The Iraqi attack on the U.S. frigate Stark raises questions that go far beyond those of why the attack took place and how it could have succeeded.
Pentagon spokesmen are already attempting to explain away this latest and tragic American military embarrassment by receding into the arcane world of narrow and irrelevant legalisms. Primary among them is the fact that the United States is not a belligerent in the Persian Gulf war, as if this explains how a U.S. warship--one capable of shooting down not only the Iraqi Mirage fighter plane that attacked it but also the Exocet missile that did the actual damage--was nevertheless surprised, at the cost of 37 American lives. The suggestion is that a legal state of non-belligerence could or should have been taken as immunity against attack.
It is further noted that the Stark was operating in international waters when it was attacked. So, too, was the Maddox in 1964, when it was attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin; Pueblo in 1968, when it was seized by the North Koreans; and the American merchant ship Mayaguez in 1975, when it was captured by Cambodian Communists in the Gulf of Thailand. Does being in international waters excuse the need for constant and effective vigilance?
Perhaps the most absurd claim of all is that the Persian Gulf is not a war zone. One wonders what has been going on in those waters since 1980, when an attempted Iraqi invasion of Iran prompted what has become one of the longest and bloodiest wars in the world since 1945. More to the point, during the past seven years both Iraqi and Iranian aircraft have launched almost 100 attacks on "non-belligerent" shipping in the gulf, with many of the Iraqi attacks being delivered in the form of Exocet missile strikes. If the Persian Gulf is not a war zone, then the term has no meaning.
Far more disturbing, however, than the Stark's as-yet inexplicable failure to defend itself is what the success of the attack says about the professional confidence of the U.S. military, whose $300-billion annual cost represents more than 6% of our gross national product.
The broad question of whether the United States is capable of competently employing military power is an admittedly unpleasant one. Yet the recurrent failure of American arms since Gen. Douglas MacArthur's spectacular landing at Inchon, Korea, in 1950--the U.S. military's last major unqualified success--has undoubtedly raised this question in the minds of allies and adversaries alike.
In a world where force remains the final arbiter of international disputes, proven military prowess is an essential component of national defense. A reputation for the ability to use force effectively is indispensable to the United States, whose interests abroad are in fact being threatened and to whom others look for protection. Manifest incapacity to use force effectively tempts adversaries and discourages allies.
It is therefore important to recognize the assault on the Stark as but the latest page in a dismal chapter in American military history.
Item: In late 1950, following the Inchon landing, U.S. forces advancing northward toward the Yalu River are surprised by a massive Chinese attack that results in the longest retreat in American military history.
Item: In 1965 U.S. ground combat forces begin a seven-year intervention in Vietnam's war and fail to defeat an enemy vastly inferior in numbers, technology and firepower.
Item: In 1968 the U.S. Navy intelligence-gathering ship Pueblo, inexplicably unescorted even though operating close to North Korea, is seized by the North Koreans.
Item: In 1970 a U.S. commando force attempts to rescue American POWs at North Vietnam's Son Tay prison camp, only to find the camp empty.
Item: In 1975 U.S. Marines assault Koh Tang Island in search of the crew of the hijacked merchant ship Mayaguez, only to encounter strong resistance that results in heavy casualties--and to discover later that the Marine ship's crew was being released elsewhere at the time of the assault.
Item: In 1980 an operation to rescue American diplomatic personnel held hostage in Iran disintegrates in the desert even before coming into contact with hostile forces. A Pentagon commission of inquiry concludes that both the planning and execution of the operation were faulty.
Item: In 1983 a lone terrorist behind the wheel of a truck full of explosives blows up the headquarters of the Marine "peace-keeping" force in Beirut, killing 241 Marines. This prompts another Pentagon commission of inquiry, which concludes that the success of the attack was attributable in large measure to a faulty U.S. military chain of command and to professional negligence of Marine officers on the spot.
Item: Two days after the Beirut disaster, a U.S. invasion of tiny Grenada succeeds against an inherently doomed Cuban resistance, but post-invasion assessments reveal inexcusably poor intelligence and tactics, wretched planning and an absence of cross-service communication and coordination that could have spelled disaster against a larger, better armed and more competent enemy.
To be sure, there have been exceptions to this dreary list of U.S. military defeats, miscarriages and flawed victories: Gen. Matthew Ridgway's Korean counteroffensives in 1952-53, the interventions in Lebanon in 1958 and the Dominican Republic in 1965 (though no combat was involved in the former, and very little in the latter), and the air strikes against Libya last year. Moreover, the U.S. military cannot be held fully responsible for its losses in such places as Vietnam and Lebanon, where its operational and even tactical flexibility were severely inhibited by White House and other civilian micromanagement.
Nevertheless, the U.S. military's record from the Yalu to the Stark is not a professionally admirable or enviable one. It is a record that suggests the presence within the military of profound institutional and organizational deformities, of deficiencies in planning, training and doctrine. If this situation is allowed to go uncorrected, it not only will condemn the United States to further military failure; it also will saddle this nation with the incalculable political penalties imposed by a sagging military reputation.