America’s Military Strategy? Persistent Overreach

A Roman Cavalry Mask found at the presumed site of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest
A Roman Cavalry Mask found at the presumed site of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest

W.J. Astore

Reports that President Obama is considering even more troops and bases to fight ISIS in Iraq put me to mind of Roman general Publius Quinctilius Varus.  Two millennia ago, Varus committed three Roman legions to the Teutoburg Forest in Germania in terrain that neutralized Roman advantages in firepower and maneuverability.  Ambushed and caught in a vise, his legions were destroyed in detail as Varus took his own life.  To Rome the shock and disgrace of defeat were so great that Emperor Augustus cried, “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my Legions!”

Ever since 9/11, American presidents and their military advisors have repeatedly committed U.S. troops and prestige to inhospitable regions in terrain that largely neutralizes U.S. advantages in firepower and maneuverability.  Whether it’s the urban jungles of Baghdad or Fallujah or Mosul or the harshly primitive and mountainous terrain of Afghanistan, American troops have been committed to campaigns that they can’t win (in any enduring sense), under conditions that facilitate ambushes by an elusive enemy with superior knowledge of the local terrain.  The number of U.S. soldiers killed or seriously wounded in these campaigns is roughly equivalent to those lost by Varus, though unlike Varus no U.S. general has yet to fall on his sword.

Unlike Rome, which did learn from Varus’s catastrophe the perils of imperial overreach, the U.S. persists in learning nothing.  Perhaps that’s because America’s defeat is collective and gradual, rather than singular and quick.  America may lack a Varus or a calamity like Teutoburg Forest, yet the overall result since 9/11 has been no less debilitating to American foreign policy.

Despite setback after setback, American presidents and generals persist in trying to control hostile territory at the end of insecure logistical lines while mounting punitive raids designed to deny Al Qaeda or ISIS or the Taliban “safe havens.”  We should have learned the impossibility of doing this from Vietnam, but it seems America’s presidents and generals keep trying to get Vietnam right, even if they have to move the fight to the deserts of Iraq or the mountains of Afghanistan.

Yet seeking to control territory in inhospitable regions like the Middle East or Afghanistan, whether you use American troops or proxy armies, is an exercise in strategic futility.   It’s also old-fashioned thinking: the idea that, to exert influence and control, you need large numbers of military boots on the ground.  But the world has already moved past such thinking into “borderless” hegemony as demonstrated by the Internet, by global business and finance, and by America’s own practice of drone strikes and cyber-war.

By repeatedly deploying American troops – whether in the tens of hundreds or tens of thousands – to so many equivalents of the Teutoburg Forest, our leaders continue a strategy of overreach that was already proven bankrupt in Vietnam.  Meanwhile, despite our own early revolutionary history, our leaders seem to have forgotten that no country likes to be occupied or interfered with by foreigners, no matter how “generous” and “benevolent” they claim to be.  Let’s also not forget that boots on the ground in faraway foreign lands cost an enormous amount of money, a cost that cannot be sustained indefinitely (just ask the British in 1781).

America simply cannot afford more troop deployments (and commitments of prestige) that set the stage for more military disasters.  When you persist in committing your legions to torturous terrain against an enemy that is well prepared to exact a high price for your personal hubris and strategic stubbornness, you get the fate you deserve.

After Varus’s calamity, the Romans stopped campaigning east of the Rhine.  When will America’s leaders learn that persistence in strategic overreach is nothing but folly?

Update (6/21/15): A friend writing from Germany reports that “new archaeological finds near the Elbe apparently show at least one major battle between Roman and Germanic forces in the second century AD. The documentary film’s claim was that the archaeological finds, combined with a few classical source references, show that the Roman armies did engage in major punitive expeditions deep into the territory across the Rhine in the time after Varus, including the one newly discovered which apparently showed a major Roman victory.”

Difficult to see.  Always in motion the future, Yoda once said.  He might have added that the past too “is always in motion.” Did a punitive raid such as this strengthen the Roman Empire or weaken it?  If the Romans won a victory, was it of the Pyrrhic variety?  Did the Romans attempt to sustain a presence across the Rhine only to abandon the attempt?  It will be interesting to see what new evidence is uncovered by archaeologists working in the area.

