When World War II ended, U.S. troops stayed on to patrol the peace. Ten years after V-E Day in 1945, the U.S. troop deployment level in Germany was 269,260. Nearly 70 years after that, 40,000 American troops are stationed in Germany today. In Japan the number of U.S. troops on duty stood at 190,000 in 1955. Today there are 50,000 U.S. military personnel stationed there.
The Korean War armistice was signed in 1953, ending combat if not technically ending the war. U.S. troop deployments 10 years later: 56,910. Today the United States has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea, adding another 800 just this year.
War has changed over those decades, and so has technology, especially when it comes to U.S. air superiority. But ask any military commander, and he or she will argue it still takes manpower to win wars and to keep peace. If that were not the case, we would not have deployed a half million U.S. military personnel to patrol the 20th century’s worst armed conflicts a decade on. Or 150,000 over half a century later. I don’t hear Americans complaining about that number. And it’s hard to argue how much better off Germany, Japan, and South Korea are for the attention—much less how much better off the United States is for decades of postwar security in what once were seedbeds of the world’s bloodiest conflicts, sites of its worst atrocities.
And that brings us to Iraq. In 2003 Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld overruled the military commanders, sending a force of 160,000 to carry out a U.S. invasion the Pentagon brass said could require 500,000. It’s been a losing proposition—a war without sufficient soldiers to fight it—ever since.
U.S. deployments to Iraq averaged around 135,000 then peaked at 160,000 during the troop “surge” of 2007-2008. By August 2009, less than 50,000 U.S. troops remained there—and their mission was focused on training Iraqi forces, not on combat. When President Barack Obama announced the U.S. pullout in 2011, it was near total: The Pentagon counseled keeping 10,000 troops on guard, but by Dec. 18 only 150 military personnel remained in Iraq, all stationed at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. That’s fewer U.S. troops than are currently stationed in Puerto Rico.
With an expected withdrawal next year in Afghanistan, the sum of postwar U.S. patrol for this century’s conflicts may be whittled to the lowest hundreds—while the deadly results of full-scale retreat escalate by the hour.
We see the results in a terrorist group so sadistic even elements of al-Qaeda have disavowed it, a terrorist group for the first time since 9/11 controlling actual territory, now equivalent to the area stretching from Philadelphia to Quebec.
Far from exhausting itself in its six-week offensive in northern Iraq, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) has picked up newer, more sophisticated weaponry; it is by the estimate of experts better financed than al-Qaeda before it carried out 9/11; it threatens oilfields; and it proved stealthy enough to heist 88 pounds of uranium from Mosul University in June. ISIS commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been direct about his plans: to establish a base in Iraq (using the beefed-up facilities left by U.S. forces) to launch attacks on the West.
In faraway Nigeria, human rights activist Mark Lipdo, eyeing that country’s expanding problem with Islamic terrorists, summed up the gathering storm: “The world’s reluctance in confronting ISIS in northern Syria and Iraq gave minority ethnic and religious people to a monstrous holocaust.”
Two American presidents, dozens of U.S. military commanders, hundreds of members of Congress, and thousands upon thousands of Americans have stood back from the obvious lessons of recent history and the best military science, declaring themselves from the start in favor of doing war on the cheap. Every day the price of that choice rises and the time required to pay it stretches further into the distance.