Modern presidents get us into hopeless wars, possibly in part to prove something about themselves…

So maybe you’re familiar with the idea that if JFK had lived we would not have become bogged down in Vietnam because he was trying to get us out of there (while continuing to support the government of South Vietnam against the communist led insurgency). I watched a documentary last night called “Virtual JFK” that dealt with the what if. A couple of things stood out. President John F. Kennedy apparently was able to stand up to the military brass who were adamant that we had to invade Cuba at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In one segment there is an actual recording in which Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay flatly tells the young president that he has no choice. But Kennedy had already been burned by the Bay of Pigs fiasco, something set into motion by the former president, Dwight Eisenhower (although JFK signed onto it). The U.S. backed some anti-Castro forces but it was seen that they had no chance once they went ashore. Kennedy wisely, well in retrospect, decided not to send in the Marines and not to provide air cover. So we didn’t get involved in a jungle war in Cuba. Back to the missile crisis:

Instead of invading Cuba when we found out they secretly had Soviet missiles ready to launch at us Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of the island and negotiated a deal with the Soviets to remove the missiles (I don’t think the documentary mentioned it, but as I recall the deal involved us giving up some so-called “obsolete” missiles in Turkey that were aimed at the Soviet Union).

Kennedy was relatively young, but he had served in the battle zone of the South Pacific in WWII as the skipper of a torpedo patrol boat. With the help of his father’s connections the legend of PT 109, the story of how young Kennedy saved fellow crew members, was built. There have been some questions as to the real facts in the matter, but he was an actual combat veteran and he apparently did save some lives. Unlike future presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, he had nothing to prove in regard to his character in the face of war. Been there, done that.

Lyndon Johnson served in the South Pacific in the war as well, but he ran into the problem of failing to make the case to the electorate of the need to fight in Vietnam. At one point in the film Johnson admits that a woman told him that her husband fought in WWII and she understood that, but now her son was sent to Vietnam and she did not understand the need for that.

Of course anyone who lived through all that or has looked into recent history knows that all this was based on the pre-conceived notion called the Domino Theory, in which if we let one nation fall to the communists in South East Asia, they all would.  Even Kennedy enunciated that I believe. I think Eisenhower may have been the first to suggest it (not sure).

And that is another a problem in foreign policy. We often operate on pre-conceived notions that eventually are proved wrong. I think that was the second thing that stood out in the documentary. We finally gave up in Vietnam. It fell to the communists. But the other nations in the region did not. Vietnam is still communist but has had to turn to capitalism to survive and is a trading partner with us today.

Well that was what got me thinking of the following:

What with the fiasco that has been the roll out of Obamacare (computer glitches), the shut down of the government and threat to default on its bills (resolved temporarily now), the news has been more on the domestic side. But we’re still involved in costly war in the Middle East with no good conclusion seen. We will eventually withdraw and things will pretty much fall into the hands of those we have considered the enemy no doubt. Was it all worth it? It would not seem so.

It seems we have once more been led into senseless war under the notion that we are somehow fighting for freedom or world security and that if we get involved we automatically win (the illusion left over primarily from WWI and WWII, and maybe to a lesser extent Korea — we did kick the invading communists out of South Korea).

I don’t want to waste time going over the history of our current and most recent engagements in the Middle East, except to say that the 9/11 attack did propel us to go into Afghanistan, but Afghanistan per se did not attack us. It was a somewhat amorphous and mysterious group called Al Queda, who can be anywhere and everywhere. We were not going after the Empire of Japan like after the Pearl Harbor attack that got us into WWII.

So even if we could conquer Afghanistan (and its long history of repelling foreign invaders indicates otherwise) we’d have Afghanistan but not the actual enemy who attacked us.

(And let’s not even bother to go into the pivot into Iraq where we stirred things up got thousands of people killed and then were unceremoniously kicked out by the government we helped install. And that nation has devolved back into internal violence once more and is friendly with Iran, a nation seen as an enemy to us.)