21 thoughts on “America’s Military Strategy? Persistent Overreach

  1. It is perhaps interesting to note that there is, to this date, a German drinking song celebrating the Germanic victory over the Romans. That leads me to conclude that our misadventures in the ME will be haunting us for a long, long time to come!!!


  2. When will America’s leaders learn that persistence in strategic overreach is nothing but folly? If the choice is between Some Day and Never, my money is on the latter.

    In the introduction to The Sleepwalkers, particularly the first three pages, Christopher Clark briefly focuses on post-war assessments by European state decision makers of summer 1914 events in the 6 weeks or so prior to all hell breaking loose in late July. Upon reflection, none of these individuals was able to find much fault with their own actions during this critical period in world history. The cognitive dissonance was clearly blinding, and motivated reasoning continued to overwhelm any capacity for detached objectivity.

    Robert McNamara (in a clip briefly featured at the link), decades after events, at last located sufficient perspective of his involvement with Vietnam policy to recognize some portion of the scope of error in involving America militarily with events in the formation of that nascent modern state.

    John Stewart this past week seemed to catch Don Rumsfeld out in a McNamara moment, but like any Bush administration neocon weasel worth his salt the former SecDef wasted no time twisting his own words as required in order to redefine what the meaning of “is” is, in the world according to Rummy.

    Even after colossal ass-kickings — maybe especially following colossal ass-kickings, and even more so during them — the hubristic (and it’s rare the leader who is not hubristic by nature or fails to succumb to hubris while in power) memory will rewrite as necessary, instantly if necessary, to minimize personal responsibility for failure.—learning-curves-are-for-pussies


    1. I disagree with the notion (presented elsewhere, not in anyone’s comments here) that McNamara “sort of” apologized for the Vietnam War in his interviews with filmmaker Errol Morris for “The Fog of War.” The ONLY time the old buzzard showed a little emotion in what made it to the screen was when he recalled the assassination of JFK.


  3. Brief (?) comments for Bill Astore: 1.) Indeed American generals don’t fall on their swords. After retirement they “fall” into comfy chairs behind big desks at corporations or “think tanks” intimately connected to the Pentagon; 2.) the need for boots on the ground absolutely has NOT been outmoded by high-tech. If your proxy–in less polite circles we call them puppets!–forces are not dependable (e.g. Iraqi forces in recent confrontations with Islamic State, ARVN in Vietnam, etc.) you MUST insert yourself on the ground to physically control a theater of war, and resources on the territory like oil wells; 3.) in Vietnam, of course the liberation forces knew the local terrain (like the partisans in the Balkan states and Greece that the Nazis couldn’t defeat). The American invaders were met by a stifling wall of heat and humidity, snakes and other indigenous creatures they found unwelcoming, etc. But what about the (alleged) fact that many fighting for the IS now are foreigners themselves, lured to the struggle against The Great Satan and its minions? This allegation of foreign recruits dates back to the days when al-Qaeda was billed as Number One Enemy to Civilization Itself on the planet. To the extent that the IS enjoys military successes, this suggests to me that MOTIVATION is even more important than being indigenous to a region. True Believers in a cause (it matters not for this discussion whether “we” find the cause repulsive!) will more readily sacrifice their own lives than US military personnel, sent thousands of miles from home and dropped into a culture they don’t understand–and will almost certainly despise.


  4. This is the kind of idiotic, morally bankrupt assessment of the Iraq war and other American military boondoggles that enrages me. As with almost all “serious” intellectual assessments of the Iraq quagmire it fails to mention we murdered over 1 million Iraqis, and injured and crippled countless more. And this killing continues today. This small factoid didn’t seem to get factored into his Astore’s pros vs cons list I guess. Yet the article moans about dead Americans and the strain on our finances. Here’s a note to W.J. Astore. Over one million Iraqis murdered. Factor that into your next assessment of our military overreach. I think it has more moral weight than lost American gold. Oh and I’m sure W.J. Astore calls himself a “liberal.”


