Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding. – Albert Einstein
I was born in 1959, when a five-star general was president and American prosperity and military might were unrivaled anywhere in the world. Only fourteen years earlier, America had defeated fascism in Europe and Imperial Japan’s aggression in the Pacific. When the war ended, we were the world’s dominant power and stood ready to preside over the “American Century,” as Time magazine called it in 1941. Most Americans accepted that the United States was uniquely capable of creating a better world and shaping the international scene in its own image. We were prepared, as John Kennedy said on a cold January day in 1961, to “bear any burden” and “oppose any foe . . . to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
For my entire life, America has been the most powerful nation on Earth. As a young boy, I glorified military service; I admired the uniforms of our servicemen, and the stars and stripes that adorned them. Like others of my generation, my early impressions of U.S. military force were influenced almost entirely by the history of World War II, when our country was united in aid of friends and allies whose freedoms and way of life were under attack by a brutal, power-hungry despot. The stakes were real, freedom and liberty in jeopardy, the necessity of our involvement clear.
For the first thirty years of my life, American military superiority was balanced only by the military and nuclear capabilities of the former Soviet Union. We were then engaged in a Cold War against the forces of Communism, in which every action, every regional conflict, was seen through the lenses of the East-West rivalry. Although world events would later temper his views, as a presidential candidate in 1960, John F. Kennedy articulated what many Americans then believed, and what the American Establishment propagandized. “The enemy is the Communist system itself – implacable, insatiable, increasing in its drive for world domination,” said Kennedy. We were in a struggle of “two conflicting ideologies: freedom under God versus ruthless, godless tyranny.”
American political leaders, I have since come to learn, have a tendency to heighten their rhetoric and elevate our sense of responsibility as a world power in response to perceived existential threats. Although I admire flowery prose and grandiose statements in service to country as much as anyone, when combined with the arrogance of power, we risk misguided actions and tragic consequences. When we ignore lessons learned from past conflicts and fail ever to accept the practical and moral limits of force, we risk making and repeating grave mistakes.
Grand visions attenuated from historical reality are abundantly evident in a provocative essay first published in the June 9th issue of The New Republic, “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire: What Our Tired Country Still Owes the World” by Robert Kagan, a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution who advised John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008. “Almost 70 years ago,” Kagan writes, “a new world order was born from the rubble of World War II, built by and around the power of the United States.” Until recently, America acted with a “sense of global responsibility that equated American interests with the interests of many others around the world.” We were “vigilant and ready to act with force, anywhere in the world” to protect freedom, spread democracy and expand and deepen the international trading system. During the Cold War, the West’s economic and political success spread throughout Europe and much of Asia. None of this would have been possible, says Kagan, had the United States not been "willing and able to play the abnormal and unusual role of preserver and defender of a liberal world order.”
But today, contends Kagan, the liberal world order is showing “signs of cracking, and perhaps even collapsing.” This is not “because America’s power is declining” or “the world has become more complex and intractable;” it is, instead, due to “an intellectual problem, a question of identity and purpose.” If only the weak-willed Barack Obama would let America be great again, he implies, the problems the world confronts in Syria, Ukraine, and Iraq, among others, would be solved. “A liberal world order, like any world order, is something that is imposed, and as much as we in the West might wish it to be imposed by superior virtue, it is generally imposed by superior power.”
There are several problems with Kagan’s thesis, and with many of the critical voices calling for more aggressive U.S. military intervention in the world’s various trouble spots. First, the so-called “world order” that existed in the decades following World War II based on American willingness to “oppose any foe” is a figment of Kagan’s imagination. As Andrew Bacevich, a West Point graduate with 23 years of military service and a professor of history at Boston University, noted in a rebuttal to Kagan’s essay in Commonweal, Kagan overlooks that throughout the Cold War, when faced with Soviet aggression, ethnic conflict, and genocide, the United States time and again acted with “prudent self-restraint.” Thus, when Soviet tanks rolled into East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968, our nation’s “commitment to freedom and democracy took a backseat to its preference for avoiding a potentially climactic East-West showdown.” Similarly, during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, rather than invade Cuba and attempt to liberate its people from Communism, President Kennedy cut a deal with his Communist adversaries. In exchange for removing Soviet missiles from Cuba, we agreed to remove U.S. nuclear missiles from Turkey. In each instance, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Cuba remained unliberated, but the world remained intact.
