The American left has proved very adept at identifying and opposing the misuses of American military power and the distortion of national priorities that defense spending has entailed. Despite the left's consistent attention to military matters, it lacks a coherent approach to military policy. At best, what the left has is an inclination on military issues -- and that inclination has been fairly consistently anti-military. This does not preclude banging the drum occasionally for select interventions. But it does mean that whenever the left relates to military policy, it relates as an outsider; it relates as though the realm of military policy is unremittingly hostile to progressive values. This article will argue that a positive progressive military policy is both possible and necessary -- necessary both to the achievement of progressive goals and to the credibility of the left in American politics.
This article takes as a premise that there are instances in which a resort to military force is justified and that the problem of war does not arise solely or ultimately from the policies of any single state or group states. Instead, the most fundamental of conditions that contribute to the
occurrence of war is the anarchic international system in which states are free to pursue or defend their perceived interests by means of military force. Within this system all states, big and small, exist in some degree of basic insecurity. This article also assumes that the mere existence of "mitigating factors" cannot excuse aggression, or strip a nation of its right to self-defense, or relieve a group of nations of the moral responsibility to aid victims of aggression. Hence, in this view, it would have been proper for the United States, France, and England to
come to the aid of Poland when it was attacked by Nazi Germany even though the Polish regime was at the time a dictatorship and even though the US, France, and England were far short of benevolent in their international relations.
All of these assumptions are debatable, especially from the perspectives
of pacifism and some types of anti-imperialism. However, this article
will not argue these assumptions. Readers who are willing to entertain
them may find value in what follows; those who are not may be in for a
vexing ride. Either way, the point of posing these assumptions is not to
write progressive politics out of the realm of military policy, but rather
to write them in. This article argues that the intricacies of military policy
offer ample and fruitful opportunity for the application of progressive
A telling illustration of the loss when progressive politics remains
outside the military policy debate can be found in the recent
promulgation of a post-cold war national military strategy for the US.
In 1992 Colin Powell, serving under George Bush, drafted a new
national strategy. The Clinton Pentagon has made only minor changes.
Although the national strategy makes passing reference to the
importance of multinational alliances and UN mandates, it is
fundamentally a unilateral strategy. By calling for the capacity to fight
two major wars without reliance on significant allied and coalitional
help the strategy results in a requirement for very large US forces. By
setting goals of extraordinarily quick decisive victory it requires
emphasis on active duty forces and massive strategic lift.
National strategies, by design, are very general statements, allowing for
flexibility of interpretation. But they also set the framework for debate
on most aspects of military policy. Before he released his "Bottom Up
Review" of military requirements last year Les Aspin floated the idea of
"win-hold-win" sequencing of the two war strategy. This strategic
formulation was reflective of the low probabilities of two concurrent
wars and suggestive of the wide latitude for slowing the pace of the
wars should they occur. It could have had real meaning in derivative
force sizes and composition. However, Aspin was immediately
attacked from the right and he retreated to a formula of "fighting and
winning two wars near simultaneously".
Defensive wars are almost always fought in a "hold-win" sequence; the
allied strategy in WWII being a prominent 20th Century example.
Seeking the capacity for an early offensive "win" option in two theaters
is radically ambitious and extravagant. One measure of this ambition
is the current plans to deploy a force of nearly five Army divisions
anywhere in the world in eight weeks. Operation Desert Storm was the
fastest large scale logistics feat in history; it took twelve weeks to deploy
such a force then. The new strategy seeks to best by one-third the
Desert Storm deployment time.
Given the low level of objective threats to US interests in the post-cold
war world and mindful of the other high priority national needs there is
a large area of very reasonable strategy options for the left to
counterpoise. The left, however, remains conspicuously absent
from the policy
discussion. By default, conservatives with their allies in the military
have controlled a soporific public debate about the great question of
what post-cold war national strategy should be.
Toward a Progressive Military Policy
Several goals would distinguish a progressive military policy. The first
is an effort to effect structural guarantees that armed forces will be
properly used -- that is, with restraint and for truly defensive ends.
