By Nader Elhefnawy
Neoconservative Max Boot's 2002 book The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power, a self-described history of America's "small wars" intended to sell the idea that empire is feasible and worthwhile, depicts a few thousand American soldiers, sailors and marines venturing out, pacifying a country in short order, and going home time and time again.
When I first read it, something seemed off about Boot's analysis. He made it seem too easy, and the events of recent years have helped clarify why that was. In the operations Boot describes, U.S. objectives were very limited, quashing an immediate, perceived threat, and otherwise leaving the countries much as they were, so that American forces were likely to return again in the not-too-distant future to do it all over again. By contrast, "proper" nation-building today entails the setting up of a stable government and functioning economy, then leaving with little expectation of a near-term redux.1
In short, territorial occupations are expected to accomplish far more than before. Of course, advocates of such operations point to the cases of Germany and Japan in the post-World War II period. However, these were anomalous in already having been economically viable industrial states, with significant, recent experience of modern civil society and democracy, and a high degree of ethnic homogeneity, eliminating the danger that ethnic or sectarian tensions would exert centrifugal forces in a moment of weakness. In short, it was a matter of getting the country up and running again, rather than building up what was never there in the first place (or dismantling what was there before and building up something entirely new), a much taller order.
The occupations of the immediate post-war period (of which the occupations of Germany and Japan were a part) represent exceptional rather than typical cases. U.S.-led occupations in Western Europe and Northeast Asia during those years represent six of the seven successful occupations that David Edelstein found out of a total of twenty-four he studied.2 A critical factor appears to have been the occupier's guarantee of the occupied nation's security against an external threat, specifically the Soviet Union, which quelled internal opposition.3 In other words, the rapid onset of the Cold War following the end of World War II created unique opportunities which are unlikely to recur in the foreseeable future.
Many observers also forget just how demanding the occupations were. The American presence in West Germany alone (and it should be remembered that there were also British and French zones) involved four hundred thousand troops. The U.S. occupation of Japan involved an even larger number of soldiers, four hundred and fifty thousand at its height--approximately one soldier for every 180 Japanese citizens.
Meanwhile, a number of developments have made occupation more rather than less difficult. Several of them have to do with changes in the countries to be garrisoned themselves, related to their modernization:
* Demographic expansion.
* Social mobilization.
Put simply, the populations to be administered and policed in the course of an occupation are larger; and are concentrated in much more complex environments. To give but one example, the population of Baghdad expanded twenty times between 1932 and 2006, producing a metropolis sprawling over some three hundred square miles, and containing seven million people.
That same urbanization, as well as higher levels of education, and greater access to media in virtually all locations, results in a population that is at least potentially more engaged politically, with predictable results. Moreover, all of these count for more in an age where conflict is characterized less by "industrial war" than "war amongst the people," to use General Rupert Smith's terms.4 Battlefield decisions count for far less, as do arms in general, these becoming more clearly just a way of creating conditions in which other "means and levers of power" can be brought to bear to produce the results. And given how slowly those levers work, conflicts "tend to be timeless, even unending."
All of this comes just as a number of other factors have combined to make it more difficult for the major military powers (and especially the developed states) to raise the kinds of military forces needed for long-term occupation:
* Again, demographics, or the graying of populations. Smaller youth cohorts mean smaller (relative) pools of manpower from which to draw armies. This trend is globally evident, but most advanced in North America, Europe, Russia, East Asia and Australasia, the regions containing the countries with the bulk of the world's military capability, and also the ones most likely to stage such interventions-with the countries where interventions are most likely usually in earlier stages of the process, resulting in a significant disparity.5
* Professionalization. The claim that modern armies can only be professional armies is an old one. Basil Liddell Hart made it after World War I, and again after World War II.6 He was proven wrong each time, but it may be that the claim is more valid today. Professional forces are necessarily smaller forces.
* Diminished civic militarism. This extends not only to the willingness to serve in the armed forces, but the willingness to pay for large defense establishments, or politically support operations, particularly when they are messy, lengthy and open-ended. That those operations are much less likely to relate to traditional territorial defense, and more likely to consist of constabulry missions, also makes such operations less gratifying to traditional patriotism, so that this is not simply a function of more pacifistic culture.7
* The "rising cost of war." As societies develop, they afford more (and often more attractive) career opportunities in civilian life to the ambitious. Nonetheless, this is offset somewhat by the reality of high structural unemployment and underemployment, especially among the young.
* Task specialization. It is arguable that there is an increasing divergence between the kind of army necessary for fighting and winning conventional conflicts; and one that might be effective at the tasks entailed by occupation duty. (Modern conventional forces have high support-to-combat ratios, and an emphasis on high-performance equipment of marginal value to such operations, for instance.) Responding to this reality, strategist Thomas Barnett has gone so far as to suggest the U.S. develop two, different forces (the "Leviathan" and "SysAdmin" forces, respectively), one for each task.8
Some observers will also point to the pressure on militaries to preserve their forces, and the enlarged role of the media. It is likely the case that the sensitivity to casualties has been exaggerated in the past, and that the same goes for the scrutiny to which the media subject such operations.9 Nonetheless, these too are factors, despite the exaggerations.
In short, there are very considerable, structural reasons why occupations have become more difficult, and the plain and simple truth is that there is no tactical, technological or political "silver bullet" which will resolve those difficulties. The only reasonable response for the foreseeable future is the recognition of the limits of military power in general, and in particular the capacity of even the strongest military powers to perform these sorts of missions. This means not undertaking given missions with unrealistic ideas about the size or length of the commitments they entail if they are to be done right, or overselling what occupations can do, in the course of moving toward a sounder balance between means and ends.
1 Incidentally, this was never an object for the British Empire (so often held up as a model imperialist by neoconservatives like Boot, and Niall Ferguson), which was ready to go to the greater lengths of permanently garrisoning its possessions and in cases, transplanting significant numbers of colonists.
2 The sole exception was France after the end of the Napoleonic wars. David M. Edelstein, "Occupational Hazards: Why Military Occupations Succeed or Fail," International Security 29.1 (Summer 2004), pp. 49-91.
3 Edelstein, p. 81.
4 The core of this argument can be found in chapter seven of Smith's The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), pp. 269-307. You can also find it summed up in my review of the book for the journal Strategic Insights, which you can access here.
5 In 1950 the developed states accounted for about a third of the world's population; today they account for less than a fifth, with most of the world's population growth continuing in poorer and less developed states.
6 See Liddell Hart, Paris, or the Future of War (New York: Garland, 1925); Liddell Hart, Defence of the West: Some Riddles of War and Peace (London: Cassell, 1950).
7 One can also argue that where civic militarism has not decreased, it has been redefined, Andrew Bacevich arguing that militarism has actually risen in American society in recent decades, pointing to a shift from an emphasis on service to politically "supporting the troops." See Bacevich, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced By War (New York: Oxford, 2005)
8 See Thomas P.M. Barnett, Blueprint for Action (New York: Berkeley, 2006).
9 As Martin Van Creveld recently put it, "'media' has become an excuse for failure." See Van Creveld, The Changing Face of War: Lessons of Combat From the Marne to Iraq (New York: Ballantine, 2007), p. 217.