Humble Executive. Literary Artist. Altruistic Libertarian.
War and Rumors of War
A Short History of Unprincipled Violence
No one is foolish enough to choose war instead of peace—in peace sons bury fathers, but in war fathers bury sons.
For inexplicable reasons, we generally accept political violence as normal, and hold political states to moral standards that would appall a civilized mind if those same standards were applied to personal relationships. Musil states the case as follows:
The naïve moral demands that one not break contracts, not lie, not covet one’s neighbor’s goods, and not kill, do not yet prevail in relations among states; their place is taken by the single principle of pursuing one’s own advantage, which is realized through force, cunning, and businessmen’s tactics in applying pressure. As a result, every state is naturally recognized as criminal by the inhabitants of other states, but thanks to relationships that would merit sociological analysis, it appears to its own inhabitants as the embodiment of their honor and moral maturity.
Robert Musil, Precision and Soul
The Altruistic Libertarian would apply the same principle regarding violence, and the threat of violence, to nation states. This means using violence only in direct defense of the nation's citizens, and only against those who initiate the threat. Failure to do so promises a future as bloody and destructive as the recent past.
The United States, for all of its political rhetoric and vocal championship of democratic values, has repeatedly behaved in an unprincipled manner, visiting violence, pain and destruction on millions of the world’s citizens, often with questionable judgment.
While the United States can hardly be compared to the brutal regimes of Hitler, Stalin or Mao, as citizens we can demand an accounting of our nation's political action, one that meets our moral standards, given that it is our wealth (though taxes) and our young men and women who fight and kill and die on behalf of the state. We should only support such expenditure, or the deployment of our honorable armed forces into harms way, for the right reasons. As a nation, we should never engage in unprincipled conflicts that result in death of anybody, and the destruction someone else’s home.
The First Gulf War
As a recent example of how such principles might be applied, consider the First Gulf War. While it may be possible to criticize the United States and their conduct in the war, on the surface it appears that the actions taken by the US were basically justified, for the following reasons:
It could be argued that the second gulf war resulted from the failure to follow through with the first one. In response, I would argue that the second gulf war was entirely unjustified, given the unilateral behavior of the US, and the lack of threat that Iraq posed to the world community.
In contrast to the First Gulf War, several international conflicts can be criticized for violating the basic political principles advocated by the Altruistic Libertarian, beginning at the turn of the 20th century.
In 1898, the US battleship Maine exploded in Havana harbor. War had been brewing for some time between the US and Spain, mostly due to the insurrection in Cuba. When the sinking of the Maine was blamed on the Spaniards (highly unlikely, as it turns out – most likely an accident caused the destruction) the US declared war against Spain, and within a matter of weeks defeated that small European country. The war didn’t last very long, nor were than many people killed on either side. But the implications of that conflict changed the larger course of history, beginning in the Philippines.
After the US Navy defeated the Spanish in Manila, they proceeded to take military control of the islands with the enthusiastic help from Filipino guerillas – men who had been fighting Spanish rule. Contrary to democratic principles, the Americans decided to take the place of the Spanish as foreign rulers. The Filipinos understandably took exception, and a new war erupted, one that would last for several years and cost the Filipinos over 34,000 killed in direct combat, with several hundred thousand civilian casualties, mostly due to hunger and disease. This is what Mark Twain had to say about it at the time:
There is the case of the Philippines. I have tried hard, and yet I cannot for the life of me comprehend how we got into that mess. Perhaps we could not have avoided it—perhaps it was inevitable that we should come to be fighting the natives of those islands—but I cannot understand it, and have never been able to get at the bottom of the origin of our antagonism to the natives. I thought we should act as their protector—not try to get them under our heel. We were to relieve them from Spanish tyranny to enable them to set up a government of their own, and we were to stand by and see that it got a fair trial. It was not to be a government according to our ideas, but a government that represented the feeling of the majority of the Filipinos, a government according to Filipino ideas. That would have been a worthy mission for the United States. But now—why, we have got into a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater. I'm sure I wish I could see what we were getting out of it, and all it means to us as a nation.
It was a terrible mess, and led to horrible actions on the part of American soldiers. The following statements were made in letters to home (official investigations never took place. In fact, any soldier who didn’t recant such statements made in published private letters was court-martialed):
While peace in the Philippines was made official in 1902, some three years after the war began, hostilities continued until 1913. In the end, the US had their first Asian colonial possession, the first expansion of a new imperialist power, a political practice that continues to this day. American occupation of the Philippines would have historic consequences, when it sparked Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor a few decades later.
