Incoming: What Not to Do When in Asia
"Never get involved in a land war in Asia.” So went the taunt in the 1987 film The Princess Bride, a comic adventure brimming with clever one-liners. Plunging into ground combat in Asia was considered “one of the classic blunders,” as a character describes it, so obvious that even children get the joke. Thus thought the gifted screenwriter William Goldman, who once had typed reports in the Pentagon as a U.S. Army corporal and went on to pen scripts for classic movies such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and A Bridge Too Far. Yet what may have seemed obvious to Goldman and throngs of moviegoers apparently did not register above the corporal level in the U.S. high command. Far from avoiding land war in Asia, we have jumped in repeatedly with both feet, both hands and all the gusto we could muster. In information technology-speak, when it comes to U.S. strategy, fighting on Asian terrain appears to be a feature, not a bug.
Avoiding conflict in populous, sprawling, contentious Asia makes sense for a country anchored in the Western Hemisphere. Even with 316 million people, the United States cannot hope to put enough boots on that vast ground. China alone outnumbers us about four to one, as does India. Indonesia, Pakistan and Russia all have hundreds of millions of people. Each of these countries fields significant armies, all with the potential to enroll plenty more. Fortunately, U.S. nuclear weapons and economic muscle give the United States better options than going mano a mano in teeming Asian cities, scorching deserts, dense jungles, endless grassy steppes and forbidding mountains. Befriending those we can while deterring those we cannot, we would do well to steer clear of land combat on that inhospitable far shore. It does not take Hollywood to tell us that.
Others have said so, too. Military minds far more astute than former corporal Goldman have weighed in on the matter. Speaking to West Point cadets in 2011, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it pretty bluntly: “Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General [Douglas] MacArthur so delicately put it.” So far, so good—except the highly regarded official speaking had just advised two presidents to surge tens of thousands of U.S. troops into Iraq (2007-08) and Afghanistan (2009-10), both very much Asian locales. And the general he quoted, the uniquely talented and notably imperious MacArthur, made his name fighting in various Asian climes in World War II and then on the Korean peninsula. Gates and MacArthur both towered over contemporaries in intellect, insight and reputation. And yet both succumbed to that classic blunder of going in on the ground in Asia. Draftee William Goldman and a raft of average Americans knew better. Yet on we slog, impervious to common sense.
A look at the scoreboard gives credence to Goldman, Gates and MacArthur. Just counting the big ones, the United States has fought seven major wars in Asia: the Philippine Insurrection (1899-1902), World War II (1941-45), the Korean War (1950-53), the Vietnam War (1955-75), the Gulf War (1990-91), the Afghan War (2001-14) and the Iraq War (2003-11). Our record stands at three wins (Philippines, World War II, Gulf War), one tie (Korea) and three losses (Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan), although the glass half-full crowd may count that last one, maybe even the last two or three, under some kind of jackleg definition of a draw. Of note, all of our country’s failed wars happened in Asia. As they would say in the NFL, we don’t match up well in that road venue.
Yet we keep going there. The same year Secretary Gates offered his rueful wisdom to the young West Pointers, the United States commenced a very big and very public “pivot to Asia.” Apparently, rather than trust the unequivocal warnings of Gates, MacArthur or Goldman, and with scant regard for a century-plus of baleful results, we instead are channeling Alfred E. Neuman: “What, me worry?” Evidently, we do not.
Oh, but this time will be different, some say. You see, we are going with Air-Sea Battle. Look, ma—no land. Somehow, the Chinese, whose strength is in their army, will play along and let our superior air and sea contingents deter and, if need be, defeat them. I do not recall that happening the last time we tangled with China’s millions of “volunteers” in the dark, bloody Korean hills. Maybe this round will turn out better. But the unhappy record suggests otherwise. The U.S. Army thinks we should quit hoping for the best and get ready for that ugly, gruesome ground clash. Ugh.
Here is another thought: Let’s focus on deterring and containing China, not preparing to fight it in some latter-day rerun of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, let alone Gog versus Magog in central Manchuria. And let’s seek alternatives to U.S. boots on the ground in Asia. We have a lot of reliable allies, such as Australia, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, the Philippines and Thailand, along with friendly countries such as India, Indonesia and Singapore, among many others. We can help them, equip them and back them up. Together, we all will hold the line if China gets too pushy. Let’s leave a U.S. ground war in Asia where it belongs—in fantasy land.
Lt. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger, USA (Ret.), is a former troop commander in Iraq and Afghanistan. The author of seven books and numerous articles, he currently teaches at North Carolina State University.