The recent YouTube documentary Kony 2012 has become quite a sensation. It has inspired millions of people to demand, in one form or another, that the U.S. military take action in Uganda in order to bring to justice a supposedly ruthless warlord. The fact that numerous wars are being waged already, none of them just, inexpensive, or anywhere near a real end, is not even considered. That such little thought is apparently being given to the consequences of greater U.S. military involvement is indeed troubling.
Similarly, many Americans strongly desire to intervene in Syria, as evidenced by this recent poll conducted by Fox News. Fortunately, most polled did not wish to see overt military action, and only 14% were in favor of a ground invasion. However, 82% agreed that the United States should “provide humanitarian aid.”
But exactly how might the United States provide this aid without the use of ground troops? After all, we are told that President Bashar al-Assad is oppressing dissidents and using his military to slaughter rebels. If aid were sent to this war-torn country, how might we ensure it is not intercepted on its way to those who need it? The answer to this question is very important and must be carefully thought out before we rush headlong to intervene in yet another conflict.
Historically, the role of the U.S. military was to “provide for the common defense” of the states, as outlined in the Constitution. Local militias played a much larger role in defending the states from both foreign and internal threats. And for this reason, large standing armies were far less common throughout most of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Only when the mainland was invaded were large armies raised to repel the attackers.
Despite these military buildups during times of heavy conflict, such as the War of 1812, the War Between the States, and World War I, the military typically experienced a reduction in force following the end of hostilities. While some troop reductions occurred at the close of the Second World War, President Dwight Eisenhower famously noted that a “permanent armaments industry of vast proportions” had risen during the course of the Cold War.
The end of the Cold War brought with it some reductions to the U.S. military. Nevertheless, its budget remained vast relative to that of other industrialized nations. It is now many times higher than the next country’s military outlays. The “military-industrial complex” described by Eisenhower has become deeply ingrained in the political process and the culture at large.
Military intervention, large and small, clandestine and open, has become the norm in U.S. foreign relations. The result is that very little justification is needed to send U.S. troops into virtually any country around the world, regardless of whether any real threat exists. Propaganda and insinuation are all a president needs to begin dropping bombs and deploying ground troops.
The ease with which many Americans now favor sending troops abroad is disturbing. This is especially true in light of how few Americans will actually take part in the actions themselves, or even see the effects such policies have on those who live in the subject countries. In some ways this is a good thing; the fewer who experience war, the better. War is not a place for people. The downside to this is that, as we’re seeing, the insulation means that war is less offensive and thus more likely to be easily supported.
At one time I fully supported such policies. Not only did I think it was the proper role for the United States to intervene in the affairs of other nations, I felt called to participate in the endeavor. I, along with millions of others, was fooled into thinking that sending armed men trained to kill and maim others wouldn’t lead to increased violence and destruction. Looking back on it all, I’m always struck by how confused my thinking was.
The very idea that an organization principally designed to cause humanitarian disasters — for that is what war truly is — should be used to relieve human suffering is preposterous. No matter what the specified goal, stationing armed troops in a foreign land almost always leads to conflict. Consider Operation Restore Hope, the name given to the 1992-1993 humanitarian mission in Somalia. Originally designed to relieve famine in the horn of Africa, it quickly escalated into a much larger military operation, resulting in catastrophe.
When I first arrived in Baghdad at the beginning of 2005, I certainly believed that removing Saddam Hussein and “liberating” the Iraqi people was a noble undertaking. When I first began patrolling the city, we were often thanked for removing Saddam Hussein. This, I thought, was all the proof I needed to conclude that justice had been served. Then I began to see people die.
No matter what perception the Bush administration hoped to convey, we were anything but liberators. Tens of thousands were killed, and millions were displaced from their homes. As an occupying force we imposed martial law on the people. Curfews were strictly enforced. Violators were arrested and taken to jail. Homes were raided in the dark of night. Fathers, sons, and brothers were rounded up, blindfolded, and secreted away. So violent were the prisons, a sentence of six years or longer may as well have been for life: that was the average lifespan inside. Many were tortured and abused by the very same force sent to free them from a tyrant.
Some of the arrested had no doubt engaged in violence, though it was in retaliation against an invading army or toward rival Iraqi groups. In either case, the U.S. military had no business invading a nation that had not attacked or threatened the U.S. We had become that which we were sent to remove: a tyrannical force that intimidated the populace, destroyed their property, kidnapped their family members, and murdered them without regard.
The American people must recognize that sending men with guns to deliver humanitarian aid is no way to bring peace to a war-torn country. Instead of protesting the actions of other governments, we should hold our own accountable first. Instead of delivering freedom through airstrikes and tank fire, we should demand trade and friendship.