Sledge Hammers and Fly Swatters

George Will

Image by Scott Ableman via Flickr

George Will usually will not use a simple word when a larger one is available, but in his column today he heads directly into common sense and becomes the first (so far as I can tell) to draw a significant strategic lesson from the brilliantly-successful execution of Osama bin Laden.

George quotes a member of the Marine Corps War College as saying this:

Jim Lacey of the Marine Corps War College notes that Gen. David Petraeus has said there are perhaps about 100 al-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan. “Did anyone,” Lacey asks, “do the math?” There are, he says, more than 140,000 coalition soldiers in Afghanistan, or 1,400 for every al-Qaida fighter. It costs about $1 million a year to deploy and support every soldier — or up to $140 billion, or close to $1.5 billion a year, for each al-Qaida fighter. “In what universe do we find strategists to whom this makes sense?”

Re-phrasing Lacey’s words, wouldn’t it make more sense to kill flies with a fly-swatter than a sledge hammer? 

And then, George Will has this:

During the 2004 presidential campaign, John Kerry received much derision for his belief (as expressed in a Jan. 29 debate in South Carolina) that although the war on terror will be “occasionally military,” it is “primarily an intelligence and law enforcement operation that requires cooperation around the world.” Kerry, as paraphrased by The New York Times Magazine of Oct. 10, thought “many of the interdiction tactics that cripple drug lords, including governments working jointly to share intelligence, patrol borders and force banks to identify suspicious customers, can also be some of the most useful tools in the war on terror.” True then; even more obviously true now.

George then proceeds to criticize Obama’s lack of a coherent strategy in the messy and uncertain Libyan Affair, with particular

attention to NATO involvement.  I have expressed my own doubts about the Libyan Affair and our lack of strategy and knowledge of the Rebels (the Arab Street) in this blog.  Subsequent events seem to bear out that our strategy is no strategy at all, other than to turn over control of a big chunk of our military assets to a large committee (NATO) that is floundering financially and politically.

U.S. Navy Sea-Air-Land (SEAL) members emerge f...

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George Will is right – NATO is a relic of the Cold War, one in which our involvement needs to be seriously debated and probably discontinued.  I would go on further, but his column says it better than I could.  But, please dear reader, allow me a small and rare opportunity to gloat – I so seldom get the chance.  Please, in the light of recent events, visit this post of mine from last September.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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7 Responses to Sledge Hammers and Fly Swatters

  1. ansonburlingame says:


    I have never disagreed with you over the better use of our now superb special forces. But I disagree that they alone can win a war.

    Look at power projection and control of the seas as THE mission of the U.S. Navy for our entire history. It has NEVER changed yet the way we perform that mission has changed considerably over time.

    Battleships gave way to Carriers as the preeminent force to perform that mission during WWII. And we have never since been challenged in our performance of that mission since then so of course we stick with Carriers as our centerpiece of naval power.

    But had the Cold War gone hot, you and I both know that Carriers would NOT have lasted very long in the face of a substantial threat from nuclear submarines. Of course that argument has been all over the map now for decades and there is no conclusive answer today. But I do note that China is building far more nuclear submarines than aircraft Carriers today.

    But I would NEVER argue that nuclear submarines ALONE can perform the mission required of the U.S. Navy. Even with lots of cruise missiles on board, a nuclear submarine cannot project power like a carrier. Look at Libya.

    Support for special forces, you bet. Why? Primarily STEALTH as well as extraordinary training for those men (no women yet). Support for submarines, you bet. But special forces and nuclear submarines alone cannot win a war on terror by any means. They can only keep the enemy off balance. The decisive blow must come from else where.

    And by the way, we do we always decide NOT to apply the “decisive blow”?

    I wonder how many new “friends” we gained by burying OBL in an Islamic ceremony aboard an aircraft carrier a day or so ago? I also wonder why the house in which he lived is now still standing for someone else of his type to use in the future. Might be worth one cruise missile or smart bomb to preven reuse!!!



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Anson, you are jumping to conclusions too quickly here. George Will is addressing “the war on terror”, which I hope you agree is not at all “war” in the classic sense, and that really is the point. Neither Will nor I is suggesting doing away with the Marine Corps, the Navy and the Air Force for heaven’s sake. But for going after OBL’s chief lieutenant and other terrorists, SEAL Team 6 might be a better option than remaking nations, one at a time.

      I agree it would have been much better to have left OBL’s residence in rubble, but there was serious danger that the SEAL’s might be attacked by Pakistani forces and time was of the essence. Also, there would be a significant chance of civilian casualties if they had blown it up, which fact I would point out just further emphasized the point above. The “war” on terrorism is not really war, it’s a sort of international policing with some of war’s weapons.



  2. Jim Wheeler says:

    Anyone with a household budget should IMO be interested in what things cost, so with that in mind, here is something interesting on the subject of fighting terrorism I just got from CNN News:

    Total financial “aid” to Pakistan, our nuclear-armed ally in the war on Terror, since 9/11: $5.4 Billion. Just to be clear, that’s $5,400,000,000.

    Total number of people killed by terrorists in the 9/11 attacks: 2,976.

    Cost per victim , so far, for Pakistan’s “assistance”: $1.8 Million dollars . (Specifically, it comes out to $1,814,516 each.)

