With the recent Iran war-scare – combined with scant understanding of our past by both reporters and youngsters – roiling the news and scaring voters, a review of American experience with and attitudes toward war seems appropriate. Accordingly, I offer the following summary.
Americans have a long history with war because we started out that way. We became a nation because we were willing to fight for independence from Great Britain with real guns. For over six years we battled the most powerful empire in the world. We didn’t exactly thrash the Brits – winning only occasional battles – but we kept an army in the field, and we never gave up (although we came close a few times).
Finally, after our pivotal 1781 victory at Yorktown, Virginia, some wise men in England said, “Why don’t we cut this out, make peace, and start working with this ambitious new bunch?” In contemporary parlance, we outlasted ‘em. Ultimately, we became Britain’s staunchest ally. German statesman Otto von Bismark said the supreme fact of the 19th century was that England and the United States spoke the same language (although the “same language” thing is debatable).
Before our own revolution, few countries gained independence by fighting occupying powers. Switzerland’s withdrawal from the Holy Roman Empire in the 14th century was a notable exception. Remember Wilhelm Tell shooting the apple off his son’s head with his crossbow? That was during the struggle for Swiss independence. I don’t know if the story is exactly true, but the Swiss certainly think so. They built a heroic memorial to Tell in the alpine town of Olten.
Success is rare in wars for independence because the imbalance of power between rulers and subjects is usually too great to overcome. Some particular advantage is needed for success. Shooting apples with crossbows didn’t defeat the Romans (Holy or otherwise). Switzerland’s trump card was the Alps. Austrian armies couldn’t chase down rebels hiding in those vast mountains. The Alps have protected the Swiss from outside invaders for centuries.
For George Washington, the advantage was land. The country was too big for the Brits to subdue with slow-moving foot-soldiers, horses and supply wagons. The land then was far bigger than it is in today’s motorized age. There were no decent roads through a billion acres of woods and impassable land. A fully equipped army was really moving if it made 10 miles a day. It was a sitting duck for an ambush by unconventional guerrilla forces waging hit-and-run war.
In 1781, General Cornwallis burned his supplies to gain the speed he needed to catch Daniel Morgan’s rebels in North Carolina. But the tactic failed. His exhausted army got trapped at Yorktown. George Washington pinned him against the coast, and a French fleet blocked a seaborne rescue. Americans had used their vast space to outlast the world’s strongest army.
In the two hundred-forty years since the Revolution, Americans have waged numerous wars – big and small – as the list below illustrates:
|American Revolution||1775||1781||6 yrs.||20 yrs.|
|Barbary Pirates War||1801||1805||4 yrs.||7 yrs.|
|War of 1812||1812||1814||2 yrs.||–|
|Mexican War||1846||1848||2 yrs.||13 yrs.|
|Civil War||1861||1865||4 yrs.||33 yrs.|
|Spanish War||1898||1901||3 yrs.||16 yrs.|
|World War I||1917||1918||2 yrs.||23 yrs.|
|World War II||1941||1945||4 yrs.||5 yrs.|
|Korean War||1950||1953||3 yrs.||12 yrs.|
|Vietnam War||1965||1972||7 yrs.||11 yrs.|
|Grenada War||1983||1983||4 mo.||7 yrs.|
|Gulf War I (Desert Storm)||1990||1991||1 yrs.||10 yrs.|
|Gulf War II||2001||2019||14 yrs.|
Two key facts emerge from that table. First, that most American wars – at least, the successful ones – have been of fairly short duration. About four years seems to be our limit. When a war drags on longer than that, citizens grow impatient and a political faction arises to capitalize on war-weariness. The Vietnam War and Gulf War II demonstrate this. For various political reasons, presidents adopted a low-level strategy in both wars, producing extended conflicts and no clear victory. In both cases, Democrats made political hay by becoming the anti-war party.