Second, is an effort to ensure that the requirement of a well-provisioned
and well-functioning military is met in ways consistent with progress
toward other positive national goals -- such as fiscal responsibility and
the funding of human needs. Finally, a progressive military policy
would aim to meet today's defense needs in ways that help create
global conditions in which nations can confidently attempt a general
The left has often stood ready to restrain military power, cut military
spending, and support the evolution of alternative global and
nonmilitary security mechanisms. The point made here, however, is
that progress toward these ends (1) requires a comprehensive
engagement with military policy, and (2) cannot be achieved apart from
an effort to ensure that the military remains able to fulfill the
fundamental function of deterring and defeating aggression.
The US military is a very large, multipurpose, and complex institution.
The set of policies applicable to it is correspondingly large and complex,
covering issues of national military strategy, doctrine, operational
concepts, force size, force structure, roles, missions, military
modernization, and personnel. This article will not attempt to review
the breadth of military policy, but instead examine several policy
debates and options that illustrate the importance and potential of a
progressive intervention in military policy.
There is no tradition in the American left of discussion of military
structure, doctrine, roles, and missions -- although it is at this level of
discourse that military capabilities and budgets are determined. Left
opposition to military priorities has most often been expressed as a
consistent opposition to new weapon purchases. This may be because
Congress, which has the responsibility for provisioning the armed
forces, is the branch of federal government most open to the left's
influence. However, without resort to a comprehensive vision of how a
military should operate, budget cutting arguments can only muster
issues of cost and performance and remain fundamentally weak. Worse
yet, applied with the type of determination necessary to achieve very
substantial savings, they can give the appearance of lack of concern for
the lives of American soldiers and the security of the nation.
As suggested above, a truly effective effort to achieve any positive end
in the realm of military policy must respect this area of policy as an
integrated whole. Two current issues illustrate the point: the question
of "active-reserve mix" in the US military and the debate over armed
forces roles and missions.
The Future of America's Armed Forces Reserves
Only recently has the US maintained large professional standing armies
in peacetime. After WWII large Soviet forces remained in Eastern
Europe. To offer credible support for the defense of Western Europe
the US needed large active duty forces that could move into combat in
days and weeks and not the months it would take to mobilize and
deploy reserve forces. The dissolution of the Soviet threat makes it
reasonable to transfer a significant portion of the force structure to the
reserves. Nonetheless, current planning keeps the active force
component at nearly the same proportion as during the Cold War; it
will move down only three percent from its 1990 level of 65%.
The proponents of large active forces who now dominate policy making
argue that the reserves are well suited to support and service missions,
but are not prepared for combat maneuver missions if they must be
deployed in the first several months of a crisis. The underlying
planning assumption is that large combat forces must be ready to go on
the offensive early in a future war. However, in the new threat
environment even significantly smaller active forces can hold a
defensive line until reserves are ready to deploy. Given current
geostrategic conditions there is no good reason to accelerate war plans
to the extent that they preclude greater reliance on reserves.
The continuing emphasis on active duty forces is flawed and dangerous.
In opposition to this there is an opportunity to speak out for the ideal of
a citizen's army or militia - in today's form, the National Guard and
other service reserves. Putting more of the US force structure in
reserves would not only save tens of billions of dollars a year, it would
also put a democratic constraint on the capacity of political leaders to go
to war without the backing of the American people. In other words, a
greater reliance on the Reserves would serve the goals of both economy
The Roles and Mission Debate
Closely related to the issue of active-reserve "force mix" is the issue of
armed forces roles and missions. This generally refers to the allocation
of combat tasks, objectives and responsibilities among the various
service branches or their subordinate units. The definition of roles and
missions is particularly important in evaluating structural redundancies
among the services.
While progressives have remained fixated on achieving savings by
challenging the cost-effectiveness of individual weapon systems, they
pay far less attention to the much larger problem of structural
redundancy among the services. Emblematic of this problem is the
existence of four US air forces. In his 1993 review of roles and missions
General Colin Powell used a semantic distinction to dismiss the issue,
stating that "America has one air force -- the US Air Force... other
services have aviation arms." But few nations have air forces as large as
the "aviation arms" of the US Navy and Marine Corps. And few nations
have armies as large as America's second army -- the Marine Corps.
Behind the problem of redundancy is the issue of service autonomy and
rivalry. Being a good chairman, General Powell sought to close an issue
that could set off a revolt of generals and admirals. From the
perspective of national interest, however, continuation of the status quo
has nothing to do with maintaining a quality fighting force and
everything to do with squandering scarce resources. Addressing the
problems of service autonomy, rivalry, and redundancy would
simultaneously serve the goals of lowering defense expenditures and
fielding an effective fighting force. It also opens avenues to a debate
about national strategy and the proper use of military forces.