    Now, in light of this, don’t you find it interesting that Pakistan is (I just heard) blaming OBL’s ability to hide in plain sight in THEIR country on the FAILURE of OUR intelligence community to share information with them.

    I don’t know about you, dear Reader, but this stuff couldn’t be any more unbelievable to me if I saw it on Saturday Night Live News. But . . . it’s real. The only rationale I can think of for this is nuclear extortion. Nuclear extortion.

    Is it any wonder that North Korea and Iran want the Bomb?


  3. ansonburlingame says:

    No Jim,

    I know you were not suggesting doing away with….. But you were suggesting that the “lily pad” approach to Afghanistan is the right one. I leave the definition of “lily pad” to Jim if he chooses to inform other readers.

    Depends on our national objectives, as it always does. Like it or not both Bush and Obama have engaged in nation building in Afghanistan for now ten years. And we are trying to do so in Pakistan on the cheap by giving them $$$ to go build their own nation, but one we like! And guess what it is not working in either country any more than I expect it will in Egypt as well.

    People build their own nations. Look at Vietnam. Korea is of course the exception when the entire penninsula in considered.

    Now Bush at least saw it as a WAR, a long one (generational he said) and he was ready to and did fight it particularly in Iraq. Who yet knows that outcome. But you must admit that Iraq looks better today than does Afghanistan, for whatever reason.

    I think basically what I am trying to say is that if we really want to continue to attempt nation building in Afghanistan, then forget “lily pads”. But if we want to let them build their own, then “lily pads” work fine to keep such things as Al Qaeda training camps from existing all the time. But then a lily pad does NOT work unless we decide to use them whenever the next OBL (and there will be a next one in my view) pops up out of his hole and tries to get bigger in any nation.

    It all comes back to firm national objectives. Look at Libya while we still don’t know what we are trying to do. I would also point out that in Libya we are only using a very small half a lily pad to do……? And God forbid we decide to build a nation there!!!!

    For the Arab world containment is looking better and better to me today. Circle the SOBs, let them decide for themselves what they want and if we don’t like it then we have another Cold War on our hands to a degree.

    But don’t start cutting carrier battle groups if that becomes even a thought of a possibility as well as a few nuclear submarines and a damn good Marine Corps.



  4. Jim Wheeler says:


    When I first started blogging over a year ago I had a wrong concept of what a “straw man” argument was, but I have since had it pointed out to me. It is what you are doing in your replies to this post.

    Nowhere in my post have I advocated diminishing our other armed forces at the expense of special forces teams, and yet, even though you start your second comment by acknowledging that, you end it with,

    But don’t start cutting carrier battle groups if that becomes even a thought of a possibility as well as a few nuclear submarines and a damn good Marine Corps.

    You leave me confused here about your position on the point of my post, which plainly stated, is thatterrorism is better fought by diplomacy, intelligence operations and special operations teams than by nation-building. That’s terrorism only, Anson, not the other uses for the armed forces. But you are again using a straw man when you say,

    Now Bush at least saw it (terrorism) as a WAR, a long one (generational he said) and he was ready to and did fight it particularly in Iraq. Who yet knows that outcome. But you must admit that Iraq looks better today than does Afghanistan, for whatever reason.

    The fact that Iraq is somewhat less a pile of crap than Afghanistan does not convince me that nation-building is a viable way to fight terrorism.

    Just for the record, here is a link describing the straw man concept.



  5. ansonburlingame says:


    I know you are not advocating “gutting” our armed forces. Many do, but not you and I know that. But then you and I both know that a “full up” military is going to be impossible in the coming years as well. We simply don’t have the money to do so now.

    My comments on this blog are not to rebut what you have to say. They really are written more for the “civilian” readers that COULD misconstrue you support for special forces as an expression of no further need for the ability as well to deliver the “decisive blows” needed in any war.

    And I will readily admit that I have no idea today the correct force structure for America today. A capable nuclear deterrent force must be number one in my view. A Navy capable of controlling the seas at least is number two. One can argure about a Navy tomorrow capable of real power projection on land (other than nuclear power projection). I believe the third decisive need is for special forces doing what you espouse as well.

    After that the discussion becomes much more murcky for me. Just how big or small the Army, Air Force, and Marines might become is unknown to me. But the discussion is going to be upon us soon if it is not already in our midst and we just ignore it for now.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      I’m glad you clarified this, Anson. I agree. A strong military is an absolute must when we have a world with North Korea, Syria, Myanmar, and Iran, plus an unstable Middle East. And I don’t discount China either. And let’s not forget our wonderful (ha) nuclear-armed ally, Pakistan. OMG.

      I don’t blame you for trying to highlight the need not to cut the armed forces, given the fiscal silliness and brinksmanship being played in Washington. We bloggers have seen the crisis coming for more than a year, but to hear both parties in Washington talk you would think it’s something new. I admire Congressman Ryan’s courage in trying to do something about it, but he is attacking the symptoms of the healthcare problem and not the root cause, i.e., MEDICAL COSTS. As a result, they keep scrapping good programs that cost peanuts compared to medical costs, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see draconian cuts in the military too. They don’t seem to know what you and I know all too well, that you can’t just wait until the need arises, wave a pencil, and double the military.



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