“This war differs from other wars, in this particular: We are not fighting armies but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.” William Tecumseh Sherman
Note: Please know, I have been to war, I have seen its devastation and heartache and I came back changed from the experience. I hate it. I served in Iraq with the Iraqis in support of our advisors to them. For me the war is personal, I left a huge part of my soul in that unfortunate nation.
That being said, despite being a progressive who hates war, I am also a realist. I am not one that finds any romance or glory in war, but I know that sometimes it becomes unavoidable. In the past few months I have written about the nature of war, the kind of war we are now engaged in with ISIL and some of the ethical and moral compromises that could easily be made in such a war.
Likewise I realize that we as Americans must take responsibility for the mess that the Bush administrated created in Iraq. We cannot hope to have any peace with justice, nor succeed in the current war against the Islamic State, unless we are honest about the lies that were told to get us into Iraq, and the horrible policy decisions after we succeeded in toppling Saddam Hussein that brought about the collapse of order, the insurgency and the Iraqi Civil War that brought Al Qaeda into Iraq, a country that they had not previously been welcome.
Thus what I write here is a continuation of those thoughts and I encourage you to look at those articles which can be found at the following links on this page:
The American war against the Islamic State is entering a more sustained mode. Air strikes are occurring daily, thousands of advisors have arrived, backed by Army aviation assets to protect American interests at Baghdad International Airport and the U.S. Embassy complex, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has again alluded to the possibly of American ground troops engaging ISIL at the side of Iraqi troops.
Whether most of want to admit it or not, and the latter is more descriptive of the vast bulk of Americans, we are at war. It is a war which we have been fighting for over thirteen years now. President Obama had hoped that our involvement in Iraq was at and end that that the Iraqis could handle their own affairs. But the hope was misplaced, and now this war has been extended indefinitely by the actions of the Islamic State and the announced intentions of President Obama to fight it. It will become much worse than people want to believe that it will, regardless of whether it is a long or a short war, and even a “short” war will likely extend into the next Presidential administration.
Americans have grown up for the past twenty years with hi-tech wars that with a few exceptions of terrorism inflicted on American civilians have been waged by a comparatively small professional military; a military that at any given time over the last 20 years has comprised less than one percent of the American population. As such war is a spectator sport for most Americans, we watch it on television, or on You Tube videos on the internet, but it is a distant thing, happening to others that doesn’t touch us too deeply because most of us think that we have no skin in the game. In fact people that bet on baseball have more skin in the game than most Americans do in the current war, but that will probably change.
Since I have written much about that military at its sacrifices in the war that began on September 11th 2001 I am not going to belabor that today. Instead I am going to go back to the nature of war, even wars that may be fought in self-defense and with just cause. It was General William Tecumseh Sherman who wrote:
“You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out…”
Chris Hedges wrote: “Violence is a disease, a disease that corrupts all who use it regardless of the cause,” and as Clausewitz noted of war’s nature, that it is: “a paradoxical trinity-composed of primordial violence, hatred and enmity…”
We try to use language to soften war; to make it more palatable, but to do so is an Orwellian charade that is deceptive and destructive to the soul. Dave Grossman, the army infantry officer who has spent his post military life writing about the psychology of war and killing wrote:
“Even the language of men at war is the full denial of the enormity of what they have done. Most solders do not “kill,” instead the enemy was knocked over, wasted, greased, taken out, and mopped up. The enemy is hosed, zapped, probed, and fired on. The enemy’s humanity is denied, and he becomes a strange beast called a Jap, Reb, Yank, dink, slant, or slope. Even the weapons of war receive benign names- Puff the Magic Dragon, Walleye, TOW, Fat Boy, Thin Man- and the killing weapon of the individual soldier becomes a piece or a hog, and a bullet becomes a round.”
Likewise Thucydides wrote:
“Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal supporter; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question incapacity to act on any….”
Such language gives those who have never been to war but cannot live without it to bring it on, but as Sherman noted: “It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.”
President Obama in his address to the nation, and the world on the eve of September 11th talked of a war against the Islamic State, using far more diplomatic, restrained and less warlike language than did Vice President Biden who said:
“As a nation we are united and when people harm Americans we don’t retreat, we don’t forget. We take care of those who are grieving and when that’s finished, they should know we will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice because hell is where they will reside. Hell is where they will reside.”
I commend the President for his humanity and desire to fight the Islamic State with a matter of restraint, and though our efforts have been limited to air strikes and reengaging with the Iraqi military to retrain it for the fight, it does appear that at least in Iraq the policy is showing signs of working. ISIL troops are having a hard time moving about the battlefield and their more conventional units are taking a beating from the air, while Iraqi and Kurdish forces are slowly beginning to have more success, the Iraqi military having just relieved the beleaguered garrison of the massive Baiji oil refinery complex.
