The human factor
After Vietnam, the US dreamed of an "electronic battlefield": it finds itself one war late, and is forced to realise that drones and satellites won't replace soldiers in street fighting.
No society can escape from its ideology, especially when the ideology is deeply rooted in social behaviour. Though mechanisation has been a constant feature of capitalism, up to now it's always come with an emphasis on labour, on more skilled and more indirect labour, never with the belief that manual labour, physical effort and man-operated tools were obsolete.
At the top, university-trained top brass strategists are planning a war that they hope to win at a distance, flesh-and-blood soldiers merely occupying the field after smart bombs and guided missiles have done the real job. They forget that in 1944-46, Britain needed 80.000 troops to police the narrow territory of Palestine. On the ground, every GI may be using over $ 20.000 worth of weaponry, he remains a death skilled worker, and is as looked down on in the army as the engineering worker is in factories, a relic that has to be employed until everything can be computerised. The Parisian or Berliner often bemoans the difficulty of finding a plumber or an electrician. Washington's politicians lament the lack of mercenaries. In his own way, a soldier is a manual worker, and our time disregards manual labour. The only foot soldier that is now highly regarded is the elite SAS, Special Forces, Rangers, etc.: "A society that admires its shock troops had better be bloody careful about where it's going (..)" (Le Carré, The Perfect Spy, 1986).
In spite of its power, or because its power excessively relies on technical substitutes, the US is now able to defeat any opponent in the Middle East, and unable to profit from its victory. What's the use of crushing the enemy if you can't use his territory ? Whether it's waged with bows and arrows, or with fighter planes, the logic of war is not to destroy, but to get a crucial advantage. No need to quote Clausewitz here. The US has the means to win one or probably two regional conflicts, but cannot efficiently press its own interests against Iran, for example.
In 1942-45, the Allies did not just make havoc with Germany and Japan. Strategic bombings did not turn the population away from its leaders, they merely weakened German and Japanese war capacities, then the Americans and the British invaded and occupied enemy territories. Though they benefited from (usually) better weapons, their ultimate superiority lay in a social and political project that was able to win over the defeated population, without the victors having to impose themselves with guns and tanks after 1945. In Eastern Europe, on the contrary, the bureaucratic way had to be installed and maintained by the constant pressure of the Red Army, and its interventions in East Berlin, 1953, Budapest, 1956, and Prague, 1968.
In the past thirty years, the balance between the proletarians and the accumulated wealth they valorise, between "living" and "dead" labour, has been broken up at the expense of the former. Unbound competition leads to monopoly, with all its reverse effects. In the economic sphere, we have overconcentration, niches, arbitrary price fixing, exorbitant income for the elite, investment or disinvestment decisions unconnected to productive profitability. In the political sphere, we have an imperialism that acts as if it could do as it pleases, because no competitor has yet the means to tell it where to stop. The US now has the power to prove its hegemony nearly everywhere and put the lid of its military superiority on any disorder, without restoring law and order, and in fact creating more disorder. Alexander the Great cut the Gordian knot, America now crushes the ball of knots. Strategic deadlock signifies social deadlock.
Today's depreciation of human activity in its most down-to-earth forms (in plain language, the depreciation of the worker) comes with a capitalist undermining of traditions like the nation, hierarchy, family and religion. Communist critique can rejoice, except such a rejection leads nowhere if the old-fashioned ideas are replaced by a void. In any case, the withering of traditions fosters contradictions, among other reasons because capitalism still needs men ready to die for it. When the military becomes a job like any other, losing one's life turns into an occupational hazard that the employee naturally tries to avoid and which the boss will be held responsible for if it happens. It's all very well having the Star Spangled Banner at school, in the office or on one's porch, but the GI starts complaining when the death rate exceeds the very low minimum that he naively took for granted the day he signed on. Like any other worker, he wants the term of the contract respected and asks for guarantees. The British army has such trouble recruiting young men and women willing to risk their lives in Iraq that each volunteer is given a bonus if he or she persuades a friend to volunteer as well. There's even talk of exempting from taxation time spent on the battlefield.
In other more peaceful spheres, there is also a contradiction between technical and mercantile excesses, and the need to maintain socially essential functions. There's a limit to the degree of cost/benefit logic central political power can admit. A colonel cannot be assessed and paid according to the enemy body count, a judge according to the number of judgements he's passed, a teacher according to the success rate in the exam, a university lecturer according to the quantity of articles he's published, a social worker according to the number of cases he's processed, etc. Yet it's that rationality that's now set as a target, and schools get audited like companies. Combined with the systematic substitution of un-manned for manned devices, speeded-up universal commodification (for instance the privatisation of public services) is counterproductive from the point of view of profits as a whole. Business needs a political power that structures society, and a "minimal" State is not up to it. A low-cost State is a low-efficiency State.