President Trump announced today that we will be pulling our ground forces (from what I understand, about 2,000 troops) out of Syria. His stated reason is that ISIS is wrecked and that was the only reason we were there.
This announcement set off a great deal of fury from both the left and the right. Some, in keeping with their Trump-Russia delusions, claimed this was Trump selling out Syria to the Russians as part of Trump’s stooge requirements. Others left off that notion, but still claimed our withdrawal would be a foreign policy disaster for the United States…Iran and Russia will prevail in Syria; Turkey will be strengthened against the Kurds; allies around the world will mistrust our commitment. So on and so on. As for me, I agree with the President’s decision.
First and foremost, President Trump did only go into Syria to get rid of ISIS. That’s what he said in 2016 and that’s what he’s done as President. To be sure, you can still find ISIS groups floating around the maelstrom of Syria, but the bottom line is that the fierce, ISIS regime of 2016 is no more. They are now just another set of rag-tag Islamist rabble running around Syria, killing for Lord only knows what real reason. Unless we wanted to start going village to village and simply killing everyone we think is ISIS-related, we were never going to get entirely rid of every last bit of ISIS. And Trump never said we were there to settle the Syrian civil war, nor to rebuild Syria. The job Trump set, as far as we can do it, is done. Time to come home.
But beyond that there is something we must understand and it should govern our choice on whether or not to engage in war: we, the United States of America, are not allowed to win a war. Not under the current global and national political reality. Both at home and abroad, the people who set the pace for military affairs have decreed, perhaps without really knowing it (but maybe they do?), that when the United States engages in military action, final victory may not be achieved. We are not allowed to compel an enemy surrender. We are not allowed to kill them without remorse to compel their surrender. We are not allowed to punish them, post-conflict, for putting us through the trouble. We are allowed to fight, and to die, and to have our bravest hauled up on war crimes charges…but we are not allowed to win.
And if you can’t win a war, you best not fight it.
I’m probably starting to bore most of you with this movie, but I just keep coming back to this clip from Breaker Morant about the problem we find ourselves in:
That is our problem in a nutshell: for a long while, now, we’ve been operating our warfare under the theory that some rules, first cooked up in the 19th century, govern the conduct of war while everyone we have fought in the past century has routinely ignored those rules. The rules were an attempt to humanize war – which is akin to an attempt to humanize hell. To be sure, there are rules to war and anyone familiar with military history knows that the greatest captains (Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon) all found clemency to be a mighty engine of war. But the bottom line is that even the most wise, kindly and far-seeing military commander knows that what he’s trying to do is compel people to do what they don’t wish to do. They also knew that while no good commander seeks to win via blood, a commander must still be willing to pour out blood in whatever amount proves necessary for victory.
Part of our problem is that we’re colored with our experiences of the Nazis. But, to me, there is a bit of a mistake in our perception. What the Nazis did to make themselves purely evil had nothing to do with war – we call them war crimes, but they were really just crimes, as such. In fact, the crimes they committed during the war directly harmed their own war effort. The actual war crimes committed by the Nazis were when they did things like shoot American POWs. What they did to the Jews, though, was only incidentally connected to the war. The Nazis did that because they adhered to evil and wanted to do bad things – whether or no there was a war, the Nazis still would have been inhuman garbage. Another aspect of this is that we put the Nazis on trial rather than just shooting them like the mad dogs they were. And we compounded that error by allowing Communist Russians to join us in trying the Nazis, as if a Communist had the least understanding of what law and justice entail. Since then, we’ve had lots of people refer to the rules and seek ever for another Nuremburg Trial…and as they can’t well put on trial Jihadist who would die rather than surrender themselves to a court, they just keep putting on trial our troops…accusing them of war crimes for what any historian knows are just the routine actions of a battlefield.
And, so, our inability to win – we are prevented from it. We could easily win in Syria – and by that I mean kill or disarm everyone there and dictate a settlement as we think best. It would take some years to do it. It would require an army of at least 100,000. And it would require, in the beginning, lots and lots of killing. What you might even consider massacres because if we really applied the full force of American might, then you would have battles where several thousand of the enemy die and only a few, perhaps no, American casualties. Think of it like this: suppose there was identified a town of 10,000 in Syria as a place where enemy forces are hiding/recruiting/training/what have you. Under the way we do things, today, we’d send in groups of men to root out the enemy house by house, always taking care to do as little physical damage as possible and only shooting when we have high confidence that there is an enemy. The way war is actually fought, we’d just surround the place and, depending on how much a hurry we were in, starve them into surrender or blow the place to pieces until the shell-shocked survivors came out with their hands in the air.
There would be children there who would be killed: not a war crime.
There would be non-combatants who would be killed: not a war crime.
There would be objects of cultural significance destroyed: not a war crime.
As I said, a war crime is something you done wrong in the conduct of the war. You know: shooting unarmed prisoners. A crime against humanity would be something along the lines of massacring the population of a town after it surrendered. But starving people into surrendering or blowing them to pieces if they don’t surrender quickly enough: that is just how war is fought. And if you capture a guy you suspect to be an irregular combatant – well, if getting him to talk requires some rather brutal treatment, then he should feel grateful if that’s all he suffers: an irregular combatant’s life is forfeit upon capture. That is a rule of war.
Now, you take all that and then add into the mix the fact that we have those in the United States who will seek to use any distasteful action, any failure, against their own country in order to advance their political fortunes, and you’ve got, well, what we have now…troops being sent to fight; getting them stuck in shooting galleries…and then having them hauled up on murder charges if they survive. No, thanks. If that is how war is to be, then count me a peace activist. Unless and until we get to a place where we can fight a war how it is supposed to be fought and have at least some reliance that no one back home will try to make partisan hay out of the blood of the dead, then I want no part of war. I don’t want our young men and women shoved into that. It isn’t worth their blood.
So, hats off to President Trump for just doing what he said he’d do.
And, now, it is high time we got out of Afghanistan, as well.