It’s the same old story. What justifies war? Was it worth the blood and treasure? What constitutes “winning” a war – how do you define that? When is it really over? Well, it depends on who you ask and when you ask.
With the publication of Robert Gates’ memoir on his time as Defense Secretary for George W. Bush and, later, Barack Obama, the questioning has begun anew. In 2004, only a year after Saddam Hussein was deposed, U.S. Marines went house to house in Fallujah in fierce and brutal urban combat, a sustained effort that was to prove a turning point in wresting control of the country back from Suni rebels. In the process, around 100 Americans died and another 1,000 were were wounded. Now, that insurgency has risen again. Was that effort of 10 years ago for naught? Are we now obligated because of that victory to expend whatever it takes to honor those prior sacrifices?
Mr. Gates is an honorable man and whatever criticisms might be directed his way, a lack of patriotism will not be one of them. He also deserves praise for remaining apolitical as Secretary of Defense, to the extent that can be done. But now in retirement he expresses the view that president Obama failed to share his and his generals’ passion for prosecuting the Afghan war, despite that Obama, while approving the need for the Afghan action originally, always stated his desire to end it as quickly as possible. Perhaps Gates can be excused for his regrets. He was the civilian link between the military and the political powers. His difficult job was to lead and defend the righteousness of the effort to the armed forces, not only to provide them with the treasure to be the best equipped and best trained in the world, but to assure them that their cause was just and that the effort was worthy of blood sacrifice. That’s tough, but unfortunately it’s nothing new.
Abraham Lincoln and Edward Stanton famously had the same problem, and so have so many countless others. I was reminded of an old movie by this. In 1959 Gregory Peck starred in a memorable movie, Pork Chop Hill, a true classic and likely one of the first to begin to reveal to a naive public some of the moral complexities that were hidden during WW II. Based on a true story, a lone Army company faced overwhelming odds against a large Communist Chinese force as the hill, an otherwise worthless 980 foot bump on a desolate plain, became a bargaining chip on the table of the Panmunjom cease-fire negotiations with the North Koreans. The U.S. high command was at first unwilling to either abandon or reinforce Lt. Peck’s company. They wouldn’t reinforce it because they felt it wasn’t worth further losses, but they wouldn’t abandon it because it became a bargaining-chip on the table, a test of wills. Most of the U.S. company died, a few courageously survived when reinforcements finally came.
The Korean war was the first after the atomic bomb changed warfare forever. Douglas MacArthur was old school and could not adjust to the new reality. He was fully ready to use nukes on the Communist Chinese. Admirable, courageous, daring, yes. But the cost would have been unimaginable, an all-out nuclear war, millions dead and a world likely unfit for the survivors to live in. Truman was right, MacArthur was wrong. Vietnam was similar. Think of the lives, the blood, the treasure, all expended only to see an ignominious denouement as a U.S. helicopter plucked the final few from a tower in Saigon.
Service in our country’s armed forces has always been an honorable calling. It is the highest expression of patriotism because it requires the unquestioning risk of life and limb. But it is significant that this risk is borne mostly by young people. They need to trust that their experienced elders will lead them on missions that are worthy, that have clearly obtainable objectives, and that have risks and costs that are clear and manageable. President Bush 43 broke all those rules. Nation-building is not such a mission and nothing exemplifies this more than present day Afghanistan and its corrupt president, Karzai, someone who Mr. Gates now says should have better support from our president. He is wrong. Karzai, a self-serving and unstable drug addict, deserves contempt, and Afghanistan is little more than another Pork Chop Hill. The sooner we are gone from that awful place, the better, and we are fortunate to have a president who knows it.
The news from the upcoming Gates book is new, so your mind must have started processing the post as soon as you heard the news. Interesting how we can find so much about the present in the past. Well done, sir!
Memoirs like Gates’ are indeed a valuable part of history. The tradition of the tell-all memoir provides insights into the thought processes and management styles of leaders that can’t be had any other way, and I think that’s true regardless of an author’s trustworthiness. Once opinions are out there, others come out of the woodwork. What a stark difference our free press makes between us and less-democratic states like Russia and, yikes, North Korea. Kim Jung Un is unlikely to ever face any questions, eh? Bad uncle. Uncle gone. End of matter.
The conundrum of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has occupied my mind for some years now and even before the Gates’ book came out I had been feeling some frustration with the press and others implying that because Fallujah and Ramadi had cost American lives, America had somehow acquired some kind of obligation to keep them proper. What that says to me is that the body politic still can not accept that the Iraq war was a mistake from beginning to end. There were no WMD’s. Iraq did not become a model of democracy stabilize Middle East relationships. Iraqi citizens did not even benefit in terms of their own prosperity. Many areas still have only 8 hours of electricity a day and sectarian bombings are worse than ever. The likelihood of a full civil war looms. It was all a bloody failure – why can’t we accept it?
Thanks for visiting, Frank. Your sentiments are appreciated.
Pursuit of bin Laden was our only valid reason for going into Afghanistan, and we should have left when he did. History taught most of us not to get involved in that country; Bush must have been playing hooky that day.
