If the whole United States active-duty military, excepting strategic nuclear weapons, disappeared tomorrow in a puff of smoke, would Americans be less secure, more secure, or about the same? That the answer is not self-evident points to the biggest military secret of our time: conventional armed forces are following the knight’s road.
Knights in shining armor lasted for several centuries after they had become militarily obsolete. In fact, the armor got ever more splendid (and expensive). What was it for? Show. It was worn for tournaments, which remained a popular form of entertainment at court. It was donned for portraits of kings and noblemen well into the 17th century. To the public, nothing said “military might” quite so loudly as a parade of men in beautifully engraved and ornamented suits of armor.
My city of Cleveland, Ohio was honored by just such a grand entertainment in early June in the form of “Marine Week.” Each year, the Marine Corps picks a lucky city to host it. Uniformed Marines, all looking good, paraded about the town. Public Square was full of tanks, artillery pieces, and Light Armored Vehicles. Fighter planes screamed overhead, and for the grand finale the Marines did a full amphibious assault on Burke Lakefront Airport. Cleveland enjoyed the Marines, and to judge by those I talked to, the Marines enjoyed Cleveland.
But against non-state opponents, those Marines are 0-4. They, along with the rest of our armed services, lost in Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, a war that is decided if not yet over.
Real wars with important outcomes are now fought and won by ragtag militias, gangs, and tribes. They fight not for raison d’état but for God, honor, loot, tribal pride, women—war’s age-old, pre-state causes. They define the Fourth Generation of modern war.
In a fair fight, the U.S. Marines would beat any of them, except perhaps Hezbollah. But what we think of as fair fights are jousting contests, tank against tank, fighter plane against fighter plane, preferably staged where we get it on video for the folks back home. Of course we want jousting contests: we’re knights. Not being knights, nor possessing suits of armor, the forces of the Fourth Generation avoid them. We are left to tilt at windmills—or Burke Lakefront Airport.