Learning No Lessons About War

Americans like to think of themselves as a peace-loving people but their record has been one of war-making with the pace of interventions picking up in recent decades as the U.S. military and intelligence services are dispatched around the world, notes ex-State Department official William R. Polk.

By William R. Polk

America appears to be on the brink of another war. This time the conflict is likely to involve Syria and/or Iraq (which U.S. troops just left in 2011). If we jump into one or both of these wars, that will bring the number of significant military operations since American independence from Great Britain to about 200, according to my count.

Not all, of course, were officially “wars.” There also have been many “proactive” interventions, regime-change undertakings, covert-action schemes and search-and-destroy missions. In addition, the United States has provided weapons, training and funding for a variety of non-American military and quasi-military forces throughout the world, including five new African countries in recent months.

President George W. Bush in a flight suit after landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln to give his "Mission Accomplished" speech about the Iraq War.

President George W. Bush in a flight suit after landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln to give his “Mission Accomplished” speech about the Iraq War.

History and contemporary events show that we Americans are a warring people. So we should ask: what have we learned about ourselves, our adversaries and the process in which we have engaged? The short answer appears to be “very little.”

As both a historian and a former policy planner for the U.S. government, I will very briefly here illustrate what I mean by “very little.” (I will expand on this thesis in an upcoming book to be called A Warring People.)

I begin with us, the American people. There is overwhelming historical evidence that war is popular with us. Politicians from our earliest days as a republic, indeed even before when we were British colonies, could nearly always count on gaining popularity by demonstrating valor. Few successful politicians were pacifists.

Even supposed pacifists found reasons to engage in the use of force. Take the man most often cited as a peacemaker or at least a peace-seeker, President Woodrow Wilson. He promised to “keep us out of war,” by which he meant avoiding a big, expensive European war, the so-called Great War, better known now as the First World War.

Before becoming president, however, Wilson approved the American conquest of Cuba and the Philippines and described himself as an imperialist; then, as president, he occupied Haiti, sent the Marines into the Dominican Republic and ordered the cavalry into Mexico.

By 1917, Wilson also plunged the United States into the European conflict on the side of Great Britain, France and their allies. In 1918, Wilson put American troops into Russia, following the victory of the Bolsheviks over the Tsar.

Many Reasons

The purpose and explanation of our wars have varied. Many U.S. conflicts, particularly those against the Native Americans, would today be classified as war crimes. But strong justifications can be mounted for the Revolutionary War, the First World War and the Second World War. One could argue the United States had no real choice on the Civil War and, perhaps, the War of 1812. An argument can be made in defense of the Korean War, too.

However, it is the middle grouping of America’s wars that seem to me to be the most important to understand. I see them like this: Some military ventures were really misadventures in the sense that they were based on misunderstandings or deliberate misinformation.

I think most students of history would put the Spanish-American, Vietnam, Iraq and a few other wars in this category. Basically, the government lied to us: the Spaniards did not blow up the USS Maine; the Gulf of Tonkin was not a dastardly attack on innocent U.S. ships, and Iraq was not about to attack with nuclear or chemical weapons, which it did not have.

But we citizens listened uncritically. We did not demand the facts. It is hard to avoid the charge that we were complicit, lazy or ignorant. And afterwards, we did not hold our government to account.

Several wars and other forms of intervention were justified by supposed local or regional requirements of the Cold War. We told one another that the “domino theory” in Indochina was real. So, any hint of Communist subversion or even criticism of U.S. policy sent us racing off to protect almost any form of political association that pretended to be on “our” side.

And we believed or feared that even countries that had little or no connections with one another would topple at the first touch of Communist contamination — even before their neighbors appeared to be in trouble. Therefore, regardless of their domestic political style —  monarchy, dictatorship or democracy — these governments had to be protected.

