Some years ago, I was listening to a defense-savvy friend hold forth on the technological sophistication and stupendous firepower of the British Navy’s two new aircraft carriers, the first of which was then under construction (and will finish her sea trials this summer), with the second planned to be commissioned in 2020. They are irrelevant, I opined; the British Navy is neutered. My friend spluttered indignant disagreement.
Well, I persisted, look what happened to the Royal Navy during the Iraq War, in the early spring of 2007. Pursuant to a UN resolution, eight sailors and seven Royal marines set forth on March 23 from the frigate HMS Cornwall in two boarding craft to search a merchant ship suspected of smuggling. They were in a part of the Persian Gulf that belonged to Iraq, though Iran, with its usual bellicosity, also claimed sovereignty over it. The British sailors, their search completed, reboarded their boats, only to be detained by two Iranian navy speedboats, soon reinforced by half a dozen more. Surrounding the British, the Iranians forced them up the Shatt al-Arab, from which they were taken for questioning at a Revolutionary Guards base in Tehran.
And there they remained until April 4, blindfolded, hands bound, and psychologically pressured until they “admitted” that they knew they had invaded Iranian waters. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad painted their release as a magnanimous “gift” to Britain, herded them aboard a commercial British airliner, and sent them home.
Despite his one arm, Admiral Lord Nelson would have spun in his grave, I told my friend. The Royal Navy gave up two of its vessels in wartime without firing a single shot? These are not warriors, I said. If you have a fighting force that won’t fight, it doesn’t matter how sophisticated the equipment is at their command. Willpower, as British commanders from Henry V to the Duke of Wellington believed, is as important as firepower: and these 15 sailors and marines, who explained that they didn’t resist because they thought they’d lose (a self-fulfilling prophecy!), suggest a fatal loss of nerve in the British military.
The government’s efforts to sugarcoat the incident only made matters worse. A former First Sea Lord explained that the navy’s “de-escalatory” rules of engagement forbade provoking the enemy and intensifying the situation—cowardice by command, in other words. Dependably emollient Prime Minister Tony Blair deemed the behavior of the 15 “entirely sensible.” Had they resisted, there would “undoubtedly have been severe loss of life”—as of course happens in war. At least nothing was lost save honor.
So what to say of the ten American sailors on two patrol boats captured by the Iranian navy on January 12 last year, again without firing a shot? Yes, then-Secretary of State John Kerry says he was on the phone with the Persian foreign minister within five minutes, threatening severe consequences if the sailors were not released forthwith—the same John Kerry who, with President Obama, let the Syrians cross our firm “red line” forbidding them to use poison gas, promising that diplomacy would surely prevent a recurrence, such as the horrendous one that occurred this week. And yes, Iran let our sailors go 15 hours later. But some details remain murky, especially why the sailors claimed that the engine failure of one boat caused them to drift into Iranian waters, when both boats subsequently left under their own power. What is irrefutable, though, is that the Iranians published humiliating photographs of the U.S. sailors forced to kneel on the deck of one of their vessels, their hands clasped behind their heads—and that the U.S. Navy fired the commander of their squadron for ineffective leadership and oversight five months later.
President Trump has promised to strengthen America’s much reduced military might by increasing both manpower and firepower, streamlining procurement, and modernizing weaponry. These are essential tasks. But no less necessary is strengthening troop morale and fighting spirit. The purpose of the military is not to make sex equality. Nor is it to avoid wartime civilian casualties, if that means rules of engagement that make soldiers feel that they are fighting with one hand tied behind their backs, as our discouraged troops in Afghanistan and Iraq often felt. Nor is it to turn the rest of the world into democratically minded republicans, something that is impossible in tribal societies with tribal codes of honor and loyalty—or in sharia-based cultures, where mosque and state are inseparable, and the Koran is the Constitution. As Lyndon Johnson remarked with his usual tart vulgarity, it’s absurd to think an army can win over an enemy’s hearts and minds. “Grab ‘em by the b**ls, and their hearts and minds will follow,” he realistically advised, with little reverence for the hearts and minds in question.
The purpose of the military, George Washington repeatedly insisted, is to preserve peace by being powerful enough that no enemy dares to attack. That’s as much a matter of will as of weapons.
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