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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Triumph and realism

It is almost inevitable that a degree of triumphalist intoxication starts to surge into commentary regarding the allegedly all-but-over war in Afghanistan. However in their eagerness to at last drive a stake through the heart of that American vampire-of-the-soul, Vietnam, people are starting to sound rather like the pundits opining on the future after every war since the industrial age started to make each war different than the one before. Television, internet and printing presses are humming with commentators who are making extravagant leaps of inductive thinking… never a good sign.

Victor Davis Hanson over on National Review is a case in point and has written an intemperate article called Glad We Are Not Fighting Us, that takes dramatic historical and sociological liberties with fact and evidence. Although I do agree with many of his points, others that he makes are very odd indeed.

America now enjoys a level of global military and political influence not seen since the Roman Empire in the age of Trajan.

This is a poor comparison. What of the Mongols? Theirs was a vast empire based on sheer military might into which the Roman Empire, even under Trajan, could have neatly fitted into one corner. The shadow it cast over the entire Eurasian world was every bit as profound as the US casts now and far harder to ignore.

He goes on to describe an America that will no doubt appeal to a section of his US readership but it is really nothing more than tub-thumping propaganda rather than sensible appraisal of the undoubted might of the USA.

But in the last two decades America, for better or worse, has evolved beyond the traditional Western paradigm, in reaching the theoretical limits of freedom and unbridled capitalism to create a technologically sophisticated, restlessly energetic, and ever-changing society whose like has never been seen in the history of civilization.

That is not just wrong, it is ridiculous… for one, I would argue that the United States was far more free in many ways, both in terms of general liberty and economically, prior to the First World War. The astonishing US forfeiture laws under which one can have property seized and then not returned even if not eventually convicted of a crime (and in some cases not even charged), make it clear that large chunks of the much hallowed Constitution are in fact a dead letter. Even more grotesquely obvious, one only has to look at the huge share of national wealth appropriated by the various tiers of American government and compare it to 100 years ago to realise the absurdity of claiming the United States is “reaching the theoretical limits of freedom”. Ethnic minorities and women are now freed from onerous restrictions compared to a century ago, yet what they may actually do with that restored liberty and economic power is drastically ‘bridled’ by the intrusive regulatory state as never before in American history.

In areas of US society where liberty is indeed in the ascendant rather than in retreat , it is due to the information technology and communications that are exerting their influence far beyond just America.

I would also contend that the Dutch in the 17th century and British in the first half of the 18th century were every bit as dynamic. And of course their pundits made much the same overarching claims about their cultures as well.

Hanson gets back on more solid ground by pointing out where the true root of America’s real comparative advantages lie by contrasting its freedom of expression with that found in other civilisations. Yet it does not take him long to stray back into questionable historical contentions

But unlike the Soviet infantry and armor doctrine of the 1960s and 1970s, which had changed little from World War II our new tactics are not static. We are just as likely to see armored divisions on the ground in Iraq, storms of cruise missiles in Lebanon, or covert assassination teams in Somalia or the return once again of the Afghani mode depending on the changing nature of our adversaries.

Here Hanson just does not know what he is talking about. Soviet infantry and armour doctrines evolved hugely after World War II and in the 1970’s, US doctrines might as well have been drawn up with the intention of maximising the Soviet advantages in combat mobility. Soviet military theories very accurately assessed US strengths and weaknesses, leading to the Operational Manoeuvre Group (OMG) doctrines. US Army reforms came belatedly in the 1980’s to address the weakness of US operational level doctrine compared to that of the Soviets (i.e. the introduction of ‘Air/Land Battle’ doctrines aimed at reducing the large Soviet advantage in combat mobility).

I cringe somewhat at Hanson using ‘covert assassination teams in Somalia’ as an example of American military superiority. What the last US adventure in Somalia proved was something rather different. As any NRA activist will tell you, never underestimate a pissed off armed civilian population. Sure, high tech and well trained US troops can probably kill a low tech bunch of Somalians at a ratio of 100:1… but at the end of the day, it was the Somali ‘warlords’ who held the field and watched the US retreat, because they, unlike the hideous Taliban in Afghanistan, commanded the genuine support of their population. It would be hard to overstress the importance of understanding the implications of this.

I came away with the impression that September 11 has supercharged rather than short-circuited this multifaceted engine of America. What were bin Laden, the mobs in Pakistan and the West Bank, the nuts in al Qaeda, and their opportunistic supporters in the Middle East drinking? We shall never know, but their attack on a country such as this was pure lunacy. Thank God we do not have to fight anyone like ourselves.

Yes, that is quite true and in fact much of Hanson’s article is spot on. However I do worry that in the wave of understandable euphoria following the destruction of the Taliban and the scattering of Al Qaeda, that an air of unrealistic expectation and ill conceived adventurism may replace the air of unrealistic pessimism so beloved of the dismal and irrational Buellers and Fisks.

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