Today isn’t National Barbecue Day. Take a moment to remember all those who left behind all they knew and gave all they had in the service of their country.
Sixteen years. That’s how long it’s been since the worst terrorist attack in American history. A total of 2,996 people dead or never accounted for. Symbols of American power struck without warning: both World Trade center towers and the Pentagon. The actions of informed passengers on a fourth plane likely averted a strike on the White House or Congress.
An entire generation had horrifying visions of previously unimaginable events happening in their own nation, with memories firmly etched into their minds.
They say time heals all wounds. And for the families of those lost that day I hope there is some measure of truth in it. But there is a flip side: such events fade in the public consciousness, such that they no longer inform or shape how the nation acts. To quote the opening of the movie “The Fellowship of the Ring,”
“…some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend, legend became myth…” (click “continue reading” below to continue)
While listening to Trump’s address last night my overall impression was favorable, with a couple of concerning objections (more on that in a later post). But since there’s a lot of talk in the air about increasing defense spending, and expanding the war on ISIS and related groups, this quote in Foreign Policy magazine is well worth pondering:
As a soldier, I welcome additional funds for training, personnel, and equipment.
But as a citizen I have concerns. Money will not fix what ails our military. ((emphasis added)) We don’t have a supply problem, we have a demand problem created by poor strategy. We have a military doing missions often beyond its purview, acting as the lead government agency in areas it is not qualified to do so, bearing impossible expectations in the process. As military professionals, we fail if we don’t achieve national goals (end states); the corollary to this is simple, we must demand clear and achievable goals. Our lack of both skews defense decisions.
The entire piece is deserving of your time and attention.
This post is not likely to be popular. Confronting uncomfortable truths rarely is. So before anyone jumps on my case about somehow diminishing Veterans Day, I’m going to do something I almost never do here, and that’s tell you something about me.
I’m a veteran. Of more than 20 years. Of more than a couple trips overseas. Given all the ‘hero tributes’ I routinely see on November 11, then, maybe this is the day for me to speak my peace. I don’t pretend to speak for every veteran — we’re not the faceless mass of conformity Hollywood likes to portray. But what I have to say is this:
Stop thanking me for your freedom.
There are several reasons I say this. First is a realistic assessment of what I’ve actually done. Alone in our actions, we in uniform do not create freedom. At our best, we can create conditions in which a people can choose to be free and self-governing. At our worst, a military/security apparatus is one of the greatest threats to freedom — something the Founders well understood. It’s like the old story of Benjamin Franklin: A woman is supposed to have asked him what the Constitutional Convention accomplished. He is said to have replied “we have given you a Republic — if you can keep it.” Whether anecdotal or not, the tale tells a truth: we are ALL responsible for freedom, not just some of us. The main trouble I have with these holidays since 9/11 is that it further separates the soldiery from the citizenry, assigning the former the “active” part in defending freedom, and only a passive role to the latter. If that model is accepted, it’s fatal to any free society.
The second reason I say this is that far too many of our overseas adventures have had only a marginal relationship at best with actually protecting America. Sure, they’re all sold that way. Look closer, though. Was our security enhanced by removing Saddam Hussein? As despicable a leader as he was, is ISIS really an improvement, for Iraq or for us? Consider how close we came to actively toppling Assad in Syria — how much MORE would that have aided the latest threat du jour? Americans are always so concerned about the emergence of a threat that we fail to see how our own actions are perceived by others as threats… and thus become self-fulfilling prophecies of a sort. Even worse, we have short memories and never ask whether our past actions achieved anything beyond setting up tomorrow’s problems.
But the primary reason I say this is that I am no longer convinced we live in a ‘free country.’ Sure, we don’t see the trappings of totalitarianism run amok — nobody’s goose-stepping down Pennsylvania Avenue or holding Nuremberg-type rallies in Times Square. Yet. But evil rarely reappears in an easily recognizable form — it’s too subtle for that. Ask yourself: in a free society
– Do communities seize your home for whatever reason they (and the politically well-connected) deem fit… because they can?
– Do laws apply more stringently to “the little people” than “the big fish” whose misdeeds cause far more damage to the nation?
– Do leaders privately flaunt how they passed controversial bills through a ‘lack of transparency’ and despite ‘the stupidity of the American voter?’ (After all, ve know vats best for
– Do nine unelected people get to torture repeatedly the plain meaning of the highest law of the land to suit whatever the prevailing political whims of the day are?
– Does the chief executive threaten for months to unilaterally ignore established law, even though the clear majority of the electorate opposes such an action on this issue?
– Does the government collaborate with or coerce major companies to assist in creating a surveillance state?
