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This Memorial Day, a plea for declaration of war

With so many needless deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq, would our problems be solved if we held our politicians to age-old standards of war?
A veterans' memorial in North Seattle's Evergreen-Washelli Cemetery.

A veterans' memorial in North Seattle's Evergreen-Washelli Cemetery. Tad Westhusing via Flickr (CC)

The Memorial Day weekend was marked by the 3,000th coalition-forces death in Afghanistan, the vast majority American, in what has become our longest war.   

Most of the casualties there have not been incurred in traditional battles, but as the result of snipings, detonating devices, or hit-and-run engagements. Still, the dead and wounded are every bit as real as those at Gettysburg, Belleau Wood, Okinawa, the Chosin Reservoir, or Hue. They bring to mind, of course, the ever-present questions about where, why, and how we go to war.
 
A new book, Those Who Have Borne the Battle by James Wright, a former Marine and Dartmouth College president, was released a few days ahead of the weekend. It explores these questions including, importantly, the changing nature
of our armed forces.
 
Our armed forces, as Wright points out, were most often mixes of volunteers and conscripts until President Richard Nixon ended the draft in 1973 to quell Vietnam War dissent. Since that time service has been done entirely by volunteers who, disproportionately, have been poorer, less educated, and less Caucasian than the overall American population.  
 
An occasional upper-income or highly-educated volunteer will sign up for enlisted service, usually out of patriotism. The vast majority of officers, of course, have remained college-educated, their core made up of graduates of the U.S. mlitary academies. Many more volunteers enlist for the educational opportunities provided, both in the service and afterward. 
 
Though there are many problems with our armed forces, overall they offer more opportunity for upward mobility and
have less discrimination than most other American institutions. Because of the absence of a draft, however, they have become increasingly separated from the rest of society. The percentage of Americans with military experience has consistently dwindled since the end of the Vietnam War — even with the Iraq and Afghanistan interventions. Many families have no members with mlitary experience and, in fact, do not know anyone who has done military service.
 
This may be one reason why the Afghan intervention, fought by professionals and volunteers, has not generated the kind of public opposition that existed during Vietnam. The people serving are not protesting and those not serving do not feel directly connected to the war. 
 
One thing has changed for the better, however, since Vietnam, when veterans often returned to a hostile home front, accused of atrocities in which a huge majority had no part. Now they again are being honored. Their medical after-care has been raised to high visibility and there are many volunteer support groups serving returned troopers. Wright, the author of the new book, was moved to write it, he says, after visits to military hospitals. 
 
This shift was clear at the annual community parade I attended in my old hometown of Bellingham on Saturday. Many groups and organizations were represented in the parade, which was heavily attended on the clear, sunny day. The greatest applause by far though came for marchers holding life-sized photographs of Washington state kids killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. (The least applause, significantly, came for elected officials and political candidates).
 
I've written before of the misjudgements that led us into wars and interventions in places where no vital American interests were at stake. World War II, in fact, is the only war dating back to the end of the 19th century in which the United States was not involved because of outright blunders or miscalculations by our national leaders.
 
Now, in 2012, there remains no valid reason for our continuing involvement in Afghanistan or, for that matter, for our recent intervention in a Libyan civil war which has been followed by chaos and carnage in that country. Iraq was clearly a mistake, based on the belief that Saddam Hussein had ongoing nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs which had, as a matter of fact, been discontinued years before.
 
The best arguments against such mistakes are the military cemeteries which drew visitors over the weekend. I've always been most moved by visits to the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Lincoln's sad, wise face tells the story of our Civil War almost by itself. The nearby Vietnam memorial lists the name of each of the 58,000 Americans killed in that war — all lost because of the stupidity and arrogance of leaders who mistook the conflict there for a must-fight part of the Cold War. Many more returned home maimed or damaged. Family members also were casualties.
 
I can recall Vice President Humphrey, in Saigon in 1967, as he declared his views on the Vietnam War: "I'll be damned," he said, "if I'll be part of sending any more American kids to die for these corrupt bastards." Too bad, I thought at the time, that other policymakers had not thought that way before we began our Vietnam involvement and that it had taken Humphrey three years to make that declaration. (It would not be until 1975 until we finally bugged out of Vietnam in an embarrassing, chaotic rush).
 
