Memorial Day is the holiday on which we recognize the sacrifice of life by the American warrior in combat, regardless of who they were, where they were slain, and why they were sent to fight, and remember the debt owed to all of them by the rest of us.
Michael John Ohler was a 1977 graduate of the United States Naval Academy. He opted to take his officer’s commission in the United States Marine Corps. Six years later, then Captain Ohler, a Naval Aviator and Sikorsky CH-53A/D Sea Stallion pilot, was a member of what was then known as the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit, deployed for United Nations-sponsored “peacekeeping” in Beirut, Lebanon.
Captain Ohler was killed in action by a sniper’s bullet on October 16, 1983. One week later, two truck bombs devastated both the American and French military missions in Beirut in separate but near simultaneous attacks. 241 American, predominately Marines, and 58 French servicemen were killed. By February of 1984, most of the American force in Beirut was withdrawn in defeat, leaving hundreds of American families who lost loved ones asking “Why?”, and causing lasting damage to American prestige and influence.
Recently, Kurt Schlichter laid out a scenario that he titled “The Nightmare of a Defenseless America”. In that article, the United States of the near future is left impotent and defeated due to our military and defense capabilities being downsized and ignored.
I will make a more damning statement: that nightmare is already here.
Tyranny is the normal state of human affairs. To think otherwise can most kindly be called ignorance, or perhaps utopian fantasy. There is one language, and only one, that tyrants understand: violence. Diplomacy should always be tried first, but diplomacy not backed by clear strength and national resolve to pursue violence if necessary to a victorious conclusion is futile, except with nations predisposed to be our friends in the first place.
In an earlier post of mine here at Pocket Full of Liberty, “Defense Department Cuts Are Fiscally Conservative”, I made the case that the issue is not so much what we spend on defense but the lack of comparative value we get from what is spent. I closed that piece with the following, and it’s a point that deserves expansion:
Our relative vulnerability – and by extension, our ability to react to threats and win wars – is entirely dependent upon our government having the political will to wage war when it is necessary and wage it fully, with all the resources and violence we can bring to bear. However, that isn’t how the United States has largely prosecuted combat since the end of World War II. Annihilating our enemies, or sending them to the brink of annihilation so they unconditionally surrender, has been taken off the table.
Our national resolve to wage war and attain victory in battle only has one currency in which it can ultimately be measured: the lives of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and coast guardsmen.
War, and military action short of total war, is first and foremost a political exercise; it is an extension of diplomacy, not an alternative. It is politicians who take the decision to send men and women into battle to achieve their political goals in relations with other nations when diplomacy alone is unsuccessful.
This was best understood and articulated by 19th Century political/military theorist and German general Carl von Clausewitz in his posthumously published work On War. It should be required reading for anyone who aspires to run for Congress, Senate, or the Presidency.
Our politicians – regardless of party, Republican office holders are just as guilty as Democrats – have failed repeatedly at appreciating the consequences to the United States and the world for pursuing diplomatic or military solutions that fail to attain their goals. “Victory” is a dirty word; America no longer wins.
Frankly, the justification or righteousness of diplomatic or military conflict is irrelevant to the outcome that must be obtained once the decision to undertake it has been made. America must emerge victorious, otherwise we are left vulnerable and most tragically, the lives of our warriors are wasted.
Our adversaries, be they active or potential, look at the American record over the last several decades and draw one conclusion, to paraphrase President George W. Bush: “We can wait out the United States, even if they start shooting. They will tire, they will falter, and they will fail.”
When the first concerns out of an American politician’s mouth over military action are “rules of engagement”, “collateral damage”, or “exit strategy”, if you were the enemy, would you be concerned about being defeated if America decides to fight?
