I’ve been concerned about top officers in our military stepping up to the microphone and announcing their opinions on what the foreign policy of the United States should be. For example a few weeks ago the lead story in the New York Times bore the headline, “U.S. General Says Raiding Syria Is Key to halting ISIS.”
Although to my eyes this was a surprising headline, none of our influential news outlets came forward to remind us that the words must be only the man’s opinion because in our democracy the military does not set foreign policy, which it appears would unflinchingly be to use armed force. Subsequent to this general’s pronouncement, decisions by our president bolstered my notion that the military may have moved into a position of too much sway. Seven four-star officers are appointed by the president to the Joint Chief of Staff to advise the Secretary of Defense and the president on war matters. Beyond that, the duty of a general is to command a brigade, division, or corps, or serve as a staff officer in the pentagon or in a specialized position such as with NSA, and do as he is told by his commander in chief, the president. Generals do not have command decision in sending our troops to war. This is sound policy if for no other reason than a soldier’s advancement up the ranks is greatly enhanced by war experience. Just as we are leery of a used car salesman pushing a clunker on us because he’s focused on his sales commission, we should be skeptical of a member of the military telling us war is necessary when that war is needed for promotions.
In April the Times ran a story about the West Point class of 2014 titled, “In New Officers’ Careers, Peace Is No Dividend.” The article, written by Helene Cooper and Thom Shanker, mentions that the withdrawal of our troops from Iraq and Afghanistan means less opportunity for combat experience, and combat experience “has been crucial to promotion.” Cooper and Shanker write that the limited opportunity to deploy to a war zone “is causing anxiety and unease at West Point.” Because the military has swelled with soldiers who served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan recent West point graduates “may find limited chance for advancement.”
So why would we think a career soldier who knows the surest way to a promotion is through fighting in a war would ever tell us going to war is a bad idea? In fact it appears military law forbids an officer from advocating for peace. A few prominent officers have said war is hell, or a racket, or drains the wealth and lifeblood out of our country, but they said it after they retired. Active duty members of the military enjoy no such freedom of speech.
During our war in Vietnam a Naval officer serving stateside was court martialed for participating in a peace demonstration in uniform. If the advice of our military leaders to the Secretary of Defense and the president weighs even consideration of peace and war, does it not follow that if an officer is court martialed for openly supporting peace, an officer openly supporting war should also be court martialed? If that does not follow, if we accept that career soldiers want war, why ever ask their opinion or advice?
But since the first Gulf War a parade of high rank officers, both active duty and retired, have been presented to television viewers as experts on what the United States should do, and none of them have promoted a peaceful resolution. It seems asking a general if we should go to war is like asking a football coach if there should be a game this weekend.
Most disturbing is that as a result of the military leaders’ belief that war is a logical choice, homes are destroyed, people are killed, lives and hopes are ruined. That inescapable fact of war makes the used car salesman look like a pretty good guy.
When we come upon a scenario where nations historically have gone to war, a strong discussion is important before any action is taken. How many people who are as zealous about peace as the generals are about war have been in the Oval Office when a foreign crisis was considered? How many debates between the two points of view has the president heard? In fact, how many peace advocates have the news outlets interviewed when the war drums are sounded?
A sign in a music store’s window said, “It’s always been the people’s responsibility to make it extremely difficult for their government to take them to war.” But the number of peace advocates interviewed by the media is close to nil. Pacifists are marginalized as fringe thinkers. The sixties hippie’s mantra of love and peace is dismissed as a naïve notion induced by marijuana and LSD. Young men and women returning from our recent wars who denounce the violence have been called traitors by radio talk show hosts who never served. Veterans For Peace chapters in major U.S. cities are banned from marching in the Veterans Day Parade and denied meeting space in municipal veterans buildings.
The challenge in having the point of this essay heard and understood is overcoming the influence the military has had on our lives since we were children, from history books that show our wars as noble, to compulsory demonstrations of patriotism. To many people a suggestion that half the members of a presidential advisory council should be peace advocates sounds farfetched, but without that arrangement it is no council at all. It’s like a restaurant with one choice on the menu. The choice can be delivered by the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marines but it’s going to look and taste the same.
For thousands of years the populous has been misled by the men who command armed forces. From earliest times kings and emperors and elected leaders have felt a need to raise armies. Who they needed most were young men, boys actually. The uniform’s look of masculinity and the heroic appearance of ribbons and decorations ribbons fulfill the boy’s dreams of becoming a real man. The uniform does half of the recruiting with its seductive look. The more danger involved in joining a particular branch of the military, the more dashing the uniform. Compare the drab blue uniform of an Air Force staff sergeant to the red and gold splendor of a Marine Corps gunnery sergeant.
Many people (probably most) believe war will always be with us. But many others believe peace is possible. They believe mankind’s greatest gift and greatest strength is our intellect, our free will, and our ability to change what is around us. Peace is not easy to come by. When someone spits in your face it is easier to strike that person than to engage the person in dialogue and find out why this happened and what would keep it from happening again. Our present wars are not about militant bands in the deserts wanting to take over the United States. If you believe they do you have not been reading the facts. You’ve been listening to the commentary of people who benefit from war. The war we lost in Vietnam was not about the Vietnamese wanting to take over Guam or Hawaii or California. The Vietnamese won that war and to the victors went the spoils. To the Vietnamese the spoils of war were simply that we, the United States, get out of their country. That sounds a lot like the call from the Middle East.
Denny Riley can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.