The inevitable has happened in Iraq as its US-backed government and military have proven themselves unable to exercise any authority over the country without an American military presence on the ground. Shockingly, all that stuff George W. Bush told us about the Iraqis standing up so we could stand down was bullshit and the Iraqi Army consists of a bunch of guys who signed up for a paycheck, food, and a gun with every intention of bolting at the first hint of fighting. Hell, the South Vietnamese put up a better fight than this (and despite the clear and obvious parallels to the withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam and the collapse of the Saigon regime, please remember that Iraq is not like Vietnam at all. Nope.)

Believe it or not, the history books a century from now would actually chalk up the Iraq War as a win if some kind of stable, democratic government run by something other than religious extremists or borderline terrorist groups had taken root. For a brief moment it looked like it could happen – the US troops left and everything didn't immediately collapse in a heap. The time for wishful thinking is over though, and we are now forced to confront the reality that this effort at "nation building" has gone about as well as any of our previous efforts.

This raises an important soul-searching question for the United States: What exactly are we good at anymore? At least during the Cold War we were able to prop up right-wing dictators or interfere with the internal politics of tinpot countries enough to ensure that the right strongman was "elected." Now we can't even do that right. Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan (where all efforts at Nation Building / winning Hearts and Minds have been abandoned and ground forces are now exclusively interdicting terrorists) have proven definitively that our conventional military power – honestly the only thing we have as a nation at this point that we can claim is Number One and not be fooling ourselves – is of limited use in the modern world. We're great at it. We can blow up your tanks, shoot down your planes, sink your ships, and bomb your cities into oblivion better than anyone else. The question is, so what? What good is that anymore? If we have to fight a conventional World War III with Russia or China – doubtful at best – we'll do quite well. With that an a bus pass, as my grandfather loved to say, you can get a ride on the bus.

We've ceded our strengths in manufacturing, education, and non-frivolous technology to the rest of the world. Our welfare state is an embarrassment. Our law enforcement and justice system are a case study in corruption. Our Congress and state legislatures are cautionary tales of what not to do. Other industrialized nations laugh at our health care system. Our standard of living is declining, wages have stagnated for three decades, and the rising cost of living is slowly making 99% of us poorer as we work longer hours with no mandated vacation or personal leave. Is the U.S. still a better place to live than the majority of the countries on Earth? Of course. But we're not comparing the U.S. to Chad. Compared to our peer group, it's hard to figure out what our strengths are anymore other than consuming energy, maintaining a giant stockpile of nuclear weapons, and having a big, powerful, expensive conventional military. Oh, and I guess we're pretty good at spying on everyone's telecommunications, although if I had to place a wager I'd bet the Israelis, Russians, or Swiss are even better at it.

The failure of the Iraq War creates some eerie similarities between the modern U.S. and the final years of the USSR. After wrecking its economy and standard of living with profligate military spending for thirty years, the Soviets found themselves pulling out of Afghanistan in defeat (and the government they installed had collapsed by 1991, too). The rest of the world, including the U.S., looked on and asked, "If you're spending that much on the military and you can't even win a war against a Stone Age country, what CAN you do?" It was a valid question. It is a valid question to ask ourselves as well. We've bled ourselves dry paying for two wars since 2002 and massive annual defense budgets every year for more than a half-century now. What do we have to show for it? Shouldn't we at least be able to do Military Stuff right? If we can't, what exactly do we have going for us?

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61 Responses to “STRONG SUITS”

  1. DEGEEST Says:

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  2. Xynzee Says:

    "interwar Czechoslovakia had more Germans than Slovaks."

    I used to work with a Czech guy who had the most German of German surnames. I often wonder if his grandparents had a fun time after the War. Given "repatriation" of Germans was one of the reasons given to annex Czech—seeing as it's a two-fer deal we'll take Slovakia as well.

  3. Xynzee Says:

    @Sunil: Grenada of course! Duh!

  4. Khaled Says:


    My great-grandparents came to the US from what is now Slovakia before WWI. Some of the family is till there, according to a great-uncle of mine who visited in the 90s. A number of the family members, however, ended up in West Germany after WWII- most of the German population of the area (most of which settled in the area in the 13th century) were forced to leave. Most of the remaining "German" population either used "Slovakian" (or Polish in Poland, etc) versions of their names, and have filled out census forms as "Slovaks" (or Czechs or Polish) ever since.

  5. Freeman Says:

    I generally enjoy reading this site, as it provides a dramatically different view than what I am typically exposed to in my line of work (hint: I wear camouflage and spend time in other countries).

    With that being said, as much as I enjoy diversity in perspective, I'll assume someone here might as well. I will first address something you said that is untrue : "we have abandoned all efforts at hearts and minds/ nation building and exclusively interdict terrorists." Now, you could question the effectiveness of those former efforts…. But to say abandoned is a stretch. I think it is also important to note that these are tasks that are best achieved by different elements (granted, working in unison); I think the structure of your original statement implies otherwise. Often it seems like that's the lynch pin in the whole ordeal – getting all these organizations to work together towards a shared goal (often loosely defined, if at all).

    The second issue is evaluating the usefulness of military only in its direct application. To imply that military strength only matters when it is directly employed seems like a fallacy ( your logic that our military strength has "no application" ). The fact that it has no application may be an indicator of its effectiveness.

    I know, sounds delusional. If you are thinking that I count Iraq/ Afghanistan as victories, I don't. And my interest in them is probably more personal than most Americans. There are certainly issues, but in 2014, criticizing efforts in Iraq/ Afghanistan without detailed analysis just seems… easy. You say "We can't do military stuff right," but I feel like you mean something else.

    I might have missed the bus on this post being late, but I enjoyed the article and all the comments, as usual.

  6. Sunil Says:


    I criticized the Afghanistan and Iraqi wars from the beginning, and I won't pretend to do a detailed analysis here. I don't think there was ever any historical evidence to think we could occupy either country, impose our will, and create governments to our liking. I'm not talking about Germany or Japan, but these regions. Rather, I think the evidence was that we would fail.

  7. Ed Says:

    "As for the Soviet Union comparison, it's really inaccurate because the USSR wasn't really "defeated" in Afghanistan. The withdraw was just one of many unilateral actions on behalf of Gorbachev to bring human rights, democracy, etc."

    LOLOLOLOLOL oh Arslan.

    Right, and the US wasn't defeated in Vietnam either.

  8. jafd Says:

    Back in '04, IIRC, military historian Stephen Budiansky wrote on how many troops were necessary to successfully occupy a conquered country

    TL:DR About 1 occupying soldier for every 40 citizens of the occupyed country.

    There are about 40 million Iraquis. There were never a million Coalition troops in Iraq. Blame rests squarely on CinC George W Bush.

  9. Jim Barnett Says:

    We created a bunch of wealthier war profiteers…so yay USA?

  10. Talisker Says:

    @Middle Seaman: Bill Clinton had an uphill struggle to climb out of poverty, it's true. But once he made it, he was a southern good ole boy with blond hair and a very Anglo name. Racism really wasn't an obstacle for him.

    @Elle: Yes, Umunna is a potential future Labour leader, but I'm cautious about making predictions that far ahead. 5 years ago, who would have guessed at Ed Milliband? As for Boris Johnson, for all practical purposes he isn't really part of an ethnic minority.

    @TomServo: Craft beer? Try Belgium or the UK. There are breweries there which have been perfecting their art for centuries, without any nasty interruptions like Prohibition.

    @Chicagojon: I was pointing out that elite American scientific research is still world-class. I realise the less-elite educational institutions have serious problems.

    @Skipper: Interesting point re. Spain, I wasn't aware of that.