D-Day is a hallowed day and, fittingly, follows
close after Memorial Day, when we Americans grieve and celebrate our war dead. On
June 6, 1944, 150,000 American, British, and Canadian troops took the
beachhead at Normandy against withering fire and fought their way into Nazi-occupied Europe. The young men who defeated Hitler's Wehrmacht are now old men,
and we haven't much longer to thank them for the world they bequeathed us. We all
ought to take the opportunity to shake the hands and kiss the cheeks of the men
who really did make the world safe for democracy.
This solemn day gives rise to two other
reflections about warfare: one about the demands of fighting wars we might
actually lose and the other about the United States as an ally. Some
considerable time has elapsed since the United States actually fought an enemy
that could impose a defeat that would affect the lives of Americans. Our wars
since World War II have actually all been wars of choice -- Korea, Vietnam,
Iraq, and Afghanistan. They have been wars that we could tire of and retreat
from without it too much denting our security. Even when al Qaeda achieved
something that no state had since 1941 -- an attack on United States territory
-- we had a range of choices about how to punish them and prevent recurrence. Terrorist
and criminal organizations have ambitions to harm us that we are currently
underrating, both in their determination and their capabilities.
But it has been a very long time since the
United States fought a military that we actually risked losing to in the way
that Eisenhower and the Allied command feared: If the D-Day landings were
turned back, they might thereafter lack the means to challenge Nazi control of
all Europe. No military since at least the end of the Cold War (and probably
15 years before that) could hope to fight against the American military
and win. Our tactical, operational, and technological dominance has been so
pervasive that it has driven enemy adaptation to the margins of the conflict
spectrum: They seek nuclear weapons or conduct terrorist attacks and
insurgencies because they cannot realistically expect to take on the United States
military in its strong suits and prevail.
To its great and lasting credit, our military
has found ways even at its weakest points to adapt to these challenges and
prevent our enemies from succeeding militarily. It genuinely dominates the
entire spectrum of conflict.
That may be about to change. States -- or at
least one state -- have arisen with the ambition and resources to contest us as
peers. A rising China needn't be an adversary, and there are significant
domestic and economic pressures that may prevent China's continued success and
change its political direction. But the rising China we are currently facing
sure looks like a state that wants to contest American power, at least in its
region, and is making the kinds of military investments that will challenge U.S.
dominance in several domains of warfare, and with at least a military (if not a
Communist Party leadership) that aspires to hold American territory at risk to
achieve their aims.
China has fostered a new generation of military
officers who take more initiative and are more aggressive than their
predecessors. They are early adapters to cyberattacks and have none of the
inhibitions we do about unleashing their military to conduct offensive operations in
peacetime. Their government is shoveling resources into defense and utilizing
gray commercial companies as adjuncts. They begin to excel at technological
challenges that will bring our easy assumptions of air dominance, safe transit,
and reliable communications into doubt. The United States is not yet bringing
an equivalent effort into maintaining our advantages.
It is not just the rise of a potential peer
that could impose these problems. Technologies are proliferating that will not
require the resources of a great country to surge past U.S. abilities and
impose strategic losses. The day may soon be upon us when we cannot land troops
because we cannot get aircraft into contested airspace, we cannot supply them
because our ships are being sunk en route, where we cannot tell enemy from
friend on the battlefield because the enemy has compromised our information and
communications systems. These threats are not confined to our military alone,
either: We may lose our ability to shield our population from the fight. We
have been a military at war these last 13 years -- going forward we may once
again have to fight with the resources of our whole country, because they will
be targeted in ways we cannot protect them from.
The second reflection D-Day occasions is about
the United States as an ally. Being part of the ancien regime, my
reflexes still encompass preemption, and I am preemptively cringing at the
braggadocio I fear President Obama will unleash at the Normandy commemoration. He
is on a bender about American exceptionalism, and it is unattractive. It is especially
so in light of what we look like to our World War II allies, who suffered for years
before we consented to join the war effort.
Among friends, Brits will eventually admit
that, courageous and essential as we were, we sure took our time about it. Britain
was at war nearly two and a half years before Hitler foolishly declared war on
the United States and Roosevelt took our country to war in Europe. Our
narrative of the war is of ourselves as the indispensable nation. That is part
of Europeans' version, but theirs also includes a chapter on our reticence to
be drawn in, and the obstacles Roosevelt had to surmount to get public support.
congratulate ourselves on our stalwart commitment; it looks more tenuous to
those who suffered the viciousness of Nazi attacks and occupation while we
remained safe. And it colors how they look at our reticence now to honor the
Budapest Agreement committing to the territorial integrity of Ukraine, our
skating backwards from the president's red line on Syria, our hesitation to
call a coup the Egyptian military's overthrow of their elected government, and
our proclamations about a common defense with our allies. Given how important
allies are in warfare, we ought to give some considerable thought to being a
better ally to the countries that are willing to stand alongside us. And the
very least we owe our European allies on D-Day is the humility to respect all
they suffered that we did not in the war that we won together.
JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP/Getty Images