A Republican administration reactively got us into Gulf War II in 2001, with wide bi-partisan support. But by 2004 Democrats were calling Iraq “the wrong war,” and Senator Hillary Clinton was accusing the commander of our forces, Gen. David Petraeus, of lying about the war’s progress. Democrats swept both houses of Congress in 2006, and peacenik Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008 by promising to end wars, not start them. Americans were heartily sick of the war, and they blamed Republicans for not winning it. They had a point. It’s tough to win a war when you keep the public from feeling that we are at war. It was Mr. Bush’s fatal mistake.
Democrat President LBJ got us into the Vietnam War in 1965, but by 1968 a strong anti-war faction – led by Senator Robert Kennedy – had arisen in his own party to contend for the presidency. The much-hyped North Vietnamese Tet Offensive in January ‘68 – which was far less successful, militarily, than represented by the American media – was a mortal blow to public support for the war. Walter Cronkhite, America’s trusted TV elder statesman, pronounced the war “lost,” and many people believed him.
Seeing the handwriting on the wall, LBJ declined to run for another term in ‘68. RFK looked strong for the nomination, but the torch passed to Vice-president Hubert Humphrey when Senator Kennedy was assassinated. Sir Hubert vowed to see the war through, but wild anti-war demonstrations by stoned hippies at the Democratic convention in Chicago ruined his chances in the general election. Republican Richard Nixon promised to bring the war to a speedy conclusion. He won election with the assistance of segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace, who split the Democrat vote and carried five southern states.
Mr. Nixon took four years to achieve an armistice in December ‘72, but by then it was too late. Vietnam had become “Nixon’s War.” Democrats and media had “forgotten” that Democrats got us into that mess, but the loss of 50,000 young men in seven years of wretched jungle-fighting was our limit. When the North Vietnamese tossed the armistice and stormed into Saigon in 1975, we didn’t lift a finger. We were tapped out on Vietnam.
The second fact that emerges from the war-table (above) is that a recess between wars of at least 15 years is the ideal. Americans dislike a shorter respite, as happened between WWII and Korea. Still smarting from war-rationing and 400,000+ gold stars (representing sons or husbands lost in WWII), citizens weren’t keen about a new war – the more so when they saw that President Truman wasn’t going all-out to win it. Amidst a public argument over his “containment” strategy, Mr. Truman sacked Gen. Douglas MacArthur. The popular hero of WWII wanted to drop the atomic bomb on China and the North Koreans to finish the war, and had said so publicly. Mr. Truman could have run for another term in ‘52, but he sensed defeat and bowed out.
Another popular general, Dwight Eisenhower, routed Adlai Stevenson – carrying even the Solid South, which had reliably voted Democrat since Reconstruction. Ike promised to bring North Korea to the peace-table and get a treaty signed. He did it within six months of his inauguration. It has been whispered ever since that he broke the logjam by threatening to drop the a-bomb on the recalcitrant commies.
The recess after Korea was marginal (12 years), which helps to explain why opposition to Vietnam arose so quickly. Anti-war activists argued that fighting some quirky little dudes in the Asian jungle served no national interest. The point was arguable, but why young American men should fight and die in a far-away place that seemed unrelated to us was not obvious to many Americans. Lack of a perceived national emergency weakened support for the war from the start.
All that being said, Americans have shown themselves more than willing to make serious war when they see a real threat to the country – if enough time has elapsed since our last war, and if the new war doesn’t last too long. Americans’ willingness to give battle is a much-misunderstood aspect of our national character – a “flip side” to our habit of waiting until an enemy is coming down the chimney before we rouse ourselves to arms. Usually, it takes a significant direct attack to blast us off dead-center. A violent event can rouse tolerant, peace-loving Americans to a pitch of fury that is often quite astonishing. (The Japanese and the Germans could testify to this.)
Enemies sometimes launch surprise attacks on us because they mistake our amiable nature for weakness or timidity. Internal political squabbles, social contention, a fascination with pleasure, and our preoccupation with building tranquil, productive lives for our families can conceal Americans’ warlike nature for long periods. Adversaries rarely look below the surface of the American character to grasp its complexity.
