Why War?

One of my morning rituals is to have a latte at the Java Shack and spend some time solving all of the world’s problems with a crew of regular friends. One of the crew is Roger Cirillo, a retired Army officer who manages the book program at the Association of the United States Army, which is next door to the Java Shack. As you might surmise, he’s a voracious reader and seems to have a new book with him almost every day. He’s always recommending books to read (a really good one he recommended to me was Blood Money: Wasted Billions, Lost Lives, and Corporate Greed in Iraq by T. Christian Miller) and occasionally gives me one to keep. Recently, he gave me a copy of Why War? Why an Army? by retired Army colonel John M. House.

“Why war?” is a question worth pondering, especially given Israel’s current invasion of Gaza. Even though I write for Antiwar.com, I’m not antiwar in the strictest sense of the term – meaning I don’t believe that war should never be waged or should always be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately and tragically, war is sometimes necessary – for example, in defense against unprovoked aggression. But even when war is necessary, we must also be cognizant of the consequences of war and its limitations as a tool. So, as House points out, “Regardless of whether someone endorses or opposes war, no one can deny the importance of understanding why peoples or nations fight.”

House argues that “nations and groups of people fight in order to enhance their power.” But why do they seek power? “The answer is freedom – not the concept so cherished by people who yearn for the ability to live their lives as they desire. No, this freedom is more like control. It is the freedom to do as one wishes without interference from others, to control one’s actions, and the actions of others.”

House thus speaks a truth that no president would dare utter.

Imagine if President Bush made the argument for invading Iraq by saying, “We must invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein to install a pro-U.S. government whose actions and decisions we can control.” If he did, it is highly doubtful that he would have enjoyed the relatively high level of public support he had for taking military action against Iraq. According to a CBS News/New York Times poll that asked the question “Do you approve or disapprove of the United States taking military actions against Iraq to try and remove Saddam Hussein from power?” 14 times from February 2002 to March 2003, approval fluctuated from a high of 74 percent a low of 64 percent, with 66 percent approving just before the U.S. invasion in March 2003 (see question 8).

Instead, presidents and pundits like to conjure up threats. In the case of Iraq, there were those dreaded weapons of mass destruction (which have never been found or even proven to have existed). There is always the well-worn Hitler analogy, used to demonize Saddam Hussein (twice) and Slobodan Milosevic (President Clinton, justifying the 1999 Kosovo bombing campaign: “What if someone had listened to Winston Churchill and stood up to Adolf Hitler earlier? How many people’s lives might have been saved? And how many American lives might have been saved?”). And when all else fails, simply utter the phrase “threat to world peace” as President Bush did in November 2002: “There is universal recognition that Saddam Hussein is a threat to world peace.” (Two months earlier, he argued that Saddam’s 1991 incursion to Kuwait was the same threat to world peace: “Had Saddam Hussein been appeased instead of stopped, he would have endangered the peace and stability of the world.”)

The problem is that the use of American military force in the post-Cold War era has been largely unrelated to real threats to U.S. security. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has employed significant military force on nine occasions (not including air strikes to enforce the no-fly zones over Iraq beginning in 1991):

  • the 1989 invasion of Panama
  • Operation Desert Storm in 1991
  • the ill-fated Somalia “Blackhawk Down” mission in 1992-93
  • Haiti in 1994
  • air strikes in Bosnia in 1995
  • missile attacks against Sudan and Afghanistan in 1998
  • air strikes in Kosovo in 1999
  • Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan
  • Operation Iraqi Freedom
  • However, only one of these – Operation Enduring Freedom – was in response to a direct threat to the United States. And we missed the mark, with Osama bin Laden and other senior al-Qaeda leadership now ensconced in Pakistan.

    More importantly, military force – at least the large-scale application of military force – is usually not the appropriate response to terrorism. In fact, a disproportionate response is exactly what terrorists are hoping to elicit as a way to garner sympathy and support for their cause. The current situation in Gaza is a textbook case. Claiming that Israel was not fulfilling its obligations, Hamas declared an end to a cease-fire and militants subsequently fired rockets into Israel. In response, Israel decided first to bomb and then invade Gaza. As this is written about a dozen Israelis, most of them soldiers, have died since the beginning of Israel’s Dec. 27 offensive against Gaza. By comparison, over 900 Palestinians have been killed, with over half of them believed to be civilians, including children. The casualties and resulting humanitarian crisis will be used by Hamas to recruit more Palestinians to take up arms to avenge the deaths of family and friends.

    Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says that the military campaign in Gaza will continue until Israel has completely wiped out Hamas’ ability to fire rockets into Israel. Yet the only way for Israel to wipe out Hamas’ ability to fire rockets into Israel is to deal with the root causes of Palestinian grievances (as discussed by my good friend Ivan Eland in his Jan. 3 Antiwar.com column). Otherwise, all Israel ends up doing is killing people, which might yield some tactical success in the short run, but is a losing proposition strategically and a prescription for endless war.

    Ultimately, that is the reason to ponder the question “Why war?” Professional soldiers such as House must think about it in terms of how to fight and win war from a military perspective. That is their duty and obligation, for which they should not be faulted. But the rest of us – and especially our president and other policymakers – need to remember that war is simply a means to an end. So “why war?” should always lead to two more questions:

  • Is the end justified? (I.e., Is the security of the United States at stake?)
  • Is war the appropriate and best means to achieve the end? (I.e., Will larger strategic goals and objectives result from military success?)
  • If the answer to both is not “yes,” then not only is war unnecessary but likely to make America less safe and secure.

    Author: Charles V. Peña

    Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
    Policy Institute
    , an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.