“War without end”, a great article by George Wilson

War Without End?

From the FORWARD OBSERVER column at CongressDaily, by George C Wilson, 15 June 2009.  Wilson is a journalist specializing in national security issues.  Posted with permission.

Is this Global War on Terror going to last forever? Has it already changed our nation from an historically defensive Athens to an offensive Sparta whose military looks everywhere for trouble and finds it? Who is calculating the cost-to-benefit ratio of sending Green Berets and other Special Operations troopers into remote corners of the world to assassinate suspected terrorists?

Ever since the Vietnam War, our presidents have ushered members of Congress into the grandstand where they can boo or cheer military decisions but not make them, despite what the Constitution says right there in Article 1, Section 8: “The Congress shall have power to provide for the common defense.”

While the lawmakers sit in the grandstand and watch his game plan unfold, President Obama is betting on Iraq pacifying itself rather than fighting a civil war; on Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new field commander for Afghanistan, and State Department specialists winning Afghan hearts and minds while our troopers and bombers neutralize the Taliban; on Pakistan’s shaky government keeping its nukes out of terrorists’ hands, and on Russia, China, North Korea and Iran not stirring up the kind of trouble our overextended military would have to deal with. Can any politician, any president, be lucky enough to win all those bets? I doubt it.

Even if Obama should be lucky enough to win all those bets, how much is it going to cost the taxpayers to finance the ongoing wars? Replace the military gear worn out in Iraq? Keep buying those overpriced super weapons the admirals and generals insist they need to fight Russia or China or both? Care for those hundreds of thousands of mentally and physically wounded troopers who fought in this open-ended Global War on Terror?

The short answer is to print more money. Besides adding to the giant deficit, such a step would fuel inflation and perhaps prompt China and other creditor nations to demand that the United States redeem the IOUs they are holding.

Unlike Congress, William Greider, a brilliant writer and analyst, has looked these and other dangers in the eye and told us what he sees around the corner in his new book, “Come Home, America.”

He dares to write in the book that America has indeed transformed itself from Athens to Sparta to the point that our unchecked militarism endangers us all. What follows is an excerpt from his chapter entitled “The Next War:”

“The U. S. military, despite its massive firepower and technological brilliance, has itself become the gravest threat to our peace and security. Our risks and vulnerabilities around the world are magnified and multiplied because the American military has shifted from providing national defense to taking the offensive worldwide, from being a vigilant defender to being an adventurous aggressor in search of enemies.

“The predicament this muscle-bound approach puts our country in is dangerous and new,” Greider warns. “Go looking for trouble around the world and you are likely to find it. The next war may be a fight that is provoked not by them but by us. The next war may already have started somewhere in the world, perhaps in a small, obscure country that we’ve never considered threatening.”

I agree with Greider that there is a new attack elephant in the American living room. The old watchdog that would bark if some stranger knocked at the door but only bite if he broke into the house has been retired. Obama and Defense Secretary Gates seem to have fallen in love with Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs and Marine special operators who do their deadly work in the shadows.

The top of our government was similarly infatuated with special operations during the Vietnam War until some of the operators got out of control and had to be reined in to discourage what was called “cowboyism” back then.

Senators and representatives have put their hands on only part of this new strategy. For example, Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain asked McChrystal at his confirmation hearing this important question: “How long do you expect the counter-insurgency effort in Afghanistan to last?”

McChrystal replied: “Sir, I can’t put a hard date on it. I believe that counter-insurgency takes time. I believe that we need to start making progress within about the next 18 to 24 months.” That’s a far cry from World War II’s bracing “Berlin by Christmas” or “unconditional surrender.” Progress will be in the eye of the beholder, as it was during the Vietnam War.

What Congress owes its stockholders, the American people, it seems to me are detailed, annual reports on this Global War on Terror. How inclusive is it? What cost-to-benefit ratios are being applied to proposed operations? Who in Congress would oversee them? Are we creating more problems for ourselves than we’re solving? Who is killing whom in the dark and why? Are we in a war without end?

Congress leaped into former President George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror before it really looked. But as a nation we have not yet reached the point of no return. There is still time for Congress to get out of the grandstand and dig into this seemingly open-ended war and tell the American people, in public hearings and through commissioned studies, where we are going, why and how much this trip into the unknown is going to cost.

About the author

George C. Wilson, former national defense correspondent for The Washington Post, is the author of six books on military affairs. He currently writes the Forward Observer column for CongressDaily.

Other articles by George Wilson

A few from his column, Forward Observer, in CongressDaily:

  1. Personnel Costs“, 28 April 2008 — Other aspects to the cost of our wars.
  2. Suicide Watch“, 12 May 2008
  3. Our Pricey Military“, 2 June 2008
  4. Torture Logic“, 16 June 2008
  5. Perils of Pakistan“, 17 November 2008 — “Will It Prove to be Obama’s Cambodia?”
  6. Don’t Americanize Afghanistan“, 9 February 2009
  7. Obama’s Iran Strategy“, 16 March 2009
  8. Man On A Mission“, 11 May 2009 — About Rep. Jones (R-N.C) mission to help our mentally wounded service men and women.
  9. Non-Exit Strategy“, 1 June 2009

Afterword

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9 thoughts on ““War without end”, a great article by George Wilson

  1. I haven’t read Greider’s new book, but it sounds like the perfect companion to Chalmers Johnson’s “Empire” Trilogy (Blowback, Sorrows of Empire, and Nemesis). Like Johnson, Greider is a meticulous researcher, and provides ample evidence for his observations.

