What justifies war? Was it worth the blood and treasure? What constitutes winning a war and how do you define that? When is it really over? It depends on who you ask and when you ask.
With the recent publication of Robert Gates’ memoir of his time as defense secretary for George W. Bush and 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 Sunni rebels. Around 100 Americans died, and another 1,000 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?
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, though the president, 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 the armed forces and defend the righteousness of their effort, to not only provide them with the funds to be the best equipped and best trained in the world but also to assure them that their cause was just and that the effort was worthy of blood sacrifice. That’s tough, but it’s nothing new.
President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton famously had the same problem, and so have many other pairs. I was reminded of an old movie by this. In 1959, Gregory Peck starred in “Pork Chop Hill,” a classic movie and likely one of the first to begin to reveal to a naive public some of the moral complexities that were hidden during World War 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-high bump on a desolate plain, became a bargaining chip in the cease-fire negotiations with the North Koreans. The U.S. high command was at first unwilling to abandon the hill, because it became a bargaining chip, or reinforce Peck’s company, because they felt the hill wasn’t worth further losses. Most of the U.S. company died; few had survived by the time reinforcements finally came.
The Korean War was the first after the atomic bomb changed warfare forever. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was of the old school and could not adjust to the new reality. He was fully ready to use nukes on the Communist Chinese. 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. MacArthur was wrong; President Harry Truman, who ultimately dismissed the general, was right.
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 this is a risk borne mostly by young people. They need to trust that their elders will commit them to missions that are worthy, that have clearly obtainable objectives, and that have clear and manageable risks and costs.
President George W. Bush broke that trust. Nation-building is not such a mission, and nothing exemplifies this more than the results of the last two wars. Iraq is a hopeless morass of sectarian violence and present-day Afghanistan a corrupt sinkhole for American money.
Gates now says Afghani-stan’s corrupt president, Hamid Karzai, should have better support from our president. He is wrong. The self-serving and unstable drug addict Karzai is even more unreliable than Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s partisan prime minister, 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.
Jim Wheeler lives in Joplin.