[The following was partly written for the dialogue “underfire”, but it also stands on its own.]
“If a gun is on the table in the first act, it will go off by the third act” – Anton Chekhov
In real life, the gun isn’t necessarily ever fired, yet its presence is still of great significance, and the same was true for swords and spears in the past, and for all manner of weapons now. Just as the gun as theater prop indicated to the knowing theatergoer that some play-acted attempt at violence could be expected before the night was over, weapons today signify power even when they do not actually “go off.” Even when a gun is is fired, it may well be as a warning shot. In fact, even when weapons are used to kill, most of the time their major intended effect is as warning to those not hit. Those warned are not necessarily anywhere near the weapon, nor do they have to directly witness whatever violence takes place, as long as they learn of it in a sufficiently graphic manner.
Depending on the sophistication and credibility of the audience, the threat of a weapon can merely be putative. A bank robber need not have a gun at all, but just a bearing and perhaps a note stating or only implying that he or she does. The kind of weapon does not even have to exist, as long as its present or future existence can be believably claimed or implied. Thus the “Star Wars” anti-missile system favored by President Reagan apparently helped undermine the Soviet Union in the 1980’s, even though up to the present, twenty years later, it has never been built in sufficient numbers to be any threat, and has never even been shown to work with any reliability. The point was that with both a nuclear-missile “sword” and the Star Wars “shield,” the US would be able to launch an unanswerable and undefendable attack on the Soviets. As long as the Soviet leaders could not be certain it would not work, and doubted their own ability to successfully devote the resources to counter it, it seemed to place them in peril. Of course, the Soviet system faced many other problems, which the Star Wars threat at most exacerbated. Still, it was a long-standing American policy — starting no later than the 1950’s — to attempt to bankrupt the USSR in a “qualitative” arms race.
Star Wars was only one of the many weapons of the qualitative arms race. In order to make the race as dramatic as possible, and thus as threatening, every conceivable technology had to be examined, and many then became irresistable to put into practice to some degree, whether that entailed talking about building them, actually doing so, or somehow brandishing or using them. For many reasons, even after the fall of the Soviet Union, when there has been no country racing the US to any degree, the emphasis on new weapons continued. Some reasons: bureaucratic inertia; the desire of weapons companies for lucrative new contracts; the assumed need to prop up the American economy with defense spending that does not compete with any profitable, private-sector offerings; and the self-promotion of defense technologists. Another reason to rely on technology was the hope that by so doing, the military could appear forceful without actually jeopardizing many soldiers’ lives. In the case of Kosovo, this actually worked; relying strictly on high-tech air power and a little diplomacy, the US pretty much achieved its war aims against Serbia without losing a soldier. However, to what extent the high-tech advantage was really necessary is not clear; it was a bombing campaign against a small, totally out-gunned country, and with limited objectives.
A quick, successful battle builds support at home as well. Another rhetorical thrust is to the home front, as illustrated by the televised beginnings of the Iraq war in “shock and awe.” An even better example in my view was the “amazing victory” over the tiny country of Grenada in 1983. Still smarting over the defeat in Vietnam eight years earlier, US “patriots” proclaimed this victory as a sign that “America is back.” The New York City Central Park Police were probably up to the task, but the country celebrated as if it had been a victory over China.
But there is a problem. Though the US outguns everyone many times over, at least on paper, the fact that our weapons are vastly expensive and highly sophisticated doesn’t mean they necessarily can be used to defeat an enemy without cost. Their rhetorical power may not be evident to those who in effect do not speak the language. Handing a note reading, “I have a gun,” to a banker who does not read English and has never heard of guns would not be an effective way to rob her. In the same way, stealth aircraft are no particular advantage against foes who do not even have radar, but they are more costly to use than conventional planes.
As I have hinted, the Pentagon desperately wants to avoid casualties, especially when fighting wars of only marginal value for the survival of the US. Under these circumstances, a draft is unacceptable; loss of life is unacceptable for most possible volunteers, and for their parents. Unless machines can replace soldiers, the Pentagon itself is just another “pitiful, helpless giant,” in the immortal words of Richard Nixon. Without the capacity to fight actual wars, the credibility of the advanced weapons will disappear, and eventually, the public will pull the plug entirely, or so they should reasonably fear. Thus the need to invent or discover enemies who will fall prey to the rhetoric of high-tech weapons at little or no cost in soldiers.
There are not many Grenadas, however. Nor even Kosovos. Finding an enemy that justifies vast military expenditures — that is, one which is not so much of a pushover that an unarmed bank robber could do the job — is not easy. That this enemy must also be perfectly attuned to the rhetoric of high-tech and will fold accordingly is even more of a challenge. Iraq has proved itself unsuited to its intended role. They just don’t get it. All the super-expensive weapons in the world can’t work, in that case.
In 1964, General Curtis LeMay, head of the nuclearized Strategic Air Command, supposedly advocated “bombing them [the North Vietnamese] back to the stone age.” In outline, this what the Allies did to win over the Axis in WWII., dreadfully bombing some cites in large measure as an example to the others. Then it had worked. Occupation after the utter defeat of the Axis armies involved much less resistance than either in Vietnam or Iraq. Germany, Italy and Japan each became or reinstated democracies of a sort.
One reason LeMay’s Indochina plan got no traction was that the Soviets were allies of Vietnam, and they were thought to have plenty of nuclear-tipped missiles that could hit the US. A similar strategy has undoubtedly occurred to some militarists in the case of Iraq, which, in fact, has no nuclear-armed allies that could be counted on to attack the US in reprisal. But even the Bush administration seems to realize that world- and even American opinion would be sharply against such a brutal and catastrophic attack. The US could never live it down. This is largely because of other technology— satellite television, the Internet, color photography. These are all now relatively cheap, but they are more effective than all the stealth planes or satellite surveillance in the world. Their rhetoric turns out to be far more universal, far more comprehensible, and thus far more powerful.