Unorthodox Thoughts In Regard to the Middle East Military Dimension

Unorthodox Thoughts In Regard to the Middle East Military Dimension
(Mark Helprin, June 28, 2017)

Transcript available below

About the speaker

Educated at Harvard College, Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (Center for Middle Eastern Studies), Princeton, and Oxford, novelist Mark Helprin has served in the Israeli army and the Israeli Air Force. He has written about defense and foreign relations for fifty years. Advising half a dozen presidential candidates, and officials at the highest levels, from the White House on down, he was personally commended by the Director of Central Intelligence for making the best military estimates “in or out of government.”

Senior Fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy, Fellow of the American Academy in Rome, Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, former Guggenheim Fellow and Senior Fellow of the Hudson Institute, and Adviser on Defense and Foreign Relations to presidential candidate Robert Dole, he has been awarded the National Jewish Book Award, the Prix de Rome, the Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award, 2006, and the 2010 Salvatori Prize in the American Founding, among other prizes.

Helprin’s novels include Refiner’s FireWinter’s TaleA Soldier of the Great WarMemoir from Antproof CaseFreddy and Fredericka, and In Sunlight and In Shadow. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker for two decades. He writes essays and a column for the Claremont Review of Books. He serves as a Senior Fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy. His writings, including political op-eds, have appeared in The Wall Street Journal (for which he was a contributing editor until 2006), The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Criterion, National Review, and other publications.


Robert Reilly:

It is a great privilege to have Mark Helprin here, who is maybe known to you in one of several capacities. He is a renaissance man. He is one of the greatest American novelists writing today. If you do not read novels, maybe you saw one of the films based on his novels, “A Winter’s Tale,” of which I am sure you will disapprove.

Mark Helprin:


Robert Reilly:

What do you get? What do you claw back?

Mark Helprin:

I clawed back the money.

Robert Reilly:

No, we do not want that. I thought maybe you could get something from Colin Farrell. Okay. Well, anyway… but some of those novels I am sure you have either read or heard of are “Refiner’s Fire,” “Winter’s Tale,” the terrific novel “A Soldier of a Great War,” “Memoir from the Antproof Case,” which my daughter is enjoying right now, “Freddy and Fredericka in the Sunlight and in the Shadow.” He is, of course, a renowned essayist as well.

On the strategic thinker’s side you may be familiar with Mark Helprin’s writings for many years in The Wall Street Journal and more recently his regular back page column in the Claremont Review of Books. In The Wall Street Journal about a month ago or several weeks ago was your strategy for how to deal with the threat from North Korea. Mark is not only a theoretician, he is a practitioner because he served in the Israeli infantry and in the Israeli Air Force. He knows the Middle East very well as you shall hear in just a moment. [He] also speaks Arabic I understand. You know Arabic?

Mark Helprin:

…Fifty years ago.

Robert Reilly:

Fifty years ago.

Mark Helprin:

I could watch the news and have a conversation in Arabic and talk to diplomats. It is not too difficult.

Robert Reilly:


Mark Helprin:

I could not order a glass of water in a restaurant. It has been fifty years since I could do whatever I could do.

Robert Reilly:

But it is not safe to drink the water there, so you are fine. Well, without further ado, let me welcome Mark Helprin to the podium where he is going to address the topic of “Unorthodox Topics in Regard to the Middle East Military Dimension.” Mark, thank you.

Mark Helprin:

It is not dementia, it is dimension, and you know, upon further reflection, after I supplied this title I realized that everything you are going to hear from me is actually quite orthodox. It depends upon your frame of reference. It is only unorthodox given the miserable record that the United States and Europe has compiled since the Gulf War. That is 25 years. But in 1945 it would not be. It would not be seen as unorthodox at all and Marshall would not have seen it as unorthodox nor would Moshe Dayan.

So what you will hear from me may seem pedestrian in that sense. However, there are a lot of people who would think it really, really way off the reservation. And I have divided what I am going to say into three parts. The first is a fairly brief I hope essay upon overarching principles and conditions which now appear mainly in the brief.


The first is overarching principles and conditions which are now observed mainly in the breach. And then second I have a few examples to comment upon. The third part of it would be necessary conditions precedent in order to achieve success.


So first, and it may seem quite obvious, is the question of restraints that you have to reckon with before you go into a country, before you invade, before you make a policy, etc. We do not really address these things diplomatically, which is briefly the public and oft times officials do not comprehend these even when they are overt. When they are covert, sometimes even analysts with security clearances short of cosmic, do not comprehend the meter because they don’t know what’s going on if they are covert.

Now, let us first talk about the covert ones. They are pretty obvious. The fear of China intervening during the Vietnam War was probably at least half of what was responsible for any kind of analysis of the Vietnam War. There is an overt threat of a major power, which is contiguous to the area of operations, that is obvious. Then more obvious things are nuclear-protected alliances such as NATO or the Warsaw Pact, and the next step down would be nuclear-protected sovereignties such as India, Pakistan, Israel, and what Iran and the DPRK are aiming for.

The important thing is to not only recognize these things when they exist, but what is pertinent to our operations in the Middle East is that we often do not recognize that they do not exist. So in their absence we still behave with unnecessary limitations of our own efforts. One good example of this was in the 2003 Iraq War when we unnecessarily limited our efforts, and we did so for other reasons. I will get to that in a minute, but without a systematic analysis of this kind of thing, then we go in with strengths that are either too great because they are subject to a threat from another peer-power or near-peer or too little because we do not recognize that that threat does not exist.

Then there is a question of covert. I was in Italy during the missile crisis and I was working unofficially with the embassy and there was a kind of thing, how you feel the outlines of the elephant, and the outlines of the elephant were that everything vis-à-vis the deployment of cruise missiles in Comiso and the P2s in Germany suggested that there was a secret understanding between the United States, Italy, and Germany, which was delaying things and messing things up.

And this very obviously kept on coming up, so I asked the ambassador, do we not have a covert agreement with these countries so that such and such, you know, laying it out. This was Max Rabb. I do not know if any of you knew him, but he said, “Covert, no, I do not know about anything like that.” He was very animated. I never found out about that and this may have been something that even he did not know.