    1. You’re attacking me for the article I didn’t write even though we’re in violent agreement. My argument is that we should never have invaded Iraq to begin with, thus averting the deaths and damage you cite. My article today was narrowly focused on U.S. strategy; elsewhere, I’ve written extensively about the high cost of America’s wars to various peoples, including the Vietnamese and Iraqis.


      1. Yes. It’s kind of like the discussion you’d wish you could have with the assistant secretary of defense if you met him at a cocktail party. Yes I imagine we are in agreement on the topic. Thank you for your article and all your writing.


      2. Most people who want us to focus extensively on the damage done to Iraq and the numbers of people killed, lose their own battles because of the unthought, uncalculative emotional responses they often hurl at people like your elf who are actually on their side


  5. Michael Dee. You seem to have gotten “your knickers in a knot” ( as the English would say ) over Col. Astore’s factual assessment from an American economic, political, and logical point of view of the stupid wars we are fighting.
    If you have been following this blog site you would see that Col. Astore is a dedicated peacenik and blade shaver who is very much aware of the MORAL issue of wars, which you bring up.

    I would respectfully recommend you examine the archives of contrary for the sum of our and other contributors on how we, at TCP, stand on the moral issues surrounding the US engaging in perpetual war.

    The pervasive control which our oligarchs and politicians have over the media never examine our perpetual wars from the point of view Col. Astore has chosen in this article to review. When drone strikes ( how euphemistic to name this hellfire with five letters) kill an innocent family our President and media only report that a “terrorist’ was killed and “collateral” damage happens. No media and certainly no politicians stand back and objectively examine the utter policy stupidity of doing the same thing over and over and continuing to fail. World public opinion has made the “moral” decision on the failure of our policies. Col. Astore in this article is trying to frame an American debate on the political reality of our failed policies.

    Thank you for your comments. I, and I am sure Col. Astore, would agree with your comments on the moral aspects of our disastrous policies.


  6. Michael Dee. In early 1945 the war in Europe ended but the war against Japan was still raging. . I was a 20 year old in the US Army Air Corps and when we heard that we had dropped a new kind of bomb on Hiroshima and then on Nagasaki that did great damage all of us were excited that it might signal the wars end.

    It took many years for me, and many like me, who felt good at that time to realize the horror and moral revulsion we should have felt for the utter ruthlessness of those bombs. Like we, young men in 1945, most people live day to day seldom understanding the moral implications of life but only reacting to the logic of life. Did something we or those around us do work or not. Seldom do we examine the moral ramifications.

    John McCain and President Obama and many American argue that it is our “moral” imperative to beat those terrorists by any and all means they can bring to bear. They really don’t care about ‘collateral damage’ and they refuse to examine the logic of their policies.

    The article above is aimed at the gut level assessment of : “is our war policy effective and is it logical” the answer is no and Col. Astore has tried to open that debate.


    1. b. traven, the decision was made to incur civilian deaths in japan due to their considering every man, woman, and child a combatant. the two atomic bombs saved millions seeing the alternative was a ground war in japan.


      1. Thomas Kozar–You appear to have endorsed the Establishment position that nuclear armageddon unleashed on Japan “saved millions of lives.” So you need to tell us, so we know where you’re really coming from: do you find declaring every living being in a nation as a combatant a proper moral stance?


  7. “Let’s also not forget that boots on the ground in faraway foreign lands cost an enormous amount of money, a cost that cannot be sustained indefinitely (just ask the British in 1781).”
    Ask the USSR about they’re Afghanistan adventure. The money theu sunk there sunk them, not Reagan.


    1. “The most likely way to defeat the strongest enemy militarily is to drain it militarily and economically”——of course, (draining it) economically is primarily by military operations, in addition to other means. Even Rumsfeld says to reporters in justification for his setbacks: “What more can we do?! Don’t forget that we are spending billions in combating an enemy that spends millions.”

      Click to access the-management-of-savagery-.pdf


  8. Varus’ defeat echoes in Europe today. Afterwards, Rome gave up the thought of conquering Germania, and the Rhine River became the northern border of the Empire. Today, Romance languages are found south the Rhine, with Germanic languages to the north.


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