Phil-osophically Speaking – December 11, 2009


With bright lights all aglow, the inviting sound of Christmas carols and the warmth of family gatherings we are often unmindful of the terrible fact that we are a nation at war and have been since September 11, 2001.

Democracies and long wars go ill together. The electorate is impatient for success and death wears heavily, regardless of the season. In a speech given at West Point, the president of the United States informed us that he is ordering 30,000 more troops to the rugged terrain of Afghanistan, half a world away.

The president, famous for his oratory did not, curiously, rally the nation with a feeling of esprit de corps and shared sacrifice. “Give me a lever long enough and a prop strong enough,” said Archimedes,  “and I can single-handedly move the world.” To which the writer, Joseph Conrad replied, “Do not talk to me about Archimedes’s lever, give me the right word and the right accent, and I will move the world.”

Instead of a rousing speech, what we got was a dispassionate, almost colorless memorandum about a “war of necessity.” Strangely, a July 2011 deadline was established for our withdrawal from Afghanistan. I was always under the impression that deadlines should be imposed on our enemies rather than imposing them upon ourselves. But while an uncertain trumpet should never sound a call to arms, our course has been decided by our Commander in Chief. Whatever the political faith, Americans must come together and support our president and our troops.

President Obama does deserve credit for facing down the hard left of his party, which is, after all, his political base, by essentially agreeing with his predecessor that the United States faces a long and compelling challenge from Islamic extremists and that our greatest weapon against this threat is the United States military. To send soldiers to war and, consequently, many to their deaths is an utterly incommunicable experience, shared only by those few who have presided during wartime. It is important then, during this trial of war that we pray for our president as he faces the unique burdens he alone must bear.

As I listened to the president’s speech at West Point, I could not help but stare at those young, graven faces, listening to the president’s speech. I wondered how old were these cadets. Were they yet 20, 21, 22 maybe? Kids really – some mother’s son or daughter but upon their shoulders and those like them the fate of our arms chiefly rests.

For this reason, there must be no ambiguity about this war. And there is none. Its justification can be illumined from the darkness whereof it sprang; from a black pit of death on the morn of September 11, 2001, where under a beautiful, blue-eyed sky nearly 3,000 of our fellow Americans were premeditatedly and cold-bloodily murdered in two great cities and in a lonely field in Pennsylvania. The rubble of the Twin Towers was still smoldering when Congress, with a dispatch and unanimity rarely seen, authorized the use of force against Al-Qaeda and those who gave them sanctuary. The vote in the Senate was 98-0, in the House, 420-1.

While public support for the war in Afghanistan has weakened over time, it would be foolish and dangerous to reverse our trajectory and draw inward from engaging an implacable enemy that borders and infiltrates nuclear-armed Pakistan. Let us remember that al-Qaida’s intentions toward America and the West are no different at dusk, 2009, than they were during the dawn of 2001. That we did nothing then was shortsighted; to do nothing now would be a crime against history.

After being decisively defeated eight years earlier, the Taliban has regrouped in Afghanistan and have spread the wings of its dominion over this ancient country. Indifference is no longer an option; resistance becomes allowable as soon as the aggressive intent becomes discernible. The only caveat is that there be no half-measures in securing victory. Once we commit our soldiers to the field of battle we must give them the best hope of success, without which, the risking of a single life cannot be justified on any moral grounds.

The question then becomes can we win in Afghanistan. We look, as we must, to history for guidance. The past hovers over us like so many shadows but none, in this instance, more potently than the ghosts of Vietnam. America’s longest war claimed the lives of 58,000 Americans, tore the country apart emotionally, and left America humiliated and defeated before the eyes of the world.

So the prospect of another Vietnam, like Banquo’s ghost, haunts the American psyche. Some 35 years after the last helicopters departed from its besieged cities and jungles, Vietnam’s unhealed wounds are so overheated with controversy and emotion as to render itself almost useless in terms of making comparisons with other foreign interventions. While the fortunes of war are always capricious, our experiences in a post-Vietnam world have demonstrated that when a defined mission is fortified by adequate resources and a strong political will the prospects for success are generally favorable. This is what occurred in Latin America, during our interventions in the 1980s, the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and Afghanistan after 9/11. It is also what happened during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  

That invasion, you may remember, had gone remarkably well. It was the unanticipated and unforeseen counterinsurgency that caused the United States to get bogged down in a quicksand of guerrilla warfare. This was something we neither expected nor were prepared to fight. War is no different than anything else; there are learning curves to overcome. And armies, just like bureaucracies, learn slower than individuals. American armed forces had fought badly in Africa in 1942-43, and only marginally better in Italy in 1943-44, before fighting superbly in France and Germany in 1944-45.

In the same way, American forces in Iraq, tardily for sure, adopted a counterinsurgency strategy that began to focus on protecting civilians while targeting extremists. With fresh troops, the surge used both military muscle and alliances with former Sunni enemies that becalmed the accelerating violence as well as averting a widely predicted civil war.

It is difficult to come to terms with war in this season of goodness and light. Unlike natural disasters, war is a wholly man-made event, the result of some failure of humankind. That there are just wars and necessary wars there can be no doubt. What be the purpose of political society if it could not defend itself or its most cherished ideals? A social compact rooted in pacifism would be nothing less than a suicide pact.

This does not diminish the tragedy of war, which while not always constituting a moral evil is, nonetheless, always a physical, tangible evil. Killing, even for one’s country, is no abstraction; for who can truly believe, that even in the most just wars, the Spirit of God moves untroubled over the carnage of the battlefield?

Yet the history of the world has been one of almost continual warfare. With the diversities of race, creed, differences in geography, resources, language and culture this painful fact is unlikely to change. But as someone once said we must live in the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be. We cannot run away from a world of which we are so much a part. There is a time to stand and stand we must. This is a war for neither power nor plunder but a war to achieve a larger and more lasting peace. We are not occupiers but liberators; our failure can only lead to a more dangerous and violent world. It is the one reason we must not fail.

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