The Vizzini Principle: a modest proposal

What if America didn’t have an army?

Editor’s note: Jonathan Swift’s 1729 pamphlet “A Modest Proposal” was a satire intended to challenge contemporary British economic and social philosophies with a mock argument for alleviating the plight of Ireland’s poor by feeding their children to rich landlords. Although W@W tries to avoid provocation for its own sake, we’ll occasionally offer our own modest proposals to suggest the sometimes narrow limits of what defense and communication professionals consider right or possible.

Wallace Shawn as Vizzini ( The Princess Bride , 1987)

Wallace Shawn as Vizzini (The Princess Bride, 1987)

As the Trump administration staggers uncertainly toward limiting or ending the presence of U.S. troops in Syria and Afghanistan, it’s time to return to a key text for military strategists: the 1987 film The Princess Bride.

In one of many memorable scenes, the arrogant but unknowingly thwarted criminal mastermind Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) taunts the protagonist Westley (Cary Elwes) for falling “victim to one of the classic blunders—the most famous of which is never get involved in a land war in Asia—but only slightly less well-known is this: never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line.”

In an international disorder where Eurasian autocrats resemble Mob bosses—alternatively bribing, bullying, and brutalizing their rivals and neighbors—the best thing America may be able to do is limit our capacity for military interventions abroad without mobilization at home. No more land wars in Asia, at least those where American soldiers or Marines do most of the fighting.

An aversion to large standing armies animated America’s founders and has driven U.S. foreign policy and domestic politics even after the nation became a superpower. In the wake of World War II and the Korean stalemate, President Eisenhower pursued “more bang for the buck” in foreign policy, with greater reliance on nuclear deterrence, alliances, and covert action. Following Vietnam, Army Chiefs of Staff Gens. Creighton Abrams and Gordon Sullivan oversaw a major shift of service functions to the reserve components. After the Cold War, the assumed peace dividend fueled major cuts in U.S. defense spending.

The United States did not handle any of these transitions well. The Eisenhower administration underestimated the risks of unaccountable covert operations and how conventional confrontations and proxy wars would flourish in the shade of the nuclear umbrella. The Total Force emerging from the Abrams Doctrine arguably overestimated the need for heavy ground forces to counter the Soviet Union, and it definitely underestimated how much future military operations would rely on ready support units like military police and civil affairs. The post-Cold War drawdown worsened U.S. military decline by slashing force structure without meaningful intellectual or material investments in figuring out how the the remainder should be organized, trained, and equipped to counter violence by non-state actors or curb the emergence of state rivals.

So the past teaches us to be humble about our ability to transform the military without screwing it up. Powerful national and local interests would oppose any major reductions in the size of the active-duty Army or the Navy’s Army. Despite emerging as winners in the interservice scramble for defense dollars, influential factions in the Navy, Air Force, and the industries arming them would resist course corrections necessitated by the shake-up.

The hollowing out of U.S. diplomatic and information capabilities would hobble efforts to manage a strategic shift without adversaries becoming bolder or allies growing more nervous and distant. Toxic domestic politics would prevent the compromises needed to enact the change.

A much smaller Army and Marine Corps is therefore impossible, even if anyone is insane enough to believe it’s wise. There’s no way we could expect developed Eurasian countries to raise larger ground forces for their own defense or regional stability. There’s no way we could limit our military support to the rest of the world to the advantages conferred by American dominance in sea, air, space, cyberspace, intelligence, and special operations. There’s no way we could demonstrate commitment to allies without a large number of boots on the ground. There’s no way a leaner force of full-time soldiers could be focused on defending embassies and bases overseas, training other nations’ soldiers to fight better with or without America, and preparing a larger reserve force to go to war when and where it’s truly needed.

But still, there’s something to recommend this fantasy to almost anyone:

  • A clearer but sufficiently flexible and unpredictable strategy defining when and how we fight

  • Less military intervention abroad with fewer U.S. military lives at risk

  • Renewed civic purpose among a larger number of citizens who would have to serve as military reserves

  • A greater defense burden on free-riders

  • Less national debt

  • Modest but otherwise unavailable resources for deferred military modernization, the diplomatic and informational instruments of U.S. power, and insufficient spending on healthcare, education, infrastructure, or renewable energy

  • The continued ability to scare the crap out of our enemies and kick their ass on demand.

As the mismanaged peace dividend of the 1990’s cracked against genocide in the Balkans, Madeleine Albright famously taunted Colin Powell, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” Of course, if there’s any truth to the idea of American exceptionalism, it’s that the point of possessing formidable military power is the wisdom to use it reluctantly.

America’s death is not on the line, but our ability and willingness to fight land wars in Asia might hasten our diplomatic, economic, informational and comparative military decline. If there was a time to give some form of the Vizzini Principle a chance, now might be the time.