Tuesday, August 29, 2017

war and food

One of the last items in my summertime recreational reading was Lizzie Collingham's book, The Taste of War.  It tells how food supplies impacted soldiers and civilians during the Second World War and offers fascinating nuggets:

  • The Japanese army found so much soldier dissatisfaction serving typical Japanese food [rice, miso soup, pickles] that they changed to Chinese noodles and western style pork and chicken, which also greatly increased protein consumption.
  • Britain gave equal adult rations for morale purposes, but insisted that companies with more than 250 workers create canteens so that war workers could supplement their diets.
  • At the start of the draft in 1940, the US found 40% of draftees unfit for service because of problems linked to poor nutrition.
  • Congress expanded a school lunch program during the war, but banned any spices other than salt in order to avoid ethnic complaints.
  • Coca-Cola won an exemption from sugar rationing when supplying its drinks to military bases.
  • Americans ate well, despite the war. Soldiers received on average 2/3 of a pound of red meat every day; US civilians were allowed 2.5 pounds of meat each week -- twice what the British were allowed, which itself was far more than other combatants.
Collingham's broader story is how the struggle for food supplies affected military strategy, but these details are particularly revealing to me.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Trump's secret plan for Afghanistan

Donald Trump looked presidential last night. He gave a serious speech to a national audience on an important topic. Though he looked awkward reading the teleprompters to his left and right, with his faced blocked by a too-high microphone, he avoided ad libs.

While his style was presidential, his substance raised more questions than it answered. He made clear he was not Obama [no artificial deadlines] and not George W. Bush [no nation-building or democratization]. In fact, his Afghanistan policy looks more like the counter-terrorism focus proposed by Vice President Biden in 2009. Other than promising "victory" without explaining how to achieve or measure it, he kept secret just what the administration will do. As Jim Fallows noted:

  • He won’t say how many more troops he’s sending. (A stance that, with the kind of checks-and-balances Congress that a democracy depends on, or with a non-chickenhawk public exposed to the consequences of military commitments, he couldn’t get away with.)
  • He won’t say what will constitute “victory” or an end point, in what he emphasized was already America’s longest war.
  • Except for bromides, he won’t say why this new approach will work, when its predecessors for 16 years have failed. (The main bromide is: “We are not nation building again. We are killing terrorists.” This is an argument against George W. Bush’s ambitious and Wilsonian inaugural speech in 2005. It is more or less in sync with what Obama was doing.)
  • He can’t say how the policy he’s proposing matches the staffing and budget he has put together. Tonight Trump said: “Another fundamental pillar of our new [sic] strategy is the integration of all instruments of American power—diplomatic, economic, and military—toward a successful outcome.” Both George W. Bush and Obama expounded exactly the same goal. The difference is that both of them backed it up with staffing plans and budgets. (Barack Obama had the redoubtable Richard Holbrooke as his Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Trump is dismantling the office, and of course most of his embassies and State Department posts stand vacant.)
Trump also hinted that we might attack safe havens in Pakistan and might side with India against its neighbor. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

when the military becomes an interest group

I have long worried about the politicization of the U.S. military. When officers openly identify with a particular party, they risk undermining their role as an instrument of whoever have legitimate power to control them. When American politicians court the armed forces and line up retired luminaries, they risk having the elected leaders seek out only Republican or Democratic officers for key posts.

That hasn't happened too much, yet, in the U.S., but it's a danger to be avoided. We now have another example where a foreign leader coopted the military to his own domestic policies -- Venezuela.

The NY Times explains how President Maduro has given military units and their leaders control over various domestic economic organizations, linking their personal interests to his own political success. He has created over 2,000 generals, using the army as a patronage bonanza. I believe the armed forces should be limited to their military roles, not used as a tool of political power.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

the next Korean war

It's time to get really concerned about a renewal of fighting on the Korean peninsula. There was only an armistice, not a peace agreement, that ended the fighting in 1953.

We have long been used to bombast from the Korean media and its leader. Now the American president is trying to match the explosive rhetoric. What makes Trump's comments more threatening is that they come at a time when U.S. public opinion is becoming increasingly hawkish. A quickie CBS poll  is "uneasy " about the Korean situation, and about Trump's ability to handle it. Some 29% favor "military action now." A more substantial survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs finds 40% of Americans favoring airstrikes on North Korean nuclear production facilities and 28% favor sending U.S. troops into the country to destroy its nuclear facilities. Only 11% of respondents are willing to accept a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Although large majorities of 68-78% prefer sanctions against North Korea and China to try to end the nuclear programs, that approach has regularly failed in the past. I personally favor Bob Gates' proposal for joint US-Chinese inspection of a North Korean commitment to freeze its existing missile and warhead programs in return for US diplomatic recognition and other normalization. That's the best possible deal at the moment. But it would mean accepting a world where DPRK had a modet but real nuclear capability, a very tough stance for any US president to accept.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

war weariness in 1945

Americans like short, successful wars; they don't like long or unsuccessful conflicts. I've long viewed U.S. national security policy between the Nazi surrender on V-E Day and Japan's surrender on V-J Day as a struggle over the costs of an American invasion of the Japanese home islands and over the role of the emperor and the meaning of "unconditional surrender." I now see that there were powerful domestic factors also shaping U.S. policy in those crucial months.

As part of my summertime reading, I found Waldo Heinrichs and Marc Gallicchio's Implacable Foes. While the main focus of the book is on military planning for the defeat of Japan, it also provides surprising chapters on the domestic politics of the period. Truman's decisions on the atom bomb and Japanese surrender were made in a context where--

-- Congress was pushing for rapid demobilization and "reconversion" to a civilian economy and was skeptical of the need for large numbers of troops and military production once America had tro fight only a one-front war.

-- Soldiers and their families were pushing for rapid implementation of the Army's promised demobilization schedule, starting with individuals with the most points under a scheme that emphasized length of service and especially time in actual combat -- despite the disruptive impact on military units.

-- Many in government and in certain economic sectors demanded special treatment for soldiers with particular skills, such as coal minors and railway workers. Officials had to spend a lot of time responding to individual requests, often backed by congressional sponsors.

-- Congressmen regularly leaked details of classified hearings with Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall and others to bolster their own calls for different military or economic policies.

-- The Army was faced with the nearly impossible task of organizing the movement of forces and equipment from Europe, where they were no longer needed, to the Pacific theater, often with 30-day furloughs en route.

One of the lessons for me is that American war weariness was a powerful factor in the spring and summer of 1945. Victory in Europe led many to switch prematurely to a civilian focus as if the war were already won.  This wasn't the last time we saw such sentiments.