Second, contrary to Kagan’s lofty rhetoric, the United States has repeatedly helped to overthrow regimes not to its liking, with little concern expressed for the ideals of American democracy. One need only examine U.S. actions in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, South Vietnam in 1963, and Chile in the early 1970s. And the despots we have supported over the years, including Batista in Cuba and Somoza in Nicaragua, Musharraf in Pakistan and Mubarak in Egypt, have seldom adhered to American ideals of freedom, justice, and the rule of law. Moreover, according to Bacevich, "[o]ther disruptions to a ‘world order’ ostensibly founded on the principle of American ‘global responsibility’” which resulted in no U.S. military response, included:
the 1947 partition of India (estimated 500,000 to one million dead); the 1948 displacement of Palestinians (700,000 refugees); the exodus of Vietnamese from north to south in 1954 (between 600,000 and one million fled); the flight of the pied noir from Algeria (800,000 exiled); the deaths resulting directly from Mao Tse Tung’s quest for utopia (between 2 million and 5 million); the mass murder of Indonesians during the anti-Communist purges of the mid-1960s (500,000 slaughtered); the partition of Pakistan in 1971 (up to 3 million killed; millions more displaced); genocide in Cambodia (1.7 million dead); and war between Iran and Iraq (at least more 400,000 killed). Did I mention civil wars in Nigeria, Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Sudan, Congo, Liberia, and Sierra Leone that killed millions? The list goes on.
In The New Republic essay, Kagan fails to note any of these events, although all occurred during the Cold War when America was, in Kagan’s words, “vigilant and ready to act, with force, anywhere in the world.” In fact, as most past presidents learn once in office, the historical reality is that the United States wields limited power and influence. We have not, and never have been, “ready to act with force, anywhere in the world.” And all too often, when we have attempted ambitious military excursions in conflicts lacking the clear-cut moral and political dimensions of World War II, we have come to regret it.
I only first began to understand the limits of force when I was ten years old. In 1969, Phillip Seel, the 22 year-old son of my dad’s secretary and close family friend, arrived home in a body bag, a victim of North Vietnamese mortar and artillery fire. Phillip died while doing his job as a Navy Hospital Corpsman stationed at First Support Base Neville in Quang Tri Province. On February 25, 1969, he was administering first aid to a wounded Marine lying on the ground in an area dangerously exposed to hostile fire. According to his Presidential citation, Seel, “[u]ndaunted by the enemy grenades and satchel charges impacting near him, he resolutely continued his valiant efforts until he was mortally wounded.” Universally recognized as a kind and gentle young man, he volunteered for the hospital corps because he wanted to serve others rather than fight and kill. In the end, he received a Silver Medal and Purple Heart, and died a hero’s death.
A few months earlier, I had sent Phillip a collection of baseball articles and photographs to raise his spirits, as I knew he was serving our country in Vietnam in a war I knew little about. I can still remember meticulously cutting out articles and photographs from The Sporting News and Sport magazine, pasting them onto lined notebook paper and writing a letter to Phillip explaining my selections and updating him on the latest baseball results from the United States. Sadly, the mailing never reached him; it had arrived too late, only to be dispassionately and impersonally “returned to sender.” I grew up a little the day I learned of Phillip’s death and witnessed the heartbreak inflicted on his mother and family members. It was then that I realized America’s actions abroad had risks and consequences.
I started to pay attention more, and to question accepted wisdom, on America’s role in the world. I now understood why moral and religious leaders were questioning America’s involvement in Vietnam and why thousands of protestors had taken to the streets. I came to see that hundreds of thousands of young American men were leaving for Vietnam thinking they were defending freedom only to find their country embroiled in a messy civil war, fighting to help prop up a corrupt leader who lacked the support of his own people; and that the people of South Vietnam were indistinguishable from the people of North Vietnam and enemies could not be distinguished from friends. It did not take long for those on the ground to realize that the American military was ill-equipped to fight in the jungles of Southeast Asia, and to question what on earth they were fighting for.
But back home, the forces and voices supporting war were powerful men – presidents and cabinet members, senators and generals – who convinced themselves that America was uniquely capable of winning the fight for freedom and democracy over the dark cloud of Communism. Only America, these voices proclaimed, stood between freedom at home and tyranny abroad. How could they be so wrong? How could these distinguished authority figures be so certain and yet be so wrong?
