John F. Kennedy and the Origin of Wars Without End
Subject: Every American politician needs to read this-send it to your Senators and Congressmen/women-I already did GeorgiaThis is a well-written essay about US wars. A must-read, particularly for our politicians on both sides of the aisle!
Thoughts in and around geopolitics.
By: George Friedman
I’ve spent the past few weeks trying to answer a fundamental question: Why did the United States, economically and militarily the most powerful nation in the world, lose three wars during my lifetime? Given that tomorrow is the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the immediate cause of the last disastrous war, it is proper that this question be asked and that we all try to answer it.
For me, the origin of these wars is to be found in words from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address:
“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
At the time it was met with great applause. Kennedy was merely summarizing a moral principle that had become commonplace after World War II. During the conflict, Franklin D. Roosevelt presented the United States as the moral savior of a corrupt world. It’s true that the world was corrupt, and it’s true that the United States saved the lives of my parents and millions of others. But the war had a powerful geopolitical rationale: If Germany and Japan were not defeated, the security and the fundamental interests of the United States would be in danger. Roosevelt meant what he said about salvation, but he carefully calculated the cost of being the savior.
The Roosevelt theory of salvation embedded itself at this time. The struggle against the Soviet Union was a moral struggle but not one beyond the consideration of costs. When he became president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was previously Roosevelt’s commander in Europe, shared a moral abhorrence of the Soviet Union. But he refused to send U.S. troops to Indochina to support France, he insisted that France and Britain, however morally superior they may be to Egypt, withdraw from attempting to seize the Suez Canal, and with meticulous care, he managed to leave office having not engaged in a nuclear war. He petted the geopolitical shark, a moral cause carefully calibrated with resources, risks, and rewards.
In his inaugural address, Kennedy wrote a blank check from his country. This was the moment the United States left the world of Roosevelt’s prudent savior. The United States would as a matter of principle bear any hardship to support any friend and oppose any foe to assure liberty. In assuming the burden, he assumed the cost of war if needed, and he did not ask the question of whether our hardships would bring success or failure, and at such a price that the nation might not be able to bear it militarily, financially or morally. It is hard to imagine that he understood the promise he was making.
Kennedy’s principle was not a meaningless moment in a speech. It expressed a sensibility that had emerged in World War II in which war was an instrument to be used against evil. It was easy to regard America’s enemies as evil, because they were. There was no tension between the geopolitical imperative of the war and the moral imperative.
It was after Kennedy’s speech that the principles of World War II began to emerge as conscious principles, and this has dominated American strategy imperfectly as such things always do. There were three wars following Kennedy’s stated principles that lasted for many years and were unsuccessful: Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. But they were only the long and agonizing cases. The United States used military force in Iran during the hostage crisis but failed to achieve its desired outcome. The United States invaded Grenada. It succeeded, I suppose. The United States sent troops to Beirut and withdrew when hundreds of Marines were killed by explosives. The United States succeeded in Desert Storm. It conducted an extended bombing campaign in defense of Kosovo. And it has sent troops into Libya, Syria, Chad and northern Africa.
I am no pacifist, but the tempo of operations imposed on the U.S. military and the widely varying environments it went into, frequently with a mission that was opaque, made little sense. In World War II, there was a clear moral and geopolitical reason for combat, a clear if flexible strategy that would withstand reversals. Most importantly, the military was configured for this war. Training a force takes time, and a force cannot be trained for “whatever comes up.” Having been trained to face the Soviets in Germany, the U.S. military was then unreasonably asked to fight limited wars in the jungle, the desert and so forth. In other words, it was asked to go anywhere to fight any foe and protect any friend. So that’s what it did.
In Vietnam, a military built around armor and clear fields of fire was thrown into a jungle that curbed numbers and limited visibility. In Afghanistan, what started (and should have ended) as a covert mission conducted by the CIA and special operations forces ballooned into something quite different. In Iraq, the military was never trained or equipped for a battle that featured improvised explosive devices and light vehicles.
The thing is, it takes time and experience to develop a concept for fighting a war, identify the troops needed for a war and train a force to fight a war. Eisenhower’s mission was to conquer Germany. He refused to act for over two years. Marshall first trained the army for the war at home, and then Eisenhower trained them again in North Africa, losing battles and learning about the Germans. The army that landed at Normandy and the Navy that delivered and protected them were built for that moment, and even then suffered failures. To have landed an army there trained for Vietnam would have been insane.
Even so, in World War II the U.S. emerged with a sense of invincibility. The first duty of the senior commanders was to ruthlessly extract this feeling from the military and from its civilian leadership. If you go into combat without an appropriate force, and with a sense of invincibility, you may not lose, but you won’t win. And if you go in unprepared for the terrain, weather, and horrors of the battlefield, the failures will mount, the politicians will deny any failures, the machine will pump more soldiers into the war, and the public will rightly determine that the war was a horrible failure. And then the soldiers who broke their hearts trying to win will feel betrayed by their nation.
The more wars the U.S. fights in shorter intervals, the less likely it is to win. Kennedy’s doctrine, then, should be expunged from our minds. That doctrine leads to endless war and continual defeat. War is not an activity designed to do good. It is the use of overwhelming force against an opponent that threatens your nation’s fundamental interest. War is not an act of charity for deserving friends, not even an act of vengeance for a vicious enemy.
A fundamental foundation for peace is an unsentimental understanding of geopolitics, the discipline that distinguishes sentiment from necessity, the capability from boast, and the enemy who matters from the one who doesn’t. We are now more at peace than usual. Minor conflicts in Africa and the Middle East still rage. Only a few are justified; the others are undertaken out of habit, a bad habit at that. “America First” has somehow become an ugly concept. It is as with children: Whoever does not put his children first, above other children, is morally questionable. Those who do not put their nation ahead of others are in my view the same. Once your own love is cared for, and you have the ability, helping another is praiseworthy. But nothing is more immoral than putting others first and failing to protect your own.
Which brings us back to Afghanistan. There are those who argue that leaving Afghanistan puts American lives at risk from future terrorist attacks. But terrorists are tied to no country, and their numbers are small. They keep it that way to gather weapons and plan their operations usually from the country they intend to attack, not a country half a world away.
Kennedy assumed that the U.S. could afford to fight any enemy anywhere. It can’t. And Washington better is certain that the next war it fights can be won, and that the next enemy is actually an enemy.
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