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Are We Entering Another Interwar Period?

By Maj. Gen. Larry Taylor, USMCR (ret.)

"A nation that does not prepare for all forms of war should then renounce the use of war in national policy. A people that does not prepare to fight should then be morally prepared to surrender."

- T.R. Fehrenbach, in his classic study of the Korean War, This Kind of War - A Study in Unpreparedness

Our nation has been in five big fights in my lifetime, and many more smaller ones. In four of those big fights, we were either totally unprepared or we had prepared for a completely different kind of fight than the one in which we found ourselves. Desert Storm was the only exception.

Military professionals and historians know this and are perpetually repeating to each other the cliché about preparing for the next war instead of the last one. Knowing, however, that we have been wrong four out of five times, it is a curious phenomenon how frequently we then hear the assertion, often in the next breath, that "the next one" will take a very specific and predictable form, such as insurgency or counter-terrorism. To make such assertions is to ignore the lessons of history. The operative lesson is that no one can state with certainty what form "the next one" will take.

In the current debate about military spending cuts, it seems to be a given that massive cuts are coming and that we will not be able to do with our military all the things we have historically done. Only the size of the cuts seems to be the debate and not the effect of the cuts on our security and the security of our friends and allies.

It seems clear to this observer that these cuts will force us to either: a) choose among the various forms of warfare and specialize in only those, or b) pretend that we are prepared for everything, by spreading our resources and our forces so thinly and thereby creating a "hollow" force, such as we had in the late 70s. My opinion is that both a) and b) are unworthy of a great nation, and either option would encourage adventurism by potential enemies. It has happened before, and too many young Americans died while we tried to correct our mistakes.

We have drawn down our forces in Iraq, and will soon be doing so in Afghanistan. We are heavily in debt. We are heavily committed to non-defense spending, much of which is called non-discretionary. As has happened before, defense is expected to be the bill-payer. Depending on the national mood and our leadership, these periods of shrinking defense are characterized by catchphrases such as "malaise," "peace dividend," or "leading from behind."

In the interwar period between World War II and the Korean War, our shrinking defense was accompanied by the catch-phrase-become-policy called "The Truman Doctrine" which drew a clear line between friend and enemy in Europe, but failed to be as clear in Asia. The result of our weakness and lack of resolve, or to be more precise, the perception, in the minds of our enemies, of weakness and lack of resolve, was the Korean War.

We are entering a period of our history that I think is most closely analogous to the period between World War II and Korea. Defense is shrinking. We have given our friends reason to wonder about our reliability as an ally. Our potential enemies are emboldened. They are venturing beyond their borders and building power-projection capabilities.

On September 26, 1947, the Joint Chiefs of Staff sent the Secretary of Defense a paper on a contemplated withdrawal of American forces from Korea. It said, in part:

"A precipitate withdrawal of our forces...would lower the military prestige of the U.S., quite possibly to the extent of adversely affecting cooperation in other areas more vital to the security of the United States."

Our forces were withdrawn. North Korea invaded South Korea less than three years later, in June 1950.

"Almost all things have been found out, but some have been forgotten."

- Aristotle

"It is while men talk blithely of the lessons of history that they ignore them. The lesson of Korea is that it happened."

- Fehrenbach, ibid

Major General Larry Taylor, USMCR (ret.) is a member of JINSA's Board of Advisors.

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