In his opening paragraphs, Clausewitz warned against such half-measures:
[P]hilanthropists may easily imagine there is a skillful method of disarming and overcoming an enemy without great bloodshed, and that this is the proper tendency of the Art of War. However plausible this may appear, still it is an error which must be extirpated; for in such dangerous things as War, the errors which proceed from a spirit of benevolence are the worst. As the use of physical power to the utmost extent by no means excludes the co-operation of the intelligence, it follows that he who uses force unsparingly, without reference to the bloodshed involved, must obtain a superiority if his adversary uses less vigor in its application. The former then dictates the law to the latter, and both proceed to extremities to which the only limitations are those imposed by the amount of counter-acting force on each side.
This is the way in which the matter must be viewed and it is to no purpose, it is even against one’s own interest, to turn away from the consideration of the real nature of the affair because the horror of its elements excites repugnance.
At times, even in recent memory, the United States has understood what it means to go to war, and that victory must result. Colin Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was dead on target while giving a Gulf War press briefing at the Pentagon on January 23, 1991:
Our strategy in going after [the Iraqi] army [in Kuwait] is very simple. First we are going to cut it off, and then we are going to kill it.
A broader view of history demonstrates quite clearly that the United States will not do what it takes to win, whether we decide to fight or when we are attacked, regardless of the costs or implications: Korea (1950-53), Vietnam (1955-75), Iran (1979-1981), Beirut (1982-84), Somalia (1992-1993), Iraq (2003-11), Benghazi (2012), Afghanistan (2001-present).
Through all the misadventures, misguided policies, and failed engagements, the American warrior has fought bravely, and with very few exceptions, entirely with selflessness, honor, and unmatched valor. They are blameless for America’s failures. They have done all that has been asked of them and more, and have been sold entirely short by the civilians who have sent them into harm’s way.
If we are not going to do what it takes to attain victory, it is better to not fight.
Even when our responses are purely diplomatic or non-confrontational, American short-sightedness leaves us vulnerable. I’m sure it’s a complete coincidence that the withdrawal of American nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991-92 by President George H. W. Bush was followed rapidly by an acceleration of North Korea’s own nuclear ambitions.
Why should any nation take American strategic deterrence seriously when our last new nuclear weapon system was first deployed twenty-four years ago, and in recent years our Air Force has had a hard time keeping track of our nuclear weapons and demonstrating that it’s ready to use them or protect them if necessary?
Why should any nation take American conventional deterrence seriously even in absence of past and ongoing military failures when we are currently debating raising our minimum wage such that those workers will earn more than our warriors serving in enlisted pay grades E-1, E-2, and most E-3s, or when we fail miserably at providing care to those who have served in uniform both in combat and not?
The effects of American failures can be seen clearly in our inability to positively influence events and scenarios in the present from Ukraine to Nigeria whether a military solution is on the table or not. Fighting is not always the answer and should be the last resort, but demonstrating that if we do fight we will win no matter the cost is the ultimate deterrent, and the ultimate influencer.
In the speech he had prepared for November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy articulated the criticality of American might and resolve:
Above all, words alone are not enough. The United States is a peaceful nation. And where our strength and determination are clear, our words need merely to convey conviction, not belligerence. If we are strong, our strength will speak for itself. If we are weak, words will be of no help.
Just over one year earlier in October 1962, President Kennedy brought the world to the brink of nuclear war over the Cuban Missile Crisis and back again, without firing a shot. The Soviet Union backed down because there was no doubt in their mind that the United States would not lose her resolve.
Today we are surrounded by danger while our allies question our resolve and our adversaries scoff at it. Perhaps we should hope that the “live and let live” approach to foreign affairs popular in libertarian circles is correct, even though it flies in the face of reason, backed by human experience and history.
Soon, all that will be left to us in defense against tyranny is, “Please, leave us alone.” Those words, however, are likely to be of no help.
Author’s note: as a symbol of the American warrior to whom we all owe so much, this post is dedicated to the memory of Captain Michael J. Ohler and to the family who had a husband and father taken from them all too early, and for a reason that defies explanation. To his widow Gail, and his children Sarah and Ben, I can not know your grief or loss but I, and hopefully all who will read this, will never forget, and will endeavor to hold all our politicians accountable for the debt of honor owed our warriors and their families: past, present, and future.