The debacle in Afghanistan is a failure of America’s political and military elites. It is a bipartisan failure stretching back 20 years. But it was preceded by similar losses in Korea, Southeast Asia, and Iraq — failures that resulted from a combination of hubris, sentimentality, and flawed visions of American national security policy, and the true nature of war.
The United States has fought five wars since World War II, and won only one of them — the first Gulf War in 1991. War, as Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz explained, is violence in support of a political objective. In Clausewitzian terms, Korea was a tie. Vietnam was a defeat. The second Gulf War is inconclusive. And the Afghan War is a defeat.
To be clear, this terrible record has nothing to do with the courageous soldiers, sailors, pilots, and Marines who fought these wars. The failures have all been at the political level — presidents, defense secretaries, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Congress. That is where hubris, sentimentality, and flawed visions have repeatedly undermined the finest and best-equipped armed forces in the world.
For far too long, America’s political-military leaders have ignored the wise counsel of two of its greatest statesmen — George Washington and John Quincy Adams. Their words and their actions stand as guideposts for our political and military leaders, if only they will take heed of them.
Washington sagely advised his countrymen to “Observe good faith and justice towards all nations” and “cultivate peace and harmony with all,” while avoiding to the extent possible “permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations.” He warned that “habitual” hatred of, or fondness for, particular nations would lead America to fight wars that were not in its self-interest. He cautioned against allowing “ill will and resentment” and “passion” for or against other nations to lead us to war. “Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another,” he wrote, “cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other.” It was an “illusion,” Washington wrote, to “expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation.”
Washington understood human nature far better than our current crop of political leaders. He warned that there would arise “ambitious, corrupted, or deluded” political leaders who will “betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country without odium, sometimes even with popularity, gilding with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good.”
Washington’s counsel was not isolationist. He advocated commercial intercourse and trade with all nations. And while he recommended steering clear of “permanent alliances” with foreign nations, he understood the value of forming temporary alliances to advance our own interests. In practice, Washington welcomed an alliance with France to gain our independence from Great Britain, but also retreated from that alliance to avoid embroiling the United States in the Franco-British wars of the late 18th to early 19th century. Above all, Washington counseled his countrymen to remain militarily strong so that the United States “may choose peace or war, as our interest guided by justice shall counsel.” As he said in his first annual address to Congress, “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving the peace.”
John Quincy Adams’ great statesmanship emerged when he was secretary of state under President Monroe. And his most important guidance to future Americans was uttered on July 4, 1821, in an address to a committee for celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
It is essential to understand the historical context of Adams’ speech. Greece sought independence from the Ottoman Empire and requested assistance from the United States and other nations. There was much emotional and political sympathy for the Greek independence movement. Greeks, after all, were seeking what Americans had achieved (with the help of other nations such as France and Spain): freedom, liberty, and independence. The Declaration of Independence, after all, said that “all men were created equal” and had the unalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Adams, in his address, did not refer specifically to the Greek independence movement, but instead responded to the question of what the United States had done for “mankind.” After reading the Declaration aloud, Adams called it a “beacon on the summit of the mountain, to which all the inhabitants of the earth may turn their eyes for a genial and saving light.” The Declaration, Adams said, “stands forever, a light of admonition to the rulers of men; a light of salvation and redemption to the oppressed.” It serves as a proclamation “to mankind” of the “inextinguishable rights of human nature, and the only lawful foundations of government.” And while America has spoken among the nations of the world, “though often to heedless and often to disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, equal justice, and equal rights,” Adams continued, America has “respected the independence of other nations” and “abstained from interference in the concerns of others.”
“Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled,” Adams most memorably proclaimed, “there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But [America] goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” Repeating the warnings of Washington, Adams stated that America “well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own . . . she would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.”
Such an approach to foreign policy, Adams said, would change America’s fundamental maxims of policy “from liberty to force.” America would acquire “an imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished lustre the murky radiance of dominion and power.” America’s glory, he said, “is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of the mind. She has a spear and a shield; but the motto upon her shield is Freedom, Independence, Peace.”
Two years later, President Monroe, under popular pressure, seriously considered recognizing Greek independence and providing assistance to the Greek rebels. Eminent statesmen and elder statesmen — including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John Adams — publicly promoted the cause of Greek independence. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, however, counseled Monroe against actively aiding the Greeks. “For Adams,” writes historian Angelo Repousis, “the role of the United States as ‘moral leader’ of the world did not oblige the government to assist other nations struggling for independence.” John Quincy Adams, Repousis continues, “was simply not prepared to jeopardize U.S. national interests for the sake of other nations.”
