What made the US such a formidable factor in WWII was the size of its economy, its underutilized assets, and the ability of government to effectively organize it. It was a war not won by valour or brilliant tactics or clever code-breaking, as glamorous, inspiring, or important as those things were. The war in Europe, especially, was a war of attrition, with the Soviet Union slowly grinding up half of Germany’s military might in the east, while the US relentlessly chipped away from the west. Germany fought on, enduring inconceivable punishment without surrender, until she had nothing left to fight with, until the Allies could finally claim victory over a wasteland of burnt-out cities and a defeated population.
This is not a story always welcome to the ears of people who fondly believe that the good guys (i.e., us) must always enjoy inevitable victories. God delivers them, in popular belief, so long as we keep up the faith and rally when called.
We can’t really conceive today of a war like the one that devastated Europe, in part because we have no national memory of such a thing. Our soldiers liberated prison camps in foreign lands. They weren’t being mown down to slow an invasion of our own burnt-out cities and terrified population.
We have today a technology-heavy military capable of quickly smashing things in far-away places. But, as were forced to see during the Bush-Cheny wars, we have an extremely limited capacity to hold ground. The belief stubbornly persists that we no longer have need for that sort of thing, despite thousands of American lives lost to tenacious insurgencies, and broad swaths of allegedly defeated territory in the hands of the adversary.
These wars threw an unforgiving light on something that normally operates out of sight, in the shadows of diffused responsibility and missing accountability: willful ignorance. If the Bush-Cheny “deciders” seemed to be guided by a laughably inadequate understanding of the countries they proposed to liberate, the reason was not that the requisite knowledge of Afghanistan and the Middle East was nowhere to be found. The knowledge and informed judgement were simply rejected out of hand, as being inconsistent with decided policy.
The risks posed by these weaknesses grow yearly, because they remain unappreciated and neglected, and because our position in the world is changing in ways that are beyond our control. The case in point, if you will bear with me, is China’s new Air Defense Identification Zone.
China announced this unilaterally, without consultation, and demanded that all airlines traversing the area file flight plans with Chinese authorities. The fact that the ADIZ extends over territory disputed with Japan and abuts Taiwan signals China’s intent to isolate those states from their western allies, primarily the United States.
As a strategic move, the ADIZ now stands as an unqualified success. Japan angrily reacted to the announcement by ordering its airlines not to comply, to continue operations as though the ADIZ were nonexistent. The US, apparently testing whether the ADIZ signified nothing more than provocation by a restive military, flew unarmed B52s through the area. A showdown would have allowed the US to deliver a slap on the wrist and perhaps negotiate a face-saving withdrawal for the Chinese, but China did not take the bait, presumably waiting to choose its own time to rattle the passengers of a civilian airliner with fighter escort. The US then ‘recommended’ that all American airlines comply with Chinese instructions. Japan has been left to plead its case to the UN, but will certainly cave in when it is politic to do so.
Behind the scenes, it is a good bet that debates are being rekindled regarding US security commitments to Japan and, most importantly, Taiwan. These are commitments that were entered into when China was an economic basket case, and when the US could deliver military punishment with impunity.
That impunity is becoming questionable. China recently accomplished the soft landing of a scientific rover on the surface of the moon. While certainly gratifying to national pride, the greater significance is to demonstrate that China’s ability to accurately and reliably deliver heavy loads to any point on the surface of the earth must be reckoned with. China’s nuclear arsenal is variously estimated to contain from a few hundred to a few.thousand warheads. China has had ICBM capability for many years, and is known to be developing the long-range, solid-fueled (for rapid launch) DF-41, which has been test fired and may be nearing deployment.
The question of whether the United States would continue to consider an attack on Taiwan as an attack on the US, were the slightest risk of nuclear, chemical, or biological conflagration presented to a US city, can be answered in the negative, hands-down, treaty or no. In a hypothetical confrontation, this will be a new factor for any US president to consider, materially weakening the US hand. It will be an ongoing factor in Taiwanese calculations as well.
China is patiently directing its own war of attrition, chipping away at alliances and treaties, while guiding its own economy toward becoming the world’s largest. With its enormous land area and immense population, it will arguably be able to stand up to threats of military punishment as well as any nation can. Certainly, that will be its own perception.
The West’s strategy will most likely be one of accommodation, to all intents and purposes, and regardless of expressions of moral sentiment, with the ever-present danger of miscalculation due to willful blindness, a danger that seems to afflict democracies especially. China’s first big prize in the coming years will be to bring Taiwan under political control of the mainland. With luck, they will accomplish this without anyone firing a shot. Where they may go from there is anyone’s guess.
Writing these words is somewhat painful, which serves to illustrate my final point. As I have argued elsewhere, war is not a morality play. Diplomacy and negotiation should never be entrusted to moralists, jingoists, or other faith-based, emotional actors. There is far too much at stake.
The burnt-out cities of Europe were cleared and rebuilt. Perhaps one should have been left as it was, with a few spartan accommodations made available for world leaders who wish to come and ponder the mortality of nations.