I keep hearing this from Americans, including other liberals who hate our foreign invasions and occupations just as much as I do. They seem to have a need, almost an obsessive need, to couple their denunciations of those acts of aggression and imperialism with the proud declaration that we have the most stupendous, magnificent, competent, highly trained, just-all-around-awesome military forces the world has ever known. Ever. Bar none. No exceptions.
Better than the Roman legions at their peak. Or the armies of imperial Spain or Napoleonic France. Better at sea than the British navy when it ruled the oceans or the Phoenician fleet that served the Persian empire.
Better than those! Yes! By far! Really! La la la la, I can't hear you, betterbetterbetter!
What the hell does this even mean? What's the metric? Such comparisons are meaningless. The only thing that's meaningful is a relative measurement - the comparison of a nation to its contemporary rivals. Moreover, this comparison has to include not just military power but a great number of other factors as well - economic, social, mercantile, industrial, and so on. As I remember, this is one of the fundamental arguments of Paul Kennedy's great book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. If I'm remembering correctly, that's also where I read this interesting thought experiment. Imagine a smaller ship of today's British navy being transported back in time a couple of hundred years, to the era when Britannia ruled the waves. That modern ship could wipe that old wooden navy from the seas and dominate the oceans all by itself (at least until it ran out of fuel). Does that mean that the modern British navy dominates the world's seas? Of course not. What counts is the comparison to contemporaries - today's British navy to today's U.S. navy, for example, or the British navy of 1800 to the French navy of 1800.
Nor is the magnificent virility of our stupendous ships erecting their huge cannons the only factor to consider. Or equivalently our utterly awesome air armada that can drop more tons of explosive horror on terrified civilians than anyone else ever could. We thumb our nose at the WWII Luftwaffe. Hmph!
In spite of that, we lost in Vietnam. We're losing in Iraq and Afghanistan. We would lose terribly if we invaded Iran. And imagine if we invaded China!
Clearly, enormous military force is not enough. Other superpowers have encountered that reality, often at the height of their dominance. There were always places where they couldn't dominate, where local conditions or conditions at home or a combination of the two delivered a much-needed kick in the imperial teeth.
Even if there were a meaningful way to compare our military forces today to those important ones in the past, and even if that comparison did indeed show that ours are more stupendiferous than even the best of those were in their day, so what? That wouldn't change the fact that we lost in Vietnam and are losing in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It seems to me that the need to keep asserting our military supremacy over the rest of the world now and over all empires of the past has nothing to do with an objective assessment that we really possess such supremacy. As I said, that assertion would be pretty much meaningless and irrelevant. I think something much sadder and nastier underlies that claim.
We are the old guy who used to be the tough guy. You know the type. He puffs out his chest to disguise the fact that his chest is sagging and his waist is expanding. He waves his fists in others' faces while wearing loose shirts that hide the shrinkage in his biceps and shoulders. He blusters and swaggers and threatens and talks too loudly. He tries desperately to mask his fading powers behind a bullying display, hoping to cow the younger, tougher guys into acknowledging him as top dog. He can pull this off for a while. He has money and retains his position of authority, and for a while everyone else is fooled. For a while, he can fool himself, as well. But in the end, reality always asserts itself, and the old guy is pushed aside and ignored.
There's a period between being convincing and being ignored when the blustering display is embarrassing and a cause for scorn. I think that as a country we're just starting to enter that phase now. Perhaps that's why so many of are yelling ever more loudly about the astonishing stupendiferousness of our military.
I do wish we'd all stop. I don't want my country to be evil. I also don't want it to be embarrassing.