“You just have not seen enough people bleed to death”

Summary:  There is a belief among some combat veterans that anti-war advocates “just have not seen enough people bleed to death”. They know that rapid intervention by America’s most highly trained and experienced warriors could stifle Qadaafi’s plans to unleash terror and death on the pro-democracy forces. Why would we stand on the sidelines and watch thousands of innocent civilians bleed to death?  Third in a series about Libya; links to other chapters and more information are at the end.


We can help Libya.  We have the men and tools.  A no-fly zone and insertion of Special Forces are the first steps, perhaps creating pressure for more decisive action (see Haddick’s analysis).  Before we go down that road, let’s ask why should we use military force to help overthrow the Libyan government (which is not just Qadaafi)?  On the other hand, perhaps only those who’ve fought can speak to these issues.

“You just have not seen enough people bleed to death.”

It’s an emotionally compelling response.  It claims the moral high ground, seeking to preserve life and end tyranny.  It claims authority through the speaker’s military experience, since we believe that Yoda was wrong and wars do make us great.  If said loudly and firmly to a crowd it evokes applause (to American audiences; probably not so much in Europe or Asia).

Despite its often “war-hardened” advocates, humanitarian interventionism embodies a romantic or emotional worldview.  It is the opposite of realpolitik, which requires the asking of hard questions about costs, risks, and possible undesired results.   And the simple but vital question:  after we depose Qadaafi, then what?   American aid played a vital role in chasing the USSR out of Afghanistan, and clearing the path for the Taliban.

Policymakers have mistaken a tactic for a strategy in this debate. Before an NFZ or any other military options are considered, the Obama administration must articulate what the U.S. strategy toward Libya is. Then, we can debate the costs and consequences of what it will take to achieve it.
— “No Go“, Mark Zenko (Council on Foreign Relations), Foreign Policy, 4 March 2011

SecDef Gates told the students at West Point (25 February 2011) about our failure to predict crises:

… when it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right, from the Mayaguez to Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq, and more – we had no idea a year before any of these missions that we would be so engaged.

He forgot to mention the dismal result of these interventions — their low success rate and the high costs.

The rational basis for the humanitarian militarism lies in the theories of visionaries like Thomas Barnett (see posts below) and JL Holzgrefe.  In Humanitarian intervention: ethical, legal and political dilemmas (2003) Holzgrefe defined it as:

“the use of force across state borders by a state (or group of states) aimed at preventing or ending widespread and grave violations of the fundamental human rights of individuals other than its own citizens without the permission of the state within whose territory force is applied .”

It’s the natural evolution of US power.  Our trillion dollar/year military-intel apparatus needed a new purpose after the Soviet Union collapsed.  With no large enemy on the horizon, Barnett’s vision gave a new lease on life — the US as a combination of global police and global parent.  We bring democracy and civilization to the dark corners of the world.  We started with Afghanistan and Iraq, but so much remains to be done.

On examination, even this is only faux-realism.   The hard questions remain unanswered, and usually unasked.

  • Do we have the wisdom to intervene, usually uninvited, in foreign lands?  In the past our area experts usually have been ignored in favor of the loud and confident ideologues (from the anticommunist hawks in the Vietnam era to the neo-cons in the Bush-Af-Pak era).
  • Can we charge the grateful world for this service?  Or do we provide this service only until China & OPEC tire of lending us the money to provide it?
  • Will our children, inheriting the bankrupt husk of America, cheer or jeer at us?

Perhaps we continue picking fights around the world until we lose one; perhaps until we lose a big one.  Or we might, per Paul Kennedy (see Wikipedia), continue until we go broke.  That would end our ability to play global hegemon.  Then will we have spilled enough blood.  Ours and theirs.

Perhaps we all have not yet seen enough people bleed to death.  That day will come, eventually.  Then we might resume resume building global institutions to preserve peace.  The work we started after WWI, then abandoned.  Then we resumed after WWII, then abandoned after the fall of the USSR.  It might take generations to see even partial success.

In its light, we must think and act not only for the moment but for our time. I am reminded of the story of the great French Marshal Lyautey, who once asked his gardener to plant a tree. The gardener objected that the tree was slow-growing and would not reach maturity for a hundred years. The Marshal replied, “In that case, there is no time to lose, plant it this afternoon.”
— President Kennedy, speech at U California at Berkeley, 23 March 1962

A reminder from the past about intervening (even with pure motives)

Those years would show in the American system how when a question of the use of force arouse in government, the advocates of force were always better organized, seemed more numerous and seemed to have both logic and fear on their side …

Now as Johnson weighed the advice he was getting on Vietnam, it was the boys who were most skeptical, and the men who were most sure and confident and hawkish and who had Johnson’s respect.  hearing that one member of his Administration was becoming a dove on Vietnam, Johnson said, “Hell, he has to squat to piss.”  The men had, after all, done things in their lifetimes, and they had the respect of other men.  Doubt itself, he thought, was an almost feminine quality, doubts were for women …

— From David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest

For more information (will be updated)

  1. For an excellent summary of the generic case for non-intervention, see the conclusion (“Unexamined Heads”) of the latest TomDispatch by Tom Engelhardt.
  2. Best analysis I’ve seen of our options in Libya:  “The Jawbreaker Option“, Robert Haddick (Managing Editor of the Small Wars Journal), Foreign Policy, 4 March 2011 — “Forget no-fly zones; if Obama really wants to be rid of Qaddafi, it means changing the balance of power on the ground.”
  3. The Law and Politics of US Intervention in Libya“, Kenneth Anderson (Prof of Law, American U), The Volokh Conspiracy, 7 March 2011
  4. Not So Fast – Before the U.S. intervenes in Libya, we must understand why the Arab world is not asking for our help“, Anne Applebaum (Slate and WaPo columnist), 7 March 2011

Other posts about the crisis in Libya

  1. Libya’s people need uninvited infidel foreigners to save them!, 1 March 2011
  2. About attacking Libya – let’s give this more thought than we did Afghanistan and Iraq, 6 March 2011

Posts about the theories of Thomas Barnett:

  1. Lessons Learned from the American Expedition to Iraq, 29 December 2005
  2. The Myth of Grand Strategy, 31 January 2006
  3. Visionaries point the way to success in the age of 4GW, 16 April 2008
  4. Another brilliant metaphor by Tom Barnett, helping us to more clearly see our changing world, 23 August 2008
  5. What Tom Barnett should have told Congress about America’s 21st century Navy, 3 April 2009



1 thought on ““You just have not seen enough people bleed to death””

  1. "Why the Arab world is not asking for our help", update

    Not So Fast – Before the U.S. intervenes in Libya, we must understand why the Arab world is not asking for our help“, Anne Applebaum (Slate and WaPo columnist), 7 March 2011

    Note that Applebaum does not even discuss if we should intervene when nobody asks for our help. Such thoughts would put her outside the range of serious American geopolitical experts, which range from uber-hawks to cautious hawks.

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