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Stabbing Blindly

[ 0 ] February 28, 2007 |

Max Boot blunders into an interesting point. In denouncing our allies for being insufficiently militaristic, he manages to ask an interesting question. Here’s the dreck:

Britain is hardly alone in its unilateral disarmament. A similar trend can be discerned among virtually all of the major U.S. allies, aside from Japan. Canada is a particularly poignant case in point. At the end of World War II, Canada had more than a million men under arms and operated the world’s third-biggest navy (behind the U.S. and Britain), with more than 400 ships. Today, it has all of 62,000 personnel on active duty, and its navy has just 19 warships and 23 support vessels, making it one-fourth the size of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Indeed, in 1945 the Canadian military was much larger than it is today. It’s possible that there was some kind of war on, although I’ll have to check on that. In discussing the “unilateral disarmament” of our Allies, however, Boot fails to note that the US has undergone a similar shift. From the COW dataset:

US Military Personnel (active duty)
1945: 12123000
1955: 2935000
1965: 2666000
1975: 2098000
1985: 2244000
1995: 1620000
2007: 1426713

Contra Boot, it’s not simply our feckless allies who have seen a tremendous downsize of their military establishments. It’s also the United States. Incidentally, the USN had over a thousand ships in service in 1945 (including over fifty capital ships), and has only 300ish in service now, with a mere eleven capital ships.

But here’s the interesting question: Why is it that the United Kingdom, which is in an absolute sense far more wealthy now than it was in 1930, having difficulty maintaining a foreign deployment of about 10000 total in Iraq and Afghanistan, while in 1930 it deployed many multiples of that total all over the world, plus colonial auxiliaries who were partially paid for by the Crown? The relative increase in the effectiveness of insurgency strategies isn’t just a consequence of the spread of the AK-47 or of the further development of nationalism in the non-western world; it’s also a consequence of the fact that modern, wealthy states can now deploy far, far lower numbers of troops than they could fifty years ago. Indeed, in 1965 the United States (with a smaller and much poorer population in absolute terms) managed to deploy half a million troops to Vietnam while at the same time maintaining large contingents in West Germany and South Korea.

Part of this trend is in response to a general increase in the affluence of North American and European populations. Along with the elimination of conscription, this has worked to make individual soldiers far more expensive than they used to be. Improvements in military technology have also rendered weapon systems more complicated, necessitating longer training, and thus increasing the investment that a state needs to make in an individual soldier. A general shift from mass to firepower, especially since the end of the Cold War and particularly in the United States, has served to cut the boots per buck. This last has a political rationale (more firepower means fewer friendly casualties, and firepower tends to be a more capital intensive investment than mass), but has particularly damaging consequences for counter-insurgency efforts.

I suspect, though, that there’s no going back, at least in the current political climate. Unless we want to follow Niall Ferguson’s suggestion and combine high immigration with slashed social services and education, creating a large and potentially irritable underclass to do our imperial bidding, the era of mass armies seems to be over.

Kingdaddy had some interesting thoughts on these questions awhile ago.

Cross-posted to Tapped.

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