Should a military draft be reinstituted, so as to expose more Americans to military service? Though it sounds good in concept, various studies have shown that, at current force levels, a draft is not only unneeded but would be quite expensive.
 
Far more important, it seems to me, would be unyielding congressional insistence that no overseas military action be authorized without a declaration of war or, at a minimum, invocation of the War Powers Act. Recent presidents, who have committed us without such authorization, should not be allowed to get away with it.
 
Questions for a president considering war: Who are we supporting?  For what purpose?  Does it truly affect the vital interests of the United States? Is it important enough to send my own son or daughter to fight and perhaps die there?   Perhaps there will be a Memorial Day not too many years ahead when we are not wasting lives in a place that does not truly matter to us.

Ted Van Dyk has been involved in, and written about, national policy and politics since 1961. His memoir of public life, Heroes, Hacks and Fools, was published by University of Washington Press. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, May 28, 1:32 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for the perspective. I heartily agree.

The one item that bothers me is that in both the case of Vietnam and Iraq there was deliberate misrepresentation by the advocates in the administration of the military intelligence and of the actions of the adversaries, e.g weapons of mass destruction, Gulf of Tonkin incident. It would not seem that obtaining congressional authorization would have changed this fact.

As to Iraq, it is my opinion that the general consensus concerning the cause of the war relating to Iraq's ties to Al Qaeda and possession of WMDs is incorrect because it does not take into account the failure of US military policy, e.g. enactment of the no-fly zone, and failure of the economic sanctions, to remove Saddam from power. Neither had demonstrated to be effective and Saddam continued to demonstrate an ability to stay in power and to circumvent US action. Since VP Richard Cheney was Secretary of Defense during the George W. Bush administration during the first Irag War, the second Gulf War may be considered as an extension of that original war with the intent of completing the mission to remove Saddam from power.

Posted Mon, May 28, 3:12 p.m. Inappropriate

Pythagoras: The basic mistake in Vietnam was the misperception that
the conflict there was tied to the Cold War and part of a general Communist expansion in Asia which had to be stopped. Our vital interests were perceived to be at stake. The Tonkin Gulf incident, used as a convenient pretext by LBJ, was a subtitle. If it had not taken place, another tactical episode would have been found to
justify an intervention.

In Iraq it also was thought that our vital intersts were at stake---in this case Saddam was perceived as a dangerous threat to his neighbors and proceeding with nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs
which could lead to his renewed aggression in the region. As it turned out, our vital interests were no more at stake in Iraq than they were in Vietnam. Saddam had discontinued his WMD programs but he wanted everyone to think he'd continued them, lest he be judged a paper tiger. Without the weapons, Saddam posed no threat
justifying our intervention. It is possible that Cheney/Rumsfeld knew the WMD programs had ceased but it also is possible that they believed they still existed because they wanted to do so. And there was CIA Director George Tenet's declaration that it was "a slam dunk" that they existed.

In Vietnam, LBJ was intimidated by Kennedy's holdover national-security team and afraid to appear softer than JFK. In Iraq, I
think George W. Bush lacked a capacity for critical thinking and, as Johnson, went along with his national-security advisors' assessments and recommendations. Both LBJ (as well as JFK and Nixon) and GW Bush must bear ultimate responsiblity, in any case, for the fateful decisions they made to wage unnecessary wars.

Posted Mon, May 28, 5:59 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree with your comments relative to the Gulf of Tonkin.

The key in both instances is that war becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy once one begins military action. In Vietnam, the gradual yet steady increase in military action against the North eventually led to an event (Gulf of Tonkin) which precipitated escalation.

In the case of Iraq, we conveniently forget that the US had instituted a "no-fly" zone which increasingly had been violated by Saddam and were facing sustained costs (financially and politically) of enforcing it. Furthermore, the economic sanctions had proved ineffective, the sale of oil for humanitarian purposes had proved porous, and Saddam had used the presence of the sanctions to his advantage in claiming that the general populace had been harmed through their institution.

So prior to the Bush-Cheney administration, the US government had been placed in the position where its diplomatic and political actions had proved ineffective and yet the US could not be perceived as being weak in either removing the "no-fly" zone or easing of the sanctions. Thus, in my view, it was a foregone conclusion that escalation would occur. Bush-Cheney manufactured the crisis of WMDs in the same manner that Johnson manufactured the crisis of the Gulf of Tonkin.