Our “protection” often included threats of invasion, paramilitary operations, subversion, bribery and direct intervention all in support of our proclaimed intent to keep them free, at least from Soviet control or influence. A partial list of such conflicts includes Guatemala, Nicaragua, Brazil, Chile, Italy, Greece, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Indonesia, Vietnam and various African countries.

Some interventions involved acquisition of their resources or protection of U.S. economic assets; Guatemala, Chile, Iraq, Iran and Indonesia come to mind. Few if any of these conflicts were to establish peace or even to bring about ceasefires. Those tasks we usually left to the United Nations or regional associations.

High Costs

The costs for all these conflicts have been high. Just counting fairly recent interventions say, since World War II they have cost America over 100,000 fatalities and some multiple of that in wounded; they have cost “the others” — both “enemies” and “friends” even larger multiples of those numbers. The monetary cost is perhaps beyond counting both to them and to us. Figures range upward from $10 trillion.

Beyond the staggering costs, the rate of success of these foreign conflicts has been low. Failure to accomplish the desired or professed outcome is shown by the fact that within a few years of the initial American intervention, the condition that precipitated U.S. involvement had recurred. This rate of failure has dramatically increased in recent years.

That is because we are operating in a world with heightened political sensitivities and global public awareness of these events. Today even poor, weak, uneducated and corrupt nations become focused by the actions of foreigners. Whereas before, a few members of the native elite made the decisions, today we face various national “fronts,” including political parties, tribes and independent opinion leaders. So the “window of opportunity” for foreign interventions that can be carried out in relative anonymity is now often shut.

I will briefly focus on five aspects of this transformation:

–Nationalism has been and remains the predominant way of political thought of most of the world’s people. Its power has long been strong (even when we called it by other names). It was given impetus by the emergence of Communism and popular demands for more equitable economic structures. Religion has also played a part. Today, nationalism in Africa, much of Asia and parts of Europe is increasingly magnified by the rebirth of Islam in the salafiyah movement.

Attempts to crush these nationalist-ideological-religious-cultural movements militarily have generally failed. When foreigners arrive on the scene, local inhabitants tend to put aside their mutual hostilities to unite against the outsiders. The U.S. saw this vividly and painfully in Somalia. The Russians saw it in Chechnya and the Chinese among the Uighur peoples of Xinjiang (former Chinese Turkistan).


–Outside intervention has usually weakened local moderate or conservative forces or at least those more stable tendencies within national movements. People espousing the most extreme positions are more likely to prevail against the invaders. Thus, particularly in protracted hostilities, extremists are more likely to take charge than their moderate domestic rivals.

We have seen this tendency in each of the guerrilla wars in which we have gotten involved. Look, for instance, at the insurgent movements in Syria and Iraq. (For my analysis of the philosophy and strategy of the Muslim extremists, see my essay “Sayyid Qutub’s Fundamentalism and Abu Bakr Naji’s Jihadism” on my website, www.williampolk.com/.)

What is true of the resistance movements is even more evident in the effects on civic institutions and practices within an embattled society. In times of acute national danger, the “center” does not hold. Centrists get caught between the insurgents battling both the outsiders and the regimes which may be seen as puppets of the foreigners.

Insurgents have to destroy many of the traditional social and governmental bonds to “win.” Thus, in Vietnam, for example, doctors and teachers who interfaced between the French- or U.S.-backed governments and the general population were prime targets for the Vietminh in the 1950s.

And, as the leaders of governments against whom the insurgents are fighting become more desperate, they more aggressively suppress their perceived rivals and critics, often driving these political activists, journalists and judges into the arms of the radicals. And, as the regime’s grip on power weakens, the foreign-backed leaders scramble to create safe havens for themselves by stealing money and sending it abroad. Thus, the institutions of government are weakened and the range of enemies widens.

Over the last half century or so, prominent examples of this pattern have been Vietnam and Afghanistan.

In Vietnam at least by 1962, senior members of the U.S.-backed regime had essentially given up the fight and were preparing to bolt the country. The army commanders were so focused on earning money that they sold U.S.-supplied bullets and guns to the Vietminh.