Jump ahead to the Gulf War. The question in my mind was why did Saddam release the hostages as quickly as he did? Because they were a major card that he could have played and he was not shy. And then the second question was why we did not follow through. There are all kinds of reasons given for it, but I had the opportunity to ask President Bush multiple times about this and he very calmly, unlike Max Rabb, just looked at me and said no, there was no secret agreement. Now he may not have been telling the truth, but on the other hand he was not lying. If you know what I mean.

Then there are the necessary restraints, depending upon your available resources, the possible conflicts elsewhere, so then you talk about division of your forces, the required reserves for things that are unexpected, not least political restraints. And then finally, there is the self-inflicted restraints in which I would put catering to Iran’s nuclear inhibitions as number one these days, and opening the Middle East to Russia after ten administrations kept it closed to Russia as an extraordinarily self-inflicted restraint and almost self-sabotage. That is as far as the restraints. If we do not approach those systematically, and I can guarantee you that in this administration now, it is not being done. Nothing is being done systematically because it is kind of chaotic.

The next thing is war aims and strategic objectives. We tend not to have clear war aims, but on the one hand, limited and reactive plans to solve an immediate problem, such as striking back at Al Qaeda or cleaning out ISIS. And on the other hand, impossible and grandiose notions such as ridding the world of tyranny or transforming the Dar al-Islam to the Dar al-Vermont. The former cedes the initiative to the enemy, the latter is so diffuse as to deprive us of a proper focus. Without a war aim, you cannot have a successful war because you do not know what you are doing. Wars that are commenced without war aims tend to go on forever.

The second thing, which is subsidiary to war aims, is the strategic objective. We tend to think of strategic objective as a campaign strategy. In other words, the air campaign, and then what cities to take and what routes to take. That is not a strategic objective. In the case of the Arab world, we really would do well to focus on the much higher and essential objective, which is to flip our Arab opponents into fatalism. This is something that Israel has always been cognizant of, and it is a very, very important part of their strategy. And any good commander would know this, but it is particularly relevant to the Arab world.

Why is that?

Conceptions of Divine Action and Will

First of all, you have to contrast Islam’s conception of divine action and will with the Judeo-Christian conception of divine action and will. In the Judeo-Christian conception, God makes rules that He abides. He will follow His own rules, He does not have to but most of the time he does, even though sometimes bad things happen to good people who follow His rules, but then you say He works in strange ways. It is an attempt to explain it. In Islam, Allah does not have rules. There is, of course, the Qanun, but that is different, that is for us or for Muslims. Allah himself is capable of creating and recreating the universe in nanoseconds, as He wishes. Nothing is certain, nothing is fixed. Of all things, He is not subject to any rule.

Therefore, things are constantly changing, and when they constantly change, think of a totalitarian society or a prison where the rules are constantly changing or when they go against their own rules. For example, I was in a military prison on the West Bank, and we were told these are the rules, and then they would change the rules. They would go opposite to what the rules were, and that makes you feel completely powerless. That is one of the secrets of controlling people, you make rules, they try to follow them, and it does not matter, you execute them anyway even if they are loyal people, the way Stalin used to do or Saddam used to do.

But this is – without any pejorative connotation, this is one of the central planks of Islam, which is that God is constantly changing the universe, constantly making [rules], and you are therefore completely subject to his will, completely. You must submit because you do not know what is coming, you do not know how it is coming, and therefore anything that happens is His will. If you can show that whatever happened is Allah’s will, then you have submission.

Now, I have to quote T.E. Lawrence on this because in The Seven Pillars he is magnificent in laying this out. Let me read this quote. He says, “This people,” meaning the Arabs, “was black and white, not only in vision, but by inmost furnishing: black and white not merely in clarity, but in apposition… Unconscious of the flight, they oscillated from asymptote to asymptote.”

Now, T.E. Lawrence did not know what an asymptote was. I think he meant apogee and perigee. I do not know. And he is very charming because in his proof notes when the editor says that is not what an asymptote is, he says, well, I did not know what an asymptote was, but everyone will know what I mean, so keep it. And he does that throughout. If you look at the manuscript notes for The Seven Pillars, he says, well, okay, this is spelled this way here, and this way there, and it does not matter, people will know. He was very casual about that.

But anyway, look, targeting enemy morale is not exactly an unknown concept. Every good commander wants to do that. My point is that the nature of Islam and the Arab Middle East offers far more than the ordinary advantages in regard to this, and I would say further that defeatism’s strongest levers (other than Western elites) are to be found here in Islam.

Now, I thought that we had understood this with shock and awe, when they said we are going to do a campaign of shock and awe, but in so doing we fell short, and we created a situation which is analogous to not finishing a course of antibiotics. What it did was it taught them, it taught our enemy, that we did not wipe them out to the point where they were frozen and completely shocked as in the ’67 war, as to some extent in the Gulf War, especially had we continued. And they learned, well, if they just hang tight, they can keep on fighting and defeat us because as everyone knows, they have a different timescale than we do.

It is almost like negligence, really, not to understand this, and not to use maximum force. When you have a problem that you have to solve by force, unless you are a cop, and you are dealing with your own citizens, you have to use the maximum force, which will achieve your objectives. And part of this is we did not really define our objectives, and certainly we do not know about flipping our opponents, the Arab opponents, into their fatalistic view of things.

Then there is the principle of the organizing force. Now, as we all know, in the Middle East there is a huge number of constantly shifting combinations, alliances, permutations among not just nations but sects, tribes, movements, ideologies, etc., much faster than the normal fluctuations and changes in alliances among nation-states, much, much faster than that. Anyone who observes the Middle East can see that. This means that the Western interventionist power must be sufficiently overwhelming so that the disparate components that we encounter there in the field of operations will adhere to us, that we cannot be just another component, we have to be so much more in the plurality or a majority that there is no question as to who the various components will adhere to. In other words, we have to be stronger than any alliance that might occur to them temporarily.