– Does the government threaten, if you decide you’re paying too much tax and decide to emigrate elsewhere, to confiscate a huge chunk of your estate?
Why did I compile such a list on a day like this? Because these issues have at least one thing in common: THERE IS NOTHING THE MILITARY CAN DO ABOUT THEM (at least, not in a way any lover of freedom would want). While veterans swear to uphold the Constitution against “all enemies, foreign and domestic,” the reality is we are focused on the former. THE CITIZENS have to be vigilant and energetic about identifying and marginalizing the latter.
In this, we have failed as an electorate. For decades we have complained about government inefficiency, ineptitude and corruption, all while asking that same government to do more for us. Does it not occur to anyone that the more you ask of your government, the more it will demand of you? Instead of our first instinct being to employ government force (“…there oughta be a law…”), find ways to fix issues as individuals and communities who organize voluntarily.
That is, of course, the main problem. Most people don’t want to invest the time and energy it takes to be free agents. They’d rather somebody else do the heavy lifting, even if it means higher taxes to hire people who give a questionable return on investment. But to the extent you depend on others to do things for you, you are not free. When Tocqueville traveled through America in the early 1800s, this is what he observed:
…Americans naturally formed groups when they wanted to hold a celebration, found a church, build a school, distribute books or do almost anything else. “Finally, if they want to proclaim a truth or propagate some feeling …they form an association. In every case, at the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government … in the United States you are sure to find an association.”
So. If you want to thank me, and other veterans on this day:
– Stop demanding the government do things you are capable of doing for yourself. Only then do you have any chance of being “free.”
– Stop reflexively supporting every military action our leaders propose overseas. There are times we have to fight. And there are times certain interests choose to have us fight. As citizens, you have to discern between the two, and not just rubber stamp every war that’s offered. And sometimes, the best way to “support the troops” is to demand they stay home.
– Stop electing people you believe are “the lesser of two evils,” and start finding people you can honestly vote FOR, because they seek to be the public’s servant, not its master. If you want to hold Congress in the same high esteem you apparently hold the military, you’re the ones who have to fix it.
– Hold your leaders accountable. Show up en masse to let them know when they are out of line. If necessary, refuse to comply with unconstitutional or immoral legislation. Take a stand. It might cost you something, yes. Freedom usually does.
We will never remain the “land of the free and the home of the brave” solely because of the choices of less than 1 percent of Americans. The other 99 percent have to be in the struggle as well.
Do you really WANT to be free, America? Or do you just hope for a tolerable master, and content yourself with complaining when you don’t get one? The freedom of our children and all future generations depends on how each of us, uniform or not, answer those questions.
This may be the best brief summary of the Iraq War I’ve read to date:
First, the American government did not find what it had been looking for at the war’s outset, then it failed to prepare its troops and medical corps for the aged weapons it did find.
Be sure to read the entire linked story, because those chemical weapons didn’t just get there by themselves… or only at the Iraqi government’s behest. This is but one blatant example of our nation’s blundering about in the world coming back to bite our own.
Speaking of holding back information…
And then you have grossly inappropriate government requests for information, which should be forcefully ignored. If churches will now be harassed for opposing city ordinances that would deny businesses the ability to require that men use the men’s room, and ladies the ladies’ room, then it’s safe to say freedom of speech AND religion are both dead.
Why is it so hard to understand that one of the best ways to prevent the global spread of Ebola is to deny it jet-assisted travel? And why was/is our government so persistent in allowing unfettered travel from the affected countries in Africa? Cui bono from this determined inaction?
Facing death: a contrast in worldviews
…or, “why America can’t use military force effectively anymore.” I was recently asked my take on the resumption of airstrikes in Iraq, this time on ISIS forces. I wish to put my thoughts–such as they are–in a broader context of how we decide to fight.
“The President is right to provide humanitarian relief to the Iraqi civilians stranded on Mount Sinjar and to authorize military strikes against ISIS forces that are threatening them, our Kurdish allies, and our own personnel in northern Iraq. However, these actions are far from sufficient to meet the growing threat that ISIS poses. We need a strategic approach, not just a humanitarian one,” [Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham] said in a statement. ““We need to get beyond a policy of half measures. The President needs to devise a comprehensive strategy to degrade ISIS.”
