America’s Failing War Effort (Part 10 of 12): Military Deployment and Readiness

by | Nov 29, 2003 | Military, POLITICS

It is presumptuous and impossible for civilian laymen to evaluate the intricacies of military policy. These are details best left to experts in military science. But civilians are in a position to evaluate the overall strategies of military policy, insofar as they reflect the strategies of a nation’s foreign policy. For this category, the Bush […]

It is presumptuous and impossible for civilian laymen to evaluate the intricacies of military policy. These are details best left to experts in military science. But civilians are in a position to evaluate the overall strategies of military policy, insofar as they reflect the strategies of a nation’s foreign policy.

For this category, the Bush administration receives a C, tying with the “hot war” category as the highest grade. The reasons are also the same. As in the hot war category, the Bush administration has taken some concrete steps to improve military deployment and readiness in a manner consistent with American self-defense. At the same time, it comes at too feeble a pace, and with too many dangerous moral concessions.

We begin with the question of military deployment, i.e., of where American troops are being used around the globe.

Following the escalation of the guerrilla campaign in Iraq, discussions about potential overstretch of American forces saturated the media. There is some important truth to this claim. With about 130,000 American troops in Iraq, and 37,000 in South Korea, all facing down immediate threats, the United States will have to make due with fewer troops in the event that it faces new threats. The trouble is that there are numerous new threats the United States is not dealing with at present, but should be.

There are a few easy way to supplement the levels of usable troops moderately. At present the United States still has several thousand troops stationed in Bosnia and Kosovo, and more ready to deploy in Liberia. These campaigns serve no vital American security interests. Their motivation is to assuage the guilt induced by demands from critics who allege the United States is too unilateral and has little concern for fulfilling “humanitarian” obligations. But as we have stated repeatedly, the government of the United States has no moral obligations to any but its own citizens. The United States can with clear conscience withdraw troops from all existing purely humanitarian missions, and redeploy them for the sake of American strategic interests. The best hope the United States can offer these wayward nations is the inspiration of its example as a free and prosperous nation–an example it cannot maintain if it abandons its commitment to its own self-defense.

Of course the actual number of troops deployed in humanitarian missions is relatively small compared to the remainder of the American military. And in fact, the bulk of the remainder is about to be reshuffled in a way that will help to free up more troops for purposes relevant to American vital interests. In June of 2003, the Bush administration announced plans to shift troops from Western to Eastern Europe, where it intends to make them readily deployable to the Middle East.[55] With the end of the cold war, there were few security concerns justifying the continued presence of so many troops in Western Europe, and the logistical purposes they did serve could be better accomplished closer to well-known hot spots.

At the same time, however, while American humanitarian missions are not quantitatively significant, they are extremely significant symbolically. Their continued existence delivers a dangerous message to the rest of the world: that the United States will justify military campaigns in defense of its national security only if it can also show that it is willing to risk the lives of its own citizens in conflicts that are of no national security importance. This moral concession has far more destructive power than any inefficient deployment scheme ever could. The more the enemies of the United States learn of our willingness to sacrifice our own troops to causes of no concern to us, the more they will become convinced of our unwillingness to defend ourselves. It was precisely this conviction that persuaded Al Qaeda that it could get away with the September 11th attacks: the United States had spent most of the 1990s engaged in humanitarian quests around the globe–in Somalia, Haiti and Yugoslavia–while doing nothing to respond to a quickening series of terrorist attacks.

Even assuming the United States were to have enough troops to fight, and would be fighting only in the correct conflicts, there would still be undue restrictions on how these troops are permitted to fight. As we discussed in more detail in the section on the hot war, American troops are still hampered by restrictive rules of engagement, designed to prevent the deaths of foreign civilians. To risk American lives to protect foreign civilians is to make the same deadly moral concession made by unnecessary humanitarian missions.

Similar conclusions can be drawn about the Bush administration’s efforts at improving military readiness, i.e., the quality and sophistication of American fighting forces.

Under the Bush administration, military spending has grown in recent months at a rate faster than any year since the 1950s. Much of this spending has gone to the development of new technology that has been crucial to American victories in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Iraq, precision munitions enabled American forces to hit more targets more accurately than ever before. And yet while this undoubtedly has obvious purely military advantages, it should be recalled that the desire for increased accuracy has not been driven by the concern that the American military could not hit its targets (that could be accomplished simply with more bombs of a cheaper, less sophisticated variety). It has been driven by the desire to avoid civilian casualties. And while that desire is an honorable one, it should not drive a nation’s military budget, because the deaths of civilians in war are the responsibility of the threatening, aggressive nation that incites a war, not the nation fighting to defend itself.