The Myths of Today

And we do not seem to know that, and therefore we often use insufficient force. For example, in Iraq, there is the myth of the surge. Now, there are a lot of myths that are politically convenient, and that people stick to. For instance, the myth that Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent. People say, well, they were railroaded. Well, they were railroaded. They received an unfair trial from a judge who hated them. They were railroaded, but they were also guilty. This we know from the deathbed confessions of their defense lawyer and from forensic and ballistic evidence later on. Two things can be true at the same time.

Another myth is that the Reagan defense expenditure plus tax cuts created the deficit in the ’80s. Well, I have gone very carefully back to the statistical abstract of the United States and done the figures, and if you just deal with revenue, which is the result of any kind of tax policy, and military expenditure, and you put them together, what you get is a huge surplus. And yet, everywhere you can read, oh, Reagan made the deficits by cutting taxes and boosting military spending.

The Myth of the Surge in Iraq

Another myth is the myth of the Surge. And my colleagues at The Wall Street Journal are very fond of this. And it is one of those things that is repeated, and nobody challenges it. I have always challenged it because I went to the official DOD figures about troop numbers in Iraq, and I discovered that in the period from 2003-2007 that the overage of the average number of troops that were there at that time during the Surge was 12 percent.

But if you then look at the number of contractors, and contractors were our tail, and they were even more than our tail because they were doing force protection, and by doing protection on the roads they were actually engaged in combat, [so] they were more than just tail, they were partly tooth, and every army has to have plenty of tail, no pun intended, then it is 7 percent.

So how could 7 percent of the Surge [have such an effect]? That is the miracle, 7 percent overage. It was nonsense. The reason that to whatever extent the tide was turned is that the Sunni tribes decided that they would ally with us against the Shia, rather than fighting us and then having the Shia to deal with after we finished with them, or they finished with us, and they simply switched sides. The people that we were killing and that were killing us we began to pay and arm. It had nothing to do, or very little to do anyway, with troops numbers.

The Myth of the Thousand-Ship Navy

This, by the way, reminds me of the thousand-ship navy. You know, we used to have thousands of ships, major combatants. I do not say major surface combatants because we also include submarines. We had thousands, certainly in World War II, and then in the ’50s and the ’60s [through] the Vietnam War. And by the time we got to 1980, we had far fewer than that, and then Reagan and John Lehman worked it up to 600 ships. Now we have 285 [ships].

And what you read in the professional journals is the idea of the thousand-ship navy, and when I first saw the headline, I thought, woah, this is great, you know, someone is advocating what we should do, which was we should build a huge navy so that the allied navies can adhere to us, and they will feel protected by us, and that is what you need to do. You need to have it and then the rest is gravy. It is like what Napoleon said, which is loosely translated [as] strike the center and the rest is gravy. We always should have that independent capability. Then our allies will adhere to us. It will be that much stronger.

But the thousand-ship navy was our navy, which has vastly shrunk in its size, plus all the navies of our allies. And people tried to comfort themselves, officials, the Secretary of the Navy, the admirals with, oh, well, we have got a thousand-ship navy. This reminds me of what my wife knocks on me about. When I used to try to calculate our net worth, it is very tiny, and I would include the trusts that we have for our daughters, and she would say you cannot do that. And I would say it is all in the family, it is the family. She would say, no, no, no, you cannot do that. Well, that is the thousand-ship navy, is what I was doing. And then she cured me of that. She is a tax lawyer among other things, and I realized that, well, we do not have a thousand-ship navy. That is an illusion.

The Myth of Our Military Prowess in Iraq

Okay, [let us talk about] some cases. We can get to the second Iraq war phase one. This is 2003, the actual invasion. First of all, there is the myth of our great military prowess. Remember the female soldier who was supposed to have been a great heroine? I forgot her name, Jessica Lynch, right. And that turned out to have been a myth. I mean there is public relations working, and one of the things in public relations was that this was the fastest advance that had ever been done. It was just unbelievable, mind boggling, etc., etc. Well, I remember having dinner alone with General Mattis, and because I was ignorant of the fact that he had led it, I did not know that I criticized that advance in no uncertain terms. He was wonderful because he did not, you know, he reacted to my chutzpah without any kind of impoliteness, and in fact he agreed when I brought up to him the following facts.

The Allies in Operation Anvil cleared the whole South of France of Germans, and there were plenty of Germans in the southern provinces, and then got to Dijon, which was from Marseilles to Dijon, which is the same distance as Kuwait to Baghdad, in two weeks, not three weeks, and he was fighting Germans. Patton went from Normandy to Germany. He got off at Avranches, and a lot of supply came there, but most of the supply came from Cherbourg, which is way over in the west. He got from there to Germany, sometimes going 60 miles a day in six weeks, and he was fighting Germans, really very well-equipped, and experienced, and tough Germans.

And then of course there is the Six-Day War. I was there. The Israelis crossed Sinai, fighting through Gaza, urban area, the hardest thing you can do, although they had air superiority at that point, having destroyed the Egyptian Air Force, just as we had air superiority, of course, in Iraq. But they were fighting an army that was much richer in equipment, in armor, in numbers, in fortifications because they had fortified the Sinai. So they got through Gaza, and they broke through the Mitla and Gidi passes, and they did this same [thing, they traversed] more than the distance from Kuwait to Baghdad in four or five days.

So I told this to General Mattis, and he could only agree, and he was, I must say, very gracious. So, I always had an alternate plan, even from the beginning, and nobody paid any attention to it, of course. They seldom do, but here is my ultimate plan and this map is [from] Her Majesty’s stationery office. I love the map. It is a bit out-of-date. You can see there is, al-Jumhūrīyah al-‘Arabīyah al-Muttaḥidah, the United Arab Republic, which went out of business in 1961, but everything else is more or less the same. I got this map from Harvard because they give away these things. They have so much they have a table where they put things that they are throwing out of the library. And I got this and ten others like it, magnificent, terrific maps.

But anyway, here is my plan.

