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.