Commentary Magazine

Can America Win the Next War?, by Drew Middleton

Can America Win the Next War?
by Drew Middleton.
Scribners. 271 pp. $8.95.

It is time, once again, to think about the next war. It has been at least ten years since it was possible to have a public discussion of this issue; John F. Kennedy was the last President to lead one. President Johnson became involved in a war which he found hard to defend, President Nixon was preoccupied with getting us out of a war he found hard to explain. The widespread and understandable repugnance to Vietnam has put military policy, except for sporadic debates over the size of the military budget, into the background. But the increased precariousness of Israel and the unknown dimensions of our present and future commitments there and elsewhere make it essential that we think seriously about the kind of war we are prepared to fight.

Such a discussion will not be easy. The Indochina quagmire has left most Americans with no stomach for this kind of debate. And who will lead it is far from clear. During the nation’s rearmament in the 1950′s and again during the rethinking of our strategic posture in the early 1960′s, the principal voices were those of military heroes who defended, in books and speeches, alternative views of what the national interest required—Curtis LeMay, James M. Gavin, Maxwell Taylor, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Vietnam produced no military heroes—in the public eye, at least—and hence no public military spokesman attempting to draw for the future the lessons of that struggle. Inside the service academies and the war colleges, however, the discussion is intense. This country has, after all, probably the largest cadre of young, battle-tested professional military officers and noncoms of any major power in the world today. Many are articulate and well-educated, yet their voices are muted and public attention is elsewhere.

It remains, thus, for public figures, such as James Schlesinger, or journalists, such as Drew Middleton, to speak for them. The Middleton book, though not profound or systematic, is informative, challenging, and sober: an excellent place to begin.

Beginning means moving beyond the abstract and rather empty discussion over the absolute size of the military budget or the alleged machinations of the “military-industrial complex.” However much the generals and aircraft manufacturers might wish it otherwise, there is not much evidence that they have been able to dominate decision-making over military-force levels. The defense budget has declined, both as a percentage of the total federal budget and as a percentage of the Gross National Product, steadily since 1968—the peak of our Vietnam involvement. The research-and-development budget has been, in real dollars, more or less flat for many years. Increases in the dollar amount of the military budget have largely been the result of inflation and mandated increases in military pay, not of increases in the size or weaponry of the armed forces. Indeed, if one compares the exponential growth in social expenditures with the stagnant or declining defense expenditures, one would find more evidence of a “welfare-educational complex” than of a military-industrial one.

The periodic congressional disputes over proposed new weapons systems—the ABM, the B-1 bomber, the Trident submarine missile—are important exceptions to the general public indifference to questions of military posture, but valuable as they are, they do not go to the most relevant issues. The ABM, Trident, and the B-l are primarily strategic weapons, chiefly of significance for what Middleton calls a “Class A war”—an all-out battle between the Soviet Union and the United States—and what most other people call, not quite correctly, the “unthinkable” war. What is far more likely, and in fact has occurred with unhappy regularity, is “Class B wars” (limited though intense engagements fought over the autonomy of an ally, such as South Korea or South Vietnam) or “Class C wars” (low-intensity struggles involving guerrillas, coups d’état, and economic blockades, as in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Portugal, Angola, Nigeria, the Congo, and elsewhere). We have had two major Class B wars and had to confront countless and seemingly endless Class C conflicts. There is little reason to suppose that we will not be drawn into more, however we define our interests.

Our commitments and our military posture with respect to potential B and C conflicts are scarcely discussed publicly at all, even though our experience in these matters is great and our vulnerability to more such experiences is substantial. The military is itself divided, often deeply, along lines formed principally by the prior combat experience of the various advocates. The battleship admirals ruled the navy until World War II; then the aircraft-carrier admirals came to the fore and now they dominate navy planning. But is the carrier hopelessly vulnerable to the sophisticated and extensive Soviet anti-submarine force? If it is not, is a carrier force still necessary for Class B engagements in which Soviet forces are not committed?

Before World War II, the army was dominated by infantry generals; during that war, the tank and airborne commanders rose greatly in prominence owing to their dramatic achievements; during Vietnam, tanks and paratroopers were of little importance and the combat helicopter became the dominant mode of troop deployment. But all the elements—soldiers, tanks, paratroopers, helicopters—operated during World War II and Vietnam under the shield of invincible air superiority.

That can no longer be taken for granted. In a Class A war in Europe we could not count on air superiority; indeed, we would be fortunate if we did not have to concede the air entirely to the Soviets. In the Middle East, control of the air is threatened less, for example, by the Syrian air force than by the extensive, and during the Yom Kippur war, successful use of surface-to-air missiles that made life for the fighter-bombers quite difficult. Those same weapons, in addition to the existence of powerful air forces in the area, render the prospects of helicopter assaults far bleaker than they were in Vietnam. In rugged terrain, a helicopter, like a tank, can hide “in the nap of the earth,” partially neutralizing rival aircraft and anti-aircraft weapons. But in the deserts of the Middle East, the earth has no nap. The skilled commanders of the air-mobile divisions who learned their trade in Vietnam may not be ready for the kind of warfare to be encountered in the Sinai.

