Withdrawing from Syria: Why is War Not the Answer?

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.

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Winning and Losing Wars

Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won. – Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington

Got into a little bit of a Twitter scrape with Tom Nichols (@RadioFreeTom). I’m afraid he took exception to a comment I made. The start of it was Nichols condemning Trump for his “we’ve lost our wars” comment. I put in that as a matter of fact, we haven’t won a war since World War Two.

I know, I know; I probably took that too far. I must repeat to myself again and again: never get into a Twitter argument as it is impossible to have an argument when you’re limited to 140 characters. And it can get a bit sticky if you say anything which can be construed as other than critical of Trump. Trump = bad. I dig that – and am in favor of that sentiment. I feel bad that I apparently angered Mr. Nichols as I hold him in high regard for his knowledge. But, still, a busted clock is right twice a day. To be fair to those who took exception to my comment, Grenada, Panama, the First Gulf War and Kosovo were victories. And the Iraq campaign until 2009 was also a victory. But Grenada, Panama and Kosovo are not the same scale of actions as, say, a Spanish-American War – even though that war was quite short and the loss of life was mercifully low. The First Gulf War was, in my view, an unfinished war – we did eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait (a worthwhile activity), but as long as Saddam was in power in Baghdad, a resumption of the war either in Kuwait or elsewhere was always in prospect. We could have compelled a complete surrender by Saddam, and we didn’t – we didn’t impose our political will on his regime in a permanent manner. As for the Iraq campaign – well, it was won, but then it was lost…it doesn’t matter that it was Obama who lost what Bush had won, it was still the United States losing.

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War Crimes

It has been brought up lately, and I’ve been pondering it for quire a while. Here are some thoughts I have on the subject:

Back in ancient days, those who were defeated in war were at the mercy of the conqueror – it was felt that merely enslaving them was to cut them some slack. But putting an entire city to the sword down to the last man, woman and child was not uncommon. Over time, this was modified a bit as some great conquerors (most notably Alexander and Caesar) discovered that clemency was itself a mighty engine of war – letting the defeated off relatively easy tended to make conquests more lasting; and you could get more out of the defeated in continuing tribute than you could in a one-off sacking. But, still, for the longest time it was thought that an enemy who refused terms and was then defeated was without recourse to mercy.

Mostly through the agency of the Catholic Church as it rose to prominence, this idea of mercilessness to the conquered was modified. And the waging of war, itself, was held to require a strict set of rules. That these rules were often ignored is beside the point – there were rules and people would refer to them in judging the wartime actions of a nation. Time went on and war became to be seen as a thing between professional armies, alone, and the non-combatants were to be spared the ravages of war as far as possible. Napoleonic France diverged from this general trend (essentially, Napoleon looted Europe in order to fund his regime and his continuing wars) but the post-Napoleonic reaction was just that much more strong – until, by treaty, nations in the late 19th century started to codify the rules of war.

But it was still held that if one side violated the rules, the other side was justified in following suit. A good example of this was poison gas – banned by treaty prior to World War One, once the Germans started using it then all sides used it to the best of their ability. And then World War Two happened – a war was started by a nation with absolutely no justification and that nation then ran amok murdering and looting on a scale never seen before in war. After the war, trials were held and those judged most guilty of carrying out the crimes were hung or imprisoned for long terms. And it became rather set in stone: there were some things you just couldn’t do in war, ever.

But it still remains a fact that some people depart from the laws of war – most notably the terrorist. Remember, what was most terrible about the Nazi crimes was the way they brutalized people who couldn’t fight back…civilians and disarmed prisoners of war. We look far more in horror at the massacre of Babi Yar where more than 33,000 defenseless Jews were murdered than we do the bombing of Hamburg where more than 42,000 Germans died…this is because the Jews were completely harmless and completely helpless, while the Germans were at least working to support the German war machine and in the Luftwaffe and the Flak units, the Germans at least had a chance at self defense. We feel sadness when, say, an American or Israeli soldier is killed by an enemy but we know that soldiers voluntarily face such risks – and they have a chance to defend themselves. But when a bomb goes off in a shopping mall, it is defenseless, harmless people being murdered. The laws of war require that those shooting and being shot at be clearly identified as people who can do that – anyone who is not so identifiable must not be shot at and must not shoot. But the terrorist is violating both sides of that – they are not identifiable as shooters and they seek to kill people who are most definitely not in a position to shoot back.

