If you apply enough force, can you ever fundamentally change societies? Maybe, but the U.S. won’t (and shouldn’t) apply it to solve the Middle East dilemma

The website The Conversation – “a public good journalism project” – has very kindly published my op-ed entitled “Is the U.S. military strategy doing more harm or good in the Middle East?

[Spoiler alert] In the essay I contend that although the U.S.’s “light footprint” military strategy has not defeated the Islamic State, it has degraded it.  In addition, I believe the approach – while rightly vulnerable to criticism – has nevertheless operated to help prevent another 9/11 attack.  Additionally, while the U.S. military effort might not have transformed the Middle East into a peaceful, democratic and prosperous region as many Americans might have hoped, it may still have planted the seeds of a better future (I suggest that the rise of more educated, professional women could facilitate that end).

In essence, while the U.S.’s strategy has helped protect the homeland, it hasn’t – and can’t – transform the Middle East.  I conclude that Middle Eastern society suffers from a variety of intractable internal issues that are causing turmoil, and they can be solved only by the indigenous people of the region.  Our military (and diplomatic) efforts might help catalyze change, but cannot impose it.

What I didn’t address in the Conversation piece is whether military force can ever compel societal change.  The answer is yes, but the military effort required is not one I think Americans could or should support.  It is force so overwhelming and shattering that the target society is left prostrate and reduced to, figuratively speaking, bare metal.  World War II is an example of just such an application of military power.

Given the almost pacifistic impulses of today’s Germans and Japanese, it’s hard to believe their mentality back then.  As late as 1945, for example, there were still millions of Nazis.  But the extent of Nazi barbarism and the responsibility of the German people is well known and understood by the world, including by the German people themselves.  Is this equally true with respect to the Japanese people and their nation’s World War II conduct?  Not so much.  The New York Times recently observed:

[S]anitized accounts of the war taught to a new generation of Japanese schoolchildren largely avoid delving into the decision-making that led to the Pacific War, the Rape of Nanjing or questions of whether the “comfort women” were organized by the Japanese military. The vividness of Hiroshima has been melded with anodyne accounts of what preceded it, reinforcing the sense among Americans that, unlike Germany, Japan has never fully grappled with its past.

Japanese society during World War II was the product of generations of militarism.  The mindset it created, along with other factors, produced troops who committed extraordinarily horrific war crimes, beyond those mentioned by the Times above.  These include cannibalizing captured American airmen, gruesome medical experiments on helpless Chinese and American captives, and the vengeful slaughter of 250,000 Chinese after the successful air raid on Japan by General Jimmy Doolittle.

Yet in little more than a generation, Japan – like Germany – has transformed itself and become one of the U.S.’s most valued allies.  Of course, there are many reasons for this, but I would suggest that even though the Japanese may not fully internalize their nation’s wartime criminality,  they do accept (as the Germans do) the crushing defeat of their armed forces.   Furthermore, both suffered devastating bombings of their respective homelands, and this may have helped to psychologically prepare their societies for fundamental change.

In a fascinating 2004 article entitled “Is Modern War Too Precise?” in the U.S. Navel Institute Proceedings Norman Friedman argued:

In October, Queen Elizabeth of England visited Germany.  Parts of the German press demanded an apology for the bombing of German cities in World War II.  The bombing issue is more than historical, because it bears on the evolving character of war and on what is happening now in Iraq.  During World War II, bombing brought the war home to German civilians in a way unlike what they had experienced during World War I.  It is possible that one motive for city bombing was to effect not only wartime civilian morale, but also the postwar attitude of the mass of Germans…. It seems at least arguable that Hitler succeeded with the Germans because they accepted the myth that they had been victorious [in World War I].  The myth was credible to German civilians who had never been touched by the Allied armies.  If that were believed, then it followed that a little adjustment could win the second time.  The effect of bombing during World War II was to demonstrate that Germany was losing the war.  (Italics added.)

For many good reasons – to include legal ones – that is not the way the U.S. military has fought its wars in the Middle East.  Indeed, the U.S. prides itself on its ability to apply force with great precision.  Consider, however, whether Friedman’s 2004 reflection still resonates twelve years later:

The key, however, is that the war on Saddam was an attempt to change the character of the country.  It may well succeed, but the question is still whether the kind of dramatic military victory achieved in 2003 was counterproductive precisely because it was so clean.  Do modern precision weapons miss the point of warfare?

In other words, the Iraqis never really underwent the kind of crushing attacks that the Germans and Japanese suffered.  As a result, they never inculcated the idea of defeat to the point where it created the sort of “postwar attitude” that, for example, the “mass of Germans” acquired and which set their country on a course to become a respected and powerful 21st century democracy.  Accordingly, Friedman later provocatively inquires: “Is it time to rethink the cruder weapons of the past?” 

Obviously, these ruminations may be intellectually interesting, but there is no possibility that the U.S. would (or should) resort to the kind of force that may have produced the postwar attitudes Friedman suggests took root in Germany and Japan, however strategically desirable and helpful such attitudes might be today.

So then what’s the solution?  Is it just a question of finding the right honest, freedom-loving, and egalitarian Middle Eastern leader?  Actually, its more complicated than many American may think.

In the Conversation essay I mention that Americans suffer from what the late historian Daniel Boorstin called in his 1991 essay “Myths of Popular Innocence.”  These produce in the nation’s psyche an “unwillingness to believe ill of human majorities” and assumes that populations are simply captives of authoritarian leaders.  But the reality is that it really is about the populations; sure, good leaders can help, but they alone will not induce the kind of fundamental change the Middle East needs unless and until the people themselves choose to embrace it and that, unfortunately, doesn’t seem likely in the near term.

Irrespective of whatever the U.S. or other countries outside the area do either militarily or diplomatically, I fear that the internecine conflicts in the Middle East will persist until the citizenry decides that enough is enough, perhaps because they are – literally – burned out and reduced to ‘bare metal.’  In short, it really is – and will continue to be – Middle Easterners who are themselves inflicting the vast majority of the force; only they can decide when or if the misery will end.  Outsiders may be able to help around the margins (as much to protect their own interests and contain the threats), but it is ultimately up to those in the Middle East to devise sustainable solutions to the region’s dilemmas.

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