World War I
Unlike World War II, it’s very difficult to understand why the US became involved in a European conflict in 1917. Historians list the following five reasons:
None of these reasons seem compelling. The US was in no danger from Germany or Austria. Atrocities occur around the world that go unpunished. Americans sailing in war zones put their own lives in danger. Business interests should never justify bloodshed.
The war cost Americans 116,000 dead and 204,000 wounded. It’s impossible to predict how things might have changed had America not been involved, but it couldn’t have been much worse: the Treaty of Versailles is widely seen as the impetus for Germany’s resurgence and foundation for World War II. Perhaps a different ending to WWI would have prevented the rise of National Socialism some fifteen years later.
World War II
Of all American conflicts, this one seems clearly justified. The safety and security of American citizens was clearly at stake, as were the sovereign boundaries. Not everyone understood this at the time of Pearl Harbor, but in hindsight, America had no choice but to defend itself against two dominating threats: Hitler’s National Socialism and Stalin’s communist state.
Both the fascists and communists would destroy America as we know it. The future of liberal democracy was at stake.
Things could have turned out differently. The turning point of the war in the east (Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union) was the battle of Stalingrad. Stalin was able to reinforce Stalingrad with ten fresh divisions from Siberia, a move that probably won the battle for the Soviets. Those divisions were in place to confront a Japanese invasion, but could be safely redeployed after a Russian agent in Tokyo learned that the Japanese would not invade Siberia, but instead, would attack the English and Americans instead. This decision was probably influenced by a battle between the Japanese and the Soviets that took place on the Manchurian/Soviet border in the late 30’s. The Japanese had invaded Manchuria in 1933, and China proper in 1937, and clearly posed a threat to the Soviet’s Siberia. During the battle along the Manchurian border, superior Soviet tanks decisively defeated Japanese armor. The decision by the Japanese to attack the British colonies of Hong Kong and Singapore, invade Southeast Asia, and launch a surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, resulted in two major implications for the war in Europe: one, the Soviets would not have to fight on two fronts, allowing them to ultimately defeat Germany in the east, and two, the United States was motivated to enter the war on the side of the allies. This would trigger the ultimate defeat of Germany, as Hitler now had to fight on two fronts, and face the industrial might of America.
Germany’s defeat left Europe in shambles and Stalin ruling over a massive territory in Europe and Asia, with future wars to be fought (Korea, Vietnam) as an aftermath to the Soviet victory. Untold millions suffered and died under Stalin, and large populations held in totalitarian terror for almost fifty years after the war. Even so, it’s hard to consider what a German victory in Europe would have meant for the world. The Nazis would have been as a brutal to the peoples of Eastern Europe and Soviet Asia as Stalin. Who knows what America’s fate would have been after facing a Europe dominated by Hitler.
World War II was bad business for everyone involved. So much senseless death and destruction. But ultimately a price that had to be paid.
Korea had been occupied by Japan since 1910, and after the Second World War, the Soviet Union occupied the peninsula north of the 38th parallel and the US south of it. A similar arrangement was made in the historically unified state of Vietnam, the Chinese occupying north of the 17th parallel, while the allies to the south.
In 1950, North Korea invaded the south, armed with Soviet T-34 tanks, something the South Koreans were unprepared to stop. The United Nations intervened on behalf of South Korea, and international forces landed in Pusan before the North completely overwhelmed the South. After leading a daring amphibious landing at Inchon north of Seoul, the UN forces, commanded by General McArthur, quickly pushed the invading forces above the 38th parallel.
Up to this point, the actions of the US seemed totally justified: the initial invasion by the North Koreans violated the treaty that ended the war, and the US acted in concert with the UN in resisting the incursion. Re-establishing the status quo had been accomplished with the Inchon landings, and things could have ended there.
But it didn't. With the tacit support of the US President, and despite explicit demands from China to stop, MacArthur continued to advance to the north, making public threats against China. He believed the war should end with his occupation of Peking. He even advocated, prior to his being replaced, the use of nuclear weapons against China, and potentially the Soviet Union, if they entered the Korean peninsula. Unsurprisingly, once UN forces advanced deep within North Korea, within five miles of the Yalu river and the Chinese border, Chinese soldiers crossed into Korea. The Chinese succeeded in pushing the UN forces back to near the 38th parallel, and the war raged in that vicinity for the next two years, before a cease-fire was arranged. Had MacArthur remained near the 38th parallel, China would not have entered the war, and the conflict would have remained a mere blip in history, and cost far fewer than the 60,000 or so Americans that died, and the millions of Chinese and Koreans.