No, PT, Bush wasn’t playing hooky that day, he was plotting on how he could appear strong, fearless and firmly in charge in the wake of 9/11. Egged on by Cheney and other hawks, he was determined to find a way to avenge the attack and he ended up not only off the mark but allowed the federal budget to range completely out of control in the process. Regarding Afghanistan, I completely agree, OBL was the proper target and it was plain stupid to think that we needed to rebuild a hopeless muslim country in our own image to get that done.
Thanks for visiting.
I wish more veterans would stand up against the war in Afghanistan. I’m not a veteran, so my view doesn’t carry much weight on these issues. I couldn’t agree more with your assessment, yet as a nation we fall easily into the tired, false equivalence between “supporting our troops” and advocating for more warfare.
You’re right, John. The troops in any conflict never get a vote and the line between actual “defense” and other kinds of war has been changing ever since WW II. The U.S. military has become ever more mercenary in nature, but it retains its basic nature as the most potent and responsive force available to politicians. The temptation to abuse it is almost irresistible, especially when talking heads start moaning about stuff like Fallujah and how we should have kept troops engaged in the sectarian fighting there. Sad, is what it is. Thanks for your comment.
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At least in terms of not criticizing Gates for speaking out in his retirement, this is an excellent blog, Jim. Once one goes into retirement, the gloves should be allowed to come off with no constraints other than divulging truely classifed material, which Gates has not done as far as I can tell. I also have not yet read the book so I withhold comments in specifics on what he wrote.
But consider this……..
Bob Woodward has written several books, “inside” of both the Bush and Obama administrations and the decision making processes (on War and Peace) therein. Supporters of Bush disliked one set of books and supporters of Obama disliked the other. But as far as I can tell for now, Woodward spoke the truth as best it could known at that time. Gates, it seems, has substantiated some of such Woodward “truth” during the 2009 -2010 Obama administration decision making, at least the “truth” as Gates now sees it.
So one of the questions that one should consider is how well what Gates has now written compare in some detail with what Woodward wrote a few years ago. Woodward as well is now engaged (I think) on a book about Benghazi. Sure will be interesting later on to see what Penetta has to say on that account when HIS book comes out?
Recall our various exchanges in 2009/20 in these local blogs over Obama’s decision to “surge” the troops in Afghanistan. I was deeply skeptical over the success of that effort and was dismayed during the “McChrystal affair” when a “big trooper” spoke his mind (sort of). Seems as though Gates is dredging up those old concerns, again and Obama, et all will shutter to rehash those old decisions as well. Such is politics.
Keep such thoughts in mind when Benghazi is “published” by outsiders looking within. My guess is that will happen just before the 2016 campaing kicks in and we will all be involved in that argument again, particularly if Hillary runs and wins the Democrat nomination and Christy, et al, backed by Woodward, etc. get their say in the matter, historically.
As you should see from my reply to AFrankAngle on this post, we are in agreement about memoirs of decision makers being a useful aid to political discourse in a free society. I was impressed more on first reading with Woodward’s last effort than later when more viewpoints were expressed, but he is still an important voice in my opinion. However, I think it important not to assume that all such material is of equal value. I would be surprised if Woodward’s next work is about Benghazi, because it’s now clear that the affair was no scandal at all. But if he comes up with something new, I will be all eyes. I will also be all skeptical. The right-wing press is now pushing back on the Bridgegate matter, a true scandal, by trying to resurrect such moribund pseudo-Democrat scandals as Benghazi. The difference is a matter of character and temperament in implied motives. In Bridgegate, there is clear vindictiveness, meanness, and the placement of political power above the public good. That kind of link is lacking in the Democrat listings now being waved before the public.
I know you will disagree with this reasoning, and that’s fine. I won’t belabor the matter because this is what free speech is. The central point of this post remains: a president must view the use of military power with more circumspection than that of subordinates whose narrower responsibility is its direct employment.
Jim and others reading this,
We will have ample time to reargue Benghazi in the run up to 2016. For sure it will be part of that campaign if Hillary is in the race.
But I do offer a different view on Presidential responsibility vs. that of other officials involved in the “direct employment” of military power. To suggest the SecDef or others in the national security apparatus in DC, at the “second” level of authority, the National Security Council and other “decision-makers”, have a diminished level of responsibility to use military force is wrong in my view.
Just think about civilian control of the military if you will. SecDef, SecState, Chairman of the NSC, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and many others are first and foremost tasked with agreeing to use military power. That becomes the critical decision making process and a host of civilians, all high level and appointed with the agreement of the Senate, is a huge responsibility.
Actually I inadvertently left out the MOST importatnt decision maker in terms of War and Peace, one mandated by the Constitution, which of course is Congress. Since Dec 1941, we have failed as a nation to demand that authority to use military force, a Congressional declaration of war. The results of Korea, Vietnam, Gulf one, Iraq and Afghanistan all reflect to lack of the will of the people to persist until victory is achieved in all of those “wars” (except the very “quick” Gulf One).
