Moral abdication and atrocity start at the top.
I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.
United States Army Oath of Enlistment
As the British discovered trying the quell the American rebellion, it’s difficult to fight the natives on their own territory, even when many of them are on your side. The US faced the same situation in Vietnam, its difficulty magnified because Americans were of a different racial stock than those they subjugated.
Also unlike the British, the Americans were perceived—even by their ostensible allies—as another in a long line of imperial conquerors that stretched back to Chinese domination during the first millennium. Belying US rhetoric and propaganda, industrial warfare and atrocities destroyed South Vietnam and killed or alienated many of the South Vietnamese whose freedom we were supposedly defending.
To defeat a local population when much of it wages guerrilla war or covertly supports those who do, the invading power has to kill most and terrorize the rest.
The aim was described by Colonel Edward Lansdale, the famous CIA man on whom Graham Greene based his central character in The Quiet American.
Quoting Robert Taber’s The War of the Flea, Lansdale said, “There is only one means of defeating an insurgent people who will not surrender, and that is extermination. There is only one way to control a territory that harbours resistance, and that is to turn it into a desert.
“The Killing of History,” John Pilger, Information Clearing House
The population subjugated, the invading power must maintain a satrap and garrison state. The invasion is usually easy compared to the occupation, as the imposed order fights continuing resistance. Garrison states are inherently unstable and the subjugated often outlast their conquerors.
None of this was news in the 1960s. America had its own Revolutionary War plus its and Europe’s experiences with imperialism and colonialism to draw on. By the mid-1960s, it was clear the US political leadership wouldn’t allow the military to completely subjugate either North or South Vietnam. North Vietnam was off-limits because a full-scale invasion might draw in the Chinese and memories of the Korean War were still fresh. South Vietnam was the US’s ostensible ally, but complete subjugation would have exposed US “protecting freedom” rhetoric as a lie. It would have provoked widespread revulsion among the US populace—seeing the war through the eyes of TV and print media already hostile to it—further stoking protest and resistance.
The US military leadership faced a situation where it could neither win nor withdraw. When did it have the duty to tell the civilian leadership that as fought, a war could not be won and continuing would only waste more blood and treasure? The question goes far beyond Vietnam.
After Vietnam, the US was supposedly beset by the Vietnam Syndrome: the public’s aversion to quagmires and refusal to endorse military interventions. That syndrome dissipated after 9/11 and the military has intervened repeatedly in a number of conflicts that have or threaten to become quagmires.
The military and political leadership have gotten clever about the public relations aspects of war. The media is never given the virtually free rein it had in Vietnam. The mainstream media is more docile now, rarely challenging official stories, explanations, and rationales. The alternative media doesn’t have the resources, personnel, and geographic reach to consistently do so.
The draft has been suspended; there are no campus war protests. The number of troops deployed in today’s conflicts are small fractions of what was deployed in Vietnam. Drones, long-range missiles, and other technologies equipped with sophisticated electronics allow the military to inflict destruction and death at long-range with minimal risk to US personnel.
Yet the Vietnam quandary persists: as fought today’s conflicts are not won, but spill blood and waste treasure. The mountains of Afghanistan are not the jungles of Vietnam, but just as in Vietnam, a substantial part of the population engages in guerrilla resistance against the US and its puppet regime. As in Vietnam, the war has bounteously funded the military and its contractors and fueled widespread corruption. It has gone on for sixteen years, making it America’s longest war. A war of complete subjugation and a garrison state would require many times the 11,000 troops the Pentagon officially acknowledges are now in Afghanistan.
With winning off the table, the US wages wars with all downside and no upside. There are the dead and wounded, and the burden of caring for the latter. The ambiguities of war goals, fighting guerrillas, and waging war on non-combatants takes a moral and psychological toll long after the soldiers return home. Hypocrisy and corruption in the military, its contractors, and allied governments embitter US personnel, the subjugated population, and the rest of the world. Wars and weapons make a significant contribution to the $20 trillion national debt. Even regime change wars like Iraq and Libya, ostensibly won, pose the challenges and costs of garrison states amidst insurgencies and sectarian warfare.
Given the costs and preclusion of winning, isn’t a general’s duty to present to the civilian leadership an appraisal and a choice? To state that a war as fought will be never be won; tell them that what it would take—“extermination” that turns the territory into a “desert”—and present the choice: that kind of war or no war at all? Isn’t that what the military leadership owes to the Constitution, to the political leadership, to the men and women they command, and to all Americans, instead of mindless drivel about “generational wars”?
If the political leadership presses wars that will never be won, for political reasons, for venal considerations of personal prestige, careerism, and financial gain, for any reason that senselessly prolongs those wars, shouldn’t an officer resign and publicly state his reasons for doing so? Isn’t that the duty owed to the dead and wounded—an individual effort to stop the carnage so that no more will be slaughtered and maimed, no more treasure wasted?
The Army Oath of Enlistment qualifies the duty to follow orders. It’s subject to the Constitution and to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. If it weren’t, the oath would be a Nuremberg defense, a defense the US and its allies rejected after World War II. No one can abandon the requirements of morality simply because they’ve been ordered to do so. Yet that is what the military leadership has done these many years, with disastrous consequences for the country they’ve sworn to defend.