In Afghanistan, the U.S.-backed regime’s involvement in the drug trade, its draining of the national treasury into foreign private bank accounts (as even President Hamid Karzai has described) and in “pickpocketing” hundreds of millions of dollars from aid projects is well documented. [See, for example, http://www.sigar.mil/pdf/inspections/SIGAR-14-62-IP.pdf., the monthly reports of the American Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction.)

Short Memories 

–America’s institutional memory of programs, events and trends is shallow, usually no longer than a decade. Thus, we repeat policies even when the record clearly shows that they did not work when previously tried. And we address each challenge as though it is unprecedented. We forget the American folk saying: When you find yourself in a hole, the best course of action is to stop digging.

It isn’t only that the U.S. government (and the thousands of “experts,” tacticians and strategists it hires) do not “remember” the past mistakes, but they often reject the obvious lessons and decide that what they need to do is get a bigger shovel to dig even deeper.

–Despite America’s immigrant origins, we are a profoundly insular people. Few of us have much appreciation of non-American cultures and even less empathy for them. Within a generation or so, few immigrants can even speak the language of their grandparents. Many even shun their ethnic origins.

For example, at the end of the Second World War, despite many Americans being of German or Italian or Japanese descent, the U.S. government was markedly deficient in people who could help implement policies in those defeated countries.

Americans are even more alienated from other important world cultures. When I began to study Arabic, there were said to be only five Americans not of Arab origin who knew the language. Beyond language, grasp of the broader cultural understanding petered off to near zero.

Today, after the expenditure of significant government subsidies to universities (in the National Defense Education Act) to teach “strategic” languages, the situation should be better. But, while we now know much more, I doubt that we understand people from Islamic societies much better.

Take Somalia as an example. Somalia was not, as the media put it, a “failed state;” it was and is a “non-state.” That is, the Somalis do not base their effective identity on being members of a nation-state. Like almost everyone in the world did before recent centuries, they thought of themselves as members of clans, tribes, ethnic or religious assemblies or territories. It is we, not they, who have redefined their political identity.

We forget that the nation-state is a concept that was born in Europe only a few centuries ago and became accepted only late in the Nineteenth Century in Germany and Italy. The idea of nationhood has remained fragile even in many parts of Europe, such as the former Yugoslavia and today’s Ukraine.

For the Somalis, it is still an alien construct. So, not surprisingly, the U.S. attempt to force them or entice them to shape up and act within our definition of statehood has not worked. And Somalia is not alone. If we peek under the flags of Indonesia, Burma, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Congo, Mali, Sudan and other nation-states we find powerful forces of separate ethnic nationalisms.

These tensions are often made worse by arbitrarily drawn borders often dating back to colonial times when Western powers divided up the spoils of their overseas conquests and by the sophisticated tools of repression that Europe and the United States provide to many national governments.

When these governments fail to acquire legitimacy in the eyes of significant political or tribal groupings, violence often results, sometimes leading to long, debilitating conflicts with the local regimes serving essentially as proxies for Western interests, a process with ancient and troubling roots.

Since Roman times, foreign rulers have sought to save money by governing through local agents who would do the dirty work of keeping order and extracting wealth. Centuries later, the British imperialists used the Copts to collect taxes from Egyptians and assigned the Assyrians the task of controlling the Iraqi Sunnis. In the modern era, the United States has groomed local elites to manage populations within the U.S. broad spheres of influence.

The echoes of those years continue to reverberate in the Third World today. Ethnic, religious and economic jealousies rooted in those arrangements still abound. Americans may not be sensitive to them, but to many local inhabitants these memories remain painful.

Vast Reach

–Finally, as today’s preeminent nation-state America has a vast reach. There is practically no area of the world where the U.S. does not have one sort of interest or another, with over a thousand military bases in more than a hundred countries. The United States also trains, equips and subsidizes dozens of armies and even more paramilitary or “special” forces.

