We go to war because it’s so easy.
It’s as simple as that. Having amassed the largest arsenal of sophisticated high tech weaponry known to mankind, a highly trained military force, military surveillance satellites, hundreds of bases around the world, and a military budget that exceeds those of the next seven countries combined, American presidents and an “out to lunch” Congress now too often choose the military option over diplomacy or “just saying no” to war. Diplomacy is more difficult than military intervention or war and can take a long time. The compromises reached are not always appreciated by a public that has little patience to understand the complexities of the conflicts, let alone negotiated solutions.
Many American citizens are so inclined to “go along” with war, given our reverence for our military (support our troops), our patriotism and ingrained sense of moral righteousness about democracy and opposing tyrants, especially if they are Muslim, and of course, our pride in “American exceptionalism”. The war hawks including our elected politicians have an easy time spinning the events that appeal to our psyche, a “macho man” appeal that can be titillating for those watching video clips of the action and not having to put their own lives at stake. The leaders who take us to war always cite the justness of the cause so Americans can feel good and supportive about our enormous killing machine at work. We believe them because we want to believe them.
But most of all, having a strong military in readiness, and a Congress that happily looks away, missions to “save the world” makes the Commander-in-Chief’s decision to use military force very easy, especially if it doesn’t involve “boots on the ground”, but rather $200 million fighter jets dropping smart bombs on selected targets, cruise missiles launched from a ship far away, or more often now, a young techie in the Langley Air Force Base near Washington DC operating a predator drone on the other side of the world, locking in his target and then boom! Like a video game. Easy kill…out of sight…out of mind. Except if you or your loved ones are on the receiving end.
It wasn’t always that easy.
On 28 June 1914, 101 years ago, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to throne of Austria-Hungary, was assassinated by a Yugoslav nationalist in Sarajevo, and that event led Austria-Hungary to deliver an ultimatum to the Kingdom of Serbia. The entangled international alliances formed over the previous decades soon were brought to bear as various countries, excluding America, lined up against each other. The Great War, as it was known at the time, had begun. America at the time had a relatively small standing army and reserves of only 200,000, somewhat comparable in size to that of Greece’s 230,000, Serbia’s 200,000 and Turkey’s 210,000, but considerably smaller than that of Germany’s 4,500,000, Russia’s 5,971,000, France’s 4,017,000, and Great Britain’s 975,000. In other words, we were a relatively peaceful nation maintaining our neutrality with a very small military presence, mostly naval, for defense of our shores.
President Wilson in 1914 was initially opposed to increasing the size of our military siding with the pacifists that included women’s groups and protestant churches. On the other hand, the “Preparedness Movement”, led by Teddy Roosevelt, was advocating for a larger military arguing that “economic strength and military muscle were more decisive than idealistic crusades focused on causes like democracy and national self-determination.” Wilson’s intransigence against a military buildup changed when German U-Boats sank the Lusitania on May 7, 1915.
Despite our build-up of military strength after 2015, President Woodrow Wilson, still adhered to neutrality and was reelected in November 1916 on a promise to keep America out of that war. But just five months later on April 2, 1917, with the Germans having torpedoed American ships carrying military equipment and supplies to the British and French, he asked Congress to declare war on Germany, "to make the world safe for democracy". An extract from that speech follows:
"The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them." – President Woodrow Wilson, extract from speech to Congress asking for a declaration of war against Germany, April 2, 1917
All “feel good” stuff. On April 7th Congress obliged and we were officially at war. Our military army was built up at a rapid pace from 200,000 in 1914 to 4,355,000 in 1918 by the end of the war. In that four year process, America became a world military superpower. Some 16 million people died and 20 million were wounded in the Great War (later called World War I). However, despite the glory of victory, many Americans, not very good in their knowledge of anything on the other side of the Atlantic, asked later, "who the hell is the Archduke Franz Ferdinand anyway that 16 million people had to die to avenge his death?" Others rightfully cited the war profiteers, the bankers and munitions traders with business interest in Europe, who lobbied for our declaration of war. Whatever the bitter feelings were about that war it set the stage for American isolationist and neutralist policies over the next 24 years…at least until the next war came upon us.
