There’s nothing military men like more than obsessively training for wars they will never have to fight. The trick is not to stumble into a conflict that no one will win.
The most senior officers and sergeants refer to them as the "good old days." The Cold War era, that is. I can still hear their repetitive platitudes. Back then, at least, we knew who the enemy was, there were front lines, and we understood our mission. America looked strong as our tanks and planes patrolled the line dividing Central Europe between its Soviet and Western spheres. It’s odd, in a way, to romanticize a period when the world so often stood at the brink of nuclear annihilation.
Then again, the sentiment is understandable. For years and years, decades even, young soldiers trained hard, never had to actually fight, and could spend their weekends drinking Bavarian beer. Compared to the countless deployments and tens of thousands of post-9/11 casualties in today’s U.S. military, there’s something rather appealing in that old scenario. Best part was, that despite bluster from the likes of President Reagan about the Soviet’s "evil empire," the all-out Communist assault on Western Europe was never coming. Truth is, serious scholars and analysts know it now, and the most erudite knew it then. Now, after 17 years of ongoing brushfire wars in the Greater Middle East, many senior military folks seem poised to get back what they’re good at: prepping for wars they’ll (hopefully) never have to fight.
There’s lots of talk around Washington and in the Pentagon these days about how and why the US military must extricate from its various small wars in the Mideast and "pivot" to a focus on "Great Power" conflict. Heck, Trump’s National Security Strategy lays it out quite clearly. The administration calls the policy "principled realism" – which sounds great – but let’s call it what it really is: a new strategy to pressure and contain four key global "adversaries" – Russia, Iran, China, and North Korea.
While I’m 100% onboard with de-escalation in Southwest Asia, some of the bellicose rhetoric about renewed "Great Power" competition is troubling. My fear is that as the military, especially the army, positions itself for major war with heavyweight powers, it – and its commander-in-chief – might just be foolish enough to think they can or should actually fight one. That’s a terrifying thought because the truth is everyone, all sides, would lose in a major regional or global war.
See, the Cold War military – with the exception of its ill-advised interventions in Korea and Vietnam – knew its role: to train, prepare, but probably never actually fight (at least not the Russians). Problem is, this military, the one I’ve served in, thinks hot war is normal. It’s all we’ve done for almost two decades! Today’s generals, and their civilian chiefs, might just be crazy enough to think we oughta actually duke it out with a major power. Someone needs to explain to these guys the old-school rules of big-boy, modern conflict: we pretend to be prepared for an attack, they (our "adversaries") pretend one is coming! You’re not supposed to actually fight one of these things out!
Crazy part is, I’m only half-kidding. Sarcasm aside, though, over my next several articles at Antiwar.com, I’ll look at the four areas where Washington is ramping up its military presence and pugnacious language, and just why war is a terrible option to be avoided at all costs.
This week: Russia. Putin. They’re on the tip of everyone’s tongues lately, especially those of the alarmists over at MSNBC. We’re told they’re on the move everywhere, seeking dominance in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Caucasus, even the Middle East. Everyone laughed when candidate Romney called Russia America’s greatest security threat, but given the tone in Washington these days, old Mitt seems vindicated.
In response to supposed Russian aggression, the US military has started forward deploying modest-sized units to the Baltic States, Poland, Romania, and other old Warsaw Pact borderlands. We’re also told the US must stay put, indefinitely, in the Syrian debacle, in order to deter Russia. Sounds a lot like the Cold War 2.0. But is that really in US interests, and, is it warranted?
No doubt, the US military must be prepared to back its key allies in Europe and, in an emergency, check Russian attacks on partners or the homeland itself. Still, a little perspective is in order.
If Russia were after world domination, they’ve made a paltry effort so far. Every single recent Russian conflict has been fought on soil that was only recently part of the Soviet Union or where (as in Syria) they’ve long had a military base. That’s right, none of this "aggression" has come near to any classical NATO territory. Let’s review the record of actual military events (leaving the cyber-attacks, alleged collusion and election meddling to the nightly rants of Rachel Maddow):
- A flawed "victory" in a short war with Georgia (Stalin’s birthplace), which left the state independent but exposed many shortfalls in the Russian army.
- A series of long, bloody wars to suppress Islamist and separatists insurgents within the Russian Federation province of Chechnya. And don’t forget, Russia is still concerned about jihadism within and along its southern border.
- Direct and proxy- interventions in Ukraine and the seizure of Crimea, after the USbacked the overthrow of a flawed but elected and sovereign president, in what amounted to a local coup. As for the Crimean annexation, most locals desired it and Crimea was historically part of Russia. It’s not that I love all these Russian decisions, but let’s call a spade a spade.
- An ongoing intervention to prop up Bashar al-Assad and secure its only naval base on the Mediterranean Sea, a base it has long possessed, in the country of an ally it has long had. Not exactly revisionism, this. Besides, Syria is just as likely to turn into a quagmire and a nightmare for Russia. Let them have that mess.
And, well, that’s about it. It’s not that US and Russian interests are always aligned. It’s not that the US should never contest expansion of Russian influence. Rather, the point is that the threat from the Russian Bear is overhyped and not worth a potentially nuclear war. Russia has one aircraft carrier, spends a fraction of what the US does on its military, is facing a demographic crisis (high death and low birth rates, plus a shrinking ethnic Russian percentage of the population), and has an economy about the size of Spain or Italy.
To stir up the controversy a bit more, consider the possibility that Russia’s got some genuine gripes, too. After the Cold War, the USbroke its promise not to expand NATO into Eastern Europe. Instead, it absorbed nearly the whole region and even some former Soviet Republics (i.e. the Baltic States). The US intervened repeatedly in the Balkans, bombing Russia’s Serbian allies, and recognizing the unilaterally declared independence of what amounts to a flawed Kosovar state. The US has militarily invaded country after country to Russia’s south – places much closer to Moscow than to Milwaukee – and destabilized an entire region. Look, the US isn’t always evil, but neither is Russia always wrong.
So here’s my best strategic prediction: Russia’s army is not planning an invasion of central Europe or the destruction of NATO. It has neither power, intent, nor capacity to do so. What they do have is lots of tanks, lots of planes, and lots of nukes. We do not want a shooting war with these guys and have little strategic interest in doing so. It’s all risk no reward.
So, America’s generals, admirals, and civilian policymakers: plan and train away. Relive the "good old days" of Cold War glory. But please, be smart, show some maturity, and don’t start a war with Russia that everyone will lose.
Danny Sjursen is a US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US government.]
Copyright 2018 Danny Sjursen