I am sure you have all heard the term ‘the folly of war’. There was even a book with that title written years ago by a historian named Donald E. Schmidt: The Folly of War: American Foreign Policy, 1898-2005. With this being 2018 (almost 2019) and all you would think that humans would have realised by now that war is seldom a good idea.
Oh sure there are probably ‘necessary’ wars. WWII might be a example insofar as going to war with Nazi Germany and its allies was probably the only real option at the time. Other wars – Vietnam, Somalia 2006 – are less justified.
In addition, I hope we have moved well past the ‘war as glory’ attitude. If you look at old recruitment posters – the ones in WWI have always really struck me – you see that states would present war as gallant and noble, and those opposed would be portrayed as cowards and traitors. The ‘glory’ turned out to be horrific death and disfigurement in the trenches of Flanders and a generation lost to the mud and withering machine gun fire. ‘Noble’ this was not.
So why do we still yearn to go to war? Are we trapped in the industrial-military complex that US President Eisenhower warned about? Are sales and profits and jobs dictating more military action? Is this what we have come to?
More narrowly, why are we deploying armies and air forces against terrorists? This has never ended well. Whether we are talking about the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Americans and their allies in Afghanistan, or the Americans in Iraq (three times!!), the use of military force has not ‘defeated’ terrorism, or terrorist groups, and has only compounded the misery that these groups inflict on local populations. No, I am not advocating sitting back and watching Islamic State (IS) run its horror show in Iraq and Syria, but what has been achieved with the military stick?
Victory apparently, according to US President Trump (he tweeted: “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency”).
As an aside, there have been numerous criticisms of Trump’s declaration of victory (shades of Bush’s ‘Mission Accomplished’?). A week earlier, Brett McGurk, Washington’s top diplomat in the war against the Islamic State, warned that even though the jihadist organization was in retreat — driven from its strongholds in the Syrian city of Raqqa and Iraqi city of Mosul, its dreams of a theocratic “caliphate” in the Middle East dashed — it was far from defeated. “Nobody working on these issues day to day is complacent. Nobody is declaring a mission accomplished,” McGurk said at a State Department briefing. “Defeating a physical caliphate is one phase of a much longer-term campaign.” White House national security adviser John Bolton issued perhaps the most bellicose statement of intent: “We’re not going to leave [Syria] as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders and that includes Iranian proxies and militias.
Not only is the President’s tweet absurd, as IS is anything but ‘defeated’, but it underscores that the decision to send in troops is much easier than the decision on when to withdraw them. It is one thing to engage in war, target the enemy, reduce his capability and get the hell out, with or without an armistice or peace treaty (NB terrorist groups seldom agree to either). It is another to start something you don’t finish, kill thousands of civilians in the process, wreak untold damage on cities and infrastructure, and concede the terrain to the same actors you just said that you had vanquished, essentially leaving the door open to more of the same. That is the height of irresponsibility and hubris.
And in all this is the same lesson: wars do not end terrorism. That we have yet to realise this is odd. Perhaps we need to go back to first principles in our understanding of terrorism and what we must do to prevent, confront and neutralise these threats. Because one thing is clear: what we are doing so far sure as hell is not working.