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Robert Neer: U.S. Military History, Part 2

by Robert Neer
April 26, 2018

This interview with Robert Neer, a professor and scholar of U.S. Military History, was conducted and condensed by Tatti Ribeiro for frank news. This is part 2 of an ongoing conversation. 

Part 2.

We can think about how we got here, and what some of the driving factors for that were.

This is an illustration of why it's helpful to study the broad sweep of U.S. military power and U.S. military successes and failures.

For most of the country's history, the military has had an almost uninterrupted string of successes. One victory after another, from early struggles against the Native Americans, to the revolution, to the War of 1812, and straight through. I mean the power that defines itself as the United States, won in the Civil War and continued on to victory in World War I and World War II, and had an extraordinary series of successes. More recently that hasn't been the case. We mentioned Vietnam before, but even prior to that, the Korean War produced ultimately a kind of stalemate. And it included arguably the worst defeat of the U.S. military since the revolution, which was the Chinese surprise attack on MacArthur's army that produced this devastating retreat, and terrible, terrible conditions for the U.S. soldiers in the northern part of Korea. 

When you have a combination of wars that don't produce unambiguous victories - and I think I would include the second invasion of Iraq, the current fighting in Afghanistan, and this sort of amorphous global campaign against affiliates or sympathizers of al-Qaida, which is authorized under the resolution passed by Congress after 9/11 - none of those conflicts seem to be producing a kind of clear victory, where the other side signs a document, and a new political order can be imposed, and a new economic system imposed. So if the military doesn't, or can't produce unambiguous victories like that, and yet the country continues to fund it on a sort of historical understanding that those victories are what helped to make us so powerful, and wealthy, and filled with so much promise and achievement.Then as that gap widens you may see stresses start to emerge that will affect everybody in the whole society.

Another historical parallel which bears study, and which could be relevant is that we were recently treated to the example of a superpower which became militarily overextended.

It neglected its domestic economy because of the requirement that it imposed upon itself of providing a great deal of funding to its military power, and ultimately collapsed in a political convulsion, which wasn't a war like a civil war, but was tremendously impactful to the people who lived there - which was the Soviet Union. I don't perceive any direct parallel between the Soviet Union after the fall of the Berlin Wall and its empire and so forth in the contemporary United States. I'm just saying that that's an instance in which you had a very powerful country which was regarded over history for numerous military successes, and then found that to be unsustainable and had a dramatic kind of consequence.

Where does our history suggest we are going, militarily?

Bodies in motion tend to stay in motion, and bodies at rest tend to stay at rest. There is a new direction of the current U.S. military which is bigger, better, stronger, faster. The course that I teach, the last lecture that I give I call, To The Ends Of The Earth, and I think if you look at the broad sweep of U.S. history as I said, it's one of general military success.

As far as I can tell the Europeans hit the beaches at Cape Cod in Virginia, and they started fighting, and they kept expanding and growing, and they've been fighting ever since.

If you want to understand the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, the places where the drones and the Special Forces are implementing U.S. power, there is a continuing arc that you can trace of expansion and military power, which we've run continuously from that early time, all the way to the present. And it will continue to grow until it's checked.

Countries that are allied with the United States, systems of government, the acceptance of market economies, a global financial system where you can transfer funds from one country to another and everybody sort of treats them in general in the same way -  these kinds of systems are reflections in part of military success. And if that military success is becoming more tenuous for a whole variety of reasons, that will have consequences which are still being played out

The coming decades will be a real challenge for the United States, relative to the kinds of expansion and the way that it was able to militarily triumph over all opponents in the 19th century.

Is there a clear version of success in the conflicts we're currently engaged in?

I think war is a tragedy. General Sherman who was one of the Union's greatest generals, and very familiar with war, described it as hell, he said, "War is hell". I find that very powerful and useful in the way that I think about our military past.

I mean it is just an absolutely devastating, disastrous state of the human condition. But having said that, it is characteristic of human society for all of recorded history.

And it has profound, profound consequences on people who experience it directly, but also people who are influenced by it. 

Of course everything has got two sides. So one side's victory is another side's defeat, one side's tremendous success is another side's devastating failure. So I'm just describing this from the perspective of the United States, and that cuts to the situation that I described at the beginning, which is that the United States as a national entity, in general for most of its past, has been one of victories or successes as they are defined militarily. What those look like is a situation in which the defeated party stopped resisting and allows the victorious party to impose its will to a greater or lesser degree.

The Vietnam war I think is a pretty conclusive defeat for the United States.

People will argue that it really wasn't a defeat, that the United States just didn't try hard enough, that we could have won if we had tried harder. I find those analyses to be actually a little bit disrespectful for the Americans who fought there because, actually, they did everything that they could. They fought as much as they could. And the reason they didn't do more was because they were constrained. I mean if America had used nuclear weapons against North Vietnam, maybe that would have produced a use of nuclear weapons by China against the United States, or by the Russians against the United States. I mean there were risks and reasons that the people who were fighting that war didn't fight it in other ways.

The conflicts that we're talking about now have been more tenuous. So the conclusion of the Iraq War was quite unambiguous initially with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and ultimately his execution.That's about as sort of unambiguous as you can get when the guy is hanging. But as a practical matter, the ambitions of the United States that I described before, which was at least stated by the president, a "wholesale reconstruction of the Middle East on political and economic terms", certainly didn't happen. And the cost of the war was great.