Even more distressing is the fact that while previous administrations spent more on military technology that would protect innocent foreign civilians at great cost to American citizens, they simultaneously permitted the gutting of one kind of weaponry that could be most assured of hitting its target with a minimal cost of American lives: nuclear weaponry.

There has been a precipitous decline in American nuclear preparedness. To begin with, although the United States has so far resisted acceding to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, it has nonetheless maintained a voluntary moratorium on new nuclear testing for years, even though nuclear testing is crucial to the continued safety and effectiveness of a nuclear arsenal. Recently, Secretary of State Colin Powell reaffirmed the American commitment to this voluntary moratorium, indicating that no new testing would be needed anytime soon.[56] At the same time, while existing nuclear warheads have gone untested, the United States has dismantled its capacity to produce plutonium pits used in the creation of new warheads.[57] Further still, in May of 2003, the Senate ratified a treaty with Russia cutting its strategic arsenal by 75%. Such drastic cuts would almost be excusable (since strategic weapons may be of less military significance in the current threat environment), if it were not for the fact that the United States has not even retained the ability to rebuild its strategic weapons, should more become necessary again.

And yet, despite the popular concern for the lives of American troops, nuclear weapons can preempt foreign threats without risking a single American life. Many will recoil at the prospect of nuclear preemption, but only because they fail to grasp that the responsibility for deaths in a war of self-defense –no matter how many–rests with the aggressor nation. Furthermore, since the mere credible threat of nuclear preemption may be capable of forcing the hand of aggressor nations, a nuclear arsenal could resolve conflicts entirely bloodlessly. But this is only if the threat of preemption is credible: it cannot be if the actual physical arsenal is known to be in a state of disrepair, and if the moral outlook of a government prevents even the contemplation of the use of that arsenal.

In the event that the threat of preemption does not force the hand of an aggressor, military experts may judge a preemptive nuclear strike to be necessary. And should it be necessary, we may lament the innocent deaths. But we should consider which is worse: a quick and decisive end to hostilities, or the long, drawn out threat that the aggressive nation might pose for years to come. In the long run, the great number of lives saved–especially the number of American lives saved–by the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was indisputably great. The same may be true today, considering that the threat we are attempting to eliminate is not a mere conventional standing army, but governments that are working to acquire the capability to destroy our cities with WMD.

Fortunately, the Bush administration has taken three limited steps to improve our shameful decline in nuclear preparedness. The first of these was the announcement in December 2002 of a new national security strategy, calling for the pre-emptive use of “overwhelming force”–including “all options”–in order to prevent an enemy from using weapons of mass destruction.[58] Shortly thereafter, Bush announced the second point: the intention to develop an anti-ballistic missile shield, which, if successful, would not only protect the American homeland from incoming warheads, but make it easier for the United States to undertake preemptive strikes without fear of retaliation.[59] Finally, in February of 2003, Bush announced his intention to develop a new generation of “mini-nukes,” tactical weapons that could deliver low-yield nuclear explosions deep inside underground bunkers, in order to eliminate enemy stocks of WMD.[60] Later in May, the Congress followed through with Bush’s request, by repealing a ban that would have made research into new nuclear weapons illegal.

Critics of each of these measures have argued that they would “lower the threshold” for the use of nuclear weapons. But this is precisely the point. The threshold needs to be lowered, because the threshold for aggression against the United States has also been lowered–as witness September 11th.

Although the Bush administration has taken concrete steps toward raising the American nuclear profile, and improving military readiness and deployment, in general, it has a long way to go. To begin it will need to use these improvements in an appropriate way. As we argued, it has not done this. And no matter how ingenious the plans adopted by the Pentagon to reconfigure the American protective shield, the soft underbelly of American security will always be its acceptance of an undue moral obligation: the idea that the United States government exists, not to defend its own citizens, but strangers abroad. A truly efficient military is one that fights with a conviction of the justice of self-defense. The Bush administration has, so far, failed to instill this conviction.


[55] “U.S. planning historic shift abroad.” MSNBC report. June 2, 2003 <>.

[56] “U.S. won’t resume nuclear tests for now.” Associate Press report. August 7, 2003 .

[57] Frank J. Gaffney, Jr. “Nuclear Meltdown.” January 7, 2003 .

[58] “Pre-emptive strikes part of U.S. strategic doctrine.” Washington Post. December 11, 2002 <

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