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The limitations of Military Power

The Limitations of Military Power                    Gerry O'Shea

General Dwight  Eisenhower led the Allies to victory over the Nazis in the Second World War. Later he was elected president twice, in 1952 and 1956. In his farewell address to the American people in January 1961, before President Kennedy took over in the White House, he warned about the growing power of what he called the military-industrial complex. He feared that the clout of the big armaments corporations  combined with a powerful and ambitious military establishment  could lead America into a state of senseless permanent war.

America's defense spending is larger than the next seven countries in the world combined. We have by far the most sophisticated weaponry and the best-trained personnel. Politics is always about power and certainly, the United States, the country with the most tanks and rockets, has a significant advantage in international power games.

The tragedy of 9/11 demanded some commensurate revenge against those who financed, planned and carried out this outrage in the very heart of the homeland. America could not be seen as just a paper tiger. So we launched a major invasion of Iraq, a country that played no part in the attack on the Twin Towers. Our leaders with the unfortunate approval of British prime minister, Tony Blair, falsely claimed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and we invaded Iraq and, as a consequence, destabilized the whole Middle East.

Close to 5000 American soldiers and over half a million Iraqis were killed so far since that invasion in 2003. The Defense Secretary at that time, Donald Rumsfeld,  and the vice-president, Dick Cheney promised that with our massive force and state-of -the art military technology the invasion would be successfully complete in a few months. We are still there and finding it very difficult to extricate our forces. Forget about winning.

Shades of Eisenhower's permanent war, especially when you add in the related and equally-disastrous conflict in Afghanistan. Have we learned that using massive firepower in tribal societies is doomed to failure and will assuredly leave many angry and vengeful native people, fertile recruits for Islamic and other extremist groups?

We are in a standoff confrontation with North Korea. They can't come near to matching  the sophistication of American weaponry, but, they have sixty nuclear warheads which,  guided by a ballistic missile,  could reach targets in the United States. The political leaders of both parties in Washington agree that this situation is unacceptable, but what to do about it presents the military and  political leadership with  a  complex conundrum.

 America could try to destroy the missile sites with a "shock and awe" bombardment  using  conventional weapons and, indeed, this seems to be the option that  President Trump and Defense Secretary Mattis  favor, but such action would certainly start a major conflict in Korea with the likelihood of massive numbers of civilian deaths in Seoul and beyond. It would be difficult to prevent such a war from escalating to a nuclear confrontation.

Furthermore, it is likely that North Korea has missile launching areas hidden inside mountains and in similarly impenetrable terrain. Some military experts argue very cogently that we could only deal with these hidden silos  by a land invasion with the consequent probability of another jungle war like Vietnam.

There is no quick solution to the Korean crisis. Isolating  Kim Jong Un and tightening sanctions against his regime are laudable actions but very unlikely to persuade Pyongyang  to give up their nuclear weapons. President Trump's denigrating personal comments about the Korean leader and his threats of military action only heighten tensions and feed Kim's paranoia and volatility. The hostile and belligerent rhetoric between these two leaders  - the nuclear buttons on my desk are away more powerful than your button! -  combined with personal insults  could so easily  lead to unintended war, and the international consequences of a conflagration in the Korean peninsula would be disastrous.

After the military victory in the European war against Hitler, President Truman with Secretary of State Marshall and General Eisenhower decided to pour billions into reconstructing the broken infrastructure  in Europe, including in enemy countries at that time like West Germany and Italy. This magnanimous policy earned plaudits from most world leaders and placed America in a leadership position in Western Europe which it still holds today.

The soft power of diplomacy and moral leadership which America showed in post-war Europe and elsewhere is called for in this Korean crisis. There is no military solution; it should be taken off the table. Instead a mature approach centered on deterrence and containment must be used in dealing with the Pyongyang regime.


Gerry O'Shea blogs at





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