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Lawrence R. Velvel: On Fighting Wars You Can't Win

Re: We Fight And Lose Wars In Which We Cannot,
Dare Not, Use Our Major Advantages.

From: Dean Lawrence R. Velvel
April 18, 2007

For several years I have take the position
That fundamentally America wins wars in only one situation.
It wins only when the war is all-out, full scale, full bore:
When, in the 20th Century, it was World War.
Those are the only wars that give full scope, you see,
To our advantages of population size, advanced, and always advancing technology.
Oh, yes, there is often the small Latin American adventure military
Where we (boasting of our power -- can you believe it?) invade and take over a Grenada or Panama or Haiti.
There was even a quick and dirty war in 1990 against Iraq,
Then claimed to be a significant power -- what a crock! --
Which we won by size, speed and advanced technology
That caused the inept Iraq army to flee
While we continued destroying it on its road back,
As we had destroyed Germans at the Falaise Gap
(Though not enough of them),
Or as Israel had destroyed Egyptians in the desert in the Six Day War
When the Arabs had yet again wanted to create a Palestine safe only for the Moor.
So there have been what some could claim a crucial exception
To an idea that might otherwise find greater reception:
The idea that fundamentally,
And at least after the first ten years of the 20th Century,
America has found military success
Only when able to make full use of our abundance, our national largesse,
In population size and technology --
A phenomenon that in reality began in 1861
And enabled us to succeed by 1865 and then in World War I,
Not to mention World War II.
The converse, which the pols, media and vox populi have never fully grasped in every dimension
Relates to non use of the full power in our possession:
We are courting defeat or at best a draw when we choose
To fight a war in which, for whatever reason, we cannot use
The full plentitude of our ability
To take actions leading to victory.
That, dear reader, is the precise block
Which led to unsatisfactory results in Korea, Viet Nam and now Iraq.

One has little doubt that the jingoes likely are right
Who said, and now again say, we could have won had we chosen to fight
With all the men and weapons at our command.
But to do so would for one reason or another have been crazy, would have been insanity
Because the stakes were too low, or the risks too high, despite the inanity
Given false voice by the likes of Johnson, Nixon or Bush,
Evil men who were in a rush to get us into wars we could not win,
And the same was true -- although he had more important reasons -- of the estimable Truman.

Has it occurred to you that it is very strange
That now we are desperately short of men when success (if possible) would require enough troops to range
Across the length and breadth of Iraq,
In Baghdad and other cities to be on every block;
Strange that a nation that now has three hundred million people is exceedingly pressed,
That a nation which spends over $400 billion a year on the military is greatly stressed,
To put even 150,000 troops in-country?
And that to do even this we must accede to the horrid Bush-driven urge
To keep the same men and women there even longer or for more tours of duty to accommodate Bush’s surge?
Is it not odd that a nation of 300 million cannot find the 750,000 probably needed even to hope to achieve
American success in a war claimed so vital that Iraq we dare not leave?
In World War II our forces were at least ten million
In a country that then had only 14 percent, not 30 percent, of a billion.
Does it not strike you as having been equally strange
That in the Viet Nam War -- one of whose progenitor’s middle name was Strange (Robert Strange McNamara, believe it or not) --
We could put in only about 550,000 men
Though our people were already 180 or 200 million or more even then,
And victory was claimed essential or we would again and again
Have to fight the Reds lest they in triumph go
From Viet Nam to Laos to the Philippines to Japan to Hawaii to the streets of San Francisco?
(This argument, combined with departure’s falsely claimed death of credibility, led
To another five or six years of war and another fifty thousand American dead
(Not to mention millions more Viet Namese).)
And while I don’t know how many troops we put into the Korean War,
One thing’s for sure: it wasn’t enough to defeat the enemy’s horde,
But at best only enough to obtain a draw, a standoff,
Though we by then had more citizens than in World War II and were told it was crucial to fight off
The Reds? Is this not all passing strange, surprisingly odd --
That victory is claimed vital, yet we do not flood
The zone (so to speak) with the much larger numbers needed for success,
But instead use just enough to insure a many-years-long, morale destroying mess
That, as in Nam and Iraq, last longer than World War Two?
Far longer than World War II?

