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Ira Chernus

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Pentagon Planning for War With China

Posted: 08/06/2012 6:54 pm

You usually have to dig a bit to find the mythic dimension in political discourse. But sometimes it is right there on the surface, staring you in the face.

Latest example: A Washington Post report on "Air Sea Battle," a Pentagon plan for war with China. They've gamed it all out, it seems, and, I'm happy to report, we win! Here's how it goes:

The war games are set 20 years in the future and cast China as a hegemonic and aggressive enemy. Guided anti-ship missiles sink U.S. aircraft carriers and other surface ships. Simultaneous Chinese strikes destroy American air bases, making it impossible for the U.S. military to launch its fighter jets. The outnumbered American force fights back... Stealthy American bombers and submarines would knock out China's long-range surveillance radar and precision missile systems located deep inside the country. The initial "blinding campaign" would be followed by a larger air and naval assault.

This reminds me of the nuclear war scenarios that were popular in the late 1940s and early 1950s. My favorite was a cartoon spread in Life Magazine that sketched out an American-Soviet war. Of course the Soviets start it. Rockets fly and there is mass devastation on both sides. The last cartoon shows Manhattan reduced to rubble, except for the 42nd Street Library's guardian lions, which remain standing in all their nobility. Underneath, the unexplained (and inexplicable) caption reads simply: "The United States wins."

Of course that was for public consumption, to whip up cold war fervor among the masses. But similarly fantastic story lines were used in the Pentagon's secret "games" back then too. President Dwight Eisenhower ordered plans for winning a nuclear war -- and for (in his words) "digging ourselves out of the ashes" after it was over.

In 1958, as the size of the nuclear arsenals and the estimates of casualties spiraled beyond imagining, Ike demanded "a basis for further planning which is in the range of something reasonable... manageable or useable." Notes from one planning session read:

The President observed that he had asserted many times that if we assumed too much damage there would be little point in planning, since everything would be in ashes. An earlier presentation had estimated that some areas would not be useable for 30 years after an attack; of course planning on this basis is impossible. While we don't get off scot free in case of an attack, we should make assumptions which describe a realm in which humans can operate.

So Eisenhower officially directed his National Security Council to keep "assumptions as to the extent of damage within limits which provide a basis for feasible planning."

The WaPo article does not suggest that President Obama or anyone close to him ordered the recent war game scenario with China. It's the brainchild of Andrew Marshall, who at 91 years old is still doing what he's done for decades: sitting in his Pentagon office, dreaming up worst-case scenarios, and (with enthusiastic help from the military-industrial complex) persuading lots of people to take them seriously.

So far the battle, like any fantasy, is all in the mind. Marshall worries, says the WaPo, that China might some day supplant the United States' position as the world's sole superpower. One of his supporters, a senior Navy official, explains: "We want to put enough uncertainty in the minds of Chinese military planners that they would not want to take us on. ... Air-Sea Battle is all about convincing the Chinese that we will win this competition." It sounds like an Olympic champion plotting to psych out the challengers, doesn't it?

The nuclear arms race of the cold war era reached such fantastic proportions for much the same reason: Each side was so good at imagining what the other side might possibly, conceivably, some day, be able to do, and each side was determined to gain the psychological edge.

Of course such mental fantasies have a nasty habit of become self-fulfilling prophecies played out in all-too-physical reality. The WaPo notes that a U.S. attack would result in "incalculable human and economic destruction," according to an internal assessment prepared for the Marine Corps commandant. Some defense analysts "warn that an assault on the Chinese mainland carries potentially catastrophic risks and could quickly escalate to nuclear armageddon."

But "the war games elided these concerns. Instead they focused on how U.S. forces would weather the initial Chinese missile salvo and attack."

"Elided." Such an elegant word. Eliding the real world keeps everything in the mind, where myth and fantasy flourish. I suppose if Dwight Eisenhower had known the word he would have been proud to say that he elided the actual estimates of death and destruction in his war planning, too.

Some critics of Marshall's war planning decry not only his "eliding" but the very premise of his project: "It is absolutely fraudulent," said Jonathan D. Pollack, a senior fellow at Brookings. "What is the imaginable context or scenario for this attack?"

But for people like Andrew Marshall (and there are lots of them), raised among staunch cold warriors who saw worst-case scenarios as the only scenarios worth considering, imagining a scenario for this attack is no challenge at all. "We tend to look at not very happy futures," Marshall says, with wry understatement. When your mental world is shaped by the myth of homeland insecurity, there are monsters all around. It's easy enough to pick out the scariest one and invent fantasies of the next battle.

Will all this planning make war more likely? I can easily imagine Andrew Marshall's eliding that most crucial issue by answering: "That's not my department."

 
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