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The Dangers of Military Symbolism BOSNIA, ETC.


"Anything we drop, even if it's very little, if it gets to someone who needs it, then it's a successful mission," a young Air Force sergeant recently told the New York Times, describing the U.S. airlift of food and medical supplies to besieged Muslims in eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The problem is, Pentagon officials are hard-pressed to cite anything more than "anecdotal evidence" the relief supplies are being recovered by those who need and deserve them most. There is better than anecdotal evidence, however, that the lion's share of the tons of supplies being airdropped are being recovered by Serbian aggressors.

Moreover, the lift operation seems to have sparked a harsh Serbian offensive, leading to the capture of the long-encircled Muslim enclave of Cserka. In fact, Serbian irregulars reportedly seized upon a Muslim scramble to recover airdropped supplies to break through the lines at Cserka.

During the presidential campaign last year, candidate Bill Clinton assailed President Bush for not doing more to end ethnic warfare in the former Yugoslavia. Now, as he has on so many fronts, President Clinton is hewing to a more cautious line. The airlift thus serves as a conscience-salving half-measure launched in lieu of the more direct military intervention promised during the campaign. No surprise, then, in comments to reporters on March 3, Defense Secretary Les Aspin termed the airlift "a symbolic effort."

As such, however, the food drop faces the pitfalls that afflict many such militarily symbolic efforts: The posturing power often gets more deeply involved in the conflict in question than it intends. Tragic and equally unintended consequences are often the result.

If only because the U.S. C-130 cargo planes are flying in at high altitudes to avoid ground fire -- a tactic that also erodes the accuracy of airdrop delivery -- the Bosnian lift need not necessarily suck the United States into a messy and intractable conflict. But it does seem to flunk the test of what former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney once termed the "don't-screw-around school of military strategy." Molded by bitter experience in Vietnam and subsequent more minor conflicts, that philosophy explicitly shaped Washington's conduct of the 1991 war against Iraq.

As Army Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has repeatedly stressed, the U.S. military should avoid engagement overseas unless it has a clearly defined and achievable mission, can go in with overwhelming force and can wrap the whole thing up quickly.

In America's long and bloody war to win the "hearts and minds" of Southeast Asia, overwhelming force was no problem. But a clearly defined mission was sorely lacking. Indeed, key elements of that war's conduct smacked woefully of futile military symbolism. As military historian Mark Clodfelter amply lays out in "The Limits of Airpower: The American Bombing of North Vietnam," this is especially true of the U.S. air campaigns directed against Hanoi.

Revealingly, those raids were termed "demonstrative strikes" during President Lyndon Johnson's phase of the conflict. "The immediate and critical targets are in the South, in the minds of the South Vietnamese and in the minds of the Viet Cong cadres," then-national security adviser McGeorge Bundy said in 1964, when the first massive U.S. strikes were being debated.

The bombing would be "the means to a limited objective, the improvement of our bargaining position with the North Vietnamese," under secretary of state George W. Ball added. But the bombings continued, off and on, for another eight years, until Washington finally found a face-saving way to withdraw from a military morass that was destroying both Vietnam and America.

A more recent cautionary tale of how symbolic military action can lead to disaster is provided by the deployment of U.S. Marines to Beirut early in President Ronald Reagan's first term. The initial rationale for reintroducing the so-called Multinational Force (MNF) into war-torn Lebanon on Sept. 29, 1982 was simply and vaguely to "establish a presence." A subsequent goal became to "interpose" a force between withdrawing Syrian and Israeli armies -- armies that showed no signs of withdrawing.

"This MNF would not have any mission that could be defined," Caspar W. Weinberger, defense secretary from 1981-87, wrote in his 1990 memoirs, "Fighting for Peace." "Its objectives were stated in the fuzziest possible terms; and then later, when that objective was 'clarified,' the newly defined objective was demonstratively unobtainable." Not only that, the U.S. deployment was, literally, indefensible. On Oct. 23, 1983, 241 Marines were killed in a truck bomb attack.

A later Middle Eastern excursion also had its symbolic aspects. In 1987, Washington decided to escort Kuwaiti oil tankers transiting the Persian Gulf amid attacks on tankers mounted by Iraq and Iran, then locked in a seemingly interminable war. If designed to enforce the sanctity of open seas, the operation was decidedly bizarre. After all, the vast bulk of tanker attacks were mounted by Iraq -- against whom the United States went to war only four years later, but toward whom it clearly tilted by undertaking the escort of tankers operated by Kuwait, which was underwriting the Iraqi war effort.

This mission, too, played out in tragedy. On May 17, 1987, 37 sailors aboard the USS Stark were killed by an anti-ship missile fired, apparently accidentally, by an Iraqi pilot. A year later, the USS Vincennes, again by accident, downed an Iranian airliner, killing 290 passengers and crew.

The escort plan "was crafted on the back of a napkin at a [Pentagon] breakfast," a very senior member of Mr. Reagan's defense department team later charged privately in an interview. "We put these guys [American sailors] in there with an extraordinarily vague mission and then didn't let them defend themselves properly. It was a horrendous mess, but that's that."

Speaking of horrendous messes, perhaps the mostly monumental and chilling example of a largely symbolic military venture has been the edifice of nuclear deterrence erected by the United States and the former Soviet Union.

The atomic infrastructure itself, certainly, was far from symbolic. From the establishment of the Manhattan Project during World War II to the final collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Washington spent in excess of $2 trillion, in fiscal 1993 dollars, building and deploying tens of thousands of nuclear warheads and delivery systems, not to mention the "hardened" communications networks and "continuity of government," presidential succession and "damage limitation" programs ostensibly designed to permit this deadly arsenal to be unleashed in a global conflict. Moscow did no less.

Atomic arms' "very existence called forth some set of seemingly rational things to do with them," Robert S. Norris, a nuclear weapons expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, remarked. "They couldn't just be pointed up at the sky. They had to be pointed at something. So you develop this whole institutionalized and rational, but actually quite insane, plan of action to go with them."

In effect, the U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals were opposing scarecrows that called each other into existence and sustenance. If either side had implemented its baroque war plans, though, civilization as we know it could well have been eradicated from the planet. In this symbolic, if deadly, arena, at least, we have been lucky. The twin atomic scarecrows are now largely being dismantled.

But, in the other, more conventional arenas that remain, policy-makers might be wise to beware the enticing snares of military symbolism.

David Morrison is national security correspondent for National Journal.

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