The Helprin Plan

What I wanted to do was, first of all, to have sufficient forces. We did not have sufficient forces because Donald Rumsfeld and [President George W.] Bush were thinking of this invasion from a business point of view. In business, what you want to do is do whatever you have to do with the least amount of expenditure and resources, and then the difference is your profit. Unfortunately, war does not work that way.

So they decided that they would do this with the least amount of effort and forces that they could do. It is the wrong thing to do in war. You never know what is going to happen, and you do not have the advantage of the crushing blow, which changes the morale and the fighting spirit of your enemy. That is one reason why we took three weeks to get up to Baghdad. So, my first recommendation from the beginning was we need more force, much more force. We needed a Gulf War force or something close to it at this point.

Don’t Stay in Baghdad

And the second thing is what I wanted, what I recommended, and I always thought it would be the best thing, would be to go to Baghdad and spend no more than two weeks there. Get a compliant general, of which there were plenty of candidates. Tell that general [that] his force is preserved. This is your job. You want to remain a block against Iran, which Iraq had been able to do for a long, long time. You want to extirpate your terrorists, any terrorists that you are harboring. You want to be contained and not threaten any other countries as Saddam did, and you want to act more decently towards your population and not be as repressive as he was. And if you do not do this, we will be back, and we will find you, and we will dethrone you, and we will kill you. And then here is what I encountered people really objected to. I said, [and] I still say, the American Army is not an army that should sit still, never.

Don’t Stop with Iraq

You have to capitalize on your gains, and you have to keep going. The spirit of the fight really, really will invade the body of your troops. In Israel, there is a famous saying, which is ‘saw, saw, saw.’ It means go, go, go. Saw is when you say ‘go’ in terms of driving. ה – ל – ך Holech is walking. But when Israel will capture something, they say saw, saw, saw. In other words, drive on, you know, and take advantage of your victory. What I wanted was for us to go from Baghdad to Damascus, 450 miles. There is a road. There is nothing on it to stop us. Nothing could have stopped us.

And then if you had Israel as your anvil to the south, and Jordan participating, Turkey is the anvil to the north, and of course Iraq would have been in our hands, and us in the Mediterranean with our allies, etc., etc., we could have crushed the Syrians and done the same thing in Syria that we would have done in Baghdad. Leave someone in charge, and there are plenty among the Sunnis who would have been happy to do that.

I am not finished yet with this plan because at that point what we would have done is move the six hundred miles back to here, which is what? This is called Hafr Al Batin and King Fahd Military City. There is and there was a huge Saudi military infrastructure there, airfields, barracks, munitions storage places, pipelines for fuel and water, connecting to the city. It is 120 miles to Kuwait port. It is an easy two days-drive to Baghdad and a little more to Syria. If you rested the troops there, and you say, okay, here we are, we are tan, rested, and ready, you could call it Base Nixon.

And what would have happened? Well, for one, we would have had no insurgency casualties. Let the secret police of Syria and Iraq do the job against the insurgencies. They know how to do it. They have done it all the time. We would have no insurgency casualties, therefore our polity would have been undisturbed and we would have spent far less money, too.

Also, our relations with Europe would have been undisturbed. Why? Because our victory and our position would have been enough. Someone said to me, [and] I do not agree with it, the slogan you cannot argue with success. Well, you can argue with success, but this kind of success people tend generally not to argue with. Never end a sentence with a preposition.

So the other possibility would be that in doing this – look at it. We would have controlled the center of gravity of the Middle East. And for one we would have blocked the toxic Iranian bridge that they have built from Afghanistan all the way to the Mediterranean because we would have involved these countries, and Iran at the time was terrified when we invaded in 2003. It would have been a different story with them. We would have much more influence on them, and we certainly would have prevented their patronage of Hezbollah and Syria. So the complexion of the Middle East would have changed, and we might have succeeded. Again, of course, this is all counterfactual. I do not know, but we might have succeeded in making an alliance structure that was lasting in the same way that the British were able to do that.

The Middle East Under European Colonial Rule

When I was in graduate school, I studied with many people, including Albert Hourani, whom you may have heard of. And it was not in a seminar, it was in a class on Middle Eastern history. I asked him the following question. I said, Professor Hourani, we know that there was a more-or-less Pax Britannica in the Levant and also French peace, too, during the 19th century. How many actual troops and what kind of military structure did they have to accomplish this? And he said it is a very good question, and I do not know. And he said as far as I know, I have never read about that.

So he went away and weeks later he had done his research. He came back and he said, actually, in 1840 there were 1,500 British troops. This is in the Levant. And then in I think it was 1860, he said six thousand French [troops] and it was temporary, so that very small amount of people. Now, this was, granted, before T.E. Lawrence. It was before Mao. It was before Frantz Fanon. It was before modern technology enabled various resistance and guerrilla movements, but nonetheless, if you play your cards right in terms of the metaphysical placement of your troops and the effect on enemy morale, and what you are willing to do, and how fast you can – in the case of the British especially – reinforced that, if you do it intelligently with relatively little force and a small troop presence, you can control vast areas.

How the British Governed the Bedouins

For instance, in the Negev. I was once curious as to how the British controlled the Bedouins, the Bedu, because Bedu were notoriously independent. They do not bother with borders, and it is like bandits or whatever. And someone said to me, well, I will show you how. And we went, we drove. And there was a well that was in the rock, and water kept on dripping into this well. And he said there had never been a well here. The British drilled in, they blasted a channel, and they built this basin. And here is where there was always water, so the Bedouin always came to the well. And the British established a post nearby. That way they could monitor everything that was going on with the Bedouins, so it is a question of intelligence and how you display your forces.

Okay, [let us talk about] phase two of the 2003 war, which was the insurgency. What did we want to do? We wanted to control this area with a population 24 million at the time with 100,000 troops. That was the plan. So what I thought was and still think is that you should contrast that with another case. This case would be the West Bank. Israel’s control of the West Bank, Judea and Samaria for those who are purists. And I did the figures, and the figures are this. In Iraq, there is 170,000 square miles, and we were going to put 100,000 soldiers, so it would have been one soldier per 240 people, per 1.7 square miles, as opposed to the West Bank.

