“Older men declare war. But it is youth that must fight and die.” -Herbert Hoover
The terror attacks this past week in Paris have dramatically reignited the lingering debate over the best course of action for defeating ISIS (which has been embedded in sections of Iraq and Syria for over a year). While President Obama seems intent on "staying the course" regarding the current strategy (to provide military and intelligence support for allied groups already living in the region), many other politicians have begun calling for a much more direct confrontation with the so-called "Islamic State." The desire to avenge those killed in Paris (not to mention Beirut and Baghdad, which few seem to mention) is understandable. As is the frustration with the slow progress of the current strategy. But does one major successful attack on a European city truly justify another massive armed intervention in Iraq? This week's post will examine a few theories to try to understand why Americans seem so trigger happy in regards to the use of military force.
As much as we may not like to admit it, it should come as no surprise that there is a large cultural divide between the American population and its military. Those whose lives involve boring commutes, mundane work, and uneventful evenings will probably never truly understand what it is like to be in combat (or to sign away your rights for five years). On the other hand, those who have spent their entire adult life in the military can sometimes be vastly out of touch with America's rapidly changing society. Most people seem to either blindly glorify the military or blindly vilify it, while portrayals of veterans seem to either show them as infallible heroes or damaged victims of combat. Neither of these views are helpful.
In The New American Militarism, Andrew Bacevich discusses how this divide is causing serious damage to America's domestic and foreign policy. In conflicts since the beginning of the Cold War, the American public is increasingly becoming detached from the effects of warfare. In essence, the American public doesn't understand the true effects of war anymore because the population no longer feels the effects of war. When America entered the Second World War, for instance, the population experienced constant reminders of the war in daily life. The draft, rationing, and community war planning organizations all reminded people that war had real and measurable effects for everyone involved. Nearly every society in history has experienced warfare as a major, life changing event. Now, as a nation we no longer feel the effects of war in daily life. The invasion of Iraq commenced without any of these reminders (nobody was drafted, taxes remained the same). As a result, few people felt any real consequences of the Iraq war besides possibly knowing someone in the military. Since people don't see the consequences of war anymore, people might become quick to jump to a military solution for global problems.
The other issue Bacevich mentions is that the American public is quick to forget previous military failures, only taking as cannon the successes of previous military campaigns. The public tends to cling to reminders of past "stunning" military successes like the Second World War or the First Gulf War, thinking that marching an army into the enemy's capital will mean a clean and decisive military success. Why bother with long and boring diplomacy when smashing the enemy to bits works better? (In most cases it doesn't.) Fortunately, the harsh lessons of the Iraq war has helped change this mentality. However, many people believe that just because the United States has by far the most powerful and advanced military that this guarantees victory. As Bacevich argues, we assume that our dominant military position is a measure of our inherent greatness as a nation and an affirmation of our values (which we believe should, inherently, be imposed on the world). On a conventional battlefield this power would likely translate into success, but modern unconventional battles (and especially the fight against ISIS) require far more than just raw power.
This isn't to say that everyone in favor of large-scale military action is ignorant of the horrors of war or the appropriate applications of force in achieving policy goals. There are a number of senior military officials who support large scale operations to eliminate ISIS. These individuals understand the sacrifice inherent in warfare. America's military personnel typically aren't sadists. They realize that sometimes violence is needed in order to protect the innocent and bring about order. Nearly everyone recognizes that it will take violence to uproot ISIS from its strongholds, the question is whether the Americans, Arabs, Turks, Kurds, or some combination of these should be the ones to do it.
In this decision, the American public ought to be very careful and judicious about decisions to go to war. We are quick to "like" a picture of a soldier's homecoming or say "Thank you for your service" to someone in uniform on Veteran's day. But do we really understand what that service means? Months of training, years of living each day on the government's schedule, (not to mention the physical and psychological pain of death or injury sustained from combat) are all wrapped up in the soldier's experience. We go out of our way to show how much we love the soldiers, but then ignore their needs once they return. It would be disingenuous to engage in these (self-congratulatory) acts of Facebook patriotism while still voting every time to send these people into battle at every opportunity. If we presume to have the power to make a decision as complex and dangerous as going to war, shouldn't we at least be able to name the current leader of ISIS?
In all, the beauty of American democracy is that the average citizen gets to have some input (albeit indirectly) into decisions like sending its military into combat. But this is also its curse. When contemplating a decision like going to war, we ought to remember that war has real and profound effects on both the soldiers fighting it and the people caught in the middle. This isn't a decision to be made just because we are upset about our allies being attacked or because some have grown impatient regarding the current strategy. Instead, this decision should be made after careful considerations of all of the benefits and drawbacks of a large-scale sustained commitment. There are several different courses of action to take against ISIS, so we ought to investigate all of them before immediately jumping to the most interventionist. You wouldn't presume to tell a cardiologist the best treatment for coronary artery disease, so we shouldn't presume to know how to "solve" the situation in Syria and Iraq without learning about it first.
TL;DR: The American public hardly feels the true effects of war anymore, making it easy to send someone else to war when some have never had to personally endure it.