Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Wherefores Of Warfare

     President Trump’s recent decision to pull American forces out of Syria has the Punditocracy in a lather. “We can’t betray our allies!” rises the cry from those who disapprove. The opposition’s reply of “It’s about BLEEP!ing time” is less well represented. Yes, given the state of political commentary it’s par for the course these days. Yet one who actually thinks about decisions of this magnitude will be irritated by the lack of hard thought behind either position.

     Why go to war, Gentle Reader? Have you thought about it?

     The seriousness of warfare is so great, and so obvious, that it’s hard for me to imagine a national executive heading into a war without extensive consultations and profound contemplation. But then, there’ve been many not-entirely-serious national executives. Remember what Frederick II Hohenzollern of Prussia said about why he took his nation to war against Austria in 1740?

     “I was young, had a big army, a full treasury, and I wanted to see my name in the newspapers.”

     Does that strike you as serious thinking, Gentle Reader?

     Wars kill people, destroy property, and drain the resources of the warring nations. When viewed from the standpoint of lives ended and general national well-being, they are almost always net-loss propositions. If that’s the overwhelming likelihood, there is only one imaginable reason to go to war: while bad, it would be the least bad of all the possible courses. That is, it would avert an even worse outcome – an outcome guaranteed to arrive should we not go to war.

     Concerning America’s two most recent wars, Operation Enduring Freedom (i.e., our war in Afghanistan) could be rationalized as a least-bad case. We had suffered an assault that reaped twice as many lives as Pearl Harbor and destroyed property valued in the billions of dollars. The architect of that assault, who was being sheltered by the Taliban, commanded a great fortune and many followers. He could have engineered still further attacks on us. Indeed, he had openly proclaimed that as his goal. Taking him out, or at least nullifying his ability to harm us, qualified as a reason to go to war...though our painfully prolonged involvement in Afghanistan cannot be defended on that basis.

     The rationale for Operation Iraqi Freedom was thinner. The Bush Administration regarded Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq as “low-hanging fruit.” Toppling it, Bush’s advisors concurred, could spark a pro-freedom trend in the Middle East, which has long been the province of autocrats and petty satraps. While Saddam was a villain who fully deserved what he got, the consequences of Operation Iraqi Freedom were not what the Bush Administration had envisioned. The cost to the United States in blood and treasure was far greater than anyone supposed. In retrospect, it was a bad decision, though it was one a large majority of the public supported at the time.

     Our current engagement in Syria doesn’t qualify as “a war,” though our forces in that theater are “doing the business” of war. Why they’re there deserves scrutiny. Are American forces and resources committed to Syria for a reason we could credibly view as a vital national interest? I can’t see it. Are they there because of a treaty commitment? Definitely not, nor would we expect the Syrians to come to our aid were our situations reversed. What consequences of not being engaged in Syria can we foresee? Would they be worse than an open-ended commitment to supporting the rebel forces there?

     In two of the three cases above, they who argue that America has been too ready to go to war these past few decades seem to have a good point.

     Allow me a seeming tangent to talk about one of the conceptual foundations for American military employment: our role as “world policeman.”

     I first encountered that phrase in grammar school. I was told that our “duty” to police the entire world arose from our preeminent position among the nations: our wealth, our security, and (of course) our military might. For quite a while the United States Navy had been the de facto police force of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. No other maritime power possessed resources near to ours. As the U.S. was the world’s greatest international trader, the role of suppressing piracy seemed a natural fit. Yet few thought it to be our duty to “preserve peace” or punish “criminal regimes.” That came after World War II, which had left the militaries of virtually all the other nations of the world exhausted.

     It was a noble vision...but not one suited to a republic founded on the principles that undergird ours. Indeed, the word noble itself gives the game away. America has no nobles. Our governments were not anointed by God to ride about the globe enforcing justice. They are – in theory at least – our employees, our servants. They are indebted solely to us who select them and pay them.

     Having said that, let it be observed that “the servants” don’t think of themselves that way. They haven’t since the Wilson Administration, if not before. They’ve yearned for centuries to be regarded as a higher caste, a ruling elite in the fashion of the European knights and nobles of yore. Riding about smiting the wicked and dispensing justice is integral to that self-assessment. And if it’s not their blood and treasure being spilled for that purpose...well, so what?

     Many a “noble vision” is really camouflage for appalling vanity.

     From the above we turn, inevitably, to the reason most nations, including ours, involve themselves in most wars: international status as perceived by governments and promoted to their populaces.

     Time was, the phrase “Great Power” was current in discussions of international relations. The “Great Powers” of the Old World – the British Empire, France, Germany, and the Russian Empire – were those with large militaries and overseas colonies. A “Great Power” was required to possess either a large army or a large navy, and at least one significant extraterritorial possession. Indeed, during the pre-World War I / Congress of Vienna century, despite its large navy and its Philippines protectorate, the United States was not regarded as a Great Power. That lack of status greatly chafed the political elite of our nation. It was part of the impetus to involvement in World War I, though America’s political class would never have admitted it.

