Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Tonight is one of those nights where I want to write about a number of topics but cannot really figure out which one to do a deep dive into, so I will post a thought from David Halberstam’s great book The Best and the Brightest. In it Halberstam write of an encounter in the White House between General Matthew Ridgway and Vice President Hubert Humphrey in February 1968 when President Lyndon Johnson was distracted by a phone call. They had been discussing the situation in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive regarding whether to increase or limit further involvement in the war. Halberstam wrote:
Ridgway was sitting talking with Johnson and Vice-President Humphrey when the phone rang. When Johnson picked it up, Ridgway turned to Humphrey and said there was one thing about the war which puzzled him. “What’s that?” Humphrey asked. “I have never known what the mission for General Westmoreland was,” Ridgway said. “That’s a good question,” said Humphrey. “Ask the President.”
“I have never known what the mission for General Westmoreland was…” Think about that for a moment. Matthew Ridgway was one of the great field commanders and thinkers ever produced by the United States Army. He opposed escalating military involvement in Vietnam when John F. Kennedy was President. He understood that military action must be connected to a coherent strategy and that the mission has to be understandable not just to the military but to the public. It also has to have the chance to succeed. The policy makers have to understand what is happening on the ground, understanding the history and culture of where they are committing troops. The also have to speed out the ends of the mission, that is what the desired end state, the way they intend to accomplish it, and the means, the assets; military, diplomatic, and economic needed to accomplish the mission which in an ideal world would support the desired end state.
That didn’t happen in Vietnam and it hasn’t happened in some 16 plus years of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Northern, Central, and Northeast Africa, not to mention Syria. Three administrations have failed the test of understanding what the mission was and what was needed to accomplish it. There appears to be no real idea how to fight these wars, and no appreciation of just how important that stable governments that have the trust of their people are even more important than all the troops we can put on the ground. We didn’t deal with that in Vietnam, and we haven’t done it in Afghanistan or Iraq. Instead we prop up unpopular and corrupt host governments and pretend that they represent what is going on in their country.
Now we have a President who is threatening other wars while a depleted military is still engaged fighting or supporting the efforts of various allies in the Middle East.
What is the mission? If we cannot answer that most basic question it matters not how many troops or how much of our national treasure we waste to accomplish goals for which we cannot describe the end state, remain committed to a coherent strategy to accomplish it, and yes provide the means to accomplish it. Playing whack a mole while insisting that we support the troops is not a strategy, it is not a plan, and it does not do anything but waste lives, prolong suffering, and weaken the nation to the point that when a real crisis comes that the government, the military, and the people will not be able to deal with it.
Honestly, it’s all basic stuff, but leaders have to be honest with themselves and the people. Presidents have to be looking out for more than what the polls say about them or how to please their base. That is something that we have struggled with for the past fifty years regardless of who was President or what party controlled Congress. We have had a great military which has done all that it has been asked to do, but the military is not the end of national power. Americans as a whole don’t understand or appreciate that fact.
We live in very dangerous times and someone has to start asking the hard questions, starting with “what is the mission?” If you cannot answer that coherently then nothing else matter because the military can win every battle and still lose the war.
So anyway, until tomorrow.