While reasonable arguments can be made for US involvement in Europe and the Pacific during World War II, and even the Korean War (especially as it included the sanction of the UN, and contribution from other UN members) the one conflict that can be considered unjustifiable was Vietnam. The entire episode in history is one long unnecessary tragedy.
After World War II, the French wished to re-establish their pre-war colony in Vietnam. The Viet Minh (the armed Vietnamese who fought against the French) resisted. During the war, and shortly thereafter, the US was sympathetic to Ho Chi Minh (the Vietnamese leader) in the man’s quest for independence, as it was post-war policy to generally support the decolonization of the region. However, this changed when Mao gained power in China in 1949, and Ho Chi Minh’s communist affiliations made his ascension to power problematical. The West, led by the uniquely powerful America, found itself confronted by aggressive communism everywhere. To resist that threat, the US provided material support to the French in Indo-China; mostly trucks and ammunition and a few advisors in the 50’s, along with financial aid. French rule ended on the battlefield in 1954, when they suffered a major defeat at Dien Bien Phu. The UN-negotiated peace agreement stipulated that north and south would be re-united with free elections to be held in 1956.
Up to this point, US policy was understandable, given what was known at the time. However, their failure to support the UN resolution, and respect the coming elections, and instead, prop up the artificial and unhistorical ‘Republic of South Vietnam,’ borders on the criminal.
The US was worried that Vietnam would become a communist Chinese puppet, without understanding that Vietnam won its independence from China a thousand years before, and would never submit to Chinese rule. Had the elections taken place, Ho Chi Minh would likely have been elected leader, and the country would have been nominally communist. However, unlike North Korea, Vietnam would have quickly joined the world community and contributed as a free nation, as has since happened since the war ended in 1975. The Americans responsible for the decision to undermine the UN-sponsored elections could have been charged with an international crime, if such courts actually existed.
Americans themselves should look back at this time in history and make an accounting: who was to blame? what could be said in their defense? what political principles were employed? what international law did they violate, if any? Once this case is properly examined, it should be a regular part of American history curriculum taught across the country, with the notion to never make such a mistake again.
Anyway, after the establishment of the Republic of South Vietnam, one international crime led necessarily to another, as a new rebel force emerged in the south (the Viet Cong) and North Vietnam fought to make their nation whole. They were supported in this endeavor by both China and the Soviet Union, with arms, money and political support. The US provided South Vietnam with money, guns, training, and advisors.
The next major phase began in 1964, when two US Warships sailed provocatively close to North Vietnamese waters, prompting a response from the Vietnamese. Reportedly, gunboats were dispatched to intercept the US ships, the Maddox and the Turner Joy. The USS Turner Joy and the USS Maddox were modern American warships, well-armored and armed with significant firepower, ships capable of sailing across the Pacific. They were facing speedboats armed with machineguns. These warships sailed in North Vietnamese waters, claimed to have been fired upon by enemy vessels (no damage was given or taken, and no casualties reported on either side).
Ironically, it’s highly unlikely an actual battle took place in Tonkin Gulf. President Johnson at the time said something like, “For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there.” He was also reported to have said, “Hell, those dumb, stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish!”
Despite the nebulousness of this encounter, Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution (unanimously in the House, two dissenting votes in the Senate). This resolution allowed the President to deploy US combat troops overseas without declaring war. Until that moment, only Congress could declare war, and troops could only be sent into battle after such a declaration.
Without declaring war, and under the powers vested in him by the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, in 1965, the president sent the first of hundreds of thousands of Americans to fight in Vietnam. At this point, an unbiased international court might find President Johnson guilty of war crimes for actually deploying the combat units to Vietnam without cause or justification.
Just a few years later, after US officials expressed time and again how much progress had been made against the insurgents, announcing once again an impending victory, the Viet Cong launched a full scale attack during the holiday of Tet in 1968. For the first time, they battled strength against strength, and the Americans finished with an overwhelming tactical victory. But in that victory they recognized defeat: the Vietnamese people were never going to allow the Americans to remain in control of their country, if it took another thousand years of war. Tet was the beginning of the end.