While these economic and geopolitical interests are a source of strength and richness, they also generate conflicts between what Americans may wish to accomplish in one country and what we think we need to accomplish in another. At the very least, handling or balancing these diverse aims within acceptable means and at a reasonable cost is a challenge, one that we seem less and less able to meet.

Take, for example, Iraq. As a corollary of U.S. hostility toward Saddam Hussein, President George W. Bush and his administration essentially turned Iraq over to Hussein’s enemies, the Iraqi Shia Muslim. (For details, see my Understanding Iraq, New York: HarperCollins, 2005, 171 ff.)

There was some justification for this policy. The Shia community has long been Iraq’s majority and because they were Saddam’s enemies, some “experts” naively thought they would become “our friends.” But immediately two negative aspects of Bush’s policy became evident.

First, the Shiites took revenge on the Sunni Muslim community and thus threw the country into a vicious civil war. What the U.S. called “pacification” often amounted to “ethnic cleansing,” as Shiites and Sunnis violently separated into their own enclaves.

Second, the Shiite Iraqi leaders (the marjiaah) made common cause with coreligionist Iranians with whom the United States had strained relations. Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Bush had clumsily lumped Sunni-ruled Iraq and Shiite-ruled Iran into his artificial “axis of evil.”

At several points in the U.S. military occupation of Iraq, there were opportunities to shift toward a more coherent, more moral and safer policy. But it seemed that few of the U.S. authorities even grasped the problem; certainly they did not find ways to work toward a solution of the dysfunctional policy.

When I was on the State Department’s Policy Planning Council in the early 1960s, we saw our objective as making the world at least somewhat safer, even if not exactly safe for democracy. We surely made many significant mistakes (and our advice often was not heeded by our superiors), but I would argue that we worked within a more coherent framework than the U.S. government has in recent years.

Increasingly, it seems that Washington is in a mode of leaping from one crisis to the next without having understood the first or anticipating the second. I see no strategic vision; only tactical jumps and jabs.

Constitutional Restraint

So what to do? At the time of the writing of the American Constitution, Gouverneur Morris, the principal author of the famous Preamble, remarked that one of the Framers’ goals was “to save the people from their most dangerous enemy, themselves.”

He and other delegates to the Constitutional Convention were especially frightened by the dangers of militarism and tried to restrain the temptation toward unnecessary warfare by imposing checks and balances, such as dividing the war-making powers between the Executive and the Legislature.

The nation’s early leaders, including Presidents George Washington and John Adams, certainly did not look to the military to solve problems of policy. They would have agreed, I feel sure, that very few of the problems that America faced could be solved by military means. They did what they could to keep the young country out of the ongoing conflict between France and England.

I believe many of the Framers would be horrified by the national security state that the United States has become and the gunslinger mentality of careless military actions that has taken hold.

Over the past several decades, the U.S. has been frequently misled by the successes of the postwar policies toward both Germany and Japan, successfully helping those two countries embark upon a new era.

Perhaps consequent to those successes, when the U.S. decided to destroy the regimes of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, little thought was given to what would follow. U.S. policymakers just assumed that things would get better, but they did not. Instead, the societies imploded.

Had U.S. forces invaded Iran as another “regime change” experiment, the results also would have been a moral, legal and economic disaster. By now Americans should know that we should not make proactive war on foreign nations.

Beyond the practical effects, the United States has sworn not to engage in aggressive warfare as part of the treaty creating the United Nations. In short, we need to be law-abiding, and we should look before we leap. We should weigh several factors.

The first is to be realistic: there is no switch we can flip to change our capacities. To look for quick and easy solutions is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

The second  is a matter of will and the costs and penalties that attach to it. We would be more careful in foreign adventures if we had to pay for them in both blood and treasure as they occurred. That is, “in real time.” We now avoid this by borrowing money abroad and by inducing or bribing vulnerable members of our society and foreigners to fight for us.