In 1935 as events in Europe and Asia indicated that a new world war might soon erupt, Congress passed the first Neutrality Act, which they renewed and strengthened in 1937. Like President Wilson before him, President Roosevelt, likewise initially sought to avoid getting America entangled in yet another European war:
“I have seen war. I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen blood running from the wounded. I have seen men coughing out their gassed lungs. I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed. I have seen 200 limping, exhausted men come out of line—the survivors of a regiment of 1,000 that went forward 48 hours before. I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war.” Franklin D. Roosevelt, August 1936
Like Wilson before him, Roosevelt reluctantly pushed for an increase in military strength while still promising to keep America out of another war.
“And while I am talking to you mothers and fathers, I give you one more assurance. I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars. They are going into training to form a force so strong that, by its very existence, it will keep the threat of war far away from our shores. The purpose of our defense is defense.” Roosevelt Campaign Address at Boston, Massachusetts, October 30. 1940.
Of course as we know President Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan on December 8, 1941. The Senate unanimously voted for the resolution, 82-0. The House passed the resolution by a 388 to 1 vote. That declaration was followed up by Congress approving resolutions declaring war against Germany and Italy (on December 11, 1941) and against Bulgaria, Hungary and Rumania (on June 4, 1942).
Historians have debated how diplomacy failed and the world was yet again at war. President Roosevelt, the apparent reluctant warrior, oversaw the increase in America’s troop strength from 458,000 in 1940 to an astounding 12,200,000 in 1945 while also building a vast arsenal of war weapons. Again America played a key role in the victory, but the price of some 80 million dead including 50 million civilians, families destroyed, cities reduced to ruins and economies in shambles made the victory seem less glamorous. But if wars are a failure of diplomacy, avoiding new wars means that the post war diplomacy is even more important as emotions often trump critical thinking yet again as the victors vie for “the spoils” of war.
I use these examples of World Wars I and II to point out that these were the last times Congress exercised its power to declare war. In the years and months leading up to these war declarations, Presidents and Congress were both reluctant to take our country to war. However, even if these wars were officially declared, was the price, the almost 100 million lives lost, the enormous devastation, and countless families losing one or more loved ones, really worth it? If we had known the likelihood of that ultimate sacrifice ahead of time, would we have tried harder to negotiate diplomatic solutions?
Whatever bad memories we might have had of those wars, the lessons learned were soon forgotten, and other more confined wars took their places in history from North Korea to Vietnam to Nicaragua to Bosna to more recently Afghanistan and Iraq. In all of these wars and conflicts, we can find eloquent speeches by presidents rationalizing why these military interventions were necessary. The words, freedom, security, democracy, courage, America’s destiny, often appear in their rhetoric. And in none of them did Congress declare war. Our involvement in the Korean War was part of a United Nations effort, while our involvement in the Vietnam War was initially an “advisory role”, but following the Gulf of Tonkin incident escalation of that effort followed a joint resolution passed by Congress in 1964, as requested by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Since Vietnam, the United States has engaged in military actions as part of United Nations’ actions, joint congressional resolutions (Authorizations to Use Military Force - AUMFs), or within the confines of the 1973 War Powers Resolution (passed over the objections and veto of President Richard Nixon). As noted by the Constitution Daily website, “When President Obama approved the use of military force in Libya in 2011, it was the 132nd time that a President acted under the conditions of that 1973 War Powers Resolution.” The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were conducted under 2001 and 2002 AUMFs.
I can certainly appreciate that in some circumstances America indeed needs to act quickly. There have always been despots in the world who see war as opportunistic and whose actions require the international community of nations to act quickly in the name of humanity. But more often than not, if one delves deeply into the cause and effect, one will find that most all wars, even those with religious ideologies driving the conflict, are avoidable if rational actors are acting rationally and engage in diplomacy.
