Max Boot’s Shameless Revisionism

Max Boot’s new article on the Obama administration’s proposed defense cuts does not begin well:

In 1991, at the end of the Cold War, there were 710,821 active-duty soldiers in the U.S. Army. By 2001, that figure was down to 478,918. That 32 percent decline in active-duty strength severely limited our options for a military response to 9/11, practically dictating that the forces sent to Afghanistan and Iraq would be too small to pacify two countries with a combined population of nearly 60 million. The result was years of protracted conflict that put a severe strain on an undersized force.

This is rank revisionism. Going into Afghanistan and Iraq with a relatively small force was in no sense — no, not even “practically” — dictated by Clinton era defense cuts. It was a choice the Bush administration made. This has been widely reported and analyzed. A considerable number of books have been written about it. An Army general was publicly humiliated over it. It is not a secret.

It certainly wasn’t a secret to Boot at the time. Here he is back in Summer 2003, hailing “The New American Way of War“:

Spurred by dramatic advances in information technology, the new American way of war relies on speed, maneuver, flexibility, and surprise. This approach was put on display in the invasion of Iraq and should reshape what the military looks like. […]

Traditionally, war colleges have taught that to be sure of success, an attacking force must have a 3 to 1 advantage — a ratio that goes up to 6 to 1 in difficult terrain such as urban areas. Far from having a 3 to 1 advantage in Iraq, coalition ground forces (which never numbered more than 100,000) faced a 3 to 1 or 4 to 1 disadvantage.

That the United States and its allies won anyway — and won so quickly — must rank as one of the signal achievements in military history. Previously, the gold standard of operational excellence had been the German blitzkrieg through the Low Countries and France in 1940. The Germans managed to conquer France, the Netherlands, and Belgium in just 44 days, at a cost of “only” 27,000 dead soldiers. The United States and Britain took just 26 days to conquer Iraq (a country 80 percent of the size of France), at a cost of 161 dead, making fabled generals such as Erwin Rommel and Heinz Guderian seem positively incompetent by comparison.

Do you sense Boot’s alarm here at the limits imposed by the Clinton administration’s defense cuts? Neither do I.

Later in the 2003 article, Boot scoffed at those who worried about continued Iraqi resistance:

A media frenzy ensued, with numerous stories suggesting that the offensive was bogged down and that the war could last months and result in thousands of casualties. Leading the charge was a platoon of retired generals who suggested that Rumsfeld had placed the invasion in jeopardy by not sending enough troops.

Silly generals. (Of course, Boot eventually came around and clambered aboard the “blame it on Rumsfeld” bandwagon, writing, without a trace of irony, “Rumsfeld won total responsibility for all facets of Operation Iraqi Freedom, but he never accepted the blame, except in the most perfunctory way, when everything went awry.”)

As for the current piece, Boot uses his comically obvious ret-conning to scold the Obama administration for its proposed reductions in force size, reasoning that reducing the Army’s active duty strength to 517,000 could dangerously constrain America’s ability to invade and occupy the entire rest of the world plus the Moon, should the need arise. It’s incredibly silly stuff that doesn’t merit much of a response beyond mockery, but it does bring to mind a point that my colleague Matt Yglesias has made, which is that neocons like Boot are essentially the opposite of pacifists: They believe that military violence is always the solution, and if military violence doesn’t work, that’s obviously only because you’ve failed to apply the correct amount of military violence. And yet, one-note force fetishists like Boot are considered part of the “serious” conversation, while pacifists are seen as naive, unrealistic and undeserving of prestigious perches at the Council on Foreign Relations. I would suggest that this tends to skew the foreign policy discourse in a particular direction.


Boot responds by claiming that he was always in favor of a bigger military. I don’t dispute that at all — as I wrote, Boot is for more things military as consistently and predictably as a pacifist is for less. My point is that Boot was hailing the Bush administration’s initial small force victories at the time, but since those victories got bogged down in grinding occupations, he’s created a revisionist narrative in which the Bush administration’s use of a smaller invasion force was necessitated by Clinton era cuts. Interestingly, Boot avoids this point entirely.

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