This in a sense is part of ISIL’s conundrum, they desire to conquer territory and subjugate people. To do that they need to be able to use conventional military tactics and equipment, not simply using terrorist strikes and the element of surprise to overwhelm unsuspecting or demoralized Iraqi security forces. It is possible that they are now overextend and have reached what Clausewitz termed their “culminating point.” We will have to see if that is the case, and only time will tell.
U.S. Air Strike on ISIL Position
However, American restraint, particularly with a hawkish, newly elected Republican Congress, of whom many new members are highly militant Christians who will have no compunction in killing Moslems, be they good Moslems or terrorist thugs like ISIL or Al Qaeda; will last as long as the Islamic State is unable or unwilling to strike at American civilians in the American homeland, American interests in a country that is not in the war zone, or an American ship or military installation at home or abroad.
But once that happens, and it will eventually happen, the recent attacks in Canada serving as a foretaste of what will happen here, the pretense of restraint will drop, and what Vice Biden President said will become our goal, even if we do not officially say it. But once those restraints are passed, the war will get really messy. Ethicist and philosopher Michael Walzer wrote in his book Just and Unjust Wars:
“We don’t call war hell because it is fought without restraint. It is more nearly right to say that, when certain restraints are passed, the hellishness of war drives us to break with every remaining restraint in order to win. Here is the ultimate tyranny: those who resist aggression are forced to imitate, and perhaps even to exceed, the brutality of the aggressor.”
The problem with this war is that it has lasted so long already, if we consider American involvement in Iraq as going back to 2003. Long wars such as these are detrimental to the nations and peoples that fight them, as Sun Tzu wrote: “There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare.”
As such the longer we drag this war against the Islamic State and other similar groups out, the longer the war continues, the crueler it will become, the more damage it will do to our civil liberties, our economy, and even more importantly to the spirit of our nation. One can only look at the Patriot Act and related measures undertaken in the name of national security after 9-11-2001 and recall the words of President John F. Kennedy who said in respect to the epidemic of loyalty oaths and restrictions on civil liberties enacted in the 1950s:
“We have also seen a sharpening and refinement of abusive power. The legislative investigation, designed and often exercised for the achievement of high ends, has too frequently been used by the Nation and the States as a means for effecting the disgrace and degradation of private persons. Unscrupulous demagogues have used the power to investigate as tyrants of an earlier day used the bill of attainder.
The architects of fear have converted a wholesome law against conspiracy into an instrument for making association a crime. Pretending to fear government they have asked government to outlaw private protest. They glorify “togetherness” when it is theirs, and call it conspiracy when it is that of others.”
Thus the place that we now find ourselves is not good. On one hand by using restraint the war goes on and on, war without end, but if we embrace Sherman’s realism and admit that “War is cruelty. There’s no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over” is that we will imitate or exceed the brutality of the Islamic State. Either way, we lose something of ourselves. But as Abraham Lincoln said “There’s no honorable way to kill, no gentle way to destroy. There is nothing good in war. Except its ending.”
The young Union hero of Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg, Colonel Strong Vincent wrote his wife about how he believed the Union had to defeat the Confederacy. His words were much like Sherman’s and in dealing with ISIL I would hope that the American, Iraqi and coalition forces will take them to heart in combating ISIL: Vincent wrote:
“We must fight them more vindictively, or we shall be foiled at every step. We must desolate the country as we pass through it, and not leave a trace of a doubtful friend or foe behind us; make them believe that we are in earnest, terribly in earnest…”
Lawrence with Bedouin after capturing Aqaba
That is an uncomfortable thought and philosophy, it goes against the grain, it seems terribly brutal; but it is the only philosophy of war that the leaders and jihadists of the Islamic State understand. We may not yet understand it, but I think that in time we and the Iraqis will. However, the lead cannot be taken by us or even if we are “successful” in defeating ISIL, another group will be back and doing the same things; just as ISIL filled the vacuum left by the collapse of Al Qaeda Iraq in 2008.
Iraqi Soldiers after retaking Baiji
That is a danger that T.E. Lawrence advised his fellow British officers serving with the Bedouin during the Arab Revolt in 1917 and 1918. It is advice that we need to remember as we assist the Iraqis and Kurds in their fight. That is why this must be an Iraqi and Kurdish fight. When and if the Iraqis and Kurds embrace this philosophy of total war against ISIL, if they are willing to fight ISIL vindictively and desolate every ISIL stronghold, will they bring peace to their country. We can aid them in thee fight, but we cannot win this for them. Lawrence wrote:
“Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them. Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is.”
The Author with Bedouin on Syrian Border December 2007
My hope is that somehow, when this is war is done that there will be peace and reconciliation. I would like to see this in my lifetime, but it may take another generation or two that we will finally be able to establish peace by making those who are our enemies our friends. I hope for such a day, because I know that Chris Hedges is all too correct about the corrupting and devastating effect of violence on all that rely on it to achieve their goals and Sun Tzu’s wisdom in noting that prolonged warfare benefits anyone. As Major General Smedley Butler wrote:
“What is the cost of war? what is the bill? This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations.”
If you ask me I do not think that we or the people of Iraq can keep adding to that bill.