Mar 18, 2010

The Principles of War

CATO Institute

March 18, 2010


Allow me to begin by offering what I believe are the two longstanding American principles of warfare that the Bush Administration abandoned. 

The first is that before our troops are placed in harm’s way, the Constitution requires a declaration of war. 

I believe the Founders required Congress to declare war for two important reasons.  First, to assure that one individual could not plunge the nation into war as generations of European monarchs had done. And the second was to assure that in the rare circumstances that our nation placed its soldiers in harm’s way, they were backed by the full might and fury of the nation and a sober resolve to win that war just as quickly as possible.

The second point is not a constitutional principle but one of long-standing American tradition – that until recently, our nation has only gone to war when our nation has been attacked.  When faced with potential threats we surrounded ourselves with superior force and waited them out.

These principles were followed after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  President Roosevelt asked for, and received, a declaration of war from Congress as provided in the Constitution.  He then put the entire resources of the nation into the war and within 3 ½ years we had utterly vanquished the two most powerful armies on the planet.  Only then did we establish military governments that ordered Japanese and German society to our liking, and only after we were satisfied that the new governments would endure did we relinquish control.  It’s been a long time since we’ve had to worry about another Japanese attack.   

The attack of September 11th, 2001 was our generation’s Pearl Harbor.  The Al Qaeda terrorists received succor, protection and encouragement from the Taliban government and accordingly acted as an agency of that government just as surely as the Japanese naval air forces that attacked Pearl Harbor acted as an agency of the government of Japan.

How different was our response in 2001.  Then, President Bush came before Congress, promised to bring the individuals responsible for the attack to justice and then invited the nation to go shopping.  He sought an ambiguous resolution authorizing the use of force at his discretion and deployed armed forces that were wholly inadequate to subdue and control the population of that nation.  Two years later he invaded a nation that had nothing to do with the attack. 

For eight years now, the war has been one of irresolution, political correctness and incompetent leadership.  I sympathize with the current administration that has inherited an untenable situation.  But it continues and amplifies the folly of the Bush years in three critical areas.

First, the administration has defined victory not as destroying the ability and will of the enemy to make war, but rather as “protecting the population” and “winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.”  This is a fatal error.  One nation cannot win the hearts and minds of another nation while waging war against it.  The civilian populations of Germany and Japan despised the American occupation but were so exhausted and decimated that they could no longer resist it.  It was then and only then – under military government and authority – that we began to shape those societies in a manner acceptable to civilized nations.

Second, the administration has placed absurd restrictions on our forces that have greatly complicated their mission, endangered their security and resulted in needless American casualties.  War is mankind’s most terrible scourge; it is barbaric and cruel and destroys many innocent lives.  If we are to put our soldiers into combat, it must be with the freedom to wage unrestricted warfare – never deliberately aimed at civilians, but always with the recognition that in war, many civilians die because they are in harm’s way.   

Third, MacArthur was right: in war there is no substitute for victory.  By committing inadequate force to win the war and simultaneously announcing our timetable for withdrawal, President Obama has assured continued stalemate and given the enemy its most valuable ally: time.  They know they have only to bide their time, conserve their resources and less than 18 months from now move into the vacuum caused by withdrawing American forces.  This policy further undermines the administration’s own civilian-centric strategy by relying on the cooperation of civilians who can reasonably anticipate a return of the Taliban within weeks of the already-announced American withdrawal. 

The great tragedy in all this is that it makes future attacks inevitable.

Tom McClintock
Tom`s Blog