The Growing Danger of Choosing War as a Routine Instrument of Policy
WASHINGTON (October 2, 2019) — Much of establishment Washington has been stumbling over itself in recent days to convince President Trump to launch punitive military strikes against Iran on behalf of Saudi Arabia. That such action could suck the United States into an all-out war seems of little concern, and that carelessness should alarm every American.
As one who has seen more than a little war, let me assure you the risk here is real. Our leaders’ increasing willingness to treat war as a routine policy instrument is dangerous and must be stopped.
War used to be considered a means to protect the United States from direct attack and, even then, only as an absolute last resort. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, our last general president, knew this well. In 1956, the freedom-loving people of Hungary revolted against Soviet domination and appealed to America for help. Eisenhower refused. The USSR eventually squashed the movement, and the people of Hungary suffered another 30-plus years of oppression before the Communist bloc collapsed in 1992.
Eisenhower took considerable political heat for his unwillingness to use force to support the Hungarians. But realistically, military intervention likely would not have freed Hungary, might have led to a nuclear exchange between Moscow and the West, and definitely would have caused tens of thousands of American and Hungarian combat deaths. The Hungarians’ cause was worthy, but Eisenhower correctly prioritized protecting American lives and prosperity over enabling the aspirations of another country.
The reason? Eisenhowerknew war. He had seen the bitter cost of conflict and knew all too well its capabilities — and limitations. One year after the end of World War II, Eisenhower said, “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.” That horrible firsthand knowledge of war would inform his decisions to the benefit of our country less than a decade later.
In memoirs published after he left office, Eisenhower wrote of his difficult decision not to engage militarily in 1956. Sending “United States troops alone into Hungary through hostile or neutral territory would have involved us in general war,” he said. It was obvious, he continued, “that there was no use going further into this possibility.” Eisenhower refused a battle he knew would not ultimately help the Hungarians and would cost our country egregiously.
In similar fashion, President Ronald Reagan came under harsh criticism for his actions following the tragic Marine barracks bombing in 1982, when 241 US Marines were killed in a suicide attack in Beirut. Many wanted Reagan to retaliate by expanding America’s military involvement in the Middle East with a strike on Iran. But the president was unwilling to risk a major war by compounding the mistake of having sent the Marines there in the first place. His choice was prudent as it prevented any further combat losses, and the United States was better off because of his strong leadership.
The ability to recognize and acknowledge the consequences and limitations of war, unfortunately, has been almost entirely lost in the highest levels of the US government today. This shift began after the lightning fast war in Iraq in 1991.
Operation Desert Storm saw more than half a million American troops deploy, and a comparative miniscule 148 men were killed. In Washington, it seemed a new era of cost-free war had arrived. But that was an illusion, and the United States has been at war almost continuously since — and has suffered tens of thousands of killed and wounded from “endless wars.”
The ruling class in our country remains oblivious to realistic strategic outcomes, let alone connecting the appropriate means with those ends. To them, war is falsely seen as a panacea for global ills. Worse yet, this mistaken belief has markedly increased the chances of Washington stumbling into an entirely avoidable, potentially catastrophic great power conflict.
US armed forces should be used to defend our country from unprovoked attack — doing so will keep America safe indefinitely. No nation on Earth — not even Russia and China — would dare launch such an attack because they know we could and would devastate their forces. But if Washington carelessly and casually seeks out every fight it can find abroad, the United States will find opponents that have a robust ability to defend themselves and could inflict serious harm to American forces.
Now is the time to soberly acknowledge the limitations of military power, much like Eisenhower and Reagan did. Washington must avoid fights that can’t be won and aren’t in our national interest, focusing instead on defending our vital interests: US security, prosperity and our freedoms here at home. With that shift, the United States will remain strong well into the future — without it, we face strategic and financial bankruptcy.
Daniel L. Davis, a retired US Army lieutenant colonel, is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.