As I watched a few interviews with Gates over the week, and still await the chance to read his book, I was struck by his comments related to the “distrust” of military (and some civilian) leaders by the Obama personnel in the WH and around DC. Can you imagine what it would be like to brief someone like Valarie (whatever) on the details of the use of military power, anywhere. I can just imagine the desdain one would encounter in such a briefing.
Gates implies at least the same doubt in the mind of the President. He is accused of simply not “trusting” the troops if you will. He and his supporters will point to the McChrystal affair as a good reason for such doubt, that military men and women will just “do their job” and stop yaking!
Bottom line Jim, McChrystal and men like him wanted to WIN the war in Afghanistan, not just put a lid on Al Qaeda and then leave a country in turmoil, just like we did in Iraq earlier under Obama.
Decades ago, Casper Weinberger produced the formula for how to take America into a war, using his views of failure in Vietman. It worked, beautifully, in the little dust up called Grenada. Later Colin Powell AND Dick Cheny drove that ;point home with clarity and victory in Gulf One. Don’t go to war until you as a military leader are convinced that a war can be won, with limited objectives. Muster the resources to fight, the unleash those resources until victory is achieved, quickly.
This country remains mired in disagreement over matters related to war and peace and we continue (Libya and Syria) to show our understanding of such an approach, called the Powell Doctrine, in such matters.
Finally, from you comment related to Benghazi above, which restates again your view on that dust up, I suppose you agree with Hillary saying, “Why worry about THAT, NOW?”
Rather than respond to Jim’s column (today, Tues.) in the Globe with a LTTE or another column, I offer my critique of his publicly expressed views herein, as food for thought.
9/11 created a crisis for America and since that time there have been a GOP 8 year response and a almost another 8 year Democrat response to that crisis. As the political debates have proceeded over the last 13 years (OK, 12/1/2 years) that debate has inevitiably boiiled down to a Bush is (good or bad) and Obama is (good or bad). In other words, politically the country has drawn partisan lines to determine how best to respond to a real crisis of world changing proportions.
That is “too bad” in my view. Both Bush and Obama made (and continue to make in Obama’s case) bad decisions. Both as well have done good things that were possible to do in today’s world. Where we fail in our civilan exchanges is too look at the “whole” picture, one that views American choices and decisions over these 13 years and AMERICAN choices, in terms of right and wrong. Ultimately those choices boiled down to go to WAR to protect and defend America or sustain PEACE at any reasonable price.
We the people chose war initially and there we went, into first Afghanistan and then Iraq. But that only lasted about a year until the American public decided war was not the correct option. Ulitmately we left Iraq hanging so to speak and certainly will do so in Afghanistan in the coming year or so. Blame Bush or blame Obama all you like. But the long term decisions on War and Peace, post 9/11 have been driven by we the people in who we elect, good or bad.
Jim’s column once again drew that distinction, Bush was bad and Obama has been good. While Gates is acknowledged as a ….., in Jim’s column, well just look at the title of the column, “Gates is wrong”. Had Jim included the Woodward books on these issues, in combination with the recent Gates book (which none of us have yet read I suspect) then Woodward would be “1/2 right or wrong”, I suppose, in Jim’s view.
Ah, if only Al Gore had been elected in 2000, then all would be well in America, post 9/11, right???
I seriously doubt it.
I understand you to say:
1. Since 9/11, political partisanship has superseded discourse on how to deal with it.
2. America had only two choices on how to respond: war or suffer without responding.
3. Both Bush and Obama made bad (but unspecified) decisions.
4. It was the American people who chose war.
5. The American people chose to leave the two wars “hanging”, which I take you to mean a lack of support.
6. I titled my Globe column, a copy of this post, “Gates Is Wrong”.
7. Woodward’s books should have been part of this discussion.
My response to each point:
1. True, but this ignores that one party got us into the two unproductive and prohibitively costly wars and the other is the one getting us out of them.
2. Not so. A third choice would have been to pursue OBL and al Qaeda without waging war on two countries, something like the present use of drones and special forces, a strategy that has produced significant successes.
3. This is the same kind of rhetoric that you criticize in number 1.
4. No, the Congress, the American people and even Colon Powell were mislead by the CIA which presented faulty and incomplete intelligence intended to support what president Bush and vice president Cheny clearly signaled they wanted to hear. Bush took the easy way. Trying to take a measured approach in all that public anger would have been much more difficult.
5. Public support of our military has never been stronger and financial support of the two wars has only wavered when it became evident they were bankrupting the treasury. And I must admit that neither party has had the political courage, at least for most of the past 13 years, to point out the folly of the nation-building kind of war. The problem with this is the same as addressed in the column, the reluctance to admit that blood and treasure had been expended for a “Pork Chop Hill”.
6. I would not have titled the newspaper column that way, but would have chosen the same as in the blog post. The Globe authored the title of the column. After pointing out that Gates is an honorable man whose patriotism is not in question, I did say that he was wrong in criticizing president Obama for not supporting Karzai more. I would add that Gates also comes across as overly sensitive on the military support issue. Consider this from the latest issue of Time magazine:
7. I disagree. Woodward’s books have no direct bearing on the matter here, which has to do with the difference between the politics of war as opposed to the actual waging of it.