As I’ve been saying…

this fellow also says it well (emphasis added by me):

War is and always will be an ugly business.

That knowledge should lead Western governments to use their technological and economic advantages to avoid getting into wars with the barbarians on the edge of civilization. Instead, they start wars they never intend to win, so they can preen and pose about their virtue and morality, when something terrible inevitably happens…

The point of war is to kill the enemy and break up their stuff. The hope is they quit before you kill all of them and break all of their stuff, but you plan otherwise. If the Afghans knew all along that helping Osama bin Laden was most likely going to mean their cities and large towns would be flattened, they would have chose differently. Let’s assume they played it the same and Bush had firebombed Kabul, what would have been the result?

Yeah, there would have been a lot of hand-wringing and pearl clutching in Washington, but every other nutjob in the Middle East would have been re-calibrating his plans. A lot less death and destruction would have come as a result.

Not long after it became clear we were in both Afghanistan and Iraq for an extended engagement, I told a fellow Airman our country was making a huge mistake.  Rather than just strike and leave, our country was arrogant enough to believe we could “make democracy bloom” in a soil that has never yet produced it on its own.  Americans today have no stomach for the kind of occupation (both scope and duration) it would take to create that level of change in the region.  To put it bluntly, unless we’re willing to seal off and occupy the countries until we’ve educated a couple new generations, it ain’t happening (and probably wouldn’t then, either).  I said at the time we’d have been better off after 9/11 by turning the Taliban and Kabul into the world’s largest man-made crater as a warning to others, then leaving everyone in literal shock and awe (“Who else wants some of that?  Any takers?”).  Instead, our half-hearted wars of choice over the last decade and a half have eroded the respect and fear (not to mention the capability) our military once commanded.

You’re not powerful just because you’re throwing military forces around.  You’re powerful when nobody dares challenge you, even indirectly, for fear of the deathstroke you’re expected to deliver.  That’s the difference between deterrence and playing expensive whack-a-mole all over the earth.

“To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”  – Sun Tzu

But failing that,

“The will to conquer is the first condition of victory.”  – Marshall Ferdinand Foch

 We as a nation don’t have a will.  We’re too hesitant to be feared, and too reckless abroad to be respected.  And that’s why there’s not a way to win.  Trying to fight a war at the level of a low and long simmer is about as sensible as a doctor trying to operate without losing any blood.  Either America has the will to fight — including responsibility for the inevitable horrors — or it doesn’t.  Either there’s a reason to break things and kill people, or there’s not.  If there is, let it be done quickly, relentlessly and efficiently until a better future is secured (that’s Just War theory, by the way).

If, however, there isn’t will or a reason, the families of more than 8,300 Americans deserve to know why their loved one were sent to die.  Tens of thousands of scarred Americans also deserve to know what their sacrifices were for.

War without end

One of the pervasive problems that can be traced back to increasing disregard for the rule of law is the perpetual state of warfare and “emergency” in which the United States has existed for decades:

…preparing for war—even engaging in war—without asking why war is necessary has arguably become part of our national psyche. In a large sense, the United States has been at war for so long that, collectively, its citizens and leaders have become uncomfortable with, if not frightened by, the very idea of peace. After decades of being at war, we have come to the point where we can’t live without it.

As the distance between soldiers and civilians has grown, Americans have become less troubled with the idea of permanent war. As early as 1995, the historian Michael Sherry documented the militarization of American life, a decades-long trajectory originating before World War II in which “war defined much of the American imagination” and “the fear of war penetrated” American society. Though Sherry ended on a guardedly hopeful note—that Americans might “drift away from their militarized past”—more recent critics, like Bacevich, have denounced our society’s increasingly comfortable relationship with war. Extending Sherry’s analysis beyond the events of September 11, Bacevich persuasively maintains that the seduction of war overpowers rational thinking on the possibilities and, more importantly, limitations of military power abroad. Instead, we instinctively equate American superiority with military superiority…

Given the experience of American wars since 1945, perhaps we should reconsider how well U.S. military efforts solve overseas problems. More serious consideration of what’s attainable from our wielding of power might compel us to challenge our notions of the advantages war supposedly offers.

While it’s true America’s schizophrenic tendencies toward both fearing the world and desiring to remake it in its own image contribute heavily to this permanent war footing, a lack of constraint on our leaders is an equally important ingredient.  The Constitution clearly states the method by which the Republic is to go to war: via a declaration of such by Congress.  It has been so long since this was actually done (1941, to be exact) that most people today have no expectation of the President actually seeking such a declaration.  Oh, sure, there are the occasional figleaf “Authorizations for Use of Military Force” in which the legislative branch essentially hands the current sitting emperor President a blank check to go kill people somewhere else on the planet.  Sometimes even that doesn’t occur.  The question of war or peace is the most serious one any nation can face.  Rather than entrusting power to a single individual the Founders placed it in the hands of the people’s representative body, where it was to be deliberated, not just rubber-stamped.  If Congress were doing even part of its job, we wouldn’t have a President admitting 12 months into another new series of combat operations that there’s essentially no strategy – that we’re just winging it!  If a war is necessary, it certainly deserves more focus and attention than that!

