I will admit that in 2003, I was young, uneducated, and easily caught up in the fervor for war with Iraq like some of our smartest (and not so smart) politicians. Clausewitz warned us that “war is no pastime; it is no mere joy in daring and winning, no place for irresponsible enthusiasts” (p. 86). After visiting countless battlefields all over the world and dedicating my studies to military history, I know I would have responded differently 10 years ago.
Unfortunately (luckily?), it is not as if you get a second chance to question going to war in the Middle East over WMDs.
If you had told me in 2008 that one day John Kerry would speak on behalf of the Obama Administration, contemplating going to war in the Middle East over WMDs, I would have laughed in your face. Yet here we are.
With this second chance, I will plead with anyone who will listen—remember the words of the great military theorists!
War is a matter of vital importance to the State; the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin. It is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied (Sun Tzu 1.1).
When we study past wars, we should focus on more than just the victories and defeats, strategies and tactics, but we should learn the gruesomeness of it all. Learn how each war haunts a generation, how those who recall it can barely do it without some physical or mental stress. Learn why many of our dads and granddads rarely wanted to talk about their experiences in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam. Learn how all the great poets of 1914 enthusiastically marched to war, and then either died or became jaded alcoholics.
When we understand the potential cost of war—not just financially—we will think with clearer heads.
We also must remember Clausewitz’s timeless advice for any nation preparing for war.
No one starts a war— or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so— without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it (p. 579).
Kerry is convinced the Syrian government used chemical weapons. I do not doubt that claim or his sincerity. However, if we go to war with Syria, what is our objective? What do we hope to achieve? How do we hope to achieve those aims? Are we simply sending a message with bombs? Are we seeking vengeance on behalf of those killed and maimed with chemical weapons? French President François Hollande said “France is ready to punish those who took the heinous decision to gas innocents.” Are we seeking to turn the balance of the civil war to arrive at a clear victor?
Do not settle for announcements of lobbing missiles as sufficient explanation for war aims. It is shortsighted.
Above all, question everything. The first national, anti-war movement in the US dates back to John C. Calhoun, Abraham Lincoln, and Henry David Thoreau during the Mexican War. The notion that not supporting a war somehow means you do not support the troops is a charge that dates back to accusations against Lincoln. He supported the troops, but not war. Do not fear the charge, as it is said out of ignorance.
Before we go to war with Syria or any other country, learn about past wars and their effects, set a clear plan and objective, and question everything.