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Now US Forces Stationed in 130 Countries
Special Contribution
By Paul Kennedy
President George W. Bush speaks at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, Dec. 11, 2001, in his address to the military cadets.
Courtesy White House

There is a very cunning after-dinner board game called SPQR by its makers, which involves the defense of the Roman Empire at its height. The board itself is a map of Europe and the Mediterranean, showing Roman cities and ports, and the military roads and sea lanes between them.

The game involves the "senators and populace" moving selected Roman legions (there were 27 of them in, say, 80 A.D.) along those internal lines in response to new threats, whether they arise from Syria, Scotland or the Danube.

There were few places along the borders of the empire where one legion could not reinforce another within a 10-days' march — which was just as well, since Rome's expansion had given it many enemies and a legion that was based in Sicily one year might find itself in the north of England, guarding Hadrian's Wall, the next.

I thought of SPQR while reading "Where Are the Legions? Global Deployments of U.S. Forces," published by Global Security, the nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research group based outside Washington, D.C. The message of the article is clear, and very disturbing: There may not be many American troops coming home soon, perhaps not for a long time.

Soldiers of Roman Empire
Currently, the United States has stationed military forces in approximately 130 countries around the world, fighting in some of them, peace-keeping in others and training foreign militaries. One can hear George Washington turning in his grave. To be sure, America has had standing military commitments abroad since the end of the Second World War; the occupations of Germany and Japan, the Korean War and the global rivalry with the USSR made sure of that.

But when the Warsaw Pact collapsed, it was generally assumed that things would be different. Alas, that simply is not so. The fight against al Qaeda, the war and guerrilla resistance in Iraq, the implosion of Liberia, the continued unrest in Afghanistan, instability on the Korean Peninsula and the need to reassure Japan of a strong U.S. presence in the western Pacific have all conspired against a draw-down of U.S. forces in the far corners of the globe. On the contrary, they have very much been "drawn up."

Using official statistics, the editors at Global Security report that there are 155 combat battalions in the U.S. Army. Before October 2001, only 17 of those were deployed on active combat service, presumably in Kosovo and a few other hot spots (garrison deployment in Germany and Japan is not regarded as "active combat" service).

Today that figure stands at 98 combat battalions deployed in active areas. Even a non-military expert can see that this is an impossibly high number to sustain over the longer term, which is why, in addition to the 255,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guard forces deployed in combat and peace-keeping missions abroad, we have sent an another 136,000 troops from the National Guard and Reserves.

Most of the U.S. carrier fleet are now back in their bases, being refitted after the defeat of Saddam Hussein, but we still have 40,000 sailors afloat and on mission. Meanwhile, the Army generals are asking for more Iraqi troop deployments, and the Pentagon has just diverted three warships to the coast of Liberia. The Defense Department now has to play the game of SPQR.

An F/A-18C Hornet is on the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson for a strike against al Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001.
Courtesy US Navy

These are not comfortable facts, and they should surely be giving our congressional representatives cause for thought. It is true that the Pentagon is putting immense pressure on any government that counts itself a friend of America to send forces to Iraq, Afghanistan and Liberia, but the results so far are unspectacular.

Really, the only ground troops with heft and logistical capacity are the British, and, given all their other peace-keeping commitments from the Balkans to Sierra Leone, they are probably more overstretched than we.

Poland has assumed responsibility for running a relatively quiet (so far) zone in Iraq but, as the Wall Street Journal reported this week (July 28, 2003), had to go to 22 countries to drum up the 9,000 troops for that zone and will rely heavily upon American technical support to function at all.

One wonders what utility Messrs Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz really accord a battalion of Latvian grenadiers in central Iraq. And what happens when they become the targets of grenade attacks?

Militarily — and let's forget for a moment the political debate about whether we should have gone into these countries in the first place — these awkward facts point to two equally awkward conclusions:

A US aircraft carrier
First, given the military overstretch, the United States needs a few more heavy hitters, along with the British. It needs armies with substantial punch that could send 25,000 troops to southwest Asia. But of the 190 national armies of the world, you can count substantial ones on the fingers of one hand. Israel can't play; China and Taiwan won't play.

South Korea is pinned down at home and remains a drain upon U.S. troop deployments. Japan is too psychologically and constitutionally restricted. A Pakistani presence alongside America in Iraq might lead to massive internal convulsions. A large Turkish contingent would see a retaliatory Kurdish uprising.

This leaves India, Russia, France and Germany, and perhaps Italy, but four of those five opposed the Iraq war in the first place, and if we need them now, there will be a price to pay.

This is as obvious today as it should have been last September. Of course, the United States can always "go it alone," but it does so at some cost. Only Sen. Robert Byrd seems to have realized that.

Second, the American services, and the U.S. Army in particular, must come up with some long-term rotation scheme. They may have to move to a sort of Cardwell System, which was devised in the late 19th century by the British Secretary for War, Edward Cardwell, to deal with the constant calls upon troops to serve abroad.

One battalion of the British regiment was rotated out, perhaps to Afghanistan or Mesopotamia, for two or three years; the second battalion stayed home in the regimental barracks, recruiting fresh volunteers until its turn came to go abroad. The system worked, just as the SPQR system worked, because both combined regular rotation (helping troop morale) and strategic flexibility.

Occasionally, there were horrible reverses: for the Romans in the German forests or the British in the Khyber Pass. But the structure was strong enough to allow for recovery, often for further advances. These were empires that were in it for the long haul.

Is that the American democracy's future, to have its troops stationed for an undefined time on the Northwest Frontier or in a disease-ridden port in West Africa? We frantically deny that we have imperial ambitions, and I believe those denials to be sincere. But if we increasingly look like an empire and walk like an empire and quack like an empire, perhaps we are becoming one just the same.

Other Articles by Paul Kennedy
    Murdering Medecins Sans Frontieres?
    "Degeneration of War Right Before Our Eyes"

Paul Kennedy is the Dilworth Professor of History and Director of International Security Studies at Yale University and author or editor of 16 books on history, military strategy, diplomacy and international relations. His books include "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers."






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