Adams successfully lobbied Congress to table a resolution sponsored by Daniel Webster that would send a fact-finding committee to Greece to identify ways America could support the Greek independence movement and persuaded President Monroe to formally recognize Greek independence. It was Adams’ 19th-century version of “America First.”
Both Washington and Adams were “nationalists,” a word that has recently acquired evil connotations. Far too many American elites today consider themselves “citizens of the world,” with obligations to mankind taking precedence over their own country’s interests. Some of our foreign policy elites promote the notion that the United States has a “responsibility to protect” citizens of other countries from harm inflicted by the governments of those countries. Many of our political and military elites view climate change as a greater national security threat than the rise of China as a peer geopolitical competitor. This is nothing new. President Jimmy Carter, you may recall, once proclaimed that promoting “human rights” had superseded America’s “inordinate fear of communism.” We saw how that turned out.
The other aspect of America’s foreign policy dilemma is the approach to waging war by our political and military elites. There was a time when America waged war to achieve victory. That approach has evolved, however, ever since the beginning of the nuclear era. Fear of mutual destruction caused by nuclear war is only one part of that evolution — and a perfectly understandable one. The other part is the belief that war can be made less cruel and “cleaner.” Technology has improved the accuracy and precision of weapons; therefore, we are able to limit so-called “collateral damage” to civilians when waging war. This has led to political leaders imposing restrictive rules of engagement on our troops, which some observers believe inhibit combat operations to the detriment of our fighting forces. This has also led to military commanders requiring lawyers’ approval to strike targets on the battlefield.
“War,” Union General William T. Sherman remarked, “is cruelty and you cannot refine it.” British military historian B.H. Liddell Hart called Sherman the “first modern general” because he waged what amounted to total war against the Confederacy, recognizing, in Liddell Hart’s words, that “rude personal contact with the hostile forces is necessary to awaken the enemy people from . . . dreams of unreality and to shock them into surrender.” At the end of the Atlanta campaign in September 1864, Sherman wrote that “You might as well appeal against the thunderstorm as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable and the only way the people of Atlanta can hope once more to live in peace and quiet at home, is to stop the war.”
Sherman’s famed “March to the Sea” carved through the center of Georgia what Liddell Hart described as “a swathe of desolation two hundred miles long and as much as sixty wide.” Sherman told his superiors in Washington, “We are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and we must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.” Sherman knew that he could not change Southerners’ hearts and minds, but, he wrote, “we can make war so terrible . . . make them so sick of war that generations would pass away before they would again appeal to it.”
Then his army turned towards the cradle of the Confederacy — South Carolina. “The whole army,” he wrote at the time, “is burning with an insatiable desire to wreak vengeance upon South Carolina. I almost tremble at her fate, but feel that she deserves all that seems in store for her.” That fate included the burning of Columbia, the state’s capital, where the ordinance of secession was first penned.
Sherman’s waging of total war (at the urging of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and with the approval of President Lincoln) produced the desired effects. In late February 1865, Confederate commander Robert E. Lee wrote that, “The state of despondency that now prevails among our people is producing a bad effect upon the troops. Desertions are becoming very frequent and there is good reason to believe that they are occasioned to a considerable extent by letters written to the soldiers by their friends at home . . . that our cause is hopeless.” Total war brought victory.
Nearly a century later, Gen. Douglas MacArthur described for the cadets at West Point the world’s and the country’s immense scientific advancements and technological developments, yet told them that “through all this welter of change and development, your mission remains fixed, determined, inviolable: it is to win our wars.” A decade earlier, after he had been fired for publicly criticizing President Truman’s unwillingness to pursue victory in Korea, MacArthur told Congress “once war is forced upon us, there is no other alternative than to apply every available means to bring it to a swift end. War’s very object is victory, not prolonged indecision. In war there is no substitute for victory.”
In a very real sense, it was Truman’s policy in Korea that served as the model for future failed wars in Vietnam, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia. The MacArthur model and former U.S. military tradition, in biographer Arthur Herman’s words, “resolutely refuse[d] to embrace any war strategy that [did] not include a plan for final victory.” The Truman model, however, now reigns supreme among our political and military elites. “[A]fter the experiences of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan,” Herman writes, “it seems debatable whether the U.S. military, and the world, is better off for rejecting the MacArthur model.”
Sherman and MacArthur would not be welcome among today’s military elite, who seem focused on remedying perceived institutional social justice issues instead of planning to fight and win the next war. The current political and military leadership could not even successfully carry out a planned exit from Afghanistan. Perhaps they should read more military history instead of the latest woke tome on social justice. Apparently, to paraphrase MacArthur, their mission is fixed, determined, inviolable: it is to transform our armed forces into social justice warriors. That is how civilizations decline.