Were the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps after the Cold War and the hippy movement of 1968 separated at birth? In a sense, yes. Both made it an article of faith that history had ended or was simply irrelevant. Both took to extremes Henry Ford’s quip that “history is more or less bunk”—a paean to historical forgetfulness if there ever was one. “We don’t want tradition,” declared Ford in the Chicago Tribune in 1916. “We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today.” Their extremely American conviction that history was bunk liberated the 1960s types and sea warriors from the customs and ways of thinking that had stood the test of time—or so they thought. Both groups had to relearn what they had deliberately forgotten, at considerable peril to the republic and themselves. The hippies constituted a menace to public health; neglect of basic martial missions, tactics, and hardware endangered the ability of the sea services to enforce freedom of the sea.
That is my reading of the lessons from a comical albeit macabre story about San Francisco during the 1960s, related by the novelist and gadfly Tom Wolfe. Hippies inhabiting communes in the city’s Haight-Ashbury district had declared it “Year Zero.” They proclaimed that benighted past generations had nothing to teach that was worth learning. They would build an all-new world from scratch, learning everything for themselves. Hence, it was known as Year Zero. The enlightened 1960s generation thus made a conscious choice to forget the accumulated wisdom of the ages—including such fundamentals as basic sanitation and hygiene! The ensuing downturn in public health flummoxed doctors at the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic. Wolfe reports:
Among the codes and restraints that people in the communes swept aside—quite purposely—were those that said you shouldn’t use other people’s toothbrushes or sleep on other people’s mattresses without changing the sheets or . . . without using any sheets at all or that you and five other people shouldn’t drink from the same bottle of Shasta or take tokes from the same cigarette. And now, in 1968, they were relearning . . . the laws of hygiene . . . by getting . . . diseases that had disappeared so long ago they had never even picked up Latin names, diseases such as the mange, the grunge, the itch, the twitch, the thrush, the scroff, the rot.
But that isn’t quite right, is it? Getting sick “exposed the hippies to the consequences of their folly”? Whether they learned from the grunge or the rot was up to them. Learning demanded a painful mental readjustment. It demanded that they amend or discard Year Zero thinking, a core precept of commune life. Having consciously decided to reject all lessons bequeathed by past generations, the 1960s generation now had to decide to take the past seriously again, in whole or in part. For Wolfe this was the moral to the story—that the hippies’ ahistorical and arrogant worldview compelled them to undertake a “Great Relearning” of basic truths in order to rejoin modern society as functioning members.
You can disparage those who went before or declare past experience irrelevant. That doesn’t make what your forebears learned about reality any less true. And reality has a way of exacting its revenge. When it does, you can undertake your own Great Relearning or suffer the consequences.
Now, the United States Navy and Marine Corps are not some bunch of smelly hippies per se. But in a way the seniormost naval leadership announced that Year Zero had arrived with the downfall of the Soviet Union and Soviet Navy. Uniformed and civilian officials declared an end to naval history in 1992, at almost precisely the same moment the social scientist Francis Fukuyama was proclaiming an end to political history. (Fukuyama floated the notion of an “end of history” in these pages in 1989 and expanded it to book length in late 1992.) A whiff of Haight-Ashbury wafted through naval precincts when “. . . From the Sea: Preparing the Naval Service for the 21st Century,” the U.S. Navy and Marines’ first effort at making strategy for the brave new world following the Cold War, stated that:
- The West ruled the sea now that the Soviet Navy was no more;
- No peer antagonist could rival the U.S. or allied navies for mastery of the maritime commons, and none would for the foreseeable future;
- And therefore the U.S. sea services could afford to transform themselves into a “fundamentally different naval service” that had little need to gird for surface, anti-air, or anti-submarine warfare against enemies comparable in size and capability to Western forces.
The sea services, that is, could lay down arms and transform themselves. Though not in so many words, sea-service chieftains contended that victory in the Cold War had abolished the chief function of navies, namely fighting enemy battle fleets for maritime command in Mahanian fashion. Since there was no one left to fight, American and friendly forces could skip straight to projecting power from this offshore safe haven. They could land troops on combat missions or errands of mercy, launch air strikes from carrier flight decks, or pelt targets with cruise missiles with impunity. “. . . From the Sea” broadcast a powerful and resonant signal to the sea services. From then forward, hardware, tactics, and skills for dueling peer navies languished—and languished on explicit orders from naval prelates.
History has now debunked the notion that history is bunk. Like 1960s denizens, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps must now undertake their own Great Relearning if they mean to compete effectively against such formidable potential foes as China’s People’s Liberation Army, which is busily fielding a great surface navy backed by an array of missile-toting submarines and patrol craft, not to mention shore-based aircraft and missiles in bulk. The ghost of Tom Wolfe smiles knowingly at the sea services’ plight. The hippies had to learn not to share toothbrushes. We have to relearn and reequip ourselves for our core function of high-seas battle if we are to resume custodianship of an increasingly competitive maritime world. In both cases it’s back to basics after insisting the basics no longer matter.
How do we gauge how well we are faring in this gathering strategic competition? Let’s answer briefly from the standpoint of the United States as a whole and then circle back to the sea services, the long arm of U.S. foreign policy, to see what our Great Relearning involves. As the keeper of an established status quo, America counts it as a strategic success when nothing happens—or at any rate nothing that upsets that status quo. Scholar-statesman Henry Kissinger counsels superintendents of a regional or world order to found their efforts on justice and on a balance of power. If stakeholders in the system accept the system as a legitimate mechanism for settling their differences, then they have little reason to challenge it; they see it as just on the whole and acquiesce in its workings. If a daunting balance of power confronts would-be challengers, then they can cherish few hopes of toppling the system. Either way, nothing happens; the established order stands.
You would think things should be okay today. Communist China freely assented to the “international rules-based order,” which lamentably now seems to have acquired its own acronym, IRBO. It took up a permanent seat in the UN Security Council in the 1970s. It signed on as a charter member of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in the 1980s. Beijing seemed to accept the rules-based order as a device for settling disputes, as Kissinger doubtless hoped it would. But the leadership has evidently had second thoughts in recent years, particularly when it comes to managing events in the China seas. The Chinese Communist Party leadership harbors few objections to a rules-based order in offshore waters. It simply believes the rules should be made in Beijing—not in The Hague, New York, or, worst of all, Washington, DC.
Hence the fervent claims from Xi Jinping and his supporters to “indisputable sovereignty“ over maritime space adjoining mainland shores. Such claims would negate the principle that the high seas are a “common,” an expanse that belongs to everyone and no one. If China is sovereign over swathes of the high seas, then it wields a monopoly on the legitimate use of armed force there. The Chinese Communist Party ordains, others obey. The common is no more. So the diplomatic challenge before the United States and fellow liberal-minded seafaring states is to make every effort to coax China back into the rules-based order as it currently stands; to refuse to grant concessions to Beijing that tacitly nullify the rules on which the system rests; and to shore up the regional balance of power in case China keeps stubbornly rejecting the rules. Conciliate Beijing while convincing Xi and his lieutenants they cannot get away with subverting the regional or world order, and a wonderful thing may happen.