By way of concluding this brief discussion on military lessons learned from the last two decades of conflict, I will limit myself to three main points, followed by a call to action. These points will have to do with the limits of U.S. power, the responsibilities of military and national leadership, and (again, with a personal note) the human costs of any war.
U.S. Power, Limited
Some of the reasons for our precipitous involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan may be traced to a prevailing idea, after the fall of the Soviet Union, of America as a sole superpower that could do what it liked. In this view, America was an empire that encompassed the entire world. It had the right and responsibility to police the globe, in effect confirming gains that were already falling into place, since the triumphs of American-style capitalism and democracy were inevitable. The attacks of 9/11 were a galling interruption in this victory march, one that, given our might, we could easily crush and consign to the past along with other failed, upstart uprisings. We now know, and must not forget, that our power is more limited than it has appeared. This is a lesson that should have been learned from Vietnam, and perhaps was, but was unlearned after the Gulf War and some other arguably successful if limited American military interventions. Remaking a country based mostly on the application of military force, with scant cultural and political understanding on our part, is generally a recipe for defeat.
An appreciation of this fact of limitation among Americans and military officers especially goes against the enterprising “can do” spirit that still permeates our culture. A “no can do” corrective is needed. To put it another way, a former battalion commander of mine would sometimes curb the enthusiasm of his eager subordinates by saying, in effect, that we were Marines and could do anything, but that we needed to ask what this latest proposal would cost in terms of other areas neglected, of troop burn out and the expenditure of resources. If it had been wartime and not peacetime training in Camp Lejeune, he might have asked about the cost in dead, wounded, and traumatized Marines, in wrecked buildings and decimated local families. In answer to the call to action, perhaps we can, but ought we? This ought invites an ethical question as well. The senior military and national leadership especially must ask what kinds of acts we will be drawn into in case of war, or of a particular war willingly entered upon. It might even be asked at what point a struggle will descend into barbarism, since nearly all wars seem to reach this point if they go on for long enough. Recalling his service as a mathematician for the RAF in World War II, Freeman Dyson says that he and his fellows retreated from one ethical position to another until it seemed they had no ethical position left. This is what happens, in some cases more quickly than others, but deferring this moral “culminating point” (to borrow some doctrinal terminology) should be one of the considerations entering into a struggle. Ordering people to fight in such a struggle can only be justified as a well thought-out, assiduously prepared last resort, and not treated as a great adventure or noble cause, the sheer righteousness of which silences all doubt.
The pride of America in its armed forces, and of military members in their own services’ capabilities, must not translate into an eagerness for conflict or a diminishment of its difficulties. Americans are not wrong to think that some of the best of every generation enter the armed forces for noble and idealistic reasons. It is also the case that many of the best of these men and women find themselves at the tip of the spear, in combat with an enemy. The fact is that the personal qualities of these individuals are often exploited or expended in the service of a conflict that might have been avoided or curtailed. War may bring out the best in some, but all too often it ends up destroying them. As Thomas Hobbes wrote, the two cardinal virtues in war are force and fraud.
I was reminded that it is often the best who pay the highest price by the recent death of Major Ian Fishback. Major Fishback was a special forces officer who exposed the lack of guidance and encouragement of brutal methods by military personnel conducting interrogations. His principled stand likely helped to drive him out of the Army, and the moral injury that resulted from his rejection by the institution which he loved almost certainly contributed to his death following a mental breakdown. In war, it is the sensitive and intelligent who often suffer most; the losses are highest among those whom the nation and world can least afford to do without, whose intact survival is most needed if the human species is to advance and to survive. The lesson must not be forgotten that in war it is our humanity we risk as much as our lives.