The Emperor has no clothes: The myth of United States military might

‘The emperor has no clothes’ – this is the assessment of more and more parts of the world concerning the United States.

It is most notable on the Korean Peninsula, where the two parts have been actively working towards reunification and leaving the USA out of the loop. But one can find it throughout eastern, central and western Asia, as they work out their own regional problems. Russia, Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America, even the Pacific increasingly have the same sense. This leaves a very small number of countries – perhaps 12 or at most 15 – who would count themselves as ‘Western’; they seem to hold onto the myth of the invincibility of the United States.

Until quite recently, the United States has relied heavily on maintaining this myth. The threat of economic largesse or the cold shoulder – most bluntly manifested through sanctions – has cowed one country after another in the past. But no longer: the more the United States arbitrarily imposes sanctions on all and sundry, the more ineffective they become. Global reserves and transactions in US dollars, which are the hard edge of sanctions, continue to decline (only 39 percent in 2018). And once you do not use US dollars, you can sidestep the sanctions (as is the case with the DPRK).

We may add to this the following facts: the United States internally is tearing itself apart, as it rapidly destroys all of the post-Civil War agreements and thereby the unstable truce of the internal Cold War; it is falling further and further behind in technological know-how, so much so that it is technologically backward; it has been largely de-industrialised since 1989 and its infrastructure is crumbling; its political model – a peculiar version of bourgeois democracy – is not merely a shambles, but a laughing stock of the rest of the world.

Here I would like to focus on another dimension. Many who would agree to some extent with this assessment will still say, ‘But the United States has the best military force in the world, which can defeat anyone’. While pondering this, I began to think back, trying to find a war that the United States has actually won.

Syria: it failed in its effort to topple the government.

Islamic State: this was defeated largely by the Russians, who know how to finish a job.

Afghanistan: ongoing failure.

Iraq (Gulf War): clearly a failure, at immense cost.

Libya: disaster, leaving a country in chaos.

Grenada and Panama (invasions in 1983 and 1989): perhaps these may seem like ‘successes’ over tiny countries, much like its earlier efforts in Latin America, but the result was a significant turn to the Left in Latin America and increasing rejection of US interference.

Cambodia: defeated.

Vietnam: a major loss.

Laos: lost again.

Cuba (Bay of Pigs): clear loss.

Korea: all they could manage was an armistice.

Second World War: while the Soviet Red Army clearly defeated Hitler’s Germany (with the western front a sideshow), one may argue that the United States ‘won’ the Pacific War against Japan. But they struggled mightily to do so, and – as historians point out – the Japanese began to sue for peace only when the victorious Red Army began to move east. The nuclear bombing of Japan was a rushed job to make it look like the United States was on top. What the United States did do – since its war losses were relatively minor – was make the most of the situation and impose its economic model on a Western Europe bled dry by the war. The United States did so by relying on the long post-war economic depression in Europe to assert economic control.

First World War: reluctant to enter into what they saw as a European problem, they arrived late and sustained few losses.

United States Civil War: at last, we can find a major conflict, but is this a loss or a win?

American War of Independence: they did indeed win this one, but it is some time ago now.

In fact, we need to go back to the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to find wars that were won – such as the ‘Indian’ wars of extermination, internal rebellions, those with immediate neighbours (for example, Mexico, Canada and Latin America, as part of expansion and local domination), or occasional raids in the Pacific, to find actual examples of ‘victories’. Hardly glorious.

One may suggest that the United States has managed somewhat better when it has used someone else to do the dirty work. A good example here is the funding and arming of the Taliban in Afghanistan in order to resist the Soviet Union’s invasion of the 1980s (an effort to quell a restless border country). This example could be multiplied, but it came at immense cost, manifested above all in the successful attack on the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001. If anything was a symbol of US military weakness, this was it.

The question remains: why has the United States consistently lost wars for more than a century? One answer is the simple fact that United States ground troops are of inferior quality. As Stalin already observed in relation to the Atomic Bomb: weaponry is one thing, but the key is the quality of the ground troops. Thus, the United States loves firing missiles, dropping bombs and (more recently) using drones on all and sundry – Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and so on – but when it sends in ground troops they fail again and again. Of course, the use of weaponry ensures that the military industry keeps humming along (as also the sale of such weaponry), but it is never able to win wars.

To be added here is the avoidance of getting too deeply involved in major conflicts – the two ‘world wars’ of the twentieth century being the best examples. In these cases, it has preferred to let others take the brunt and then step in afterwards to impose its will.

In light of all this, why do some people still play up United States military might? This is partly an old line, which follows a well-worn narrative. It is also relatively comfortable: under United States hegemony, the world is a bad place, but it provides a level of known comfort. And one can always feel a little better by harping on about the emperor’s evils. More significantly, it is a myth upon which the United States has relied for more than 70 years. The propaganda machine has been hard at work advancing this myth: Hollywood movies; museum displays for children of United States military hardware; pure spin dressed up as ‘history’ concerning its ‘pivotal role’ in the Second World War; a compliant ‘Western’ media; and so on.

The reality is somewhat different. As Wallerstein already put it some time ago: imperial hegemony works only when no one challenges it. As soon as someone does, one dare leads to another. A little later (2003), he observed that the United States is ‘a lone superpower that lacks true power, a world leader nobody follows and few respect, and a nation drifting dangerously’. These days, this is even more the case. In fact, it is no longer a ‘super’ power, but merely a power.

Perhaps it is time we realised – as the majority of the world has already realised – that the emperor really has no clothes.