I will just tell you what my product was rather than going through all the process. Not one soldier per 240 people. This is figuring 30,000 Israeli troops that it was possible to immediately engage in the West Bank. And of course, they could have many more because their whole army was right around it, but figuring that, 30,000. Instead of one soldier for 240 people, it was one soldier for 40 people. Instead of one soldier perr 1.7 square miles, it was one soldier for one and 1/13th of a square mile. The U.S.-Iraq ratio of disadvantage was 6 and 12 to 1, in other words, six times more difficult in terms of population and 12 times more difficult in terms of area to control.

In addition, the West Bank was completely surrounded except at the Jordan River and even there there was an Israeli blocking-force there. It still is so it is completely surrounded as opposed to Iraq, which had open borders from Syria and Iran, where they got supply and forces, etc. The West Bank was completely surrounded. It had been occupied at that time for 37 years. Israelis knew the language. They could speak the language. They knew the culture. They knew the customs. And the question that I asked was do you think that the Israelis are having fun in the West Bank? So how can we, who know nothing of the language and the culture, and have so much a bigger job, how are we going to put down an insurgency? And in addition, in the West Bank there were no heavy weapons, whereas in Iraq they had tons of them. They had buried explosives and RPGs, etc.

And I made a further comparison with the NYPD. The NYPD at the time had 37,000 uniformed officers for a population of 8 million. That would have been equivalent to 111,000 U.S. troops to the Iraqi population of 24 million, but the NYPD does not live at the end of a nine thousand mile supply line. They they live off the land at Starbucks and Whole Foods. They also do not have to guard their enclaves, you know, except in the South Bronx, and they also depend upon a civil order in the existing population, which is not RPG-equipped. And in addition, they do not have to build schools or power plants.

So what we were asking our forces to do was virtually impossible. And we solved it by the surge? No, it is only 7% augmentation. We solved it when they decided to do what they always do, which is to have a continual anarchic change in alliances among themselves, in which case we were involved.

Okay, another example is Iran, and I will be very short about that one because we all know about it. It is current, and I have a very, very long lecture about that, which I have given around the country, and if I were to repeat it here, we would be here until midnight. But briefly, I used to hope that George W. Bush’s parting gift to the nation in the world would have been destroying the Iranian nuclear infrastructure, which he very well could have done, which we could do now, which Israel, however taking an existential risk, also could do now. But he did not do it and God knows Obama did not do it.

There would be repercussions. Well, the repercussion that is mentioned mostly is that the Iranians would be mad at us. Really? They are already mad at us, and they do whatever they can, so that would not be much. But the second repercussion would be the war in the Gulf, the tanker war in the Gulf. We have had one before in the ‘80s, and this time they are better equipped, but we would have to scrub the Gulf, which we could do. It would take a long time, but we would have to hit all their surface-to-surface missiles, anti-shipping missiles. We have to destroy everything along the coastline of the Gulf. That would be a war and a war that we could fight.

The second possible repercussion would be the tinkering with or, you know, disturbing the mutually assured destruction dynamic between Saudi Arabia and Iran in that they both have very vulnerable oil infrastructure, and that obviously is totally essential to their economies. You destroy the oil infrastructure, you destroy their economies, but there are a couple of things there. One, the Saudis are far more able to defend, especially with our help, than the Iranians would be, so that the Saudis would suffer less damage. Two, they could reconstitute much faster than the Iranians. And then the third thing is the people would say, well, what about the Iranian conventional forces that might invade Saudi Arabia? Well, it is true [that] now they have a foothold in Iraq where they did not then earlier, but in fact there is tremendous overall Saudi superiority, conventional superiority, to Iran.

And if one can go through that, it takes an hour or so in detail, but briefly, what it consists of is geography as the Iranians are constrained in what they can move west of conventional forces, and anything that they do move west you see mounting in the desert, and you can even hit them beyond their mountains. And whatever they get through has to go through this area of Iraq. Everything is going south, canals, rivers, roads, everything. And then meanwhile, there are swamps and lakes. The Saudi Air Force is very good and very big. This would be World War I killing field for conventional forces, so Saudi Arabia is not worried about Iranian conventional forces as much as it is if Iran becomes nuclear-equipped. Then the game changes completely.


Then the next example is Syria, and we have that right now. Certainly, you are familiar with the tokamak principle in which you take a magnetic field or some sort of containment, and you put deuterium in the middle, and you bombard it from all sides to compress it in order to get a fusion reaction or to try to get a fusion reaction. Any nuclear weapon has a sphere of explosives surrounding a nuclear material, and they all go off simultaneously, which is why timers are so important in making a nuclear weapon. And unfortunately, we let our timers be sold all around the world, our very advanced timers. But with that principle of compression to make an uncontrolled nuclear reaction, which makes a nuclear explosion, is a gift to us in Syria in that if you look at the map, you see that – just think about this. We and the French, protected by probably European surface combatants.

We would have carriers in the Mediterranean. We could have carries in the Red Sea. We could have carriers in the Persian Gulf. We have our base, our big base, at Al Udeid. And then you could have the Turks, even if they did not participate, again as a barrier. The Kurds, who would not be able to participate if the Turks participated, and the Turks could not participate if the Kurds participated, take your pick, would also be a barrier.

Coming in from Iraq would be the Iraqis who are fighting ISIS, and so nothing would happen there. And then from the south you have Israel in the southwest as a barrier, possibly as a participant if things started to spillover, certainly an intelligence participant. You have the whole Jordanian Army and Air Force here, and you have the air component from the Gulf states and U.S. and our European allies, and then you have Saudi forces and an Egyptian expeditionary force, hardened by participating in sort of stays of European and American forces. And Syria becomes like one of those nuclear weapons where it is all sides completely surrounded by immense pressure.

The object of that, and you have to have a big force, would be to take all of this area, and it could be easily done, by the way, if the Turk were to move south, and the forces (Egyptian, etc.) move north, and then you move west. The object would be to isolate Al Assad, and the Russians and a coastal enclave. Probably the Russians would then leave because they would not think it worth the risk to have that. And you could put Assad in a cage, and there would be peace in Syria because it takes a very large amount of force to do that. And we could have done this a long time ago. Certainly, I have mentioned before during the 2003 [war], we could have done something similar.