Multinational Operations and the Future Role of the UN
When and how military forces are used is the area of military policy
that stimulates the greatest interest on the left. But the left response has
been largely reactive and almost always negative, usually denying a
positive role for US military power in the world. Many on the left,
however, admit exceptions: the Second World War, or, currently,
intervention in Bosnia or Haiti. If indeed there are, from a progressive
perspective, instances when the resort to military action is justified, then
it is incumbent on the left to join the debate on when and how military
forces should be used.
Today that debate is more open than at any time in recent history. The
Gulf War marked a new, although fragile, precedent for large-scale US
interventions. Despite the continuing preference of US leaders for the
freedom of unilateral action, the fact of America's declining economic
power and global trends toward interdependent international relations
makes multilateralism an increasingly attractive norm in the post-cold
war era. This will mean that the US will try to organize coalitions or
rely on alliances to pursue large-scale interventions.
Acknowledging the obvious problems of big power dominance in
emerging multilateralism, this is a positive direction for US foreign
policy. With more countries involved in coalition decision-making it is
likely that war objectives will be more limited and the frequency of
large-scale intervention lower. We can expect that through the practice
of multilateralism norms of intervention and coalition warfare will
develop, although at first these will not be codified as law or applied
with equanimity. Nevertheless, a process that moves beyond the
singular prerogative of US power toward global norms of acceptable
interstate behavior represents progress and a significant opening for the
The next level of development of a responsible global security apparatus
may be the creation of a multinational "peacemaking" force under UN
command. However, the UN is today far from ready to assume and
perform well in the type of role that would mark a qualitative advance
toward dependable international stability and peace. And most nations
are not yet prepared to cede such a role to the UN; A host of serious
practical problems contribute to block consensus on moving forward.
Unless the practical issues are addressed the prospects for a significant
global peacemaking force will quickly wither under a barrage of "realist"
Among the problems facing a UN command are issues of command and
control, doctrine, division of labor, and interoperability among diverse
national armed forces. Would a UN force that is truly multinational,
both in composition and command, prove able to act in an efficient,
effective, and timely fashion? An affirmative answer is possible, but it
depends on deepening the discussion of organizational and operational
So far the "realist" and "unilateralist" opposition to UN development has
monopolized the discussion of these issues. Progressives, by contrast,
have been badly overtaken by events. Although often supportive of
nations' greater reliance on the UN, the left has been unable to address
substantively many of the practical problems that recent experience has
In international relations theory the security dilemma posits that measures
to improve one nation's security will tend to diminish another's
security. This is particularly true if nation A's defense strategy calls for
a retaliatory offensive against the territory and assets of nation B.
Strong offensive capabilities may make nation A feel more secure, but it
will make nation B feel less secure with a number of undesirable
Defensive restructuring seeks to alleviate the security dilemma by limiting a nation's capabilities for crossborder attack, improving its capacity to resist aggression, and decoupling it from competitive offensive arms racing. The concept of a defensively-oriented military embodies a break with the dominant trend in security policy, which stresses punitive deterrence and, in the event of war, a quick transition to large-scale offensive action. By contrast a defensively structured military would seek to deter aggression principally by lowering an aggressor's probability of success. Should deterrence fail, it would seek to contain and exhaust aggression while avoiding escalation.
By relinquishing the threat of large-scale crossborder offensive action
and avoiding the risks inherent to such action, a defensive defense
lessens the danger of preemption in a crisis and reduces the pressures
for escalation. In this way, it increases the scope of diplomacy and
helps create an atmosphere of trust without compromising the capacity
for defense. Moreover, because this approach seeks to build on the
inherent strengths of a defensive posture, it can provide security at
Defensive restructuring is not, primarily, a matter of banning classes of "offensive weaponry". An effective armed force needs to be able to carry out tactical defense and offense and must have the requisite units, weaponry and training. What determines the overall defensiveness or offensiveness of the force is how the units are put together, their proportions, the operational doctrine and the national strategy. This is a complex set, but it is not so complex that it defies meaningful analysis or policy development.
