Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 5 May 2024

 

Opinion | Mark Helprin Asks: Are Americans Ready for War?

I think I agree, but I have to ask why Europe is more valuable. “Our economic relationships to the European nations, which are the greatest other than those with Canada and Mexico. Not just trade, but the interplay of science and culture. We are, in so many ways, joined to Europe as we are to nowhere else. Also physically, in terms of a position in Earth’s geography: If the North Atlantic is controlled by hostile powers, if it falls under Russian dominance, then we’re pretty much”—again—“done for.”

I assume that he will get to Taiwan, and he does: “Our strategy there is based on a faulty premise. You know what that premise is?” he asks. I don’t. “If you read all the studies and military journals on defending Taiwan, they all talk about penetrating bombers and missiles and so on to strike Chinese bases. Really? China is a nuclear-armed state, and we’re going to attack Chinese bases on the country’s mainland? . . . That would set up a nuclear standoff. We’re not going to do that.”

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Were China to attack Taiwan, Mr. Helprin says, it would present a situation in which China can hit Taiwan because it’s not the U.S., while the U.S. can’t hit China. So what’s the solution? Here Mr. Helprin launches into an explanation at once expansive and detailed, rather like one of his novels. The import: Since the area of operations would be disadvantageously confined to the sea and Taiwan itself, the U.S. will need to harden its Pacific bases against China’s missiles, bombers and special forces; swell its Pacific fleet with ships both large and small (aircraft carriers and attack submarines, but also motor-torpedo boats, mine-sweepers, escort vessels, etc.); boost production of long-range aircraft, manned and unmanned; upgrade its nuclear deterrent; and harden Taiwan to the extent possible.

“I don’t think that we will meet the challenge,” Mr. Helprin says after this catalog, “but with responsible leadership we could. That’s the tragedy. Take a strong horse and give him one weak and clueless rider after another, and pretty soon the horse is no longer strong.”

Perhaps the core of the problem is American policymakers’ fear of risk and attendant accountability. If a U.S. administration tried to mount the sort of defense posture Mr. Helprin counsels, something might go wrong, someone would have to pay a political price, and no one at the moment seems inclined to pay any sort of price for anything. As soon as I use the phrase “fear of risk” he points out that “in 1940 Churchill sent all the tanks in Britain to North Africa to fight the Germans. That denuded Britain of tanks, and at the time it was still possible that Sea Lion”—Hitler’s plan to invade the U.K.—“could have happened. The British would have had no tanks to use in defense. It was a risk. Churchill took it. War is about risk.”

Our technological superiority, Mr. Helprin thinks, has fooled us into believing that war is about neat, danger-free solutions. “We have been acclimated to situations in which we control everything,” he says. “We completely control the air. We completely control logistics. We have bases to which we can retreat, and on those bases we have McDonald’s.” Mr. Helprin stops himself: “This isn’t to say that individual units and soldiers haven’t fought like hell and suffered. But in terms of the larger picture of war, we haven’t fought for survival in a long time.”

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A more fundamental problem than any matter of strategic confusion is the simple matter of recruitment. The country can’t find enough people willing to fight for it.

Here I quote from a passage in Mr. Helprin’s 1991 novel, “A Soldier of the Great War.” The story’s hero, Alessandro, on trial for desertion (he is innocent), correctly points out that although the Italian government can force young men into the field, it needs their “consent” if they’re going to fight. “That’s nonsense,” the judge says.

But of course it isn’t. The U.S., which did away with the draft in 1973, depends for its existence on men willing to fight for it, and recruitment has dropped precipitously in recent years.

Mr. Helprin feels this matter keenly, having, as he puts it, avoided the draft in 1969. He did so legally, having been declared ineligible—“4-F,” in military jargon—as a result of a long childhood sickness. “Something was wrong with my brain,” he says. “There’s a name for it, which I’ve forgotten—something convulsive disorder.” Later he felt he could have gotten around the 4-F designation if he’d wanted to.

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Then, in May 1969, he happened to see a funeral for a young soldier who’d been killed in Vietnam. “He was about my age. . . . That’s when I understood that he may have died in my place.” Soon after that Mr. Helprin, who is Jewish and was born in Manhattan, took Israeli citizenship, becoming a dual national; he enlisted in the Jewish state’s military and served for two years. (Several years later he relinquished his Israeli citizenship.)

But back to the 2020s. Why is the number of men willing to fight and die for the United States decreasing? Mr. Helprin mentions an education system that trains young people to distrust their country and a military bureaucracy enthralled by woke ideology.

So what can we do about that in the short term? Without pausing Mr. Helprin says: “We can depoliticize the military completely.”

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That won’t be easy, I say. “It might not be so hard,” he replies. “You don’t have to do anything. You just have to stop doing stupid things. The military is a million education programs meant to indoctrinate and train. Exclude, from all that indoctrination and training, anything having to do with ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’ ”—he signals quotation marks—“anything having to do with racism, anything about how bad America is, the ‘gender’ crap, all that. Just stop doing it.”

He has a point. An executive order from the commander in chief would likely accomplish for the U.S. military what Gov. Ron DeSantis did by signing legislation banning DEI in Florida public universities. If the military were to scrap every last shred of DEI training tomorrow, nobody but activist busybodies would regret it, and the benefits would reverberate for a decade.

What about the long term? Very little about today’s cultural landscape suggests that America’s political class and citizenry understand the threats or are prepared to counter them with force. What’s going to get us ready? “A strong leader on a white horse isn’t going to do it,” Mr. Helprin says. “The only way that can happen, I think, unfortunately, is distress and defeat. A depression, a big loss in a war, invasion, Gotterdammerung.”

He trails off. It’s a solemn thought. “Still,” he says, “there is so much good in this country, so much courage that we may yet summon well steeled resolve.”

Mr. Swaim is a Journal editorial page writer.

On May 2, 2024 Republican Senators Tom Cotton and Joni Ernst grilled the Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, over threats at the southern border and a plan to bring Gazan refugees to the U.S. homeland. Image: Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press

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Appeared in the May 4, 2024, print edition as 'Are Americans Ready for War?'.

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