Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Futility of War


The Futility of War and the Path to Peace
Nicholas Johnson
Remarks on Armistice Day
November 11, 2018, 11:00 a.m.
Veterans for Peace, Chapter 161
Pentacrest
Iowa City, Iowa

It is a very special honor to be invited by you, Veterans for Peace, to speak at this commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day. This is America’s day to recognize both those who have fought and died in our wars, and those who have fought to prevent future wars. [Photo credit: unknown; Wikimedia. "This photograph was taken in the forest of Compi├Ęgne after reaching an agreement for the armistice that ended World War I." November 11, 1918.]

You have told me to speak about war under the title “The Futility of War.” Fortunately, that title is consistent with my beliefs. Had you chosen, say, “The Case for Increasing Military Spending” this talk would have taken much longer to prepare.

You and I seem to agree – both about the value of peace, and why understanding the futility of war is the first step toward that peace.

In our brief time this morning I will suggest five reasons why.

First, Lessons From Viet Nam

Fifty-three years ago, President LyndonJohnson, who had appointed me Administrator of the Maritime Administration, or MARAD, asked that I look around Viet Nam and southeast Asia, and write an assessment of the war. Although based in Washington, MARAD kept a small staff in Saigon assisting with the agency’s responsibility for merchant shipping sealift.

The futility of that war was immediately obvious to me. As I concluded my report, “You can’t play basketball on a football field.” Not incidentally, that conclusion of mine for President Johnson led to a conclusion of his that I would make a terrific Federal Communications Commission commissioner.

Why no basketball?

It started with my arrival. Chatting with the officer driving me from the airfield into Saigon, I looked up and saw a banner over the street. “What does that say?” I asked him. “I don’t know,” he replied. “Do you have any officers who could read that?” I asked. “None who I know,” he said. [Photo Credit: Daniel Graham Clark; NJ delivering speech at Veterans for Peace gathering; first on Pentacrest and continuing inside Old Brick, Iowa City, November 11, 2018.]

My suspicion continued during a conversation with a Vietnamese gentleman. Our military was fighting a war of futility over a specific hill. I asked his advice. “Read some Vietnamese mythology,” he said. Befuddled, I asked him to explain. “If you Americans knew anything about us,” he began, “you would know that every Vietnamese schoolchild is told the story of the origins of our people: the union of a Chinese dragon and an elf.” “OK, so?” I asked. “The elf emerged from that hill,” he replied. “You will never take that hill. Move up the road two or three clicks and you’ll find the going much easier.”

Even if one wants to engage in war there is a futility of war in some places and times. It’s like trying to grow a garden on a concrete parking lot or play a trombone under water. Although, in my case, there’s a futility to my playing a trombone anywhere. The best and the brightest in our military know about the futility of war. Unfortunately, few of those who send them to war are as well educated.

The first example of the futility of war is when these eleven conditions are present:
• our troops are only the latest in a centuries-long string of invaders;
• in an ongoing civil war;
• we can’t read or speak the native language;
• know little of the people’s history, religion, culture, literature, or tribal relationships;
• our enemies don’t wear uniforms, while we, who are already easily identified, do wear uniforms (a British problem you’d think we’d recall from our own Revolutionary War);
• it is impossible to distinguish enemies from our local allies and employees;
• our troops’ choice is between killing innocent civilians, or being killed by those who look like innocent civilians;
• creating a conflict between “winning hearts and minds” and “burning down the village to save it;”
• the longer the fighting continues the more counterproductive it becomes;
• increasing rather than decreasing chaos and civil war;
• on a battlefield with no frontline, with territory repeatedly gained only to be lost again.
That’s what I meant by “you can’t play basketball on a football field.”

I provided the second President Bush similar advice in February 2003. The column was headlined, “Ten Questions for Bush Before War.”

Second, Due Dilligence

The second example of the futility of war involves due diligence – what I was urging Bush to do before sending troops to Iraq the next month. It’s not difficult. The process, the twelve questions, are analogous to those Iowa City business persons must answer for bank loan officers. Before war the questions are:
• What’s the problem, or challenge?
• How is our national interest involved?
• Is our goal precisely defined and widely understood?
• What are the metrics for measuring progress?
• Are there cheaper and more effective non-military alternatives?
• How will military force help, and how will it hinder, reaching our goal?
• What are the benefits and costs?
• What will it require in troops, materiel, lives, and treasure?
• Will the American people support it to conclusion?
• Will we be confronting Viet Nam-like impediments?
• What is our exit strategy?
• Once we leave will things be better, worse, or the same?
You may recognize my debt to Joint Chiefs Chair General Colin Powell for some of those questions. Or, as Joint Chiefs Chair General Martin Dempsey put it most succinctly in 2013, “As we weigh our options, we should be able to conclude with some confidence that the use of force will move us toward the intended outcome.”

