Boots on the Ground

In the latter years of the Twentieth Century, after the Cold War had come to an end and the thaw that had emerged a new concept was explored in Europe. It was born out of several key concepts and constraints. The budgetary and logistical nightmares of maintaining hundreds of thousands of men, women and materiél almost indefinitely in theatre, as was needed in Cold War Europe led to the evolution of a new concept, which was in effect an old concept with some new window dressing.

Rapid Reaction forces, expeditionary warfare units, Quick Response Forces all names given to military forces which were supposed to be able to remain on suspended readiness for months at a time and then be able to deploy, anywhere on the planet and be fully capable of intervention in a crisis in short order.

At least that was the theory. Now in terms of the recent Russo-Ukranian crisis in the Crimean and Donetsk regions and the ongoing Islamic State slaughter across whole swathes of the Syrian and Iraqi countrysides, it appears that Quick Reaction Forces have fallen out of political favour. American, British and Australian political leaders have all signalled their willingness to engage in unlimited airstrikes against the quasi state (and any entity controlling that massive swathe of
real estate when compared with the actual Iraqi and Syrian governments must be recognised as a serious actor and not denigrated by the juvenile moniker ‘so called Islamic State’), yet they refuse to acknowledge the plain reality I’m front of their faces: sooner or later, everything gets settled by the Infantry.

It’s not bravado, nor bombast, not even service snobbery from the air forces toward the sluggish ground pounders. It all boils down to approval ratings. These days polling and approval ratings are the new gold. Government policies are sold to the populace, politicians hang on every bit of polling data to determine how best (their own best, not what’s right necessarily) to proceed. This proceeding then is logically hampered and hobbled by the limitations imposed upon it by the expectations of a (generally) uninformed and uncaring electorate (a significant portion of whom don’t vote anyway).

The unspoken truth, the bête noir of the early 21st century military operations, is simply this; it is necessary to intervene to establish and execute your will and to do this you will need a range of interventions. These will range from the political, to a coordinated policy of airstrikes and interdictions AND culminating in an intervention by infantry forces. The aerial forces may kill the enemy’s ability to make war on you and other actors, but it is your ability to consolidate that projected power, to deny the created vacuum to the enemy which will determine how successful your forces will be in securing their objectives.

Unfortunately for the western political leaders, decades of limited warfare and extremely poor military planning and a lack of potent, coherent leadership have all contributed to an unwillingness to make decisions which should have been normal and logical. Disastrous campaigns in Vietnam, Iraq (Gulf War 2), Afghanistan, etc have destroyed the willpower necessary to put ‘boots on the ground.’ Successful implementation of a coordinated intervention plan worked well in Kosovo and East Timor. In Haiti they failed due to a lack of a coherent follow-up plan (similar to the complete lack of joined-up-thinking and political willpower in Afghanistan).

Russian forces got mauled in Afghanistan (and it took them a long time to emerge from their own Vietnam) and later and continually in Chechnya and Dagestan. Yet in recent months we saw how Russia used proxy warfare and a limited, yet politically reaolute ‘boots-on-the-ground’ strategy to extend the russian hegemonic sphere further east, which may eventually culminate in the creation of a buffer zone against the ever expanding and yet dithering and anachronistic NATO.

In short, in real terms, until the western militaries accept the need to reinforce fancy airstrikes with a steady leavening of either air mobile troops or an expeditionary warfare cadre, then as history has shown us, international intervention will fall flat.

About eamonntgardiner

I am a PhD Student at the National University of Ireland, Galway. I am conducting research into links between wartime traumatic-neurosis and evidence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder amongst British First World War veterans serving as Auxiliary Policemen in Ireland during the Anglo-Irish War 1919-1921. I have previously conducted research into local Irish Volunteer/Old IRA units in Munster as well as British responses to popular insurgencies in areas they administered. I have previously published a book on the British Counterinsurgency responses to the IV/IRA conflict in Ireland, 1919-1921, entitled 'Dublin Castle and the Anglo-Irish War: Counter Insurgency and Conflict.' I have also published papers on various aspects of that war and also on other insurgencies. I write a regular blog on those and other related matters, which can be read at My research interests include Feminism and De-Colonialisation/Post-Colonialism, Insurgency, Police and Military Histories, Institutional Histories. Subaltern Studies, International History of the 20th Century, Modern Irish History, Historiography, History of Conflict, Peace Keeping/Enforcement/Protectorates, Spheres of Influence, Hegemonic Theories, Old and New Terrorism.
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