Posted Tue, May 29, 12:27 a.m. Inappropriate

We knew that Hussein previously had WMDs but no one knew that he destroyed them. And so after we caught Hussein we asked him very explicitly -- if you knew that you had destroyed the weapons and that you could avert war with the US by proving you had done so, why didn't you? And he told us why. This is all on record. He believed that the perception that he had WMDs protected him from his neighbors. So he actively perpetuated the belief that he continued to maintain the weapons. This is all fact. And, moreover, it makes perfect sense, in context.

So having now lost a great deal of the deranged emotional hatred that many had for Bush and being almost a year removed from the end of the Iraq war, can we all take a breath, pause, calm down, and rid ourselves of this notion that Bush lied us into war? Bush (along with virtually all senior Democrats) made a mistake of fact, which is not the same as a lie. And the mistake was that he believed what Hussein wanted us to believe. Do we wish he would have ignored Hussein, crossed his fingers in hopes he was lying about the weapons? Is that the type of gamble we want our leaders to make with our security?

And does anyone believe that the world would be a better place today if Hussein was still in power? If Mullah Omar was still in power? If Qaddafi was still in power? The cost of conflict is all too clear. What's often not clear is that inaction and isolation has a very steep price as well!

Aaron30

Posted Tue, May 29, 6:50 a.m. Inappropriate

Aaron30 and Ted Van Dyk still persist in the arguments that we went to war in the mistaken belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. How naive to continue to pursue this line of reasoning, and when then can we await the attack on Iran for all the same reasons. The world is no more or less dangerous with or without Hussein or Qaddai in power. We did not go to war in Iraq to destroy their weaponry. There was far more to that story and its surprising that a man as experienced as Mr. Van Dyk continues to make it a one dimensional tale of the righteous American response to thee big bully of the Mid East. Hussein was on his way out. It is unclear if we have created through our occupation of Iraq anything better in the long run than the previous dictator's regime. And that at the cost of tens of thousands of lives -- ours and theirs.

Posted Tue, May 29, 10:41 a.m. Inappropriate

swiftylazar is right, there is strong evidence from the accounts of people who were closely involved in the Bush regime's decision to invade Iraq that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and company were determined to invade and take Saddam out even before the 9-11 attacks, and immediately after the 9-11 attacks people like Richard Clark were astonished that Bush, Cheney, et al immediately fixated on Saddam even though there was no evidence he was involved. In reality, the obsession with Saddam started with Cheney and Wolfowitz et al even before Bush became president, with the Committee on the Present Danger, with their neocon plan to take over Iraq and turn it into a "beacon of democracy" in the Middle East and lessen the external threat to Israel. So TVD is ignoring a lot of evidence in suggesting that Bush, Cheney and company decided to invade in the belief that Saddam had WMD. As the Downing Street memos indicated, the Bush regime fixed their "facts" to promote their pre-decided policy to invade.

Posted Tue, May 29, 11:08 a.m. Inappropriate

We may not know definitively, after classified documents are declassified years from now, if Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et. al. were determined to invade Iraq, no matter what, and seized on 9/11 and
WMD as reasons to do so. We do know that Bush the Elder and his closest advisors tried to convince Bush the Younger that an intervention would be a mistake (GHW Bush, remember, stopped the first Gulf War without attempting to seize Baghdad and depose Saddam. He settled for the limited objective of expelling Iraq from Kuwait, degrading its conventional military capability, and instituting a no-fly zone which, among other things, protected the Kurds from Saddam).

There would not have been congressional support for the intervention---from such persons as Sens. Kerry and Clinton---had a majority on the Hill not believed the WMD threat was real. I believed it at the time, persuaded that the Administration would not dare such an intervention without legitimate WMD evidence. We'll have to wait awhile before the definitive tale can be told. In meantime, I think it is enough to judge the intervention a serious policy mistake, however initially motivated.

Posted Tue, May 29, 11:14 a.m. Inappropriate

I find it very discouraging on Memorial Day to see an article with so many factual errors about our military.

A summary of The a Heritage Foundation report finds that:

1. U.S. military service disproportionately attracts enlisted personnel and officers who do not come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Previous Heritage Foundation research demonstrated that the quality of enlisted troops has increased since the start of the Iraq war. This report demonstrates that the same is true of the officer corps.