Our founders, fearful of unchecked presidential war powers, created what we today call “civilian control of the military.” But note that the analysis just laid out comes, not from civilians but from the military. That’s why I have only half-jokingly said, what we really need is military control of the civilians.

After the Twin Towers slaughter funded by Saudis and executed by Saudis, what was the civilians’ response? They let other Saudis in America immediately leave, skip the Congressional Declaration of War required by the Constitution, tell Americans to “go shopping,” and start fighting preemptive, perpetual wars of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Third, Constitutional Restraints

The futility of war is recognized in the Constitution.

The idea of a civilian, cabinet-level Secretary of Peace was first proposed in 1793 by Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Many others have urged it since. The closest we have to a Department of Peace today is what was once called the Department of War, and now Department of Defense.

The irony comes, not alone from the Department’s name, but from conservatives’ approach to the Constitution, what they call a “textual” or “original intent” interpretation of its language. For the Constitution’s drafters made unambiguously clear their extreme opposition to a president having a king’s power to both declare and direct wars. As James Madison said, “A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive, will not long be safe companions to liberty.” His concerns were shared by Samuel Adams, Elbridge Gerry, Alexander Hamilton, George Mason and others.

The presidents and members of Congress who came along later followed those men’s advice. For 156 years, through World War II, armed forces were increased for a war, following a Congressional Declaration of War, and then quickly demobilized once war ended.

Fourth, the futility of perpetual war and how it happened

How did we evolve from a country without standing armies, that demilitarized after every war, with a Congress that restrained executive war powers? How did we get a go-along Congress that supports the executive’s standing armies, never demilitarizes, engages in multiple perpetual wars of choice, maintains military presence in 150 countries, at an unaudited total cost over one trillion dollars a year, put on our grandchildren’s credit card?

Then, Americans fought in World War I for about 18 months. We wrapped up a multi-front global World War II in four years. Now we display the futility of war by continuing to struggle in Afghanistan for 17 years.

There’s more to this story than we have time to discuss.

Partly what happened is the same marriage of profits and politics that dictates other aspects of our lives and economy. Roughly half our fighting forces are employees of for-profit contractors. Privatize prisons and prison owners lobby for longer prison terms. Privatize the military and private contractors lobby for longer wars. Provide large enough campaign contributions for members of Congress and those who profit from war will reap the rewards of a military budget larger than those of the next five or ten nations combined. Some of this money will be spent on multi-million-dollar fighter planes and multi-billion-dollar aircraft carriers – neither of which provided much protection from pressure cooker bombs for the 23,000 runners at the 2013 Boston Marathon.

The other half of the political equation is the virtual elimination of citizen sacrifice. (1) Those subject to the draft, and their parents, were a powerful force opposing the Viet Nam war. Without a draft we might still be fighting in Viet Nam, as we are in Afghanistan. Now only four-tenths of one percent fight our wars. (2) After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor everyone sacrificed. There was rationing. We did without. After the Twin Towers attack we were told to “go shopping.” (3) World War II was a largely pay-as-you-go war. No longer. Wars are free. We just borrow money from China, and add trillions to the national debt.

Fifth, the futility of wars when we doing nothing; and `what we can do.

What can we do to eliminate the futility of today’s wars? Essentially six things that are the exact opposite of what we’re now doing:
• Reestablish the impediments to war our founders intended.
• Reinstate the draft, for children of the rich as well as the poor.
• Demand every member of the House and Senate cast a recorded vote on Declarations of War.
• Enact a supplemental war tax and pay-as-you-go wars.
• Require all citizens to bear some sacrifice, as in World War II.
• Contribute our own voices to a public debate on the questions I’ve suggested must be answered before going to war.
In that effort, your voices are the most persuasive. When it comes to peace, Americans are more likely to listen to those who have known war than to those who have only preached for peace.

It really is up to us. You and me.

As Edward R. Murrow closed his documentary about the consequences of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s attacks on Americans, “We cannot escape responsibility for the result. … Cassius was right. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.”

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