Posts Tagged ‘American wars’

Fighting wars just to show US can win one

January 31, 2014

When I was a schoolboy, I was taught that the United States had never lost a war.  Reasonable people can differ over the War of 1812, but the United States not only defeated, but utterly crushed, its enemies in the Mexican War, the American Civil War, the Indian wars, the Spanish-American War, World War One and World War Two [1].


The Vietnam Conflict, on the other hand, was an unambiguous defeat — the first in American history.  The Nixon-Kissinger administration was the first, but not the last, U.S. administration whose objective was not victory, but to mask defeat in the guise of an “honorable” withdrawal.  The U.S. outcome is symbolized by the fact that our heroes in that conflict were defiant prisoners of war (and they really were heroes, I don’t question that) rather than triumphant conquerors.

Subsequent U.S. administrations did not seek to avoid military interventions.  Instead, starting with the Reagan administration, they sought to overcome the “Vietnam syndrome”, which was perceived as the American public’s cowardly refusal to support open-ended wars in far off lands.

This was weakness rather than strength.  Strong nations do not need to go to war merely to project an image of strength.


Why can’t world’s biggest military win wars?

January 27, 2014


The United States has far and away the largest armed forces in the world.  We Americans spent more on our military than the 10 runner-up countries combined; we spend almost as much as the whole rest of the world.  The U.S. Navy rules the seas.  The U.S. Air Force has controlled the air in every U.S. war in the past 50 years.  Our armed forces have boots on the ground in 177 of the world’s 195 countries.  U.S. military commands encompass the whole world.

Yet, as Andrew J. Bacevich, Tom Englehardt and Ian Welsh have recently pointed out, we Americans can’t seem to win wars.

Why not?

The U.S. armed forces are well able to defend the United States and fulfill U.S. treaty obligations.  Few if any nations are capable of withstanding a U.S. attack.   But U.S. forces have consistently failed in what we call nation-building.  They have not been able to suppress insurrections in defeated nations against the governments that we put in power.

The Viet Cong, the Taliban, al Qaeda did not represent the forces of righteousness, any more than did the Ku Klux Klan in the American South following the Civil War, to mention an early failed attempt at nation-building.   That is not the point.

U.S. forces could have stayed in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan, or, for that matter, the Reconstruction South, as long as we Americans were willing to pay the price.  They were, and are, highly skilled at exercising lethal force.  If they time came, they would, I am sure, exercise these skills with courage and professionalism in defense of their country.

What they couldn’t do, didn’t know how to do and still don’t know how to do, is to make the Vietnamese, Iraqis or Afghans submit to their rule.  It is not their fault.  It is the fault of those who send them into harm’s way with instructions to accomplish the impossible.


Americans want our wars to be crusades

June 27, 2011

Muslims often say the word “jihad” is misunderstood.  They say the word “jihad” means struggle, and the “great jihad” is the struggle against your own sins and weaknesses, while fighting enemies on the battlefield is a “lesser jihad.”

The use of the word “crusade” by Americans is just as broad.  When we Americans use the word “crusade,” we mean a fight for good against evil.  Movements for social reform or religious revival are called crusades.  A “crusading reporter” has a mission to expose corruption and social evils.  General Eisenhower’s memoir of the Second World War was entitled Crusade in Europe.

We Americans like to think of our wars as crusades, as righteous struggles to eliminate evil.  We are reluctant to go to war unless it is a crusade, and we don’t have any staying power unless we convince ourselves we are in a crusade.  We don’t like to think that our government wages war out of economic self-interest or for geopolitical advantage, just like other governments, and we become cynical and angry when we find out that it does.

We were told our Revolutionary War was a crusade against the tyranny of King George III.  We were told the Mexican War was a crusade to extend American freedom from sea to shining sea.  We were told our Civil War was – on both sides –  a crusade against the enemies of American freedom.  We were told that the Spanish-American War was a crusade to liberate the Cubans and Filipinos from the tyranny of Spain.  We were told American intervention in the First World War was a crusade to make the world safe for democracy against the threat of Kaiser Wilhelm’s despotism.

Disillusionment held us back from crusading against Nazi Germany – rather the Germans declared war on us.  But Hitler really was as evil as our government’s propaganda said he was.  The Allies may not have been morally pure, and the Second World War may not have made the world safe for democracy, but we look back on that war as a good war, a war that saved the world from totalitarian barbarism.

After the Second World War came the Cold War.  Stalin arguably was as evil, or nearly as evil, as Hitler, but it was hard to present the Cold War as a crusade because, unlike the Second War War, its aim was only to create a barrier evil, not to eradicate it.   American interventions in Korea and Vietnam quickly became unpopular because they were not crusades.  They did not promise an end to evil.

Nations with an aristocratic tradition regard war as a normal activity.  The purpose of a hereditary aristocracy, after all, is to breed people trained from birth for fighting and military leadership.  They don’t require high moral justifications for war.  But we Americans don’t like to face the fact that we go to war for economic, geopolitical and other morally impure reasons.

During the 1991 Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush said it was about “jobs, jobs, jobs” – meaning that the U.S. economy required us to control the oil of the Persian Gulf.  This explanation met with indifference, and we soon were told that Saddam Hussein was equivalent to Hitler.