     After the devastation of that war and the influenza epidemic that followed it, the notion of Great Powers fell into a shadow. Britain and France had been sadly reduced. Germany was struggling back to its feet after its losses and the heavy burden of reparations that had been laid on it at Versailles. Russia was in a decades-long convulsion, owing to the rise of the Communists and the unexampled ruthlessness of Iosef Vissarionovich Dzugashvili, a.k.a. Joseph Stalin. All that remained of the Great Powers was the United States, the only nation involved in that calamity to escape wholesale devastation.

     America’s political class was gratified...yet it found itself in opposition to the clearly expressed will of the American people. Congress’s rejection of the League of Nations and the elections of 1920, 1924, and 1928 repudiated the globalists of the day. Our army shrank back to pre-World-War-I levels. Americans returned to the business of Americans. Except for our growing international trade and the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922-23, the troubles of the world beyond our borders were of no import to us.

     World War II, of course, changed everything once again. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a globalist of the first water. His most ardent desire was to rule the world’s pre-eminent power. Yet his 1940 campaign slogans included “Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars:”

     According to his own official statements, repeated on many occasions, and with special emphasis when the presidential election of 1940 was at stake, Franklin D. Roosevelt's policy after the outbreak of the war in Europe in 1939 was dominated by one overriding thought: how to keep the United States at peace. One of the President's first actions after the beginning of hostilities was to call Congress into special session and ask for the repeal of the embargo on the sales of arms to belligerent powers, which was part of the existing neutrality legislation. He based his appeal on the argument that this move would help to keep the United States at peace. His words on the subject were:
     Let no group assume the exclusive label of the "peace bloc." We all belong to it ... I give you my deep and unalterable conviction, based on years of experience as a worker in the field of international peace, that by the repeal of the embargo the United States will more probably remain at peace than if the law remains as it stands today ... Our acts must be guided by one single, hardheaded thought -- keeping America out of the war.

     This statement was made after the President had opened up a secret correspondence with Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty and later Prime Minister in the British government. What has been revealed of this correspondence, even in Churchill's own memoirs, inspires considerable doubt as to whether its main purpose was keeping America out of the war.

     Roosevelt kept up his pose as the devoted champion of peace even after the fall of France, when Great Britain was committed to a war which, given the balance of power in manpower and industrial resources, it could not hope to win without the involvement of other great powers, such as the United States and the Soviet Union. The President's pledges of pursuing a policy designed to keep the United States at peace reached a shrill crescendo during the last days of the 1940 campaign.

     Mr. Roosevelt said at Boston on October 30: "I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars."

     The same thought was expressed in a speech at Brooklyn on November 1: "I am fighting to keep our people out of foreign wars. And I will keep on fighting."

     The President told his audience at Rochester, New York, on November 2: "Your national government ... is equally a government of peace -- a government that intends to retain peace for the American people."

     On the same day the voters of Buffalo were assured: "Your President says this country is not going to war."

     And he declared at Cleveland on November 3: "The first purpose of our foreign policy is to keep our country out of war."

     That pledge’s expiration date came on December 7, 1941. Many believe that America’s entry into both theaters of World War II was forced upon us. Certainly, we could not fail to respond to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet there is considerable evidence to the effect that our participation in the European theater was discretionary – that once the Third Reich had abrogated the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact by invading Russia, Hitler’s regime was doomed whether or not the U.S. entered the fray. While that aspect of the matter remains arguable, the Roosevelt Administration’s participation in the Allied cause through Lend-Lease and other credit arrangements undercuts FDR’s claim that he was interested solely in peace and non-involvement.

     Roosevelt was dishonest on enough other subjects to allow for doubt of his sincerity on this one.

     Wars since Napoleon have had various geneses, but unforced decisions to go to war have seldom involved a realistic fear for the warmaking nation’s survival. More often than not, the political class of the initiating nation has sought gains it expected to reap from victory...and in the majority of those cases, the rulers have expected those gains to accrue to themselves at least as much as to their nations.

     If those are morally unacceptable reasons to make war – and attempted robbery of one nation by another cannot be morally better than robbery of one individual by another – then what reasons would satisfy a people determined that their government shall adhere to Judeo-Christian moral precepts?

     Here we venture into what the Catholic Church has called “just-war theory.” It’s a subject of some complexity, wherein there remain cases and courses still in dispute after centuries of study and debate. However, in the typical case facing the United States, a fairly simple touchstone would apply:

If Americans’ lives and money are to be expended,
Then Americans’ lives and property had better be at stake.

     And even here, there will always be room to argue.

1 comment:

Paul Bonneau said...

"they are almost always net-loss propositions"

Net loss, to whom? That is always the question.

"More often than not, the political class of the initiating nation has sought gains it expected to reap from victory."

And that is the answer.

"Certainly, we could not fail to respond to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor."

Nor could the Japanese fail to respond to the shutting off of the oil supply from America, courtesy of FDR.

You give a lot more benefit of the doubt to the US government than I do. No I don't think a Saudi plot justified an Afghanistan war (even assuming the plot was not based on US govt or Israeli scheming).

I admit having once had a soft spot for the War of 1812. But even that is questionable, largely based on the desire among certain people to invade Canada. And after all, if the English were impressing men from US ships, why is that my problem, rather than the problem of the ship owners? The market adjusts to all disruptions. More risk means higher costs for imported products, and more incentive for local producers. Is that bad? Anyway, I eventually ended up where Edward Abbey did: "There never was a good war or a bad revolution." In other words, only the American Revolution was a just war.