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American Diplomacy
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April 2003

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General Sherman Indubitably Was Right

Notwithstanding the oral historian Studs Terkel’s assessment of World War II from the American perspective, there simply is no such thing as a “good” war. By its very definition, waging war involves death and injury and destruction. Civilians, as well as the combatants, die and suffer grievous injury. Whole cities were laid waste in twentieth century warfare, and most assuredly the same will happen, if not worse, in any kind of major conflicts of the twenty-first century.

There is no such thing as a good war.

There are, of course, wars that are necessary and unavoidable. The United States was left with no choice whatever in December 1941 when attacked at Pearl Harbor. Ethiopia, as another example, when invaded in 1935, unfortunately had no option other than to resist Italy militarily.

Both examples point up the impossibility of sidestepping wars that threaten vital national interests. America and Ethiopia could do nothing but go to war. (It was, incidentally, the last time the United States formally declared war, as provided in the Constitution.)

In 1914, the nations of the Entente Cordiale and the Central Powers were tied up by interlocking defense pacts that limited their options and led to a vastly more destructive conflict than any of them had expected. The First World War possibly could be viewed as an avoidable conflict, but it would have taken circumstances and attitudes considerably different from those prevailing at the time in the real world.

And then there are clearly avoidable wars, wars that nations stumble into little by little, almost inadvertently. A prime example is the United States’ military involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s and the early 1970s. In implementing a settled official Cold War policy of containing communism worldwide, the United States fell into a seemingly never-ending, extremely expensive, and increasingly divisive conflict half way around the world.

It was a bad war, one that could have been avoided without significant impact over time, we now know, on U. S. interests.

Other instances of bad wars, often involving losing efforts, come to mind: The attack in 1956 on the Suez area of Egypt by Britain, France, and Israel; the Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay that dragged on for seven years, ending only in 1935; the Soviet Union’s invasion of Finland resulting in the Winter War of 1940-41.

We come to the point of this editorial. The United States—the Administration in Washington—at this writing threatens to go to war, and soon, with Iraq over the issue of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The UN and most of the international community oppose precipitate action, especially given the UN inspection effort now under way. The Administration insists the Iraq and Saddam Hussein have WMD and suggests strongly that Iraq is a danger to the world. That nation must disarm, in this Washington view, or be forcibly disarmed, with or without formal UN sanction—if necessary by the United States acting alone.

Now, who doubts that Saddam Hussein is a nasty piece of work? And who doubts very much his regime has the potential for military action, given that Saddam has already used WMD against his own people? The ability to deliver these weapons outside Iraq’s borders is another matter, however.

Mobilizing and invading on the basis of what the Washington authorities have revealed to the public thus far? Invading Iraq without the concurrence of the world community (save possibly Great Britain)? If so, and the Abrams tanks wipe up the Iraqi army, what then?

Perchance the Bush Administration knows something about this threat that it is not revealing to the rest of us, or it is engaged in a gigantic game of bluff, a confrontation to see if Iraq will blink first. I wish I knew which, if either.

I feel constrained here to quote the nineteenth century American cited in the title to this piece, words from a speech of his in 1879:

War is at best barbarism. . . .Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more destruction. War is hell.

And I haven’t even addressed the “issue” of North Korea yet.

Editor Henry E. Mattox
Jan. 23, 2003


Past editorials can be found here.

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