There are several avenues of defensive restructuring which can be
encouraged through arms control, arms transfer, and military assistance
policies. First, nations can move in informal concert to modernize their
armed forces along nonoffensive lines. Second, nations can negotiate
measures of arms reduction which selectively limit those weapons and
equipment most vital to large-scale offensive action. Finally, arms
exporting nations can agree to limit the transfer of offense-oriented
systems, while leaving uncontrolled the transfer of systems vital to a
more narrowly defined defense.
Comprehensive defensive restructuring for global or inter-regional
military powers, such as the United States, Britain, France, or Russia, is
a special issue. Their militaries all have the capacity to "project" power
far from their borders - a primary offensive characteristic. Rigorous
defensive restructuring would involve a very dramatic rollback in their
capabilities and entail their abstention from unilateral military activism.
This is an appealing goal, but its realization will likely require both the
prior evolution of effective global security agencies and a broad-based
defensive restructuring of national militaries.
Nonetheless, the major powers could begin limiting their power
projection forces in a number of stabilizing ways. Such forces could be
re-fashioned for "defensive support" missions with the aim of bolstering
the defenses of smaller nations threatened by aggression. To address
concerns about military hegemony, the major powers could design their
defensive support units to be structurally dependent on the defensive
array and infrastructure of host nations. Among other things this means
emphasizing combat support elements, rather than self-contained
offensive maneuver units. Such a shift from traditional power
projection to defensive support would also make superfluous much of
the existing military capabilities for forced entry. These derive from
large naval and long-range tactical air forces, airborne army corps,
amphibious assault units, and large special operations forces. As a
further confidence-building measure such defensive support missions
should be strictly multinational in character and increasingly under the
auspices of global agencies.
Political Importance of Military Policy
Historically the American left has played a leading role in objecting to
the abusive exercise of American military power. On several occasions
its efforts have made a critical difference: Vietnam being the most
prominent recent example. While these efforts to deny options to
political elites have been partially successful, they have not born lasting
improvement in the credibility or political prospects of the left. Political
advancement of the left requires supplementing its familiar reactive
stance of protest with a positive vision of a military policy for the US.
Today a centrist Democrat occupies the White House. His defense policies are barely distinguishable from those of his conservative Republican predecessor. The election to the presidency of a progressive who would set a fundamentally different course is a distant prospect. But we can be certain no progressive will be elected without the trust of the American people on national security issues. And the American people will not lend their trust unless convinced that the left takes their security concerns seriously.
These concerns do not reflect a simple or precise calculation. In an
increasingly interdependent world with rapid communications and
travel, even remote threats can seem too close for comfort. This
personalized sense of insecurity also stirs a desire for a moral force in
the world; something that can act to dispel aggression and the madness
of war. Left and right continually contend to define the source of
insecurity and the nature of that moral force.
Twice in recent times the American left succeeded in defining the public
terms of security policy discourse. Once was during the Vietnam era, as
people began to feel that the real threat was not a distant communism,
but rather the continuation of a costly and dangerous war that they
neither supported nor understood. The other time was during the
Freeze movement when people began to perceive that the real threat to
life and morality was the nuclear extremism of their own government.
Both the Vietnam war and the Reagan administration's nuclear
extremism provided an opening for the left. For the most part the left
has filled this opening with a combination of facile anti-militarism
which asserts that there are no real military security threats and a
reflexive anti-interventionism which seems ready to abandon weak
nations to the aggression of others. To continue to hold fervently to
such reactive stances will only serve to undercut the credibility and
moral leadership of the left on national security issues.
Today the world stands poised between a past in which nations sought
to ensure their security primarily through armed deterrence and
exclusive military alliances, and a future in which inclusive global
agencies and nonmilitary means can play the leading role in
guaranteeing the peace. Yet instability and conflict, both residual and
new, continue to beset many regions of the world. What is required
now is a transitional security policy -- one that attends to immediate
security concerns using the tools at hand, while forging new tools and
institutions that can carry the world into a realm of greater freedom.
This article has attempted to illustrate what the left could bring to this critical transition. A comprehensive military policy from the left can assuage people's fears and offer progress toward a higher moral ground. Whether or not the left is up to this challenge depends on its capacity to outgrow its own brand of old thinking.
Charles Knight, "The Left and the Military", Dissent, Fall 1994.
http://www.comw.org/webdssnt.htm (Sept. 1997)
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