And of course realizing that it all would not be a conventional war between nation states, President George W. Bush, at the urging of war hawks, declared a “War on Terror” and got congress to back him, and the resolution is still used today to justify open-ended war with no clearly defined goal or even enemy.

Almost forgot to mention the ongoing situation in Syria, but President Obama almost sent us into war there recently.

The trillions of dollars this war on terror has cost us has pretty much led to the position we are in today. We don’t have enough money to pay our bills and the government cannot justify its actions well enough to sell the public on the idea of paying maybe a war tax, so we borrow money and go further and further into debt and then the political parties argue about raising something called the debt limit and in the process one party plays the blackmail game that it will shut the government down but blame it on the other party.

The realities of modern war, and I mean 21st Century War, have changed a lot about what is practical and what is not in military engagements. But I’m thinking that one thing that remains constant is that one must pick and choose battles and once a battle is chosen it must be sold to those who will be called on to support it, and then it must be fought to win, not to eventual loss by default (that is  by quitting short of victory), or just as bad, stalemate.

Another problem is that nowadays we have presidents who have never even served in the military, let alone war. Now of course that is not a requirement to be president and the Constitution provides for civilian control of the military (The president is a civilian but is also the commander in chief of the military). But one wonders sometimes if presidents with no personal military history feel that they have something to prove and let that get in their way of judgment.

(Okay, technically George W. Bush was in the military, opting to serve in the U.S. Air National Guard stateside during the Vietnam War. But his attendance is in question.)

In my mind the most notorious of the non-military servers was Bill Clinton, who if you read the history, was an out-and-out draft dodger, pretending to intend to go into officer training, thus excluding him from the Vietnam draft, and then dropping out when the coast was a little clearer. Yes, Vietnam was an unpopular war and a needless one on our part, but one has to wonder, so who died in Clinton’s place? I guess what galls me is that then when he was president he would wear pseudo-military jackets when touring, say, an aircraft carrier. Dwight Eisenhower was Supreme Allied Commander, an Army general, in World War II. As President he wore civilian clothes. Clinton was not afraid to use the military, most notably in the air campaign over Bosnia. He presided over a military embarrassment and tragedy in Somalia, and was accused of launching air strikes to divert attention from his own Monica Lewinsky bimbo affair. I don’t think his lack of military service affected him. Clinton has always proved that he has no shame. (And yet, one has to admit he is a clever and actually highly intelligent politician, and a scum bag at the same time. To be fair in regard to his sexual scandal (s), he probably did nothing more nor less than some of his predecessors, but unfortunately for him at the time, the rules had changed in reporting the side activities of important people.)

As is often the case, I’ve gotten off the track. Anyway, yes, the nature of war has changed. But victory is still victory. And if you do not get a victory (pretty much vanquish the enemy) you lose. And you lose for one main reason: You did not allow your forces to fight to win. That’s a much more egregious thing to do than to send them to war in the first place.

George W. Bush and Barack Obama, both of you have that on your conscience.


I don’t mean to suggest that George W. or Obama took their actions solely out of personal vanity, but knowing what people might think of them plays into the politics of the whole thing.

I should also note that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had no actual military service (he was physically handicapped but had served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy), and yet he guided the nation through WWII (our last truly successful war).

P.s. P.s.

It occurs to me that then there is the question of what does the Commander in Chief do when he (or she) realizes that victory is not attainable. I’m not sure, except pressing on to save face (Nixon in Vietnam?) at the expense of American lives seems abhorrent to me. (Nixon was a World War II veteran).

And still more afterthought here: I think Johnson and Nixon, and Obama today may all three have one thing in common, that is feeling forced to continue on with a lost cause. Who would want to be blamed for a loss?

And that is why I see war as a necessary evil when used purely or primarily as a defensive strategy. Victory is more assured because we know we have no choice but to win. Used as a tool of foreign policy it puts us in ambiguous situations.


CLARIFICATION: In the original version of this post I misidentified a speaker to JFK as Gen. Maxwell Taylor when I should have written Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay. I subsequently corrected that (both men were involved in all of this but I was referring to a specific sound recording of LeMay).


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