The article quoted above (the entirety of which I recommend for your consideration) points out that even before World War II, presidents committed American forces to a series of “small wars” in many nations. That doesn’t mean they were right (or had the right) to do so. Those same ‘small wars’ were the backdrop that drove Marine Major General Smedley Butler, a two-time recipient of the Medal of Honor, to conclude in 1935 that “war is a racket.” I would argue that our tendency for overseas meddling has only grown since 1945, as has a highly unconstitutional–and dangerous–deference to the President’s role as “Commander in Chief.” That role is an executive one, not a legislative one. No one person should be able to commit the nation to a war of choice. It is one thing to repel an invasion (something else we seem to be having trouble with these days). It’s quite another to launch one. Consider the fact that President Obama is the fourth president in a row to commence a new round of military actions in Iraq!
As currently conducted by the United States, I have to conclude Smedley Butler has a key point about war. And as much as I highly disdain the tendency of McCain and Graham to cheerlead overseas adventurism they, too, make a point: that America does not pursue long-term strategy. Instead, we as a nation tend to knee-jerk our way through the violent side of foreign policy, from “firing a $2 million missile at a $10 tent” to “hit a camel in the butt,” to targeted “regime change actions” (Libya, 2011), to full-scale invasions of other countries (Afghanistan, 2001; Iraq, 2003). In these cases, Congress either stood by or unconstitutionally deferred its powers to the President to commit the nation to force without a solid understanding, much less discussion or public acknowledgement of what is required of the full range of national power in order to achieve sustained results worth the cost in lives, material and national reputation.
In short, we’re really good at “release the hounds.” We have lost the ability, however, to tie that choice of violence and death to long-term gains in national security. America has lost much of its moral standing in the world because of this. The makers of those $2 million missiles, or the enormously expensive platforms used to deliver them, are the real winners in this chaos. They need not worry about whether the use of their product results in a more just peace. Quite the opposite — they benefit most when things are kept at a slow boil, requiring a relatively stable demand of such gadgets. What’s not to like about the business model? The public gets to cheer at the 6 o’clock news that “America is doing something;” military and civilian leaders get to look “strong;” the defense contractors earn more money, and life goes on.
Except for those who have to live with the realities our policies create.
I’m not an America-hater or a pacifist–in fact, I’m as far from them as one can be. What I am is extremely distressed by our casual approach to war, as though it were some sort of professional spectator sport that happens to be covered by Fox and CNN instead of ESPN. Because of that, what I’m about to say next will take a moment to digest. Stay with me. It’s simply this:
Commit or quit.
What do I mean by that? I mean our nation needs to have a serious, broad discussion about what we see as our role in the world and what we’re willing to do to perform it. And we need to pay attention to the issues for a longer period than that required by NFL Sunday Ticket. Stop looking only at the individual instances of marketplaces being shelled (Yugoslavia, 1990s), the constant eruptions of ethnic and religious groups abusing and killing each other, or other emotionally heartbreaking headlines. These evil events are endemic to the fallen human nature–they have raged since the beginning of time, and will do so until the end of it. That means any nation has to pick and choose its battles. What is the desired result of getting involved in a particular issue? Are we committed to pay the price to see things through to that conclusion? For instance, did the American people decide for themselves that defending Taiwan against mainland China is worth the potential loss of American cities? If so, by what process was that decision reached? Before you say “Congress,” ask yourself: if push comes to shove, will the American people back the defense guarantees “Congress” has handed out like candy to countries around the world? Many potential adversaries are starting to ask that very question.
This isn’t a game, people. We spent eight years in Iraq. Are they better off? Are we? It seems we had just enough national will to make both countries miserable, but not enough commitment to see something productive result from that mess. If we go all “Rolling Thunder” on ISIS now, what will be the impact after the news has turned its attention to whatever Miley Cyrus or the Kardashians are doing these days? Given our short attention span it’s not unlikely that, after dropping bombs for a couple weeks (and more importantly, ordering replacements), we’ll declare success, go home, and ignore a more slow-motion slaughter of the same people we originally said we’d intervened to protect. On top of that, what is the long-term outlook for that small percentage of Americans called upon to do the fighting and dying in these situations, for policies that are increasingly incoherent?
Until and unless we as a people decide what is worth killing and dying for, and our leaders devise full visions (including defined end states) for how to pursue those agreed-upon objectives, we need to reign in our trigger-happy fingers. Given the effects of decades of massive immigration from all over the world, multiculturalism and a dumbing down of the citizenry’s understanding of the world and its history, I’m not sure we can even have that conversation, much less reach a consensus.
Regardless, we definitely need–right now–to constrain the ability of any one person, regardless of their party affiliation, to ‘send in the troops’ first and consult Congress later.
That’s the mark of an Empire, not a Republic. Sadly, it’s not the only mark evident these days. And remember, it was the bumbling, colliding ambitions of several Empires–British, German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman–that brought on the insanity of the First World War. Do we really think, only a century later, that we’re so much smarter?