Rachel Maddow has a new book, Drift. I’ve skimmed it; it isn’t bad. In it, her contention is that for a variety of institutional reasons, it has since the 1980s become far too easy for America to go to war.
The book started a debate between Kevin Drum and Jonathan Bernstein. Bernstein suggested, “U.S.-sponsored interventions of one form or another are hardly unusual, even before Maddow’s apparent jumping off point in the Reagan Administration. Perhaps the idea is that there was a golden age of sorts after Vietnam, but if so it lasted less than a decade. I’m not really sure it’s become easier to deploy troops for controversial missions or to begin interventions in other nations.”
Bernstein was supported by Armando at TalkLeft, who wrote, “That is not historically accurate in my view. The times getting into war was not easy was after wars that had been very costly and not particularly successful from the US point of view. Think World War I and Vietnam. Otherwise, going to war has been one of the great American pasttimes. I’m all for making going to war hard, but the history does not demonstrate that, except for isolated periods, that was ever really the case in the United States.”
Drum conceded the point, but suggested that there was still a difference between then and now: “So what’s different? I’d say this: it’s one thing to periodically wage brief, smallish military actions. The Dominican Republic occupation of 1965 falls into that category. So do Grenada and Panama ... the last couple of decades seem quite different. The Gulf War, followed by Somalia, followed by Haiti, followed by Kosovo, followed by Afghanistan, followed by Iraq, followed by Libya and Yemen, and all against a background of drone warfare that now seems all but perpetual, feels very different. It feels like we’re simply in a constant state of military action. In the last 20 years, there have only been three or four in which the U.S. military wasn’t at war.” Matt Yglesias supported Drum, adding that there might be an economic element: technology has made it cheaper and easier to project conventional military force, and therefore we do it more.
Bernstein is right. Everyone else, including Armando, is wrong. And none of it relevant to the argument in Drift.
In 1898, the United States went to war with Spain. Between 1898 and 1902, American troops battled Philippine insurgents. Peace came to Luzon in 1901-02, but fighting continued on Mindanao until 1912. In 1904, the U.S. navy bombarded rebel positions in the Dominican Republic; eventually U.S. Marines wound up (with the permission of the local government) occupying the customhouses. In 1906-09, we occupied Cuba, although there was (to be fair) not much fighting. In 1907 and 1911, we deployed to Honduras to halt Nicaraguan invasions. Between 1912 and 1925, U.S. Marines actively hunted insurgents (the original Sandinistas) in Nicaragua. In 1914, we once again bombarded Dominican rebels; we also occupied Veracruz to prevent arms from getting to the government. Between 1914 and 1934, we occupied Haiti: unlike Cuba in 1906-09, that one did involve quite a bit of fighting. We did the same on the other side of Hispaniola in 1916-24. In 1916-17, we invaded northern Mexico after Pancho Villa attacked Columbus.
Then there was World War 1. After which ...
In 1917-19, U.S. troops again garrisoned Cuba. In 1919, we landed in Honduras to protect a neutral zone during a civil war. Between 1918 and 1920, American forces blundered pointlessly around Siberia doing something or other, and sustaining a lot of casualties. For a few days in Guatemala, Marines saw combat during a civil war in that country. In 1925, we invaded both Honduras and Panama during periods of unrest. In 1933 and 1934, we waved gunboats around Cuba, but no war was necessary, since we succeeded in overthrowing the government by what would today be called covert action.
And then, peace until 1941.
Counting ... between 1898 and 1934, the United States was at peace for all of ... well, never, actually.
It is true that only the Philippine War rivalled the Iraq conflict in terms of intensity. (World War One, obviously, was hugely worse.) U.S. force levels rapidly grew from 12,000 in 1899 to 70,000 in 1900, by which point U.S. combat deaths approached two soldiers every day. By most metrics, the war (fought by a small all-volunteer army) was as intense as the Iraq War — proportional to the U.S. population, the peak force of 70,000 represented a per-capita commitment twice as large as the peak Iraq deployments in 2008.
Because the Philippine War lasted 28 months, as opposed to the 102 months of the Iraq War, the total proportion of Americans who served in the conflict was about a third of the recent level. The 126,000 soldiers who served in the Philippines over the entire course of combat operations amounted to 0.2% of the U.S. population, compared to the roughly 0.6% of the U.S. population who served at least one tour of duty in Iraq between March 20, 2003, and the official end of combat operations on August 31, 2010. The combat casualty rate, meanwhile (excluding deaths from disease) ran at 596 per 100,000 troops in 1900, almost exactly matching the 2004-07 rate of 608 in Iraq. (Iraq casualty rates per 100,000 ran at 718 in 2003, 650 in 2004, 588 in 2005, 583 in 2006, and 610 in 2007. They then plunged to 199 in 2008, 135 in 2009, and 121 in 2010.)
But ... that is fine. The Drum argument does not hinge on the big wars of the past decade; rather it hinges on the continual small wars since 1989. In that respect, 1989-2012 looks pretty much the same as 1898-34: lots of small wars punctuated by two big ones. Nor does Armando’s argument hold up. World War 1 had little effect on the American government’s propensity for military intervention. It is true that the U.S. avoided a potential big war during the Mexican Revolution, but that decision was made before we entered WW1; before, in fact, it was clear that we would.
The history is both worse and better for Matt Yglesias’s argument, depending on how you interpret it. In the Dominican Republic, for example, early insurgencies depended upon the seizure of customshouses to gain resources: naval bombardment, therefore, presented a cheap means of intervention. In general, I would venture to say that Yglesias’s hypothesis is correct: cheaper war probably means more war. (Someone should test that!) What the history does not support, however, is the rather specifc hypothesis that military intervention is cheaper today than it was in 1898-1934.
Let me add that this has little bearing on Rachel Maddow’s overall argument. She wants to explain why the post-Vietnam reforms designed to make intervention difficult failed. She does not claim that 1989-2012 (actually, 1983-2012 for her purposes) is unprecedented or novel. Other readers in the blogosphere have extended her argument, however, and I think it is probably worth adding a little historical corrective.