Memorial Day gratitude for the oceans

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Photo above: The Pacific Ocean from the ocean side of Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. (Tim Forkes)

I touched on this briefly in a tweet yesterday, but thinks it’s worth expanding on. A point so simple and obvious that it’s easily forgotten: the most reliable predictor of war has always been geographic proximity. And the most reliable predictor of peace is geographic isolation.

Most wars are between neighbors, for two general reasons. First and foremost, proximity makes mobilization easier. The diplomatic and domestic political obstacles are easily finessed by characterizing the mobilization as defensive; meanwhile, forces and supply lines are either already in place or easily repositioned, and need only be extended as the front advances. It’s not just that those potential obstacles are difficult to overcome – it’s that any obstacle on the road to war demands cooperation and consent and creates an often decisive opportunity for opposition.

Second, shared borders create all kinds of unique stakes and opportunities for conflict that don’t exist otherwise. Ambiguities and disagreements over borders are the most immediate problem. Resource access issues, like rivers that flow from one country into another, can also emerge. Neighboring populations develop all kinds of economic interrelationships across borders that can easily become dysfunctional. And it is of course exponentially easier to annex, defend and administer land along a shared border than to do so elsewhere.

It’s easy to see these dynamics at work in wars throughout history – which is why it should be so patently obvious why the United States has rarely faced any military threats of any significance.

The Atlantic and Pacific oceans are nearly insurmountable obstacles to any kind of conflict between the United States and the rest of the world. They are almost impossible to cross undetected, and create opportunities for a robust defense of the country long before anyone can even approach our shores. Passage is an enormous logistical problem that the overwhelming majority of the world cannot even potentially navigate without the assistance of states and major corporations. For that reason, movement across the oceans is easily and heavily regulated to prevent even the slightest danger.

All of these constraints limit any militant adversary of the US to two uncompelling options. They can attempt to cross the oceans with brute force, relying on sheer numbers and missiles to clear the way; but this brazen approach guarantees an unacceptably high cost of overwhelming retaliation, and with little chance of success. Alternatively, they can sneak over the oceans, usually posing as civilians, and attempt targeted attacks on the mainland; but this sort of terrorist suicide mission yields such a lousy return on investment that not many people consider it worth trying.

We may flatter ourselves by crediting US security to the sophistication of our defenses, the valor of our troops, and the depth of our intelligence, but that is all largely beside the point. All of it depends on our good fortune as a remote continent positioned between two massive expanses of water.