You hear it routinely during congressional events involving defense issues, when a defense secretary wants to protect his budget (or his legacy), and when candidate Barack Obama or his operatives defend the administration's national security record: The American armed forces are "the best in the world." It has become such an unremarkable bit of conventional wisdom that the comment is usually prologue to some other point the speaker wants to make.
Many think that because the United States spends multiples of any conceivable opponent or even combinations of them, has the largest modern navy and air force, and can operate all over the world, there is no conceivable enemy or enemies that can take on America successfully. The history of warfare is full of this kind of arrogance before the fall; it has occurred from the beginnings of recorded warfare until today. Consider Xerxes and Darius against Greece in antiquity, the British in America in 1775, the Russians before their war with Japan in 1904, and the United States in 1964 facing Vietnam.
History has recorded these and numerous other conflicts when the "wrong" side won the war, and there are still more examples from campaigns and individual battles. If spending or the size and breadth of forces were the sole determinants of success, the British and French would have won in 1940, the Russians would have repelled the Germans in 1941, the British would have won in Malaysia in 1942, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would not have been the disasters they are.
When I have suggested that America's military might not be "the best," the inevitable question is, "Against whom? Name an opponent who can beat us." History is not kind to those who are so sure they know the future, and in today's vapid culture the confident prediction of supremacy is articulated in the absence of anything beyond a superficial bean count of forces and hardware -- sometimes not even that.
There are far more subtle and supremely powerful forces at play in deciding who wins in warfare than the stuff that occupies the hollow defense debates in the American political spectrum. As a nation, Americans mostly ignore those deciding elements. As American strategist John Boyd explained cogently, material elements come in a poor third in deciding which side wins in conflict -- after moral and mental factors.
Instead, in the debate that today dominates the American political-military system on both sides of the political spectrum, two main props sustain the "we are the best" advocates. The first is America's spectacular performance on the battlefield when, even after the post-Cold War budget reductions of George H.W. Bush's and Bill Clinton's administrations, U.S. armed forces "used Saddam Hussein as a speed bump" in 2003. The second, they say, is America's vastly superior military technology, which, while expensive, gives the country the essential winning edge that no one can match.
The example of America's victory over Saddam is particularly inapt. Iraq's armed forces were a speed bump: Their leadership was hopelessly politicized and grossly incompetent, and their uniformed combat personnel were demoralized and unwilling to fight even before the first bombs were dropped. They were assessed as literally the worst in the world by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and as some have noted, the performance of the U.S. military leadership -- even at the field-command level -- in that war was an embarrassment.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. forces often showed real guts and skill at the tactical level, but the heroism of soldiers and Marines notwithstanding, it should be remembered that they have fought enemies with no air force or navy and not much infantry equipment beyond home-built road mines, AK-47 rifles, and rocket-propelled grenades.