The problem would be Russian airlift and sealift. You would have an air and land blockade here, and nothing would come from Iran or from the Shia in Iraq, and we could shootdown Iranian planes, but the question would be what if there is a Russian airlift from there or around here. And the answer is I think it is not as dire as one might think because usually the great powers do not go into zones like that. They really do not because they are somewhat afraid.

And if you look back the Cuban Missile Crisis, part of the reason that we were able to settle the Cuban Missile Crisis as we did was because of our nuclear superiority at the time, but I think most of the reason was that we had immense conventional superiority around Cuba. And in this case, we would have immense conventional superiority around Syria, and I do not think that the Russians would risk it. Also, shooting down a Russian plane or the Russians shooting down one of our planes does not mean nuclear war necessarily, although it might be used by Putin as an excuse to invade the Baltic republics. But this is a very sticky, complex problem. Perhaps we are going too far.

Now I just want to finish up with the necessary conditions precedent for success, and in order of ascending importance. The first might be a surprise in that it is not abstract, it is very simple, it is very practical, but it is something we have not done that we could do, which is strategic mobility writ very, very large. This becomes a force multiplier extraordinaire. For instance, in 2003, if we had had the Gulf War army, everything would have been different. We would not have failed at all.

Now, you can correct the degradation of forces only by reconstituting them, and that should be done, and I will get to that in a second, but a way exists to accelerate that by orders of magnitude, which we just have not done, which is the ability to move forces very, very quickly and at will. If you think about it, that was what Marlborough did. That was Napoleon’s secret in his early years. No one had ever marched troops as quickly as he did, in Europe anyway, and it was extraordinary that his enemies were always [asking] where do they come from, where are these people coming from. It was something new at the time, although Marlborough had done it on a smaller scale beforehand.

Think of Knox, moving the cannon from Fort Ticonderoga to Dorchester Heights in Boston. The British had no idea. Suddenly they look up and in Dorchester Heights there would be all these cannons, and they evacuated Boston. They had to, and it was an extraordinary feat what he did. Patton also, not just crossing France with the Third Army but what he did at the Battle of the Bulge. It completely surprised the Germans. They did not believe that they could move a hundred miles in the snow more-or-less in a day or in two days or whatever it was. And then, of course, Israel. Israel’s watchword is fast movement.

Now, we could ostensibly do that. Let me give you some numbers. In 1990, we had 50 Army and Marine Corps division equivalents. I say equivalents because we have long broken up our divisions. We do not have just a division structure, we have all these combat teams and various independent units, etc. But if you put them all together, we had about 50 division equivalents, and now we have 25. That is half the number, so that is one thing in itself, but in in terms of C-5A, C-17, or C-130 equivalents, that is airlifters, in 1990, we had 880. Now we have 303.

Now, granted, the newly upgraded C-5A is much, much better than the old C-5As. The C-17 is better than anything we had then, and the C-130s even have been upgraded with new propellers and engines and stuff, many of them, but we do not have enough to move what we should be able to move as quickly as we should be able to move it.

Think of this. Let us say that we could put five divisions right here in northern Jordan in a week. That is extraordinary because it is like having many more divisions than we actually have because with the ability to move these fast, for instance, if we had to move them to Korea, we might be able to move them to Korea in ten days. This would take a World War II like army, you know, they had thousands of bombers that would go over to Germany and the European continent. It might take a thousand big airlifters. Okay, but the advantage would be an order of magnitude in the ability to place troops and in a sense, an order of magnitude magnifying just the number of troops that we have, so that is something that we should spend money on, but we do not.

[I want to mention] three small things, and then we can have a Q&A. The next thing is the correct provision of forces. For 50 years, 50 years, I have been reading about the high load debate. For those of you who do not know, it is a question of what kind of forces should we have. For instance, with the Navy, we have big aircraft carriers or big – we do not call them cruisers anymore, they are cruisers, but we call them destroyers, the big destroyers like the Zumwalt, you know, very capable ships that are extremely expensive and can do a great deal, or a lot of little ships that are limited in their capacity but there are lots of them so they can be in many places, etc., etc. And if one is hit, it is not that big a deal because we have many of them, but the thing about that is it is not a choice.

If you reduce that requirement to a choice, then essentially you are bound to fail because you can never know, you can never predict what kind of war you are going to be fighting. And the answer to it is you need both in great numbers, in as great numbers as you can possibly arrange. It is something that, again, it is like a thousand-ship navy. It is a comfort to people who do not want to face the real question, which is we have to spend more.

Military Spending

That brings us to military spending and let me give you three examples of this. This would be Japan, Israel, and China. What exactly was it that enabled a feudal society where, you know, the samurai relied upon their swords, in a few decades to become a power that was sufficient to defeat a major European power, a chushima, that is the Russians, sink the Russian fleet? How could they do this in a matter of decades, just a few decades? And then jumping ahead, how did Israel – which if we went through the figures, you would see this was just pathetic compared to the Arab armies arrayed against it. How did they manage through ‘67, and even now because they are outgunned in terms of weapons even now, although their weapons are qualitatively better usually? How did they do it?

And then the next question is how did China come from a place where – certainly within living memory, not that long ago, it was a place of peasants and and water buffalo – to leading us in certain military categories and very quickly approaching a military parity. I think [China has] already [reached] regional parity in Asia, if not more than parity, and [it is] approaching real parity in the next five or ten years.

How did [they] do this?

Well, in the Japanese case, they had a slogan, and the slogan was in Japanese called 富国強兵fukoku kyōhei, which was taken from an ancient Chinese slogan. It was their intuitive understanding of the relationship between economic growth and military prowess, military spending if you must. And they did not understand it in mathematical terms. They had an intuitive understanding of it, the way that the ancient Chinese must have had an intuitive understanding, not economic power, not wealth, but economic growth. Israel then quantified that, approaching it scientifically, and they understood exactly how it worked and they put it to work.

