Time for an end to wars of sincerely good intentions

For millennia, humans have fought wars.  Most of them were probably launched unjustly, wars of conquest and enslavement.  Some were matters of national survival, wars in which the defending side, if it lost, ceased to exist.  Then there is perhaps the worst of all: wars of sincerely good intentions.

President Trump is being excoriated by many on both sides of the political aisle because he is withdrawing troops from Syria.  Whether that withdrawal is strategically the right move or not, or whether it is the right time or not, will be debated by future historians.  Whichever is the case, it is in the national interest to withdraw.  Retreat may not be the obviously correct thing to do, and even when it is, the timing may never be right, but there must come a time.  The Forever War must finally end.

President Trump seems to understand that.  He has long opposed the idea of entering into avoidable foreign wars.  His Reaganesque policy of peace through strength is part of that.  In addition, there was developed after the Vietnam War a policy for deciding when it is proper to go to war.  It consisted of several acid tests.  They included a clearly defined national interest and objective, reasonable prospects of victory, strong public support, a well thought out war-fighting plan, and a calculated exit strategy.

Those tests were not passed during our entry into the recent wars in the Middle East.  Those wars seem to have had strong public support after the atrocities of September 11, 2001, but after the initial successes in driving al-Qaeda from its hidden strongholds in Afghanistan, the effort suffered from several violations of the tests, including mission creep, the expansion of objectives to include nation-building.

In retrospect, the correct thing to have done was to withdraw our troops right after the terrorists had been put to rout toward Pakistan.  Why we stayed on after that should be a textbook lesson in how to avoid wars of sincerely good intentions.

Even today, there are cries for us to stay on in Afghanistan, not merely from the right, but also from the left.  This is because it is a certainty that the day we finally exit from Afghanistan, terrorist organizations will reassert their Islamist governance, and the first, most prominent people to suffer will be Afghan girls, who will be expelled from their schools and returned to chattel status, little different from outright slavery.  Their suffering will be heartbreaking.

The subsequent two wars of good intentions were waged in Iraq, against the vile and murderous dictator Saddam Hussein.  He had murdered hundreds of thousands of people, many with poison gas artillery shells fired at Kurdish cities.  The residual effects of birth defects are said to remain even to this day.

Saddam had not, however, presented a clear and present danger to the United States.  Overthrowing him cost thousands of American lives and vast amounts of money that is needed here at home.  Many thousands of disabled veterans, many with horrendous physical mutilations including amputations and disfiguring severe burns, populate not only rehabilitation facilities, but, in many cases, streets and alleyways.

Once again, we had fought wars that never needed to be fought, at least not by us.

It is time for America to agonize — yes, agonize — over how to avoid future mistakes such as these.  President Trump seems to have taken a small step in the right direction.  Bigger steps are needed, and soon.

For generations, Americans have complained about the stationing of our troops in overseas areas where they are not needed and, moreover, where their presence is actually a detriment to our interests. 

Europe is the most obvious example.  Initially, troops were placed there as a deterrent to the real risk of a Russian invasion.  But that risk has long since waned, and the ability of the Europeans to defend themselves with minimal U.S. help has increased.  Moreover, many Europeans are hostile to Americans, especially in areas where there is close daily contact, and friction, between the "locals" and those "despicable Yankees."

Japan is another.  Yes, there is the threat posed by North Korea and China, but once again, Japan can do much more to defend itself.  South Korea has a more problematic situation, with a hostile and unstable military power, literally just feet from its border, but once again, most American assistance to it can be provided from Japan and our Pacific island bases.  It is not fair that the South Koreans should be in that situation, but our national interests must first be measured by what is fair to Americans, especially to those whose lives are on the line.

True, all these situations are vastly more complex than can be analyzed in a short commentary, and there are many secret factors that we cannot know.  Great risks are involved.  I have tried here to bring to the surface some of the most vital general principles that should shape our national military policy.  As a twenty-year veteran of the armed forces, never in combat, I am certainly no expert, but I have trod Asian rice paddies and Middle Eastern desert sands, so I do have a personal connection to the subject matter.

Here, however, is a declaration of military principle that I hope we can all agree on.  Whenever there is any doubt as to whether an imminent war is optional or is forced upon us — if there is any doubt as to which it is, the singular test should be this: any policy-maker who declares the proposed war worthwhile should first send his own son or daughter to the very front of the front line before he sends yours.  Failing that, he should go himself, rifle in hand, up close and personal with the enemy.  Those should be among the first, if any, to die.  Otherwise, send no one.

