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War As Conspicuous Consumption

War As Conspicuous Consumption

My father left for the Pacific theater of World War II  when I was a baby.  He spent two and a half years island-hopping with other American soldiers, ending with a harrowing six months on Iwo Jima fighting entrenched Japanese and building an Army airfield.  He carried damage from World War II for the rest of his life, but he did come home alive in 1945: 405,399 of his 16 million uniformed fellows did not. Victory at sea, land and air in a just and necessary world war, and the decimation of the rest of the industrial world, gave the United States confidence, unprecedented economic and military power, and a sense that it was the “indispensable nation,” as President Barack Obama has put it.

But specialness has its downside. My generation’s war in Vietnam exposed military force’s weakness in accomplishing political objectives. I remember President Lyndon Johnson ending a great 1964 speech with “In the words of the Negro spiritual, ‘We shall overcome'” as part of his successful prodding Congress to pass legislation against racial injustice. On a different, simultaneous track, he tragically ordered escalation of American force in a Vietnamese civil war. By the time he left office, America had 550,000 troops in Vietnam fighting for a South Vietnamese government too few Vietnamese wanted. Our counterinsurgency strategy of “winning hearts and minds” was backed with B-52 bombers and the best military technology; Lyndon Johnson was determined that he was “not going to be the first American President to lose a war,” and perhaps he didn’t lose. Vietnam is now a good American trading partner, but the image of desperate, fleeing people on the American embassy’s roof did not look like victory in 1975. Anyway, 58,000 American and 2 million Vietnamese dead, along with gigantic material and energy consumption, made that war expensive.

Fast forward to President George W. Bush and Afghanistan and Iraq. President Bush could have reacted to Osama bin Laden’s 9/11 attacks as criminal acts by religious true believers. He could have focused on capturing or killing those who were directly involved in the attacks. Instead he declared a “war on terror,” which is just as sensible and just as winnable as a “war on crime” or a “war on drugs,” and he used his political lift from 9/11 to put the American military into combat. The initial invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq went smoothly, but the political results of “shock and awe” attacks and their aftermaths have been spectacularly less than advertised. Both countries remain messy and dangerous; after 11 years’ of war Americans are tired; and military strategists are questioning whether our warmed-over Vietnam counterinsurgency strategy is effective. So far we’ve suffered more than 6,000 American service members dead, more than $1 trillion spent, and incalculable damage to American interests elsewhere in the world. China expanded a profitable, high-tech economy while we borrowed their money to drop bombs and to pay more than $1 million per serviceperson year spent in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Regrettably a type of blindness may be hard-wired into the political DNA of men who seek the Presidency. Barack Obama came out early against the Iraq invasion, but as President he increased America’s counterinsurgency bet by sending an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. He did that despite strong evidence that, as another foreign invader, the United States would not succeed in creating an Afgan political system and society it liked. Terrorist acts will not completely stop, just as crime is not going to disappear from our planet, and the results of any counterinsurgency nation-building will likely fall below Presidential rhetoric.

Presidential mistakes in no way detract from the honor and credit of Americans who followed orders and risked their lives in wars Presidents told them were necessary to protect their country and their loved ones. Memorial Day began out of respect for men and women, both Confederate and Union, who died in the Civil War, and today we say “thank you” to all those who have served in American wars.

Image by Andrew Bossi (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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Comments (1)

  1. Kermit G. Mitchell Friday - 01 / 06 / 2012
    Grier, Your pure passion pour from every page and paragragh, press on, Kermit

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