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A 21st Legacy: America's Military Has Made War Safer

May 15, 2003

Growing up the 50's and 60's I saw many newsreels about World War II. Scene after scene of Allied, German, and Japanese films showed rubble, empty building frames, and complete devastation of surrounding areas. (Precision bombing in WWII meant within 3500 yards of the target.) This was the pattern that had been learned well on the Western Front in 1914-18. The war in Korea produced similar scenes of devastation.

In Vietnam, war destruction began to change. The war there was very intense. Yet, less and less of the surrounding area was destroyed in the execution of the war. Saigon and the major cities stayed functional and were never points of American attacks. (Of course, the communist forces attacked the cities regularly.) In the countryside, air attacks were guided more precisely than ever dreamed of in WWII. Still, we saw many scenes of destruction and devastation in the aftermath of battles. I will venture to say that most of that destruction was caused by the communist forces. In fact, communist military strategy was always to inflict as much destruction on civilians and infrastructure as possible to break the will to fight. I believe that the western militaries, led by the Americans, began to change their approach to war to make it safer.

In Gulf War 1, we viewed fascinating film of precision bombing runs that sent weapons straight through the front doors of enemy buildings. Now we know that less than 15% of the munitions used in 1991 were of the precision guided and control type. The proof that our weaponry had become more precise (precise defined as destroying the intended target with little damage beyond that) was seen in the rapid return to "normalcy" in Iraq after the war was concluded. Yes, their military was reduced to a size less than what it was before the war began, but that is what weapons are supposed to do. The "other" damage was not so great that the country was brought to its knees afterwards. The precision, however, was still not good enough. I believe that the scenes of total devastation of Iraqi forces along the highway back to Iraq caused great concern to military planners.

In Operation Iraqi Freedom, the western press bought "hook, line, and sinker" the concept of shock and awe: unleashing such firepower and devastation that the Iraqis would be shocked by the assault and in awe of the forces they were facing. The problem with that thinking is that it would have been a linear extension of past war destruction results.

Our military is smarter and more humane than that. In the ten years since Gulf War 1, the military planners developed more precise munitions, strategies, and surgical forces. The results are that city lights, sewers, and fresh water all worked as missiles and bombs rained down on enemy buildings in Baghdad. Markets stayed open. Civilian casualty numbers were small. Even Iraqi military casualties were smaller than expected. Palaces, military buildings, and television stations were all crippled if not destroyed, as they should have been. Most other buildings are still standing and nearly fully functional.

The left writes off the minimum damage and casualties as a result of Iraqi military incompetency. If they understood how war works, they would realize that incompetence creates higher casualties. War will never be risk free because winning against evil requires destruction, not negotiating or compromise. What the left cannot fully accept, however, is that only western militaries, and by that I mean mostly the American military, have developed safer more humane weaponry that reduces casualties and destruction.

Sam T. Harper graduated cum laude from Vanderbilt University.  Following a tour in the US Navy and a stint as Operations Manager at Roadway Express, he earned his MBA from Stanford University Graduate School of Business.  He was a contributor to “In Search of Excellence,” the best selling business book of all time.  Sam was also Manager, Economic Planning & Analysis at Sohio Petroleum, Partner and Chief Financial Officer at investment-banking firm Bridgemere Capital, and Chief Operating Officer of the Institute for Contemporary Studies, a San Francisco Bay Area-based think tank and international publishing firm that specializes in self-governing and entrepreneurial public policy.  Sam was a chairman of the San Francisco Republican party and the GOP co-host of California Political Review on KALW-FM in San Francisco.  Sam is currently the co-owner of the Tennessee based Institute for Local Effectiveness Training, LLC – a management consulting, training, and coaching firm.