War is that serious.

For millennia, humans have fought wars.  Most of them were probably launched unjustly, wars of conquest and enslavement.  Some were matters of national survival, wars in which the defending side, if it lost, ceased to exist.  Then there is perhaps the worst of all: wars of sincerely good intentions.

President Trump is being excoriated by many on both sides of the political aisle because he is withdrawing troops from Syria.  Whether that withdrawal is strategically the right move or not, or whether it is the right time or not, will be debated by future historians.  Whichever is the case, it is in the national interest to withdraw.  Retreat may not be the obviously correct thing to do, and even when it is, the timing may never be right, but there must come a time.  The Forever War must finally end.

President Trump seems to understand that.  He has long opposed the idea of entering into avoidable foreign wars.  His Reaganesque policy of peace through strength is part of that.  In addition, there was developed after the Vietnam War a policy for deciding when it is proper to go to war.  It consisted of several acid tests.  They included a clearly defined national interest and objective, reasonable prospects of victory, strong public support, a well thought out war-fighting plan, and a calculated exit strategy.

Those tests were not passed during our entry into the recent wars in the Middle East.  Those wars seem to have had strong public support after the atrocities of September 11, 2001, but after the initial successes in driving al-Qaeda from its hidden strongholds in Afghanistan, the effort suffered from several violations of the tests, including mission creep, the expansion of objectives to include nation-building.

In retrospect, the correct thing to have done was to withdraw our troops right after the terrorists had been put to rout toward Pakistan.  Why we stayed on after that should be a textbook lesson in how to avoid wars of sincerely good intentions.

Even today, there are cries for us to stay on in Afghanistan, not merely from the right, but also from the left.  This is because it is a certainty that the day we finally exit from Afghanistan, terrorist organizations will reassert their Islamist governance, and the first, most prominent people to suffer will be Afghan girls, who will be expelled from their schools and returned to chattel status, little different from outright slavery.  Their suffering will be heartbreaking.

The subsequent two wars of good intentions were waged in Iraq, against the vile and murderous dictator Saddam Hussein.  He had murdered hundreds of thousands of people, many with poison gas artillery shells fired at Kurdish cities.  The residual effects of birth defects are said to remain even to this day.

Saddam had not, however, presented a clear and present danger to the United States.  Overthrowing him cost thousands of American lives and vast amounts of money that is needed here at home.  Many thousands of disabled veterans, many with horrendous physical mutilations including amputations and disfiguring severe burns, populate not only rehabilitation facilities, but, in many cases, streets and alleyways.

Once again, we had fought wars that never needed to be fought, at least not by us.

It is time for America to agonize — yes, agonize — over how to avoid future mistakes such as these.  President Trump seems to have taken a small step in the right direction.  Bigger steps are needed, and soon.

For generations, Americans have complained about the stationing of our troops in overseas areas where they are not needed and, moreover, where their presence is actually a detriment to our interests. 

Europe is the most obvious example.  Initially, troops were placed there as a deterrent to the real risk of a Russian invasion.  But that risk has long since waned, and the ability of the Europeans to defend themselves with minimal U.S. help has increased.  Moreover, many Europeans are hostile to Americans, especially in areas where there is close daily contact, and friction, between the "locals" and those "despicable Yankees."

Japan is another.  Yes, there is the threat posed by North Korea and China, but once again, Japan can do much more to defend itself.  South Korea has a more problematic situation, with a hostile and unstable military power, literally just feet from its border, but once again, most American assistance to it can be provided from Japan and our Pacific island bases.  It is not fair that the South Koreans should be in that situation, but our national interests must first be measured by what is fair to Americans, especially to those whose lives are on the line.

True, all these situations are vastly more complex than can be analyzed in a short commentary, and there are many secret factors that we cannot know.  Great risks are involved.  I have tried here to bring to the surface some of the most vital general principles that should shape our national military policy.  As a twenty-year veteran of the armed forces, never in combat, I am certainly no expert, but I have trod Asian rice paddies and Middle Eastern desert sands, so I do have a personal connection to the subject matter.

Here, however, is a declaration of military principle that I hope we can all agree on.  Whenever there is any doubt as to whether an imminent war is optional or is forced upon us — if there is any doubt as to which it is, the singular test should be this: any policy-maker who declares the proposed war worthwhile should first send his own son or daughter to the very front of the front line before he sends yours.  Failing that, he should go himself, rifle in hand, up close and personal with the enemy.  Those should be among the first, if any, to die.  Otherwise, send no one.

War is that serious.