The Vietnam War was a human catastrophe of historic proportions, mechanized evil on a hideous scale. The best estimates calculated 791,000-1,141,000 war-related deaths in Vietnam alone, with another 200,000 to 300,000 Cambodians killed. The Laotians lost 35,000 or so. And of course over 58,000 Americans lost their lives. We remember them because their names are carved in a wall: what we really need is a wall with the names of every Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian victim of the war. Perhaps such a memorial would make the politicians think twice before entering another foreign war. Or better yet, international war trials bringing the prominent American decision makers to justice: indiscriminate terror bombing; illegal invasions in Cambodia and Laos; documented massacres of innocent civilians; interference in foreign political processes. Johnson, Nixon, McNamara, among others, might be indicted as war criminals. Ordering honorable men and women in the armed forces into impossible situations, arming them with weapons of unbelievable destructive powers, asking them to fight, die and kill for no good reason – all crimes.
Many Americans resisted the war, to their credit. After Muhammad Ali was drafted, he was reported as saying something like: “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.” Further, he added, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”
Before the US entered the war, nobody in Vietnam posed a threat to anyone in this country, and the nation of Vietnam never threatened the US. There was never any justification to put Americans in harm’s way in Vietnam, or to apply such massive destructive force against its land and people.
The attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11 were horrific, and beyond rational comprehension. But consider this: the Taliban didn’t participate, fund or support the attacks in any way: Al Qaida was entirely responsible. Saudis and Yeminis – not Afghanis, took control of those planes. Yet the US waged war against the Taliban, killed countless Afghanis in the process, and fostered a regime change in Afghanistan. Over 4,000 Americans have died in the conflict over the past sixteen years, fighting an enemy that poses no threat to the United States.
The traditional form of Islam practiced by the Taliban is culturally medieval, primitive to an alarming degree, and treats women as little more than household slaves. After the Soviets left the country in 1989 (they invaded the country in 1979), the Taliban won most of the country in the ensuing civil war about four years later. When they came to power, the Taliban removed all girls from school, and women as teachers, halting most formal education. They executed drug traffickers, essentially ending the drug trade within their political boundaries. In other words, Taliban culture could hardly differ more from modern American civilization. The same primitiveness, however, ensures they will never, as a people or as a nation, threaten the US. That being the case, it is no business of US citizens how they live, and their radical cultural differences do not justify violent intervention to force more modern ways upon them.
As a final proof of America’s unprincipled and unnecessary intrusion into Afghanistan, when it was discovered that Pakistan was harboring Bin Laden, the US didn’t declare war against that country, but instead, found the means to extract Bin Laden without killing tens of thousands of Pakistanis. The same surgical intrusion could have been applied to Afghanistan, allowing US military personal to leave the country more than a decade ago.
On the other hand, unlike Vietnam, the full story in Afghanistan has yet to be written. It’s possible—though unlikely—that sometime in the future, when more information is available and a decent historical perspective developed, reasonable justification will be established for the war in Afghanistan. Until then, we will consider the multi-decade war a bloody mistake.
The Second Gulf War
Unlike the initial Gulf War, the second one seems unjustified on several grounds:
On March 20, 2003, a coalition of countries, principally the United States and Great Britain, invaded Iraq, contending that the Iraqi government, headed by Saddam Hussein, had developed or was in the process of developing chemical weapons and weapons of mass destruction. Hussein's actions, if true, were in violation of United Nations directives, resulting from Iraq's defeat in the original Gulf War.
The Second Gulf War lasted just three weeks and ended with Saddam Hussein's overthrow. However, since April 2003, United States forces, as well as troops from other countries, have struggled to end violent resistance in the nation. Hundreds of thousands of Americans…have served in the Second Gulf War. Casualty numbers rise daily, with more than four thousand Americans perishing in the war itself and in the subsequent occupation of Iraq through July 2008….President George Bush has stated that U.S. forces will remain in Iraq to help the new government draft a constitution and to fight terrorism.
In 2007, President Bush sent an additional forty thousand American troops to Iraq. Known as the "surge," these forces succeeded in reducing the violence in Iraq. Proving especially helpful to coalition forces in 2007 and 2008 was the rejection by many Iraqi warlords of the terrorists and other insurgents. These warlords have been actively assisting the United States against the insurgents, when previously they had been warring against the Americans and their allies.
Unlike the first Gulf War, many Americans have actively opposed the United States' invasion and continued occupation of Iraq in the Second Gulf War. These Americans have been especially upset by revelations that Saddam Hussein had no and was not in the process of developing chemical weapons or weapons of mass destruction. Despite initial claims by the United States government, there also has been no concrete evidence discovered linking Hussein to terrorists. Supporters of the invasion quickly counter with the fact that Hussein prohibited United Nations inspectors from entering Iraq to see if the nation was producing weapons of mass destruction or chemical weapons. By refusing to allow the inspectors into the nation, the supporters claim that Hussein sealed his own fate.