Aside from the Cold War nuclear standoff, America hasn’t faced an existential threat since 1941.  Americans don’t consciously think about that, but they instinctively realize it.  That’s why World War II is sometimes called the ‘good war’ (i.e. we knew what was at stake), while all the conflicts since — with the telling exception of Desert Storm — have had considerably less public support.  That public has failed, however, to hold its leaders accountable for the profligate way they spend American blood and treasure abroad.  Sure, there were protests about the Iraq war — but they were motivated (and financed) largely by those seeking partisan advantage, not by a grassroots sense that this was an unnecessary foreign adventure.

Sadly, that is our track record over the last 70-plus years: a series of unnecessary foreign adventures.  Because the people refuse to demand a less bellicose footing, the powerful interests that are served by war continue to hold sway.  War remains, as Smedley Butler wrote, “a racket,” where the well-connected reap the benefits, the State continues to grow in power, and everyone else pays the piper.  Considering our porous borders and inability (or unwillingness) to control physical access to our country, the Orwellian term “Defense Department” (wherein we account for more than a third of all military spending in the world) has to be one of history’s biggest misnomers.  We, the people, need to demand better.

Something to consider, as our leaders continue to poke the Russian bear and twist the Chinese dragon’s tail, all while doubling down yet again in a Middle East that is the world’s largest geopolitical quicksand bog…

“Why has America stopped winning wars?”

This is a worthwhile read from Atlantic magazine:

…From 1846 to 1945, the United States had a minuscule peacetime army but won almost every major campaign. After World War II, Washington constructed the most expensive military machine that ever existed and endured seven decades of martial frustration.

Indeed, power is part of the reason the United States loses. After 1945, America’s newfound strength created a constant temptation to use force (emphasis added), and projected U.S. forces into distant conflicts. But Washington chose an unfortunate moment to discover its inner interventionist. The nature of global warfare changed in ways that made military campaigns ugly at best and unwinnable at worst…

America’s material strength has another curse. For a global hegemon like the United States, each war is just one of many competing security commitments around the world. For the enemy, however, the conflict is a life-and-death contest that occupies its entire attention. It’s limited war for Americans, and total war for those fighting Americans. The United States has more power; its foes have more willpower.

Two thoughts:

1) All the material advantages in the world can be useless if there is not a coherent strategy that aligns means and ways with ends.  In nearly all of the recent conflicts that have turned sour, it is difficult to identify a comprehensible–and achievable–goal that could serve as an endpoint toward which our resources could logically be used.  Regardless whether a conflict is a massive conventional struggle of state against state, or the now-more-common issue of fighting various non-state or quasi-state actors (i.e. ISIS), unless you know–and can articulate–what your desired end state is, you’ll never get there.

2) The recent escalations of tension with both Russia and China are both unnecessary (another result of America’s interventionist attitudes since 1945), and if we aren’t careful, could prove a disastrous temptation.  After the frustrations of fighting Viet Cong, then Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and now ISIS, no doubt many yearn for the “simpler” times of industrialized warfare between functioning nation-states.  Frustrations aside, all one need do is look at the costs of the Second World War and the Cold War versus our long national nightmares in Iraq and Afghanistan to realize that, as Billy Joel put it, “the good old days weren’t always good…”  Let’s hope nobody provokes World War III while quoting Han Solo: “bring it on; I prefer a straight up fight to all this sneaking around.”

What America REALLY needs to do is realize it is not omniscient, nor omnipotent, and that our continued delusions of remaking the world in our image have only led to us becoming more like the rest of the world (including importing large quantities of refugees from our various wars of choice), and squandering all that once made us unique.  Our poor choices have cost us much respect and prestige, not to mention considerable blood, treasure and the rise of ever-increasing government power (remember: “War is the health of the State”).  Instead of following the 1990s view of the hawkish first female Secretary of State, Madeline Albright (“What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”), we should recall the council of the Greek historian Thucydides: “Of all the manifestations of power, restraint impresses men the most.”

The source of freedom

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 wayLook 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 police routinely seize your property simply because they can?  (Even if they don’t bother charging you with a crime)

– 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 us you!)

– 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 AmericansThe 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.

Yes, it’s come to this

Tired of incoherent foreign policy?  How about demanding a reassertion of the Constitutional restriction that ONLY the Congress can declare a war — and that this should only happen after a reasonable explanation to the American people of the causes for, and objectives of, such a venture.  Otherwise we’re likely to continue having Presidents who win Nobel Peace Prizes before bombing multiple countries during their reign tenure, and claiming not to have “boots on the ground” while leaving plenty of footprints.

Whose side are we on

What a difference a year makes

Any chance we’ll learn our lesson and disentangle from the world while actually, you know,  protecting ourselves at home?  Probably not…

20140830_syria

Via Instapundit:

Let’s accept, arguendo, that the outgoing DIA chief is right, and that we are now in an era of danger similar to the mid-1930s. How did we get here? It’s worth looking back into the mists of time — an entire year, to Labor Day weekend 2013. What had not happened then? It’s quite a list, actually: the Chinese ADIZ, the Russian annexation of Crimea, the rise of ISIS, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the fall of Mosul, the end of Hungarian liberal democracy, the Central American refugee crisis, the Egyptian-UAE attacks on Libya, the extermination of Iraqi Christians, the Yazidi genocide, the scramble to revise NATO’s eastern-frontier defenses, the Kristallnacht-style pogroms in European cities, the reemergence of mainstream anti-Semitism, the third (or fourth, perhaps) American war in Iraq, racial riots in middle America, et cetera and ad nauseam.

All that was in the future just one year ago…

The power of one…

…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?