By Alan Caruba
Saturday, May 19th is Armed Forces Day.
I was eight years old when World War II ended. After that I lived through 46 years of the Cold War era until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. For a while, from February 5, 1960 until April 6, 1962, I proudly wore the uniform of the U.S. Army. It never occurred to me or everyone else of my generation that the nation did not need a powerful military capability.
As the ancient Romans put it, “Si via pacem, para bellum.” If you want peace, plan for war. Time has not altered that wisdom.
What has bothered me, though, is that World War Two is the last war in which Congress actually “declared war” as required by the Constitution. Article One, Section 8 exclusively grants the power “to declare war” to Congress. The Founding Fathers, well versed in history, were wary of allowing one man, the chief executive, to take a nation into war. They weren’t too keen on standing armies either.
Times have changed. Rachel Maddow, the host of her MSNBC show since 2008, has a doctorate in politics from Oxford and a bachelor’s in public policy from Stanford. She is very liberal. I am very conservative. She has written a hell of a good book about the state of the U.S. military and how we got to this point since the debacle of Vietnam. She is equally hard on all the presidents from Lyndon Johnson to the current occupant of the White House.
In 1961 the former Supreme Allied Commander and later President, Dwight Eisenhower, warned against the “military-industrial complex” saying “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
He was prescient because the meshing of military needs, industry, and a vastly expanded national security mandate from the end of WWII and particularly since 9/11 has turned America into a super power with a military that presidents have been inclined to use whether Congress wanted to or not.
The adage that wars are easy to get into and hard to get out of has never been more true than during my lifetime. The fact that real threats to peace existed is also true. The record, however, is a mixed one.
The invasion by North Korea, a Stalinist puppet, had to be thrown back and was. A 1953 truce exists to this day. Coming so soon after WWII, neither Truman nor Eisenhower wanted a war that would escalate into one with Communist China, but neither did they want Communism to spread in this fashion.
Maddow has little good to say of Lyndon Johnson’s decision to take the nation into what was a civil war between North and South Vietnam. There was no declaration of war; only a congressional resolution. LBJ “tried to find a war on the cheap,” said a key intelligence advisor, George W. Carver, “and tried to fight a war without acknowledging that he was fighting a war.”
To avoid public opposition, he did not call up the Reserves or Guard. Instead thousands of young men were sucked into the conflict via the Draft. Over 58,000 would return home in a box. Begun in 1955 with military “advisors” and ending in 1975, it became the most unpopular war in U.S. history. It would also alter the way future presidents would go to war, usually with little more than a thin authorization by Congress despite the cost of treasure, men and material.
In 1973, Congress passed legislation to enforce the Constitutional barrier to a president’s unilateral decision to go to war. They passed the War Powers Resolution requiring a president to petition Congress for the authority to do so within thirty days; if not granted, the operation had to cease in sixty days. President Nixon vetoed it. Congress overrode his veto with votes to spare.
Ronald Reagan’s ill-conceived “Iran-Contra” effort to arm anti-Communist insurgents in Nicaragua was an effort to circumvent Congress’s expressed wish to avoid getting involved in a Latin America that Reagan feared would fall under the influence of Castro’s Cuba. Likewise, the operation against the island of Grenada would have been comical if it had not been so absurd.
The Cold War would end while George H.W. Bush was in office and it is well nigh impossible for anyone born since then to understand how, for decades, all Americans accepted and understood that the Soviets posed a significant threat or might invade Europe given the opportunity. It was reason enough to expand the military many times over.
And now we are told that a war on global terrorism is necessary, but terrorism is a tactic, a new threat that replaces the Cold War. This time the enemy doesn’t have a standing army and isn’t even a nation state. The problem that exists is that radical Islamic elements will take over a nation state, such as was the case of Iran. These days Egypt comes to mind. Islam is less a religion than a battle plan for conquest.
Despite the success of George H.W. Bush’s invasion to rid Kuwait of Saddam Hussein’s aggression, his son, George W., following the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11, elected to invade Iraq on the quite specious claim that it was chockablock with weapons of mass destruction. None were found, but Saddam was sent to the gallows.
It is a truism that it is impossible to build democratic institutions at the point of a gun. People, even if they welcome liberation, want the liberating army to go home. Instead presidents and the military have tended to stick around for “nation building.” It is not a military function.
We have former General David Patreaus (now Director of the CIA) to thank for Field Manual 3-24 on counterinsurgency. The manual says “To confine soldiers to purely military functions while urgent and vital tasks have to be done, and nobody else is available to undertake them, would be senseless. The soldier must then be prepared to become…a social worker, a civil engineer, a schoolteacher, a nurse, and Boy Scout.”
I disagree. The military has one task—to break things and kill the enemy until such time that it no longer wants to fight. Turning the U.S. military into a combination of war machine and social service provider defies common sense and the history of wars.
Changes in the present threats posed by Islamic terror groups are such that a massed land army and other forces may not be as efficient as an expanded covert action by Special Forces in concert with CIA and other security personnel. This proved successful in Afghanistan, but it also required aerial bombardment to drive al Qaeda out. The same held true for the action in the Balkans to end Serbian genocides.
While I liked much of what Ms. Maddow wrote, I thought her conclusions were generally wrong. Like all liberals, she is inclined to ignore a real threat until it is almost too late, nor is she much into the deterrence factor of military strength.
I fear, though, that Ms. Maddow is right about the "distance" that exists between our current military, Guard and Reserves, constantly rotated in and out of battle, and the civilian population that hears little about the conflict after the first few days or weeks. At home there is no sharing of the pain of war, no sense of mobilization, and little awareness of it as it drags on.
Just as President Eisenhower warned, Ms. Maddow confirms that “as the national security state has metastasized, decisions to use force have become painless and slick, almost automatic. The disincentives to war deliberately built into our American system of government—particularly the citizen-soldier, and leaving the power to declare war with Congress instead of the president—we’ve worked around them.” On that we agree.
This is a trend that needs fixing.
© Alan Caruba, 2012