    The big question is: who controls the military? Clearly our elected leaders are intimidated by it, or consider it too big to try to reign in. Is it the military itself – operating on laws of bureacratic inertia and careerism — that keeps expanding its scope? Is it the industries which supply it, and make huge profits from it, that keep the military growing? Is it the transnational commercial enterprises — the theoretical basis of “empire” — which require the means of global security?

    I wonder how Greider answers these questions. Johnson, in his three books, seems to feel that Defense and the CIA are pretty much beyond control by any civilian agency.

  2. I agree with the thesis; however, the author needs to brush up on his ancient history. Athens was an aggressor and fighting to protect an empire.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Great point! As Thucydides wrote in his “History of the Peloponnesian War” at the end of Chapter One of Book I:

    “The real cause I consider to be the one which was formally most kept out of sight. The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon, made war inevitable.”

  3. Wilson notes that Article 1, Section 8: “The Congress shall have power to provide for the common defense” seems to specify that Congress has the power to declare war, but in practice formal declarations of war have occurred only after a request by the President. After Vietnam, the War Powers Resolution (P.L. 93-148) was passed (Nov. 1973) by an over-ride of Richard Nixon’s veto, limiting the ability of the POTUS to make war without Congressional approval. The law is controversial, has been treated as unconstitutional by Presidents since its passage, and has been violated many times without much attention in the media.

    Since Harry Truman waged war in Korea under U.N. resolution, without the approval of Congress, the power of the Executive branch to wage war has increased virtually unchecked, with a corresponding dilution of Congressional oversight and control of the process. The checks-and-balances put in place by the Founders are seriously out of balance. The House and Senate have acted as rubber stamps for Bush and now Obama, in both Iraq and Afganistan. This is failure of Congressional leadership of the highest order.

    Whatever reasons we had for being in Afghanistan and Iraq are now largely irrlevant in my view; the nation is effectively bankrupt and cannot afford to have troops in these or most of the 100 other nations abroad where our forces are stationed.

    As Lind has noted, we need to return to a defensive grand strategy, one that projects U.S. force sparingly and only in the most critical circumstances.

    General Petraeus himself said, “Tell me where this ends,” of the conflict in Iraq. The same could be said of Afghanistan. We have ill-defined strategic goals in both places, what are doing there?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: For more about the need for a defensive grand strategy — and a brief outline of such — see How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part II (14 June 2008).

  4. There is a viable – not good, not benign, not praiseworthy, but feasible – model for a state to serve as sort of a hired gun on behalf of other states.

    The Italian condottieri states, such as Urbino and Ferrara and pre-Frederick the Great Prussia illustrate such states.

    Note that such states were not the great powers of their time. These states were agents, not principals.

    For that matter, also note that neither Athens nor Sparta was the great power of its time. That was Persia.

    So if the United States is going to keep up its gung-ho military, wham-bam executive shtick, it is going to have to downsize pretty extensively.

  5. In January of 1991, Don Bauder, then a financial writer for the San Diego Union Tribune posted an article with the interesting opener “From the author who in 1987 predicted the collapse of the Communist economic system and the Soviet Union …”, he cited author James Dale Davidson and co-author William Rees-Mogg writing in the book “Blood in the Streets”. The book, though written from the viewpoint of investing in a fast changing geopolitical world environment, revealed a fascinating walk though the Pax Britania experience of the 18th and 19th centuries. (Forget about the Roman epoch. In matters of scale, it is anemic.) The little paperback is one of those books that follow one around in life from place to place and end up on the bookshelf of wherever “Here” is at the moment. A touchstone if you will, in the array of ones conceptual education experiences.

    If one can extract and set aside the names of the various national players in the original text, repopulating that cast of characters with today’s players is instructive. The premise of the narrative is contained in this quote from chapter one and in my mind is exemplary of the many intuitive universal truths explored within.

    “As little as we like to face it, the economies of world still rest upon the primitive algebra of force. Not because economic transactions themselves are based upon force. Far from it. They are peaceful in character. But they can only proceed where there is peace ‘’.

    The ability (inability) of a polity to engage with a peaceful environment through the projection of hegemony or acceptance of a prevailing hegemonic condition is the fulcrum on upon which their’ economic well being hangs. Humans are competitive animals. Each generation interprets the life landscape on which they must function and will push the margins of behavior. The nominal limits of behavior are set by political interests (laws). The absolute behavioral limits are set by the laws of physics in the form of force.

    If you should take time to read the book, enjoy, but try not to laugh too loud nor cry too long.

  6. I wonder how much the wars overseas cost , compared with the cost of keeping the troops at home / overseas on training . + cost: combat casualties , local contractors , armaments used , land transport , sand damage . – cost : cheaper fuel ,tent accomodation , not having to test/dispose of practice/obsolete armaments at home , welfare payments to unemployed .
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    Fabius Maximus replies: A war costs a multiple of the cost of the armed forces in peace. Far higher cost for the people (e.g., lifetime disability pay — Vietnam is still an expensive war for us), far high expense for consumables, and — most especially — war burns through the life of equipment at a rapid rate. Esp since much of our equiptment (e.g., aviation) will be replaced with craft almost 10x more expensive.

  7. In the past, America has had its share of careerist military officers, men who put advancement and “going along to get along” ahead of principle and the national interest…men whom the late Colonel David Hackworth would have called “perfumed princes.” However, we have also been fortunate to have the other kind also, senior officers willing to risk their careers and reputations in order to inform policymakers and the public of disguided efforts, missions gone wrong, or the like.

    Where are these officers today, serving men of flag or general officer rank, willing to call into question our policies even at the cost of their careers and pensions?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: One possibility is that some of those officers left the armed forces early in their career, as part of the exodus described in An Army near the Breaking Point – studies & reports, in section 2 “Articles about the Army’s ability to attract and retain good people”.

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