biggest GDP as measured by Purchasing Power Parity, while North Korea is 141st with an economy less than one hundreth the size. It should be pointed out that dispite the sucess of preventing the fall of South Korea, which would have been certain without U.S. involvement, the resulting war probably stablized the despotic North Korean regime. I doubt that anyone would have thought that nearly sixty years later we would still have thousands of troops there, which should be a lesson to anyone predicting future swift military victory.

In the conduct of the war three important lessons can be learned.

First, the U.S. intervened before it had marshalled its forces and it was nearly pushed into the sea before a full contigent arrived. “Shock and Awe” is used derisively at this point, but overwhelming force actually minimizes casualties and can even Somalia is another example of hedging our bets only to realize that there is no “safe” war, and when you have a better military than anyone else its best to make sure you are going to win before you fight.

Secondly, get the intelligence right!


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