What about the lessons of this event, Mr. President?
President Obama is visiting Hiroshima, Japan Friday (May 27, 2016). The visit comes just nine weeks shy of the 71st anniversary of the U.S. dropping of the atomic bomb on the city. That bomb, together with the one dropped three days later over Nagasaki, killed upwards of 160,000 people.
It also brought about Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II.
President Obama will be the first sitting U.S. president ever to visit Hiroshima. He has no plans that we know of, however, to mark another important World War II anniversary – that being the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It was that surprise attack that set in motion the chain of events that would lead eventually to Hiroshima’s near total annihilation.
Of the two anniversaries, the former has symbolic significance but the latter holds strategic significance.
The Japanese attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor because of their calculation that the U.S. was ill-prepared to fight back. Neutralize the U.S. Pacific Fleet they thought, and the U.S. would lack the military ability to keep Japanese imperial forces from grabbing off British-held Singapore and U.S.-held bases in the Philippines.
That calculation came close to being correct. The U.S. was ill-prepared. Only a Herculean rearmament effort, a couple of subsequent Japanese miscalculations and some blind good luck allowed the U.S. to regain its footing and eventually defeat the Japanese. Things could have gone the other way.
The significance of the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor is that the U.S. military is descending into the same state of un-readiness that first emboldened the Japanese. The numbers are alarming.
Since World War II, U.S. military readiness has been judged against the ability to fight two major conflicts simultaneously. This standard has served us and the world well. The U.S. was able, for example, to fight in Korea while keeping sufficient forces in Europe to deter the Soviet Union.
Toward that end, experts believe that the Army needs 50 brigade combat teams. It currently has 32. The Navy needs 350 ships. It currently has 272. The Marines need 36 battalions. They currently have 23.
Most concerning of all is the Air Force. To be combat-ready in two theaters the Air Force needs 133 active fighter squadrons. It currently has just 26.
Those who dismiss the need for a two war-capable military say that such readiness is from another era. Our military, they say, must be ready for small, concentrated engagements with ad hoc, non-state enemy combatants.
But tell that to China, which is rapidly building its military capacity. Ditto the Russians. There are still geopolitical bad actors out there and they know as well as anyone the state of U.S. military readiness.
Ignoring the lessons of history – particularly as that history pertains to war – is one of the perpetual failures of peaceful nations. Yet it remains as true today as it was 75 years ago. The best way to find yourself in a war is to be unprepared for one.