What do we do about such a thing? That is the crucial thing we need to be clear in our minds about. The enemy diligently hides his identity. He desperately does not want to be known as a combatant before he starts shooting. He hides among his like, blending in to the best of his ability to confound those who would prevent him from attacking. He browbeats and threatens non-combatants into keeping silence, and supporting his efforts. He then steers clear of any place where he’s likely to be met with armed resistance, and then attacks. Is such a person, if captured, to then he held as if he were a regular soldier, honorably seeking to engage his like in battle? Or is he to be treated as a common criminal and be provided with a defense attorney? Or is he to be fought as he fights? Here is a clip from the movie Breaker Morant – it tells the story of three Australian officers being charged with murder for shooting out of hand what amounted to captured terrorists during the Boer War:

Most of the laws of war we use today were in effect at the time – but there is a difference: the defense the officers used was that they were obeying orders. Here’s the scene where the defense sums up:

And, of course, the standard was created in the post-WWII trials of the Nazis that obeying orders is no defense. Soldiers are to refuse to obey any order of a criminal nature – and, indeed, this has been written into American law and into the Uniform Code of Military Justice. But, still, what to do with an enemy who has departed entirely from the rules of war?

If a terrorist is planning on setting bombs in a series of shopping malls, what rule are we to use in stopping him from doing it? To be sure, if we can just arrest him and send him to jail, that is fine. But suppose we can’t? And even if we can arrest the particular terrorists planning the bomb-setting, what of their masters in a foreign land? And what of the government which allows them to operate in their territory? A further example – a terrorist group is using an active hospital as a base for their operations, what rule of war are we to use in getting after them? Kindly ask them to leave? Bomb the hospital? Suppose we decide in such cases that it is legitimate to bomb a hospital but we, being human, bomb the wrong hospital and kill hundreds of civilians – is that a war crime? Bring up the pilots on charges of murder?

We all know we must not become just like the enemy – but it seems to be that to become like the enemy would be to start hiding our military forces behind civilians and to eschew entirely attacking the enemy but, instead, go in search of family and friends and killing them out of hand. That would be acting like the enemy – but fighting the enemy without let or hindrance even though he is hiding behind civilians would not, in my view, be a crime…and if in the heat and pressure of battle where our troops are in a shooting gallery where who is the enemy and who the noncombatant is unclear, then it still would not be a crime if some of our troops did some things which in cool hindsight were wrong.

We are faced with a ruthless enemy and we have our choice – fight or quit. I don’t think that quitting is an actual option because they are determined to get after us regardless of what we do. But, still, if one wants to believe that if we stop, they’ll stop then that can be tried. On the other hand, however, if we decide to fight then while obeying all the rules of war, we still have to understand that an enemy departing from the rules will have to pay a high price for his actions…and those shielding the enemy while he violates the rules have to know that cooperating, even involuntarily, with the enemy is the worse option than resisting enemy pressure (in other words, the guy allowing his house to be used as a staging area for terrorists must become convinced that it is better to risk the wrath of the terrorists than to risk our wrath should we find out his house is a staging area).

War is a nasty, dirty business and no one comes out of it with completely clean hands. To take a human life is always a terrible thing and we should do our best to find ways to solve our problems without the spilling of blood. But the nature of humanity dictates that there will always come people who desire to obtain things by killing. It doesn’t really matter what particular thing it is they are trying for – the fact that they are willing to kill to get it is all that matters. And each enemy who arises has to be dealt with in the most efficient way possible. If someone wants to raise a conventional army to fight us and is willing to spare, as far as possible, all civilians then that, indeed, is how we should fight them…but if someone is taking to the hidden bomb in a school or the gunmen in an airport, then other means will be necessary to convince such an enemy that fighting is a losing proposition.