And then China, either taking a leaf from Israel or figuring out themselves because they had the original slogan, understood mathematically how this works. It is very complicated, but I have compressed it, and I will just give you an example. If you compress the figures from 1988 to 2016, China averaged GDP growth of 8.95%. This lifted its GDP from $274 billion to $11.4 trillion, a forty-one-fold increase. The per capita GDP was in 1988 was $256 dollars. By 2016, it was $8,261 dollars, a thirty-two-fold increase. This enabled military spending – and I quote you figures in purchasing power parity, to rise from $5.78 billion in 1988 to $210 billion in 2016, a thirty-six-fold increase. Can you imagine if we had a thirty-six-fold increase? Economic growth enabled higher per capita income so that the state could take a bigger share, and yet the population would feel that life had improved by so many folds that they were still content.

The Chinese did not take full advantage of this. They could have done much, much more, but they wanted to preserve social cohesion, and they knew they could not absorb the new technology and the new structures of the military as fast as the potential spending would have allowed them to do. So, they are taking it slow, they are patient, but they still had a thirty-six-fold increase from 1988, which is tremendous.

Now, I say this to you simply because what it means is that we, the United States, has the best combination in the history of the world of high per capita income and massive population. We can do whatever China does in that respect, the miracle of spending, many times over. That is why in World War II, in 1945, we spent 40 percent of GNP on the military, 80 percent of federal spending, and yet the unemployment rate went from 19 percent average during the depression to 1.2 percent. Real personal income increased. No one is recommending spending 40 percent, but my point is we have the margin, we can do this. It is a question of will, which brings us finally to statesmanship.

We do not have the statesmanship that would enable us to vault over simple reaction and confusion, that would enable us to forge a political consensus to do what is necessary to defend ourselves. In a democracy, the fish does not rot from the head. The fish rots from the body up in a democracy, and the now fighting to become dominant if not already dominant ethos of the West is that we are the victimizers of the world, and as such have no claim to self-defense or legitimate interest to defend. Not surprisingly, our rivals and enemies believe the same. The Islamists take it further by believing that their every motive in action is the execution of God’s will. Until this imbalance of the heart and mind is remedied, we will not know, and we cannot know how to fight properly and defend our civilization. Thank you.


Audience member:

Sir, thank you for coming tonight. I thoroughly appreciate your presentation. My question deals with an area a little outside of what you covered. What was behind the strafing of the U.S. Navy ship by the Israelis?

Mark Helprin:

Okay, this, of course, is a very sore, hot topic. In June 1967, the USS ship Liberty, which was an intelligence-gathering ship, a SIGINT ship, was in the Mediterranean and it was strafed by the Israeli Air Force repeatedly about three times, three passes, and it resulted in the death of about thirty-four U.S. sailors. And here is my analysis of that and I try to be, you know, an American first, and I am not an Israeli citizen anymore, but there were several things working here. There are several things working. Number one, Israel had warned the United States that this was a war zone, and it should not have any ships in it, number one.

Number two, the ship, the Liberty, if you look at the profile – and when you are in the Navy, you have a book that shows all kinds of ship profiles. And it is just a little black silhouette. It looked exactly like a particular Egyptian ship, and the Israeli pilots and Israeli naval people were all aware of the whole Egyptian Navy because Egypt did not have that big a navy. So, they knew the silhouettes of the ship, and the Liberty looked like that.

Number three, the Israelis (and this I know, and this I have been a part of) shoot first and ask questions later. This is part of the ethos of the Israeli Army, and part of being outnumbered. When they go into the attack, they just attack, you know, with absolute savagery. Number four, once they completed their strafing runs, there was a big American flag at the stern of the ship. If you are going at 450 miles an hour right over the water, it is hard to see things except very big things, and things happen very fast, but eventually they saw the flag and they stopped. And then Israeli MTBs, motor torpedo boats, came out to offer aid. The people on the ship said, essentially, drop dead. We do not want your aid. You just killed all of our men.

And then the question has to go to motive. The people who say that the attack was deliberate say that the Israelis wanted to prevent the U.S. from knowing the war plans in ‘67 because they wanted to keep them secret. Well, [I have] a couple of things [to say] about that. Number one, it is documented that the Israelis shared with us in ambassadorial meetings when they were about to actually attack the Egyptians.

Number two, they did not even have to do that because anybody, including me, knew that when the Egyptians had paralyzed the Israeli economy for two weeks, because they mobilized when Nasser put his forces in the Sinai, the country stopped dead. If it had continued, then the country would have been destroyed because you cannot go for two weeks with nothing working and no food being produced, or the food rotting in the fields, the hospitals closed, etc. So, anyone who is even vaguely conscious knew that Israel had to attack so that was not a secret worth keeping.

And then finally, one has to look at this in context. I believe it was the 82nd airborne, [which] was airlifted from North Africa for the attack on Sicily. We shot down dozens of our planes and killed several hundred of our own soldiers. It was not because of a bad intent. We did not intend to do it, but these were American planes, flying over American ships, and the ships had been warned, and yet we killed so many of our soldiers. Even now in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we hear of all these friendly fire incidents, and in Vietnam. All armies have friendly fire incidents, and what I have found is that the Liberty survivors’ organization has attracted people who are unwilling to extend to Israel the same understanding that they extend to us and to all other armies around the world.

And the other thing is I was there at the time, and I was there subsequently, when Israel shot down the Libyan airliner full of civilians over Sinai, and I think that the Sinai one was different because it was a civilian airliner. They suspected at first that it was going to crash into Tel Aviv 9/11 style, but it turned around, and I thought, well, you know. And the pilot instructed the passengers to pull down the shades and they did, so you could not see into the plane. And the pilot would not answer on the radio, so what the Air Force – and I was in the control center at that time – the Air Force said this was a dry run. They were just seeing what we would do. And then they gave the order to shoot it down, which was horrifying, but even that was somewhat understandable. But the Liberty was different. It was right in the middle of a war, and it was told not to be there.