All our young men and women should know that they will be obliged to serve if we get into war, and we should not be able to defer to future generations the costs of our ventures. We should agree to pay for them through immediate taxes rather than foreign loans.

The third is to demand accountability. Our government should be legally obligated to tell us the truth. If it does not, the responsible officials should be prosecuted in our courts and,  if they violate our treaties or international law, they should have to go before the World Court of Justice. We now let them off scot-free.

Punishment is reserved for some “culprits” like the guards at Abu Ghraib prison who get caught carrying out distasteful policies and for “leakers” like Pvt. Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning who reveal secret activities to the public.

Fourth, in the longer term, the only answer to the desire for better policy is better public education. For a democracy to function, its citizens must be engaged. They cannot be usefully engaged if they are not informed. Yet few Americans know even our own laws on our role in world affairs. Probably even fewer know the history of our actions abroad — that is, what we have done in the past with what results and at what cost.

Ignorance of the World

And as a people we are woefully ignorant about other peoples and countries. Polls indicate that few Americans even know the locations of other nations. And beyond geography, there is nearly a blank page when it comes to other people’s politics, cultures and traditions.

Isn’t it time we picked up the attempt made by such men as Sumner Wells (with his An Intelligent American’s Guide to the Peace and his American Foreign Policy Library), Robert Hutchins, James Conant and others (with the General Education programs in colleges and universities) and various other failed efforts to make us a part of humanity?

On the surface, at least, resurrecting these programs is just a matter of (a small amount of) money. But results won’t come overnight. Our education system is stodgy, our teachers are poorly trained and poorly paid, and we, the consumers,  are distracted by quicker, easier gratifications than learning about world affairs.

I had hoped that we would learn from Vietnam and other failures, but we did not. The snippets of information which pass over our heads each day do not and cannot make a coherent pattern. Absent a matrix into which to place “news,” it is meaningless.

We are like a computer without a program. When we do get data, we lack the means to “read” it. To us, it is just gibberish.

Our biggest challenge therefore comes down to us: unless or until we find a better system of teaching, of becoming aware that we need to learn and a desire to acquire the tools of citizenship, we cannot hope to move toward a safer, more enriching future.

William R. Polk is a veteran foreign policy consultant, author and professor who taught Middle Eastern studies at Harvard. President John F. Kennedy appointed Polk to the State Department’s Policy Planning Council where he served during the Cuban Missile Crisis. His books include: Violent Politics: Insurgency and Terrorism; Understanding Iraq; Understanding Iran; Personal History: Living in Interesting Times; Distant Thunder: Reflections on the Dangers of Our Times; and Humpty Dumpty: The Fate of Regime Change.

3 comments for “Learning No Lessons About War

  1. Jim Pflaum
    June 23, 2014 at 12:50

    You’re spot-on Mr. Polk; “…we Americans are a warring people.” In fact, with few exceptions, we have covertly and selectively chosen our past warring engagements largely for the financial benefit and enrichment of our US corporations and their Wall Street financiers. Few Americans realize that many of our wealthiest capitalists, including Prescott Bush, Henry Ford, Irenee Du Pont and Averell Harriman, to name just a few, provided Hitler much of capital he desperately needed to initiate and carry out his murderous WWII conquest. Arguably, WWII may never had happened without the financial support of these often praised but greedy US capitalist.

  2. Tatiana
    June 18, 2014 at 04:14

    How sweet! Are other nations supposed to wait patiently until A Killer People learn their lesson? What kind of teaching system can be applied to the killers? The one that was used by the Red Army against Hitler in 1945?

  3. incontinent reader
    June 17, 2014 at 08:39

    Thank you. This article is imbued with a wisdom acquired over years of experience. I’ve from time to time revisited your primers on Iran and Iraq. Would that the yuppies in the White House and Congress (young and aging) who themselves don’t have experience, or an understanding of cultural and political history (or a strong moral grounding) would recognize what they lack and heed the advice of our wise men, and look to building a lasting peace instead of a never-ending state of chaos and war.

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