I’ll confess that I feel pretty cynical on Veterans Day most years. In the face of a misguided foreign policy that hasn’t seemed to get much right during our two ongoing wars it’s hard for me to feel anything other than pity for the military and it doesn’t feel like that is the emotional response they are hoping for. While I appreciate that members of the military volunteer to put themselves in both real (and imagined) danger while serving our country, I get a little aggravated by the language used to praise them. The flowery prose that makes military service sound like the most noble thing an American could ever do with their life, as if no other professions come with risks or importance for society. My least favorite of these is the notion that our soldiers are ‘fighting for our freedom’.
It has been a long time since the freedoms of Americans were in need of actual military intervention to remain intact. The historian in me feels like that was roughly 1865 and the benefits of that ‘fight for freedom’ were the millions of slaves held in the South. To the contrary, in many cases American wars have been used as an excuse to limit the freedoms of Americans. Germans in World War I. Japanese-Americans during World War II. Anyone wishing to have a private cell phone conversation after 9/11. The ‘fighting for our freedom’ line sounds really good in a Facebook post, but in practice it sounds more like the lyrics in a Toby Keith song.
We all like to think that the members of our military have enlisted based on a noble idea of public service and I think that is true for the vast majority of them. I cannot help but wonder though, how many serving today joined because they wanted to go overseas and kill people? To be sure, there was a surge of enlistments right after 9/11 and many of those men and women are still serving, but I have to believe there is a significant portion of the military that was not seeking front-line duty when they enlisted. One can speculate as to their motivations but the decision to serve in the US military is complicated given the nature of how we use our military in modern times. I cannot imagine weighing that decision in light of our current foreign entanglements.
In theory our military exists to defend the homeland against foreign invaders however, we all know that role really isn’t necessary. In reality, they function primarily as a deterrent to the territorial ambitions of countries like Russia and China. We have relationships with those countries that Russia and China would like to control and so we make sure the Reds behave themselves (Note: It is that same sense of obligation to one’s allies that drove nearly every war in Europe since Charlemagne). The military is also a fantastic resource during natural disasters and have done us proud in that regard. A policy dream of mine would be to separate that role from waging war and Lastly, a small segment of the military actually hunts down and kills terrorists or, as I like to call them, the people we were supposed to be fighting since 2001.
Thirteen years ago we went to war in Afghanistan. Eleven years ago we invaded Iraq. This Veteran’s Day there are still Americans dying in Afghanistan and we are about to send 1,500 troops back to Iraq. On the latter front, according to retired Army major general Robert Scales, “If nine Iraqi brigades with their U.S. advisers can’t do it next year, the clock will keep ticking. And Obama will have two options: Accept an Islamic State “caliphate” that occupies much of Iraq and Syria or add more U.S. forces to the opposition.”
Fun choices, right?
This latest dilemma for American foreign policy seems striking in light of the new book, Why We Lost, by Lt.General Daniel Bolger. In an NPR interview with the general, he discusses where we went wrong with the two wars.
What I saw almost immediately was trouble figuring out who the enemy was. We knew within a day or two of the 9/11 attacks that it was al-Qaida, a terrorist network that had a headquarters element, if you would call it that, or a chairman of the board in Osama bin Laden. And they were operating out of Afghanistan.
But that’s not who we ended up fighting most of the time. Sure, we went after al-Qaida at times. But we ended up fighting the Taliban, which were Pashtun people in Afghanistan who were trying to run that country. We evicted them in 2001. And we ended up fighting Sunni Arab insurgents in Iraq, who, again — although they might make common cause with al-Qaida — those weren’t the guys who attacked us on 9/11.
The general’s statement is in-line with my own criticisms of both wars. We took our eyes off of the real enemy and mired ourselves in a guerrilla war we could not win. Unfortunately it sounds much like Vietnam where, to paraphrase Heartbreak Ridge, ‘we won all of the battles and still lost the war’. Was there a better strategy we could have used? Bolger thinks he has the answer.
We really had two ways we could prosecute this war. The first was essentially to do what we did in Desert Storm. And both Afghanistan and Iraq started with a very short, successful, decisive U.S. initial invasion. And at that point, we had the option — we could have backed out and left it to the local people to sort it out. It might have been sort of ugly and it might have been sort of unsatisfying. But in both cases, we didn’t do that. We decided to stay.
The latest surge in Iraq is going to constitute the type of advisory force that Bolger describes but as he also points out, if it doesn’t work we will end up with another choice of whether to send in more troops. That means sending in more of the soldiers that we praised so visibly this week. Our thanks for their service? More time fighting a war in a foreign country where there is zero threat to our freedoms, no matter what Toby Keith tells us.
Mike Dwyer is a freelance writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about culture, the outdoors and whatever else strikes his fancy. His personal site can be found at www.mikedwyerwrites.com. You can also find him on Facebook. Mike is one of several Kentucky authors featured in the book This I Believe: Kentucky.