The Voices of War are once again calling upon the United States to re-engage in the latest eruption in Iraq. The Sunni extremists that have made inroads in recent weeks, seizing Fallujah, Mosul, and a string of other Iraqi cities, and provoking a revival of the Sunni-versus-Shiite civil war that left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead between 2005 and 2008, threaten to undue the Shiite-led government of Iraq. But American military involvement would be the wrong response, morally and strategically, to what is essentially a proxy war between the Saudi-backed Sunnis and the Iranian-backed Shiites. Our involvement, whether through troops on the ground or limited air strikes, would serve only to further inflame Iraq’s sectarian divisions. There are no good options in Iraq. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is corrupt and mostly to blame for the latest round of Sunni revolts. Maliki has excluded Sunnis from power and made a mockery of whatever semblance of democracy we had hoped, unsuccessfully, to instill during the drawn out debacle of the past decade.
Ever since American forces departed Iraq in 2011, President Obama has been attacked by the same hawks and neoconservatives – McCain, Graham, Cheney, Wolfowitz and company – that previously led us into one of the worst foreign policy blunders in American history. The “Obama lost Iraq” mantra is not simply wrong, but misses the entire lesson of the war in Iraq. While it could be argued in a very narrow sense that the United States “won” the war militarily, we never came close to winning the war politically; and that is where the true battle lay. The American invasion and subsequent occupation not only destroyed Iraq’s central institutions, including the army, police, and Baath party, but it resulted in a power vacuum that separated Iraqis into Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish camps. Iraq is a forced country, an artificial boundary that has attempted to unite three rival factions against their will. The disputes and rivalries that exist in that region of the world are deep-rooted, complex, and not understood by American policymakers. To shed further American blood, and to have American forces be the cause of Iraqi blood and suffering, would be a huge wrong, a mistake of immense proportions.
As President Obama said last week, “We do not have the ability to simply solve this problem by sending in tens of thousands of troops and committing the kinds of blood and treasure that has already been expended in Iraq. Ultimately, this is something that is going to have to be solved by the Iraqis.” The best thing Obama can do at this juncture is provide humanitarian relief – food, clothing, shelter, and medicine – for the estimated half-million Iraqi refugees and three million Syrian refugees who have fled the civil wars in those countries. Rather than compound the suffering with more U.S. missiles, the administration should work with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Turkey in search of a regional political solution.
Rightly or wrongly, the American experience in Vietnam has greatly influenced my modern view of U.S. military force. I am less enamored of calls for war whenever they arise in the halls of Congress or the op-ed pages of our major newspapers. I am admittedly neither a foreign policy expert nor military strategist, but I have enough sense to know that the use of American force in that part of the world has been a disaster. Continued use of American firepower will only inflame the sectarian divisions in the region and once again focus the wrath of extremists on America. I am all for finding creative ways to help defeat ISIS while pressuring Maliki to cease enforcing anti-Sunni policies that only empower the extremists. But to simplistically call for American military force and believe that we have ceded our global responsibility to impose a new world order – democracy and freedom in a part of the world that has historically experienced neither – is to repeat the mistakes of the recent past.
Calls for war are cheap, especially when made from the cheap seats in Washington, in front of microphones and television cameras. Glorifying the past also costs little and, worse, encourages a false sense of mission and responsibility. Time and again – in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq – blinded by false assumptions and visions of America as an all-powerful savior of the world, we became enmeshed in historically complex civil wars in far-off lands we neither knew nor understood. The voices in favor of war were always the same, the propaganda of war always powerful – freedom from tyranny, freedom from communism, freedom from some bad thing the stated mission. But articulating a grand vision and sense of purpose, demonizing the enemy and convincing yourself and your people that you are engaged in a battle of good versus evil, neither wins the conflict nor addresses the underlying roots of conflict, especially where we fail – as we so often do – to understand the cultural, religious and political implications of our actions; and when we consistently misinterpret the actions of others or misunderstand what truly motivates their actions.
A few weeks before he died, President Kennedy spoke with a revised humility and introspection about the use of military force. Speaking at Amherst College on October 26, 1963, Kennedy publicly acknowledged that power and might are not without limits and must be exercised with great care. “The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the nation’s greatness,” he said on that cool New England day, “but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when the questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.”
As we venture forth into the deeper reaches of the 21st century, will we dare heed the lessons of the past and use our power, wealth, and resources for the good of humanity? Or will we continue to listen to the false prophets who have led us into stupid wars on false and mistaken pretenses, and once again let power use us?