Audience member:

I am a military spouse. You mentioned that the generals did not have as much freedom during the last administration, and now the current administration, the president has given more freedom. He has turned that over to the generals. I think that is a good thing. I think that the general should have more control and decision-making, and I am happy about that. Do you have some thoughts about this, giving these generals really the opportunity to make those decisions that need to be made during this time?

Mark Helprin:

Thank you. Yeah, I mean the Vietnam War was so closely run from the White House that it was it was absurd. On the other hand, think about MacArthur. The civilian control is absolutely necessary. I think that there is a kind of a continuum and that is this, you have to have ultimate civilian control. We all know that, and no one knows that better than the military, and they are willing to die for it. And I cannot stand when people that I speak to say, oh, there could be a coup etc., etc., and these people in the military are literally willing to die for the principle of civilian control, and then you have these civilians who have never held a gun in their hand, saying that the military is a danger because they might have a coup. They do not know the military. That is why they say that.

But there is a continuum. There must be civilian control and superiority, number one, but a lot of it depends upon the skill of the civilian officials. And in the case of, for example, Churchill, Churchill exerted much more influence because he was in many cases a much greater strategist than his generals. In the case of American presidents, let us go back to, well, the First Gulf War to George H.W. Bush. He had a much better sense of it than any subsequent president, including his son. Clinton had no idea, and luckily, he was not really tested. And George W. Bush I think was pretty much out of it in terms of knowing what to do, and I think his influence may have been actually negative. And then Obama had absolutely no idea of anything, and yet exerted tremendous control, almost Lyndon Johnson-style control.

Now, Trump, I can assure you has no idea, absolutely none. I mean I am the same age, and I grew up in New York, so I have been following him since I was in high school. He was in all the papers, and he was always the bad boy. And in the early ‘80s, during the SALT Talks, he was interviewed, and he said I do not understand why this is taking a year or whatever. This is ridiculous. He said I could fix this in two weeks. And you have Max Kampelman and General [Edward] Rowny, and they were addressing this very complex problem, which involved a gamble, and intelligence assessments, and penetrating the mind of the adversary, etc.

He said I could do this in two weeks. And the journalist said to him why, what qualifies you? And he said, well, I fixed the Wollman Rink, which, for those of you who do not know, is a skating rink in Central Park, and it kept on leaking. The city tried to fix it and they could not. And then Trump took over. What I think he did is he devoted five times the resources because he wanted to make a public relations coup. And he did fix the leak, and that is how he could make the SALT Talks be perfect, beautiful in two weeks. He does not know anything about it, so it is good that he is giving control to the generals unless you get generals who do not know what they are doing, in which case there are many.

And let me just say this, that I have found that understanding the military situations and strategy is a gift like the gift of music. You have to and you must learn it and work at it, but if you do not have it, you do not have it. And unfortunately, most generals do not have it, so what they have done is they have done the work and they come out with very, very Sir John French like ideas. For those who do not know if there are any, he was the British General in World War I who is responsible for the deadlock and the massacre of countless millions of troops because he just could not see what was going on. Unfortunately, military professionals like many professionals do not have the gift, so you have to get good generals. And I think that from my knowledge that General Mattis is a very good man, and he will probably be influential in promoting people who do have a natural understanding. Now, for instance, everyone glorifies General Petraeus of the Surge. You know what I think of the Surge, okay.

Audience member:

Thank you for a terrific presentation for starters, and for the comprehensiveness of your analysis. One thing that you did not talk about explicitly that I would be interested in your thoughts on is the somewhat intangible factor in military culture, and the implication it has for readiness as well as ultimately for success, and if you would just address how it looks to you, having served in a number of different military units, that we are now, you know, with the legacy of Obama, well along in a huge social engineering experiment within the United States military, and what that means for [unintelligible].

Mark Helprin:

Sure. Well, first of all, there is an essential principle, which is that the role of the military is to defend the United States. It is not to be a social laboratory, no matter what you think of [social issues] one way or another. Secondly, it was Susan Rice who said that having transgender people in the military – and of course, there is no such thing as transgender, actually, it is physically impossible. There is no such thing. It is a fantasy. You can have a man who takes hormones and develops breasts, and has his genitals cut off. You can have artificial vaginas plowed into somebody. You can do this and that, but you cannot change the chromosomes and you cannot change the internal plumbing, so it is a fantasy. And Susan Rice said it is a matter of military necessity that we have transgender individuals in the Armed Forces.

Now, what necessity that could be I do not know, but I can tell you another thing that I just learned from listening to – some of you may have heard Dr. Jordan Peterson in Canada. He is a professor at the University of Toronto. In Canada, if you do not address someone by their chosen pronoun, such as zhe oe zher or whatever, and even people who say that they do not fit on the male-female spectrum or the human spectrum, and they call themselves otherkins, if you do not address them according to their chosen pronoun, which could change the next day, by the way, you can go to prison because it was made an Article of [law]. It is brought into hate crimes. It is hate speech and hate crimes, and that is punishable by prison in Canada. We are going along that road.

To answer your question, there is nothing I think as bad for morale as to be subject to that kind of social crazy experimentation. And I know that in the units in which I served, there were some examples of that, which really affected morale. I cannot get into it, but just hinting at it for refusal to commit a certain act, and I would have died rather than have done this. I had to sweep the ground, the dirt ground, for three days stay because I would not cotton to something. And so many good people are driven out, so many bad people are pulled in because of this, and I am not suggesting that people because of whatever their sexual orientation [is] cannot fight. I am suggesting that I do not think that a country that puts pregnant women in combat is going to last very long. I will tell you that.

I was in the Israeli army. I served under Golda Meir. I was delighted to do so. There were some female officers over me, but they were not combat officers. One of the most wonderful things in my life was to be on the northern border with Lebanon, protecting a whole camp full of female soldiers, and I felt very protective against them, and I saw that they were different from the men who protected them. They just were. I mean that is experience. I cannot quantify it or anything, but our sense of fighting was totally different from theirs, and I saw it actually sometimes in action. Okay, thank you so much.