2. Members of the all-volunteer military are significantly more likely to come from high-income neighborhoods than from low-income neighborhoods. Only 11 percent of enlisted recruits in 2007 came from the poorest one-fifth (quintile) of neighborhoods, while 25 percent came from the wealthiest quintile. These trends are even more pronounced in the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program, in which 40 percent of enrollees come from the wealthiest neighborhoods-a number that has increased substantially over the past four years.

3. American soldiers are more educated than their peers. A little more than 1 percent of enlisted personnel lack a high school degree, compared to 21 percent of men 18-24 years old, and 95 percent of officer accessions have at least a bachelor's degree.

4.Contrary to conventional wisdom, minorities are not overrepresented in military service. Enlisted troops are somewhat more likely to be white or black than their non-military peers. Whites are proportionately represented in the officer corps, and blacks are overrepresented, but their rate of over-representation has declined each year from 2004 to 2007. New recruits are also disproportionately likely to come from the South, which is in line with the history of Southern military tradition.

The facts do not support the belief that many American soldiers volunteer because society offers them few other opportunities. The average enlisted person or officer could have had lucrative career opportunities in the private sector. Those who argue that American soldiers risk their lives because they have no other opportunities belittle the personal sacrifices of those who serve out of love for their country. Case in point, my son, from Mercer Island, just finished 4 1/2 years as an Infantry Officer in the Marines with 2 tours in Afghanistan and is now headed to graduate school.

Why would anyone want to go back to the draft, a time when you had to take everyone. Now we can be more selective and have a more highly skilled and efficient fighting force.

Posted Tue, May 29, 11:20 a.m. Inappropriate

More than half the House Democrats, and about half the Senate Democrats, voted against the authorization to invade Iraq, so obviously a lot of experienced elected officials did not agree on the "threat" posed by Iraq. Certainly Bob Graham and Dick Durbin were senior Democrats and smart, well-informed people and they weren't convinced and voted no. Many of us would say Kerry and Clinton voted to authorize the invasion for crass political reasons, with their presidential ambitions in mind. If more members of Congress had actually gone to the secure room and read the classified NIE report and seen all the caveats, the honest ones among them would have voted no. But according to Graham and Durbin, it was difficult for members of Congress to get access to the full information. If you read Colin Powell's book and listen to his recent comments, he was infuriated when he later found out that the material for his infamous UN speech came from Cheney's office, not from the intelligence services. It was doctored by Cheney and his people. When you read about the aluminum tubes and the so-called intelligence that was based on, you learn all you need to know about how Cheney and company ginned up the bogus evidence to justify the invasion. I think we already know more than enough to draw solid conclusions about what happened.

Posted Tue, May 29, 1:21 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for your comments. I'll offer a final one.

Magellan, I fear, mixes enlisted and commissioned data in his analysis of our mliitary's composition. Enlisted volunteers do not necessarily enter military service because they cannot find satisfactory civilian jobs, although some do. But they receive training and education opportunities, as a result of their service, that help them get better jobs than they otherwise could have gotten in civilian life. Many could not afford to pay for such training and education as civilians. It's a reach to say that the same troopers, had they not enlisted, would have had "lucrative" civilian jobs. Watch closely the military recruitment ads you see on TV. They are based on research indicating education and training are prime attractions for potential recruits.

Yes, our military has always had a high percentage of southern enlistees, giving truth to the old statement that the South lost the Civil War but thereafter took over the federal military.

Yes, enlisted volunteers presently have higher h.s. graduation rates than their peers. The overall h.s. graduation rate is lower than in previous generations. Moreover, a huge percentage of prospective enlistees are ineligible for military service because of either education or health deficiencies. Recruits accepted, by definition, have higher h.s. graduation rates than the general population in their age group. But most enlisted recruits lack degrees or extensive study post-high school. Officers have always been more highly educated and from higher-income backgrounds. Perhaps Magellan's own Mercer Island officer son, headed to grad school after military service, illustrates that point.

I'll look up the Heritage study. Heritage has always had an ideological tilt to its work and I would want to take a close look at the data and conclusions presented there. I certainly would begin by separating enlisted data from officer data.

