Military transformation is seductive. The idea that you might see through the fog of war to assess the terrain, friendly forces and enemy forces on a battlefield is a powerful intoxicant that can lead to fantastic, almost God-like visions of military power. Those visions, in turn, inspire dreams of how a nation might harness military force to reshape the globe.
It's heady stuff. Unfortunately, as Fred Kaplan writes in his new book Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power, it's also nearly entirely fiction. Innovations in battlefield surveillance, communications and computing do make a difference on the battlefield. But they are more evolutionary than revolutionary, at least as presently employed, and they do little to change the fundamentals of warfare that have remained constant for thousands of years. Further, these techno-centric systems have far less utility for counterinsurgencies and small wars than they do for conventional wars like Desert Storm -- and so, they have had only a marginal impact on the post-combat efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Kaplan explores the history behind these transformative ideas and technologies, and lays bare the reasons why they have not borne fruit. (Full disclosure: Fred is my colleague at Slate, and we have occasionally collaborated on articles.) His slim volume is smoothly written, in the style of several long New Yorker articles connected by a common narrative, and it should be of interest both to military intellectuals and laypersons. At the core of his book is a powerful critique of the Bush administration -- which he labels a group of "daydream believers," paraphrasing a quote from T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia -- for its unwavering and irrational faith in American military power and omnipotence.
Much of this faith is rooted in admiration of American military technology and the belief that the "revolution in military affairs" enabled us to do anything we wanted in the world, with or without our allies, regardless of whoever opposed us. Kaplan walks us through this history, from the carpet bombing campaigns of World War II to the first precision-guided bombing of a bridge in North Vietnam to the Gulf War and its famous smart bomb videotapes to today's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kaplan rightly points out that this revolution has never quite achieved its aim: perfect situational awareness coupled with perfect precision firepower.
But even if we had that technical ability, Kaplan writes, that shouldn't be the end of the matter. Just being able to do something doesn't mean you ought to do it.
Further, this military power has engendered a false belief that America can "go it alone" in the world, enforcing its will by force if necessary. Kaplan argues, convincingly, that this mentality has actually made America weaker. The allies, institutions, laws and norms that previously constrained American actions conferred legitimacy on our actions, ultimately enhancing our power and ability to get things done abroad. Whether in negotiating with North Korea or dealing with Europe and Russia, America has been substantially weakened over the past seven years by its neglect of alliances and international institutions -- the result of a flawed worldview that put too much faith in American exceptionalism and power.
The next president will inherit a rapidly deteriorating situation in Iraq, an erratic situation in Afghanistan, a nearly broken Army, a mutated and resilient threat from Al Qaeda, and many other challenges. Kaplan's book does a good job describing the missteps of the Bush administration in creating this predicament. Let's hope the next president takes a more realistic outlook -- and ignores his or her daydreams in favor of reality.
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