Turns Out We Can’t Beat the Russians

Anyone thinking that Obama might find his backbone and actually stand up to Putin’s imperialism better think again:

“Our question was: Would NATO be able to defend those countries {the Baltic states}?” Ochmanek recalls.

The results were dispiriting. Given the recent reductions in the defense budgets of NATO member countries and American pullback from the region, Ochmanek says the blue team was outnumbered 2-to-1 in terms of manpower, even if all the U.S. and NATO troops stationed in Europe were dispatched to the Baltics — including the 82nd Airborne, which is supposed to be ready to go on 24 hours’ notice and is based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

“We just don’t have those forces in Europe,” Ochmanek explains. Then there’s the fact that the Russians have the world’s best surface-to-air missiles and are not afraid to use heavy artillery.

After eight hours of gaming out various scenarios, the blue team went home depressed. “The conclusion,” Ochmanek says, “was that we are unable to defend the Baltics.”

The active Russian Army is stated at 395,000 – Poland, the closest nation with a large military force has 120,000 troops. Germany, next closest, has just under 61,000. The French army, a little further off, has 115,000. That works out to 99,000 less than the Russian army, when you combine them all together. Small wonder that even with the US Army in Europe augmented by the 82nd Airborne that we can’t get the job done – and this probably supposes that we could get the French and Germans to go along (getting the Poles to go along wouldn’t be difficult).

The thing about an army is that you just never know when you’re going to need one – which is why you’re supposed to keep a top-notch one in being at all times, even when it doesn’t seem particularly necessary. For decades now the Europeans have continually reduced the size of their military force – they got it into their heads that there would never be another major European war. Now we’ve got the Russian bear trying to rebuild the Russian Empire and no one has an army in being capable of stopping the Russians. The only way to actually stop Putin if, say, he decided to occupy Estonia is to declare war on Russia, build up a massive army, and then invade. This is not something which is going to recommend itself to European and American politicians.

Welcome back to the real world, folks. We’re in quite a pickle, right now. Not only does no one respect of fear us, but we simply do not have the military power to make anyone respect or fear us. On the other hand, our military is now almost perfectly politically correct – with only a few Marines still to be forced into line. Great, huh?

Ending World War Two

August 6th was the 70th anniversary of the atomic attack on Hiroshima and there was a lot of the usual hand-wringing about the deed from the usual suspects – Arthur K over at Ace has a good round up of counter-arguments to that sentiment. Most notably the fact that those who complain about the bombing aren’t those soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who would have had to invade Japan in November of 1945 if the Bomb hadn’t done the trick. I admit to a bias in this area as one of the Marines who would have had to hit the Japanese beaches was my father. There is a high probability that I wouldn’t exist if the Bomb hadn’t been dropped.

People also tend to just not know how savage the Pacific War was. I recently for the first time watched Flags of Our Fathers. It was a bit of a disjointed movie and I won’t put it down as one of Eastwood’s best efforts, but there is a scene in there which moved me nearly to tears. It is when the son of one of the Marines who raise the flag on Suribachi is talking to his aged, now-dying father in the hospital. It reminded me terribly of the last few days I had my father with me. As the story goes, that son never really knew what his father had done in World War Two – he only really found out by going through his father’s things after he died. I never even got that much.

My father never told me about the war. The only thing I ever got out of him was, “it smelled like blood and shit”. His battle was Saipan. Nearly 14,000 American casualties, including more than 3,400 dead – in less than a month of fighting. Japanese dead ran above 50,000, including around 20,000 civilian dead, many of whom committed suicide rather than fall into our hands, because the Japanese military told them we’d murder them all if captured. That is more than 53,000 dead in less than a month in an area less than 45 square miles. Just try, for a moment, to imagine what the place looked like on July 9th, 1944 when the island was declared secure. There must have been bodies just everywhere – and as it was war, the bodies would have been in quite a horrible state. Even if dad didn’t have to engage in hand-to-hand fighting, what his 17 year old eyes must have seen had to have been grim beyond description. Six months prior he was a high school boy living the sheltered life of the United States. And he carried that with him for 65 years. I wondered why he was so distant at times. But I think, now, I understand.