These wars could be called our “savage wars of peace,”
To use Kipling’s classic phrase resonating across the years.
But unlike Victoria’s British we do not face natives armed with spears.
For us there can be no cavalry charge at Omdurman,
No slaughtering Dervishes who lack a gun,
No cynical recognition that we are better soldiers simply because we have what “uncivilized” opponents haven’t,
The idea then expressed as we have Maxims and Fuzzy Wuzzy hasn’t --
Which is not possible in an era when every home can, and in our opponents’ lands do, have a Kalashnikov,
With which our troops’ heads, arms and legs to blow off;
Not to mention the ever present shell and roadside bomb
With which our opponents imitate, and mock, fool Bush’s “Bring it on.”
One gathers that since1990 our military, and certainly Dum Rumsfeld, thought
That now our wars would successfully be fought
By new means and weapons, all high tech in highest degree,
That would make a joke of opponents’ weaponry.
We have, after all, Predators, and many Drone
And Satellite cameras allowing persons on the ground to be shown,
And guided missiles with cameras that let us see
The missile as it goes right down an Arab chimney.
And even as far back as Nam we had sensors,
To detect enemy movement on jungle floors,
Which would let us call in the B52
Which at 30,000 feet -- out of range -- flew
And for a carpet bombed mile blew
Everything into smithereens,
Creating the most ghastly scenes.
But even with all our high and ever higher tech,
Our military plans were rendered a wreck
By enemies who used not a high tech reply,
But far more basic weapons to make Americans die.
Weapons not the same as, yet comparatively not so far from, Einstein’s statement of nuclear supercession of even huge conventional bombs and large shells that level homes.
“I cannot tell you what weapons the next war will be fought with,” Einstein said,
“But the one after that will be fought with sticks and stones.”
The technologically primitive: the Kalashnikov, the roadside shell and the suicide bomber
Have caused all our fancy high tech plans to come acropper.

Yet it is nonetheless hard for our American-bred minds to wrap themselves around
The idea that victory would not have been, could not now be, found
If we were to use unlimited men plus technology --
That is, to do whatever it takes to obtain victory.
But doing whatever it takes is exactly the rub you see,
Because the risks are too high, the benefits too low, and the determination of the enemy
Far too great. He fights for his country, or his religion or his revolution
Call him the North Vietnamese, the Muslim fundamentalist, or the North Korean --
With two of them helped by the Chinese and the Russians.
While to us the war is just one event among the many that are always going on,
Not important enough to create a nation in arms as we were in World War I,
And were again in World War II,
Or as the North Vietnamese later were too.
We, and our pols, are thinking about the economy or schooling or jobs or taxes or cars or houses or generally how we shall continue trying
To fulfill the fool Bush’s injunction (for purposes of not upsetting us) that we continue our normal buying.
To our opponents the war is everything,
To us it is a far smaller thing.
As well, the American people -- even the stupid reactionaries and hard liners --
Usually realize that the Johnsonian, Ruskian, Nixonian, Kissingerian, Bushian, Rumsfeldian, Wolfowitzian, McCainesque baloney is lies:
That it is false for them to claim their war is the most vital event since Nazisim was put to an end,
Most have recognized that the stakes are infinitely lower than those militaristic fools contend:
Have realized that Communism would not take over the world if we didn’t succeed in Korea or Viet Nam;
Have recognized that the fear eyed, wild eyed claims to the contrary are just a militarized scam;
And realize today that fundamentalist Islam will not prevail north, south, east and west
If insurgents in Iraq we do not best;
Which is to say that we common people always realized,
And continue today to recognize,
That the stakes have never been as high as our leaders have said, except for FDR’s anti-Nazi cry
Or Lincoln’s refusal to peacefully kiss the South goodbye.
And then too there has often been the risk that, as occurred to Europe in the summer of ’14,
All-out action by us to win could create a situation beggaring the obscene.
In Korea the Chinese came in by the hundreds of thousands and, though most Americans don’t know it, Russian pilots were piloting the Mig.
There was no telling just how big
The war could have become
Had we insisted on putting in more men until we won,
If we indeed did win. There was a fear that we might easily
Have triggered World War III.
And in Viet Nam had we put in a million or a million and a half men,
We would have risked World War III again.
Most Americans, being ignorant of history, have no idea
That the Chinese had 350,000 men or more doing things in North Viet Nam (although they mainly did not have to fight as they did in Korea),
And that our air force was fighting Russian pilots (and also Chinese ones) again,
Not just the Russians built planes and SAMs.
Much more risk and danger -- which we caused -- arose than would otherwise have been the case
When, and because, we brought what the Viets call The American War to that distant place.

When you put it all together, this is what you see:
We get into wars in which we cannot fully use our great advantage of population size,
Or make truly telling use of technology like remote eyes;
Wars in which the low tech on which the enemy is reliant
Turns us into the evil Nixon’s dreaded “pitiful, helpless giant.”
Wars in which the risks are too great and/or the benefits too low.
You would think the pols would take it slow
Before committing us to such potential disaster --
But forget it, for any sensible person would say if you asked her
That the pols -- and their brainless mass media abettors --
Are just a bunch of stupid militarized fools
Who are, however, smart enough to use the rest of us as tools
To serially conduct the military adventure, the military operation,
On behalf of the oil companies, the Halliburtons and now the Blackwaters of this nation.
These fools are ignorant of and do not heed Lincoln’s Second Inaugural words across decades resounding,
That at the beginning of war nobody expects results “so fundamental and astounding”
As those which occur in so many wars that we’re in,
Potential results which should but do not make us hesitant those wars to begin. *


* This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel. If you wish to comment on the post, on the general topic of the post, or on the comments of others, you can, if you wish, post your comment on my website, All comments, of course, represent the views of their writers, not the views of Lawrence R. Velvel or of the Massachusetts School of Law. If you wish your comment to remain private, you can email me at

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