The Yom Kippur war was also the first major revelation of the power of “smart” weapons—guided weapons operated by soldiers, pilots, and tank crews that were so accurate and devastating that one shot often meant one kill. In World War II, combat was extremely inefficient: the proportion of bullets and bombs that accurately found their mark was infinitesimal. Indeed, a major training problem for combat commanders was to induce their soldiers to shoot often enough to increase the probability that they would eventually hit something. Combat can now be more precise, more deadly, and thus more costly. Middleton estimates that in only sixteen days of fighting, the Israelis, Egyptians, and Syrians destroyed about $3.5 billion worth of arms and supplies as a result, in large part, of the increased accuracy and hitting power of modern weapons.

These facts change importantly the problem of battlefield resupply. The staggering rate at which materiel will be consumed means that much more has to be immediately available at or very near the battlefield and that a large airlift capacity must exist for quickly re-supplying the war theater. During the Yom Kippur war, the C-5 aircraft—previously detested by critics of the Pentagon because of the great cost overruns encountered in its development—carried 74 tons of payload per plane per trip, stopping to refuel in the Azores. It proved invaluable, but there are only four squadrons of C-5′s in the United States air force. If for political reasons we are denied the use of the Azores (we currently retain some access but the issue remains in doubt), the C-5′s could still make it to Israel flying nonstop, but their payloads would be cut by more than half. In-flight refueling is a possibility, but our total long-range airlift capability remains dangerously low, given the magnitude of our overseas commitments.

Middleton reviews these and many other aspects of American and Soviet military doctrine and preparedness. Though the longtime military correspondent of the New York Times, he is by no means a mere enthusiast for the armed forces. He is critical of many current practices: the location of the Seventh Army in Europe (he believes it should be there, but north of its present location); the heavy reliance on large carriers; the lack of attention to reducing the vulnerability of tanks to counterattacks; and the continued belief of the USAF in the capacity of air power despite the evidence of Israel, Korea, and Vietnam that air power, while often important in close tactical support of infantry, has been able to do relatively little to interdict supply flows, seal off the battlefield, or destroy the enemy’s will to fight.

Nor has he produced a scare story about the awesomeness of Soviet military might. The Russians, though more fully mobilized than we, have problems as well. The maneuverability of their navy is limited by its need to move into the Atlantic and Mediterranean oceans by way of narrow and vulnerable passages around the North Cape and through the Dardanelles. The Soviets in Europe must rely on their satellite nations whose will to fight and whole loyalty are open to serious doubt. Their military-transport system in Europe is heavily dependent on rail movement which is inflexible and easily congested. Unit for unit, Soviet air power has not proved of the same quality as the American. Perhaps most important, the Soviets have not had any serious combat experience since World War II, while their American rivals have gone through two major wars and many skirmishes. Middleton quotes a Soviet colonel as saying that “you are two wars ahead of us.”

But the American weaknesses are even more obvious. NATO is in disarray. When asked by Middleton on whom the United States could count in Europe, a senior American NATO commander replied, “The British, of course, and the Germans.” The “of course” implies not only a salute to well-established British valor but also the admission of a doubt about how far the valor would extend. English soldiers are superb, but they are few in number and supported by an economy that seems on the verge of collapse. Furthermore, Western Europe cares nothing for the American commitment to Israel or, more accurately, fears that it will complicate efforts to do business with the Arabs—at any price. Turkey, Greece, Spain, and Portugal are all uncertain NATO allies.

These facts are important even if there is never a Soviet attack on Western Europe. To defend our interests in the Middle East, we must be able to base troops in and around the Mediterranean. The C-5 can resupply forces in a short war but not in a long one. And our Mediterranean position is perilous. Even the C-5, it would appear, will not be allowed to land on the airfields of our European “allies” if its destination is Tel Aviv and if the Arabs object.



Middleton’s book is not simply or even mainly about our military commitments to and preparedness for a war in the Middle East. I select for special attention his comments on these matters because, to me, we are more deeply, though ambiguously, engaged in that theater than in any other save Western Europe. And whereas the threat of war in Europe is currently small, the threat in the Middle East is great. But I emphasize the Middle East for other reasons as well. Were it not for the importance and vulnerability of Israel, the intellectual and political attack on the American military that reached its peak toward the end of the Vietnam war would be more intense than is now the case with, in my opinion, seriously adverse effects.

The issue is not whether Vietnam and Israel are comparable cases, or whether the critics of Vietnam have been inconsistent in attacking our commitment in the former case and defending it in the latter. History rarely offers precisely analogous cases and people are entitled to reach different judgments about comparable events. The issue is more fundamental. Military power is hard to create, easy to dissipate. That power consists not only of personnel and equipment (which take time and effort to assemble) but of public acceptance of the need for that power and public willingness to see it employed when vital interests are at stake. This last, the political and psychological component of military power, is the most fragile and is currently the least dependable of factors.



Vietnam did not cripple the men and materiel of the armed forces, though its aftermath did produce precipitous reductions in their strength. What it did produce was, in Middleton’s words, a rich democracy “whose people are disillusioned by their most recent experience in war and whose leaders hesitate, because of political expediency, to explain the magnitude of the threat to the country.” No one can be confident that we have any longer the will to support our foreign policy with military force. If we do not, then we do not have a foreign policy.

And though it is entirely proper for there to be serious debates over the wisdom of our commitments in Southeast Asia, Israel, Europe, and elsewhere, we should not implement whatever reservations we may have by weakening our military power unless we are to conclude that we have no national interests at all, not even in our own survival. The existence of military force has not caused us to enter wars; reducing that force will not make it less likely that we will have to fight them.

About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.