Had Iraq developed weapons of mass destruction, and threatened to deploy them, perhaps another invasion could be justified. The presence of Israel, the increase in Islamic-based terrorism, and the impact of the oil economy render every political consideration in the region problematic. Good solutions may not exist, but certainly there are options better than others. Attempting to militarily force a peaceful resolution in Iraq doesn’t appear to be one of them.
The Japanese occupied Korea in 1910, invaded Manchuria in 1933, and China in 1937. During the war with Japan, China fielded two armies - one under the then legitimate KMT led by Chiang Kai-Shek, and the other by the communist Mao Tse-Tung.
When the war ended in 1945, the Japanese still occupied Korea. The Soviets took the Japanese surrender north of the 38th parallel, and the allies south. Thus the original split between North and South Korea. After the Japanese surrender, the US occupied Japan, Okinawa, and provided area defense for the entire region. This was initially to ensure that Japan didn’t re-emerge as a local imperialist threat. In 1949, the communists defeated the KMT and forced them to flee to Taiwan. In 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea using Soviet T-34 tanks. The South Koreans had no way to stop the superior armor, and almost lost, before McArthur pulled off the brilliant Inchon landings, and then with UN support, pushed the North Koreans north of the 38th parallel.
The original justification for American military power to be stationed in the west Pacific was to provide military protection against a potentially resurgent Japan. The next justification was to contain global communism, in the form of Maoist China and Stalin’s Soviet Union. This entailed patrolling the straits of Formosa, to keep Mainland China from invading Taiwan. This also led directly to American involvement in Southeast Asia in an effort prevent another domino from falling to global communism.
Today, a mad man with missiles and nuclear weapons leads North Korea. There are about 35,000 American service personnel in South Korea. Every American should be asking: why?
There is no reason for America to be involved. Japan is no longer a regional threat. Global communism has collapsed. The fate of the Korean peninsula is not worth losing one American life.
The Chinese, Russians, South Koreans, and the Japanese should deal with it. Let it be their problem. They are individually far wealthier than North Korea, let alone combined. The lunatic is in their backyard: let them put him away, or ignore him, or whatever they please. They don’t need American help, and it’s quite possible that American involvement simply exacerbates the political situation. And why is America leading the issue anyway? The mass in immediate peril live just south of the 38th parallel. As such, the South Koreans should be in the lead, and orchestrating a response with China, Russia and Japan to manage the threat of North Korea.
The US should withdraw all of the ground troops from South Korea, and all of the operating air wings, including the F-16 squadrons at Kunsan, and the F-15s at Osan. Support for South Korea can be diplomatic, economic, and if necessary, military strikes from a distance. War in Korea may be inevitable, and the US may have to participate, but that should only happen as a final resort.
While the situation in Korea is quite clear, the rest of American occupation in East Asia remains more complicated. Even so, with major bases in Japan, Okinawa, and the Philippines, I would question the value and the cost of maintaining them. The Chinese should be welcomed as equals in world leadership, and not treated as a threat. Meanwhile, America applies vast resources defending a global empire for questionable reasons, the cost a significant drain on domestic investment and wealth. Part of the general economic stagnation and slow growth we have experienced in recent decades can be partially assigned to the magnitude of defense spending. At this point, Americans are just as likely to cause a war than prevent one.
An Occupied World
The US remains ensconced with combat units in Korea; air bases in Turkey; military units throughout Europe; Special Forces in Iraq, and Afghanistan; naval bases in Cuba, the Philippines, Japan and Okinawa; and likely military installations in places we don’t even know about. These international deployments take a massive amount of resources, and distort local economies and regional politics. No other country on earth has so many military men and women stationed on foreign soil. And unsurprisingly, no other country on earth is so ubiquitously hated. The cost to Americans is staggering, both in money and lives.
The taxes we pay should support military forces that protect our nation from the aggression of other nations. They should demonstrate a higher moral plane, not lowered into the steaming depths of corrupt wastelands. They shouldn’t be policing the world, or protecting economic interests, or propping up foreign regimes, or toppling unfavorable ones. Any foreign involvement should be done within the context of the international community, or on behalf of a particular ally, one with reciprocating security agreements.
With few exceptions, all US military installations overseas should be removed; most, if not all, US personnel should be returned home. The US should exert violent force in exceptional circumstances, and only when the security of this nation is clearly threatened, and only as a last resort. American lives (and the lives of non-Americans) should be considered precious, and threatened only when absolutely necessary.
Honorable fights exist, but they are rare: about as common as snowballs in mid-Spring.