The draft: I am among many who would like to see some kind of universal service, though not necessarily military service. I do believe that too many Americans have no real understanding of military service or, for that matter, service to country. I am concerned in particular that most elected officials have no military experience of their own. Neither Obama nor Romney, for instance, has such background. As the closing graf of my piece pointed out, I want a president who will consider carefully any decision committing American lives or resources to a foreign intervention.

Posted Tue, May 29, 1:33 p.m. Inappropriate

TVD, President Obama has demonstrated that he exhaustively considers any decision to commit American troops, and considers a wide range of opinions in his decisionmaking (unlike Bush), as we saw with his Afghanistan decisionmaking process (whether or not we agree with his ultimate "surge" decision). In contrast Mitt Romney has issued a number of statements which indicate a lack of thoughtfulness on military and foreign policy issues. David Sanger's recent NY Times piece offers an excellent review of Romney's dubious pronouncements on military and foreign policy. Sure wish you would do a column looking closely at Romney.
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/13/sunday-review/is-there-a-romney-doctrine.html?pagewanted=all

Posted Tue, May 29, 3:20 p.m. Inappropriate

Two things:

1) The IAEA repeatedly told the US (and this was contemporaneously widely reported by media) that they could find absolutely no evidence of WMDs in Iraq and that Hussein was bluffing. The Bush admin chose to ignore it. The general public was so shrouded in fear that resistance was ignored.

2) I keep wondering about the responsibility of military leadership. By this I mean the Joint Chiefs as well as commanders below them. Don't the military academies teach officers that they have a moral responsibility to occasionally defy their superiors? How many more times will we needlessly spill the blood of our young people. We can celebrate them as heroes all we want... they're still dead. For a lie. What does that say about us as a nation? And what have we done to make sure it doesn't happen again?

Posted Tue, May 29, 5:48 p.m. Inappropriate

The use of Guard and Reserves in the military total force in the last 10 years created this change in data about demographics, education, income, etc. But it is misleading in that the current operational status is not acceptable to the military because it is not sustainable. Several years ago a Defense Task Force on Deployment issued a report to the Office of the Sec. of Defense saying that while the guard and reserves should continue to be available as part of the active total force, it should return to part-time status and be adequately resourced, equipped and trained for the broader range of missions in which they are involved. Returning to this status is stated to be essential to ensuring a future all-volunteer force. Enlistment or a draft to fill in for Guard and Reserves returning to part-time duty may change the data again.

jmrolls

Posted Wed, May 30, 12:31 p.m. Inappropriate

Glen Greenwald today: "Apologists for the president’s “just trust me” approach to targeted killings emphasize that the program is highly successful and claim that the drone strikes are extraordinarily precise....But it turns out that even this hey-it’s-better-than-carpet-bombing justification is rather flimsy... the most significant new revelation from The New York Times article is that the Obama administration now considers “all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants,” on the ground that such individuals “are probably up to no good.” As Bunch [Will, Philadelphia Daily News] points out, this was the exact language used by George Zimmerman in his 911 call about Travyon Martin (“it looks like he’s up to no good”). Moreover, at exactly the time that President Obama was poignantly observing that Martin looks like a son that Obama might have had, he was classifying all males in the vicinity of suspected Terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia — including teenagers — as “militants” and “combatants,” and deeming them fair game to be killed solely by virtue of their physical location, gender and age. Those are someone’s actual sons."

Memorial Day, indeed.

afreeman

Posted Wed, May 30, 3:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Van Dyk,
The Heritage study I quoted clearly separates out officers from the enlisted ranks (no confusion here). As it states: “Only 11 percent of enlisted recruits in 2007 came from the poorest one-fifth (quintile) of neighborhoods, while 25 percent came from the wealthiest quintile.” Currently 21% of men 18-24 don’t have a high school degree. During the Vietnam War, 35 percent of military-age males didn’t a high school diploma but over 80% of the Vietnam era enlisted ranks had high school degrees, currently 99% of the enlisted ranks have high school degrees. So your comment that the graduation rates used to be higher is also incorrect. I hope at this point you agree that your statement: “Since that time (1973) service has been done entirely by volunteers who, disproportionately, have been poorer, less educated, and less Caucasian than the overall American population” is not accurate and demeaning.

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