Going to war ought to be a hard thing for our political leaders to do. In fact, going to war ought to be the hardest thing they ever do.
In the wake of this country's ill-fated adventure in Vietnam which killed 58,235 Americans, wounded 350,000 and took the lives of a million Vietnamese some far-sighted military and political leaders said, "Never again."
Never again would America wade so easily into a quagmire, said the late Gen. Creighton Abrams, the last U.S. commander in Vietnam. Never again, said Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. Never again, said the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell, a Vietnam veteran.
Concerned that the actions of the nation's political leaders had swept the military into a conflict that the American public turned against, Abrams began the first moves to make certain that any future venture into war would take not only the Army but also the Army Reserve and National Guard.
That way, he reckoned, the citizens of villages, towns and cities across the nation would have a stake their sons, and now their daughters, too in what was happening.
After terrorists bombed the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut 20 years ago, killing 241 Americans, Weinberger postulated a doctrine that bore his name:
The United States shouldn't commit forces to combat unless its national interests or those of its allies were threatened.
U.S. combat troops should be committed only wholeheartedly and with the clear intention of winning.
U.S. troops should be committed only with clearly defined and achievable military and political objectives.
The relationship between those objectives and the size and composition of American forces should be continually reassessed and adjusted if necessary.
U.S. troops should not be committed to battle without a reasonable assurance that the American public and Congress support the commitment.
Committing U.S. troops should always be the last resort.
With the Persian Gulf War, Powell, who had worked for Weinberger, added a couple of refinements:
Always use overwhelming force, not proportional force.
Always have an exit strategy, and when the fighting is over, exit.
During the Clinton years, these sound principles were eroded, most famously by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who once asked: "What's the point of having this superb military that you've always been talking about if we can't use it?"
So that superb military was used, or misused, in places such as Somalia and Haiti.
The erosion of both the Weinberger and Powell doctrines now seems complete in the Bush administration. First in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, Bush's aides talked of pre-emptive strikes and of how the marriage of air power and special operations forces had made overwhelming force obsolete. The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs even told Congress that the Pentagon didn't plan for postwar Iraq because planning might have precipitated war.
Now Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld wants to throw out Abrams' cherished and deliberate dependence on the National Guard and Reserve so it's easier to go to war. He wants to pull the Guard and Reserve units the Army can't leave home without including engineers, civil affairs and military police back into the active Army.
Rumsfeld says he wants to be able to deploy military forces faster and to create a more efficient mix of active and reserve forces. But he also wants to make it easier for America's political leaders to go to war without disturbing the American people by calling up their sons and daughters.
Right now, 35 percent of the 120,000 American troops in Iraq are Guard and Reserve. Some small communities have sent half their police and fire departments to bolster the undermanned, overworked regular Army. That hurts, just as Abrams intended, and it ensures that folks in those communities are paying close attention to the political decisions being made in Washington.
If Rumsfeld has his way and the Guard and Reserve roles are curtailed, that clarifying pain and the resulting public stake in diplomacy and decision-making will recede. Going to war will become quicker and easier. At least until some future, and hopefully wiser, defense secretary writes a new doctrine that makes it harder to go to war again, harder to make the kind of mistakes that fill our national cemeteries and our military and Veterans' Administration hospitals.
War should always be the hardest thing to do.
Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers.
© Copyright 2003 Knight Ridder