A view from the ramparts
The West spends too much money on weapons and too little time on promoting its real strength: ideas
‘We don’t need more military spending, we need less. We don’t need more soldiers, we need fewer’
As a simple soldier, it should not fall to me to lay bare the shortcomings of western leaders as they fight the war of ideas. But the ossification of liberal principles and recent western military failures in the Middle East and Central Asia are intrinsically linked. On balance, the most technologically advanced military force in history, with trillions in taxpayer support, has failed to best a series of illiterate and poorly trained irregulars who fought with the economic equivalent of a blunderbuss and a bus ticket. How could this happen?
I am a special operations commander who has served the Alliance for the better part of two decades. I have watched this disaster unfold from the inside, and to the free citizens of the West I can only say: yes, your worst fears are founded. It could have all been so very different.
In the fourth century, an anonymous Roman officer wrote De Rebus Bellicis, a tract that bemoaned the empire’s spending of ludicrous sums on massed legions and fixed fortifications. Dominant in a bygone era, these were an anachronism by the time the officer penned his text. He feared for his civilisation, and his treatise was prescient: it predicted the fall of the western empire nearly a century before the sack of Rome.
The contemporary West faces a similar predicament after its failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the reasons for the military failure of the West today and that of Rome of 15 centuries ago are dramatically different—in fact, they are inverted.
In De Rebus Bellicis, the author wrote almost exclusively on what we now call the operational and tactical levels of war. He was obsessed with the ineffective organisation of Rome’s field armies and the lack of technical ingenuity at the tactical level.
Today, the problem is reversed. We have a surplus of funding and technological advances. But we lack the minds capable of applying this technology effectively on the modern battlefield, particularly in the realm of irregular warfare. And beyond that, we lack the political strategy that once animated the West and served as the superlative measure of liberalism’s success.
In 2014, a retired American general named Dan Bolger published a book called Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. His argument was that soldiers on the ground won tactical victories on a daily basis, but the generals failed to master the operational art of war and translate those tactical victories into strategic success, thereby leading to military defeat.
Bolger earned the ire of his peers who still believed that attrition and overwhelming firepower could win any armed conflict. His work also indirectly spat in the face of the military-industrial complex, which has been unwilling to reform itself because of the money it is printing on a daily basis by building equipment that is ineffective or wholly unnecessary.
Why is this? Because while thousands of armoured vehicles shipped to Bagram airbase had to be cut down to scrap metal since they were useless in Afghan terrain; and because while the cost of the F-35 joint strike fighter programme has grown larger than the entire GDP of the Russian Federation only to bomb enemies with no radar, one thing remains. War, regardless of victory or defeat, makes a lot of people a lot of money. Never forget, the United States invaded Afghanistan after 9/11 with less than 50 men, and within weeks the Taliban and al-Qaeda were on the run to the Pakistani border. A decade later, there were more than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, and we were losing.
The militaries of Allied countries were complicit in this madness; it was not only corrupt politicians and their sponsors in the defence industry. And it was also your fault, for not imposing electoral consequences for their actions, the singular facet that is supposed to make liberal democracies different from the empty dogmas held up by Russian politicians.
The remedy for this quagmire may surprise you, hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère.
We don’t need more military spending, we need less. We don’t need more soldiers, we need fewer. And most of all, we need a reinvigorated political strategy that demands a renewal of western liberal ideals. Without this political strategy, the tactical victories and operational art will be all but useless.
It was not the deployment of Pershing nuclear missiles to Germany that won the Cold War, it was blue jeans and rock’n’roll.
While the Soviet Union built gulags, the West built Silicon Valley. Moscow flooded the world with propaganda, but Soviet repression made the BBC and Radio Free Europe more subversive than London and Washington could have dreamed.
Autocracies have learned these lessons in the 21st century. As Peter Pomerantsev has wryly pointed out in This is Not Propaganda, Russian leaders will never allow TV to be boring again. And the icons of the West—blue jeans, rock n’ roll, Ray Bans and Hollywood—are globalised. How could the West possibly recreate this strategy?
The answer is that these things are symptoms of the advantage the West held, not its source. It was an open society—political freedom, individual liberty, a free press, the free market and the rule of law—that produced all of these symptoms, the touchstones of Western liberalism. Yet these ideals are under threat in our societies today.
Not long ago, I was at a military base in Afghanistan packing up containers of military kit to ship across the country. We hired Afghan civilians to help, and after working side-by-side throughout the morning, shared a meal. I noticed a middle-aged Pashtun man sitting away from the rest of us, and as Pashto is sadly not one of the languages I speak, I tried my best with a smile to point and ask if he enjoyed the food.
The Pashtun brusquely asked my interpreter who I was, to which he replied: “He’s the senior special operations commander in this province.”
The man embraced me and began to weep. He had been a boy during the Soviet occupation. Not only were the stories of their mine-laying and indiscriminate strafing true, he told me, but the Russians would never so much as smile at him. And it was insane to think their commander would break bread with him. From Afghanistan, to Iraq and to the Sahel, I have experienced such encounters time and again. The world tires of our armies, but they believe in the idea of the West.
The war of ideas rages today, and it took me nearly 20 years to realise that the repercussions of this fight far outweigh any contest of arms on the battlefield.