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Tim Blagg

Blagg: Where we went wrong

One of the most fundamental maxims governing the use of military force is to carefully define the mission before beginning to plan for the campaign.

That includes considering whether the goals being set are ones that can realistically be accomplished by soldiers, sailors or airmen.

Governments can expect their armed forces to drive an enemy off their territory, for example, or to attack and occupy another country.

So, when U.S. forces and their allies drove the Nazis out of occupied Europe in the 1940 s, they were engaged in a classic military engagement. By the same token, when we routed Saddam Hussein’s troops and pushed them out of Kuwait, we and our allies were allowing the government of that small country to regain control of their own territory.

The famous military theorist Carl von Clausewitz said that War is “… nothing but the continuation of state policy with other means,” and both the liberation of Europe and of Kuwait fit his definition. In the case of Kuwait, Saddam refused arbitration and mediation by the U.N. and could only be ousted by force.

But a study of that First Gulf War shows that U.S. commanders, all veterans of Vietnam, insisted on a carefully crafted definition of their mission. In the end, the White House limited the goal to forcing Iraqi forces to leave Kuwait, but made it clear that they were to halt at the border — which they did. It was a textbook case of the use of military forces to achieve a national goal.

Another legitimate mission for military forces is to suppress a rebellion to provide a chance for a legitimately elected government to restore the Rule of Law. But that requires that there IS a government and that the bulk of the nation’s population recognizes it.

So, when Norway’s government in exile returned after the Nazis were expelled in 1945, they quickly re-established a popular regime. Or, when the British and the Malaysian majority population in Malaya combined to defeat a strong Communist guerrilla campaign in 1950s, a new government was able to hold elections and eventually completely wipe out any organized resistance.

But history makes it clear that this type of intervention is only possible when there is a local government strong enough and popular enough to flourish while guerrilla attacks are suppressed.

When that’s not the case, military forces simply can’t be expected to be successful.

Vietnam and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan are both unfortunate examples of this — as are our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

In these cases, military forces were asked to prop up weak, unpopular regimes with disastrous results.

One might think that with the example of Vietnam in our recent history, American leaders would be wary of trying to use soldiers to create democracy in populations that are still wedded to tribal affiliations and attitudes.

But sadly, that hasn’t been the case.

George W. Bush’s poorly conceived invasion of Iraq, justified by fabricated “evidence” of al-Qaida ties and Weapons of Mass Destruction, has resulted in a devastated, divided nation wracked by civil war. As you read this, it’s coming apart at the seams. Bush’s real goal — gaining access to Iraqi oil — was also a failure.

The deployment of American troops in Afghanistan — begun with the original goal of denying a safe haven for terrorists by wresting control of the country from the Taliban — failed to find Osama bin Laden, poured billions of dollars into the area with very little to show for it, wasted countless lives and ruined many more and has resulted in a Taliban that’s not appreciably weaker than it was before.

What do we think we’re doing?

Historic roots

The United States has a long history of intervening in the internal affairs of smaller nations, one that stretches back to Teddy Roosevelt and his “big stick” policy. Time and again, we’ve used our military to “help” countries restore internal order, while often at the same time accomplishing our own selfish national goals.

Panama, Nicaragua, Haiti, Grenada … the list stretches to present-day Libya.

Sometimes, the countries are left better off than they were before, and sometimes our intervention makes things worse.

But the underlying assumption is that we know what’s best, that our version of democracy can be imposed on other cultures, and that we are justified in using military force to accomplish our goals.

It’s the “White Man’s Burden,” as laid out by Rudyard Kipling in his famous poem, applied to international affairs. Back in 1899, Kipling, a fervent advocate of the British Empire, wrote some advice to Americans, who were just venturing into imperialism with the acquisition of the Philippines in the Spanish American War. He wrote:

Take up the White Man’s burden,

Send forth the best ye breed

Go bind your sons to exile

To serve your captives’ need;

To wait in heavy harness,

On fluttered folk and wild —

Your new-caught, sullen peoples,

Half-devil and half-child.

Kipling’s assumptions, that the “brown” peoples of the world were not capable of handling modern civilization, and that they needed help and direction from the “superior” Western nations, is sadly inherent in many American decisions to this day.

Those “sullen peoples” of the poem were Filipinos, but you can make the argument that our attitude toward, say, Afghans, is not much different than that of British colonial administrators in the heyday of the Empire. We are trying to “lead” them toward American-style democracy despite clear evidence that the bulk of the population there prefers, and is comfortable with, their age-old tribal affiliations.

The end goal of that effort is laudable — the status of Afghan women is miserable, the defects of the health system causes needless deaths, and there is a real possibility that the Taliban will surge back and impose harsh Sharia laws once American troops are withdrawn.

These situations are a tragedy, and we have a duty as a major world power to try to help change them. But soldiers are not the answer to Afghanistan’s problems — in many ways, their presence simply makes things worse for the average citizen there.

The bottom line:

Dragging Afghanistan into the 21st century is not a legitimate military mission.

Erasing centuries of hatred between Sunnis, Shias and Kurds in Iraq and trying to create a nation by drawing lines on a map is not a legitimate military mission.

Imposing the rule of a corrupt Saigon regime, tainted by decades of French colonial rule, on the population of Vietnam was not a legitimate military mission.

And, today, ousting a bloodthirsty dictator in Syria while trying to prevent a fractured opposition from falling under the control of fundamentalist Muslim forces is not a legitimate military mission.

There are things soldiers can do, and there are things that must be left to diplomacy, the use of large amounts of money, and cunning statecraft.

Unfortunately, there are wrongs in today’s world that simply cannot be righted by outsiders, no matter how powerful they might be.

That’s a lesson that Washington’s politicians, bureaucrats and military commanders need to learn — but there’s little evidence that they understand that, despite what seems like clear historical examples.

And that means more American lives may be lost — needlessly, I have to say — and that’s a tragedy.

Tim Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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