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Memorial Day Open Thread

Sorry for not having this up earlier – and for not having anything interesting to write about this important day. My internet connection got some gremlins last night and I was unable to really get anything done.

At all events, do take some time today to remember our fallen – those who really did give the last, full measure of devotion to our nation. We owe our existence as a people to them and we can never repay the men and women who gave all for us.

A Retired Admiral’s Take on Benghazi

The following is a letter that was re-printed in a military newsletter I get from a retired navy admiral to Bill O’Reilly regarding the entire Benghazi affair.  I originally posted this at the end of the recent Benghazi thread.

Mr. O’Reilly,

I am mad as hell because the truth about how combatant commanders and the department of state can and should protect embassies is not being clearly explained. The fact is that there are policies, precedent, resources and procedures that could and should have prevented the embassy in Benghazi from coming under attack, or defended it if it did come under attack, or vacated it if the threat was too high. The ongoing discussion on your show and elsewhere that centers on the video and subsequent cover up is necessary as is the discussion about whether or not we should have responded during the attack. But those discussions have not brought to light the fact that none of this should have happened in the first place.

Fact: The combatant commanders, in this case AFRICOM, have access to our national inventory of intelligence community resources as well as international resources in order to thoroughly understand the risks and threats in any part of their Area of Responsibility (AOR). The complete picture of what was happening in Libya should have been known by AFRICOM leaders and this should have been briefed up the chain daily.

Fact: The first two cornerstones of AFRICOM’s mission are (1) Deter and defeat transnational threats posed by al-Qa’ida and other extremist organizations and (2) Protect U.S. security interests by ensuring the safety of Americans and American interests from transnational threats… In other words it is the mission of AFRICOM to prevent exactly what happened at the embassy in Benghazi.

Fact: The policy is for AFRICOM leaders to work in-conjunction with the state department’s Regional Security Officer (RSO) to establish the threat and then work with the Joint Staff and inter-agency to quickly provide plans and resources to deny that threat.

Fact: There are units specifically designed to bolster security in embassies. The USMC has three companies of Fleet Antiterrorism Security Teams (FAST) and one of these companies (or units from it) could have been deployed to FASTEUR in Rota, Spain, as the risk materialized. Each company has six platoons of 50 men each.

Fact: In July 2003 when I was the J3 at European command (AFRICOM had not been created yet) we had a similar situation develop in Liberia whereby two warring factions were threatening the embassy in Monrovia. The EUCOM team began planning for embassy support PRIOR to Ambassador Blaney’s request. When he did ask for help, we responded immediately, worked with his staff and received SECDEF approval to deploy a single FAST team platoon from Rota to the embassy to provide security. We worked with the Joint Staff and created the mission and structure for Joint Task Force Liberia, an anti-terrorism force based upon USS Iwo Jima and the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU).

Fact: Elements from the MEU arrived and relieved the FAST platoon. The warring parties signed a cease fire, the embassy in Monrovia was secured, no Americans were hurt.

So, the questions are:

1. What was the assessed level of threat in Libya prior to the September attack?

2. If it was not considered high then what were the intelligence failures that lead to that wrong conclusion?

3. If the threat was considered high then why wasn’t a FAST team or other resource deployed?

4. What did Ambassador Stephen’s see as his threat and what did he ask for? If he asked for help and was not provided it, that is inconceivable to me. My two bosses at EUCOM, General Chuck Wald (USAF) and General James L. Jones (USMC) would have bent over backwards to provide anything the ambassador asked for and more. They would have leaned on the Joint Staff to provide the authority to deploy and, in fact, during the Liberian situation described above, they were pushing me every day to provide solutions for the Joint Staff to approve. And should anyone forget, this was July of 2003. We were already in Afghanistan and had invaded Iraq just four months before. We were busy but not preoccupied.

Very Respectfully,
Hamlin Tallent
RADM, USN, retired

The admiral raises a lot of good points.  I guess we’ll see where this goes.  At least the right guy is chairing the select committee.  If Congressman Goudy doesn’t have the cajones to get to the whole truth in this matter, then I doubt that anyone can.