Thursday marks the 76th anniversary of Hitler's ill-fated invasion of the Soviet Union that ultimately would help cause the end of Nazi Germany. Operation Barbarossa was meant to be a lightning-quick march to Moscow, much as Hitler's Blitzkrieg had overrun western Europe the year before.
Obviously, it was not.
Hitler vastly understated what it would take to defeat the Soviet Union. While parallels with Hitler are often unsavory, as the Department of Defense and White House plan for the so-caller "four plus one matrix" on which to base its forces, that lesson should not be forgotten. The "four plus one" construct aims to "deter or, if war comes, defeat" Russia or China or Iran or North Korea and to defeat the Islamic State and other radical jihadi groups.
The more polite phrase is coping with great power competition. In this regard, a "rising" China now flexing it military muscles and militarizing islets in the various Chinese seas and a "resurgent" Russia having occupied parts of Ukraine and annexed Crimea as well as coming to the aid of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and interfered in domestic elections of various NATO states, especially ours, must be "deterred." And if war comes, both must be defeated.
How does one go about deterring Russia both from war and from conducting what it calls "active measures" to disrupt, misdirect, confuse and intimidate short of war and similarly for China? Since neither power seems the least bit interested in a war with the West, deterrence of war should be a lesser matter. But let's recall some history.
If war with either China or Russia were to start, that war would be global and almost certainly nuclear. The last global war we fought was World War II. Over 12 million Americans served in uniform then. Today, assuming it would take a military consisting of about 10-15 percent of the population as it did 70-plus years ago, are we seriously going to put 30 million to 40 million Americans in uniform?
Or, during the height of the Cold War, when our strategy was based on fighting "2 1/2" wars -- big wars against China and Russia and a half war in Korea, the active duty force consisted of about 3,000,000 people in uniform and 300,000 deployed in Europe to deter Soviet attack. Are we going to replicate that force in deterring or defeating an adversary? And don't forget that the half war we fought in Vietnam for a decade we lost.
The smarter approach is to confront this so-called great power competition politically, economically, diplomatically and ideologically. Basing this competition largely if not entirely on military force seems to me to be a prescription for failure. The Cold War provides a useful analogy.
Much of our Cold War thinking and rhetoric was based on a monolithic view of "Godless communism." Somehow we thought Moscow was in control of the communist world and united in overthrowing capitalism and democracy. Hence, in Vietnam, President Lyndon Johnson could argue that if we didn't stop the commies on the Mekong, we would be fighting them on the Mississippi. What nonsense!
Today, we are falling into a similar trap of overly militarizing our responses. That does not mean we do not need a strong military or that a capable, ready and deployed force does not have deterrent value in certain situations. Nor does it mean that after 16 years of war in which the enemy army was easily crushed as in Iraq or our other foes lacked real armies, navies and air forces should we be reluctant to bring back skills needed if we find ourselves in combat against well armed and trained adversaries with weapons as good as ours.
But this does mean that any competitions are better met politically, economically, diplomatically and ideologically. And we must realize that the more friends and allies we have to engage, the stronger we will be. By making this a binary battle with us against China or Russia, we ignore that we won both World War II and the Cold War because we had allies. Ironically, China and Russia were once two of them.
Unfortunately, politics today -- both at home and abroad -- seem to be a matter of "us against them." This has proven destructive domestically. We will see if the same outcomes apply to international politics, as well.
Harlan Ullman has served on the Senior Advisory Group for Supreme Allied Commander Europe (2004-16) and is senior adviser at Washington D.C.'s Atlantic Council, chairman of two private companies and principal author of the doctrine of shock and awe. His next book, due out this year, is "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Wars It Starts," which argues that failure to know and to understand the circumstances in which force is used guarantees failure. Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.