Sceptics will point to the fact that human beings as long as they have existed on this planet have indulged in war, killing each other and in some cases engaging in outright genocide. That is certainly true and in going back some 4,000 years to the present in analyzing the reasons for wars then and now, we will find much commonality with the reasons for war. It is mostly human nature…greed and the lust for power and conquest, but also tribalism and the fear of the “other”. However, in this 21st Century, with the stakes so high, overcoming our emotions and egos, thinking critically about the global implications and ultimate costs of war, is even more important.
The Theory of war
Matthew O. Jackson and Massimo Morelli, in their 2009 academic paper, The Reasons for War – An Updated Survey, provide a summary of notable theories for war by other scholars. The reasons for war are highly varied and include rational and irrational actors, bargaining failures, religious ideology, anger and revenge, ethnic cleansing and other ideological mass killings, lack of commitment to agreements, preemptive and preventive wars, the worldviews of the decision-makers versus the populace, political events such as reelections, and what they term ”endogenous power” that the “probability of war depends on prior investments in arms, and that in turn the incentives to arm depend on how arms affect future incentives to go to war or to bargain.”
It is on this latter point that America has evolved from “millions of boots on the ground” in the two World Wars to the high tech wars of today. Absent a draft, less than 0.4 percent of the population is actively serving in the military. With a citizenry largely disengaged from the war process, with a lack of awareness of the sacrifices that previous generations have made in wars, with a Congress that doesn’t want to debate let alone vote on an authorization of military force (AUMFs) and certainly is even less enthusiastic negotiating with the enemy, then the checks and balances mandated in our Constitution become moot, and the decisions made to use military force are made all too easily.
The first Gulf War undertaken by President George H.W. Bush was nicknamed the “video game war” because of all the footage of Iraq troops being obliterated by American bombs. It was an easy war. The second Gulf War initiated by his son was launched with a made for television propaganda “shock and awe” bombing campaign as western media brought it live right into our living rooms to salivate upon. Today the war against ISIL, labeled Operation Inherent Resolve, is less about spectacular titillating images on our TV screens and more about daily bombing campaigns against targets in Iraq and Syria….or an occasional report of a drone action in Pakistan. They would barely make the news except for candidates for office castigating President Obama’s foreign policy and strategy for dealing with ISIL as a “devastating failure”. Nevertheless, President Obama’s proposed AUMF against ISIL sits pigeonholed in Congress as our elected politicians, many of whom were burned by their approval of Bush’s Iraq War resolution (AUMF) are unwilling to take it up lest they might be seen later to have skin in the game. Meanwhile, the bombing raids in Iraq and Syria continue under the previous AUMFs, with Constitutional questions of the legality avoided by Congress. I will take up the questions of the underlying difficulties of the war against ISIL in more detail in another article, but will close with an opinion on the Iran Nuclear Agreement.
If diplomacy is seen as the preferred option, President Obama, Secretary John Kerry, and the nations of Germany, France, Great Britain, Russia and China as well as Iran have to be commended for negotiating a far reaching Nuclear Arms Agreement. It has taken over six years to get there with difficult hurdles overcome with compromises on both sides. The United Nations Security Council has subsequently unanimously approved the agreement clearing the way for the lifting of sanctions. The America public supports it and the leading cleric in Iran has also endorsed it. It should be an automatic sell in Congress, yet this Congress so reluctant to take up the military authorization for war against ISIL, now seems ready to obediently follow Prime Minister Netanyahu’s lead to reject that agreement. It’s insane that any member of Congress would agree with Israel’s endless quest for America to go to war against Iran, putting Israel’s interest above that of America or for that matter the rest of the world, but that is exactly what is happening. As many scholars note, not approving the Iranian nuclear agreement will most likely will lead to war with Iran, which depending on who we elect as president can escalate into World War III given the “alliances” that will come into play on each side. Another 100 million to die? Maybe or maybe not. However, consider the implications if we had the self-appointed War Profiteer-in-Chief, Dick Cheney, or a clone of his (one from the clown car) once again calling the shots in the Oval Office. But hey, the “no skin in the game” Congress can just bury its head in the sand, whatever happens after they deliberately scuttle the agreement.
"Lovely and honorable it is to die for one's country." -- Horace 65 - 8 BC, Odes