Americans are a generous, tolerant lot. We don’t want anyone starving, and we particularly dislike seeing children hurt or in need. We will put ourselves out for people we don’t even know – sometimes to the detriment of our own national interests. A clueless enemy will push us repeatedly, with little (or no) push-back – often assuming that our willingness to turn the other cheek is limitless – until he finally pushes us too far.
This went on with ISIS in recent years. That vicious gang bore no cost for beheadings, kidnappings and other vile atrocities. They sensed that Mr. Obama really didn’t want to fight them, and they could see that the American people didn’t want more of their young men to die in some Middle East hell-hole.
That immunity from retaliation lasted throughout Mr. Obama’s second term, while he polished his legacy as America’s “peace president.” ISIS cutthroats continued to push and taunt us – firing their guns in the air and raucously yelling “Allahu akhbar!” like street-toughs in the ‘hood. It was the “happy time” for ISIS, which they thought would continue after Mrs. Clinton’s election.
But things didn’t go as planned. Voters had had enough of Mr. Obama’s sluggish economy and ersatz brand of “peace.” Ignoring Democrats’ hysterical warnings that Mr. Trump was unstable and would certainly pull the nuclear trigger, voters gambled that he would close out our military actions in the Middle East and get the country’s economy moving. In the most shocking electoral upset since Ronald Reagan’s 1980 defeat of Jimmy Carter, Donald Trump carried 30 of the 50 states and won the Electoral College vote, 304-234.
Mr. Trump has kept his war-ending promises by routing ISIS and reducing it to a non-factor in the Middle East. But there’s always “one more river to cross” over there. While ISIS distracted Mr. Obama and occupied Mr. Trump’s attention, Iran was poised with sword in hand. On December 31, 2019, Iranian-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah militiamen and Popular Mobilization Forces supporters attacked and burned our embassy in Baghdad, Iraq. In response, Mr. Trump ordered several thousand troops to Iraq. He also ordered an air strike which killed top Iranian General Qasem Soleimani at the Baghad airport on January 2, 2020.
Mr. Trump’s decision to eliminate one of the world’s most dangerous terrorist leaders provoked a chorus of anguish and recrimination from Democrats and media. They denounced Mr. Trump for “warmongering,” praised the much “beloved” General Soleimani to the skies, and predicted the immediate outbreak of World War III. Recollections that no such objections were heard when President Obama took out Osama bin Laden – “personally,” as some claimed – in 2011, were airily brushed aside by the crowd joyously expecting that Mr. Trump would be ruined by getting us into war. It would be their hoped-for election-year miracle.
At this writing, however, those war drums have fallen silent. Iran launched only a few ineffective missiles in response, which did little damage and harmed no one. Unless the Ayatollah is doing a head-fake de la guerre, it appears that wiser heads in Iran’s government have prevailed. Perhaps they were merely testing Mr. Trump’s mettle, to see how far they could go.
My estimate is that things could get ugly if they miscalculate on that score. When pushed too far, Americans will wage ware with a will of iron. We won’t give the enemy a break or the benefit of the doubt. We won’t be patient or understanding because he serves “a religion of peace.” We’ll just destroy him and bomb his cities into rubble.
When Franklin Roosevelt called for a declaration of war against Japan, following their attack of December 7, 1941, he made this memorable pledge:
“…No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory. …we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us. Our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger. With confidence in our armed forces – with the unbounding determination of our people – we will gain the inevitable triumph, so help us God…”
Try to recall when you last heard a politician use the phrases, “righteous might” or “so help us God.” In the Lord’s timing, Americans might once again be called upon to defeat evil and move the world toward the “broad, sunlit uplands” of a peaceful and productive future. I hope and pray that war doesn’t come, but if it does I believe we’ll be equal to the task. Under our amiable countenance we hate injustice and we still harbor a warrior’s spirit.