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Why Do Politicians (of both parties) Think They Know More About Fighting A War Than The Military?

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We have all heard the old adage that war is an extension of politics. Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz was certainly an advocate of that concept. He said, “…the political cause of a war has a great influence on the method in which it is conducted.” He also said, “War is the continuation of policy by other means.” von Clausewitz defined war: “War is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.” He also saw war, or military force, as an instrument that politicians could use to pursue their policies. I encourage readers to read his book, particularly Chapter 6, which deals with the politics of war.

So why cannot politician, once they have started wars to enforce their policies, back off and let the experts, the military men (and women) fight the war?

While von Clausewitz was correct, politicians, such as Harry Truman and LBJ, could/would not stand back and give the military an unfettered hand. WWII was a war where FDR kept his opinions and policies to himself and let General Dwight Eisenhower have a free hand. Unconditional victory resulted. Then came Korea and Viet Nam. Generals Douglas MacArthur and William Westmoreland were told by politicians HOW (strategy) to fight, resulting in getting many people killed and withdrawal. Now Obama is in (over his head in) Afghanistan, and he wants to dictate policy. Some will (correctly) argue that Obama inherited the Afghan war. So? He still wants to “manage” it, to enforce his policy.

So let’s look at what some people who HAVE experienced war (and, IMHO, earned the right to express an opinion) have to say about war. [BTW, in the interest of full disclosure, I was in the Army for 22 years, mostly in NBC, and saw action in the first Gulf war]

Colonel (retired) John Collins was in the Army for 30 years. In Parameters, in 1995, he published a list of key political considerations for politicians to consider before resorting to war. His list is still timely today. Third on his list is “Political Aims and Military Missions.” I again encourage readers to peruse his list.

Here is what Daniel P. Scarborough, of Roberts, Idaho, had to say: “Of the three wars that I am a veteran of, only one was fought like a war should be, WWII, until our enemies surrendered.” He recounted his Viet Nam wounds experience how the Russians were allowed to sail unopposed into Hanoi and to unload weapons used to kill or maim Americans. And here is what G.I. Hoisington, of Imperial, California, had this to say: “Let’s keep the Democrats, Republicans, politicians and media out of the war and let the professional military fight the war.” He referred to Viet Nam era politicians as “beancounters” who wanted body counts, thereby sacrificing 2Lt. William L. Calley.

Americans supported the Grenada campaign because it was successful, quick, rescued Americans, had a limited number of casualties, and had clear and achievable policy and objectives. But, in Lebanon, where the involvement was prolonged, American lives were not as clearly at stake, and casualties were high, policy and objectives were unclear and/or unattainable. Americans saw few (if any) prospects for success, while the Marines became targets for snipers and terrorists.

But that’s just my opinion.

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  • Glenn Contrarian

    Ah, where do I begin.

    Okay, you’re retired Army, I’m retired Navy. You know ground tactics better than I ever will…but I’ve studied war (and particularly WWII) since before I went into puberty, and I do consider myself somewhat of an amateur historian with an emphasis on warfare.

    politicians, such as Harry Truman and LBJ, could/would not stand back and give the military an unfettered hand. WWII was a war where FDR kept his opinions and policies to himself and let General Dwight Eisenhower have a free hand. Unconditional victory resulted. Then came Korea and Viet Nam. Generals Douglas MacArthur and William Westmoreland were told by politicians HOW (strategy) to fight, resulting in getting many people killed and withdrawal. Now Obama is in (over his head in) Afghanistan, and he wants to dictate policy.

    1 – you should be GLAD that Truman didn’t let MacArthur have his way – because MacArthur, as good a general as he was (but often wasn’t), wanted us to nuke North Korea…and this was at a time that not only were the ChiComs in direct combat with us on the ground, but the Soviets were fighting us in the air. Truman kept us out of a nuclear war. Sure, we would’ve “won” a nuclear exchange…as far as a nuclear war can be won at all.

    2 – LBJ – I don’t disagree with you there. For all the great things he did for America with the Great Society (yes, I know you disagree about that), he made the mistake of listening to the hawks like General LeMay who thought we could bomb the Viet Cong into submission.

    3 – You’re right that we can’t win Afghanistan for the same reason that we couldn’t win North Korea and Vietnam…but you got the reason WRONG. It had little to do with the politicians, and everything to do with logistics. We could never, ever cut off the enemy’s lines of communication for supply and reinforcement.

    Nazi Germany fell because they were being crushed between the hammer and the anvil of the Allies and the Soviets, thanks to Hitler’s folly. If anything, Germany lost because of the politicians, but the Allies did not win because of the lack of political interference. In fact, if it weren’t for Stalin forcing his nation to move all their industry to the Urals, the Soviets would likely have fallen…and we would never have been able to retake France since the great majority of the Wehrmacht, then on the Eastern Front, would have been freed up to come west. And then there were the political decisions for the Lend-Lease program, the sharing of intel and technology between the Brits and the Americans…

    …do you see where I’m going? The crucial political decisions were made by politicians, and not by generals.

    You want to blame Obama, but you know as well as I do that Afghanistan is an epic Charlie-Fox that Obama got handed in January of ’09, along with the crap sandwich of the Great Recession and the war crime that was the invasion of Iraq. Our economy still sucks (thanks to the intransigence of your Tea Party), but Obama’s stimulus pulled us out of the nosedive that we were in when he took the oath of office. Iraq is still simmering, but we’re almost out of there. We got bin Laden earlier this year, and we just got another high-ranking al-Qaeda idiot…and how many years did it take Bush to get neither one of these guys? Gripe about Obama all you like, but he’s done a heck of a lot better than the previous occupant of the White House…and your current crop of candidates make Dubya look like a moderate and a Rhodes Scholar!

    But back to the subject – in Afghanistan, as in Korea and Vietnam, we cannot cut off the enemy’s lines of communication. That is why we cannot win. It does not matter how good or bad our president is – when we are facing a determined enemy who has lines of communication that we cannot even threaten (e.g. Pakistan), then we cannot win.

    It’s all about logistics – you KNOW this.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    And if you want a great example of what happens when the generals are in charge, look at Japan. The emperor was essentially powerless to stop them from making war on China and America.

    But he was able to finally overrule them and broadcast the surrender when all was lost.

  • Igor

    The failures of the Bush administration in Afghanistan and Iraq should be evidence enough that leaving war in the hands of the generals will not work. Bush loudly and often declared that he was leaving the wars to the generals and all we have learned is that warriors have a vested interest in continuing wars forever. That way you get those high-wage field promotions.