I have always had the utmost respect for the Marines, and even more so when I was Executive Officer of the Naval ROTC Unit at the University of Kansas, that being the closest affiliation I had with them in my naval career. The Marine Officer Instructor invited me and the CO to the annual Marine Corps birthday celebration where the honorable history of that service was solemnly remembered. It was a serious affair.
Thus, it was with interest I read a column in the USA Today newspaper wherein, during a Memorial-Day speech, a four-star Marine General posed and answered a question on the minds of many. When his son, a Marine 2nd Lieutenant in Afghanistan, was killed in action five years ago, was it worth it? I was surprised General John Kelly would even pose the question, knowing the ethos of the Corps, and I was equally surprised by his answer. He said it was not for him to say. Not for him to say. Coming from the gung-ho, that was remarkable.
It was the right answer, and it was the wrong answer. It was right because General Kelly is still on active duty, and it would be a failure of leadership to tell young marines their mission was not worth their sacrifice. But it was also wrong because general officers are as schooled in politics as in strategy. They study and understand that war and politics are intertwined and always have been, and General Kelly has to know just how wasted and feckless has been the longest war in American history, not to mention the Iraq war which cost 4,000 American lives and upwards of a million Iraqi lives and made everything worse.
Things were different in the “good” war, that is, WW II. America was in it together, although some propaganda was necessary to quell the reluctant minority. But, public opinion after Pearl Harbor was substantially united out of shared fear. Nuclear weapons changed the nature of war, however. General MacArthur was right, and he was wrong. To him, war meant total effort. Truman knew that nuclear war would mean the end of civilization as we know it.
Wars have been different ever since. Korea was awful, because of China’s involvement and because the “Domino effect” was no actual threat. Vietnam was a horrible mistake, marked by political deception, demagoguery, and false pride that said American exceptionalism ought to be imposed simply because we could. That debacle claimed 58,000 American lives with nothing to show for it.
Why haven’t we learned from the past? Why is the American public still vulnerable to demagoguing war hawks who see battle as the proper solution to age-old ethnic problems? Among those shriller voices I hear lately are George Pataki and Lindsay Graham. They are all too eager to unleash the dogs of war, especially since the armed forces are now so professional that they are near-mercenaries, but unlike General Kelly the war hawks have no personal family at direct risk. To people like that, the Defense Department is a misnomer. The Armed Forces haven’t been used for actual defense since 1945.