Americans have a long history with war. It’s natural for us. After all, we started out that way. The USA came about because we were willing to fight for independence from Great Britain. For over six years we battled the most powerful empire in the world. We didn’t exactly thrash the Brits – winning only occasional battles – but we kept an army in the field, and we never gave up (although we came close a few times). Finally, after our pivotal victory at Yorktown, Virginia, some wise men in England said, “Why don’t we cut this out, make peace, and start working with this ambitious new bunch?” In contemporary parlance, we outlasted ‘em. Ultimately, we became Britain’s staunchest ally.
Up to that time, few countries became independent by fighting. Switzerland’s withdrawal from the Holy Roman Empire in the 16th century is the only previous example that comes to mind. Remember William Tell shooting the apple off his son’s head with a crossbow? It was during the struggle for Swiss independence. I don’t know if the story is exactly true, but the Swiss certainly think so. They built a stupendous memorial to William Tell in the alpine town of Olten.
Success is rare in wars for independence because the imbalance of power between rulers and subjects is usually too great to overcome. Some particular advantage is needed for success. Shooting apples with crossbows didn’t defeat the Romans (Holy or otherwise). Switzerland’s trump card was the Alps. HRE/Austrian armies couldn’t chase down rebels hiding in those vast mountains. The Alps have protected the Swiss from outside invaders for centuries.
For George Washington, the advantage was land – lots of it. The country was too big for the Brits to subdue with slow-moving foot-soldiers, horses and supply wagons. The country then was far bigger than in today’s motorized age. There were no decent roads through a billion acres of woods and impassable land. A fully equipped army was really “flying” if it made 10 miles a day. It was a sitting duck for an ambush by unconventional guerrilla forces waging hit-and-run war.
In 1781, General Cornwallis burned his supplies to gain the speed he needed to catch Daniel Morgan’s rebels in North Carolina. But the tactic failed. His exhausted army got trapped at Yorktown, where George Washington’s army pinned him against the coast, and a French fleet blocked a British seaborne rescue. Americans had used their vast space to outlast and exhaust the world’s strongest army.
In the two hundred-plus years since the Revolution, Americans have engaged in numerous wars – big and small – as the list below illustrates:
|American Revolution||1775||1781||6 yrs.||20 yrs.|
|Barbary Pirates War||1801||1805||4 yrs.||7 yrs.|
|War of 1812||1812||1814||2 yrs.||-|
|Mexican War||1846||1848||2 yrs.||13 yrs.|
|Civil War||1861||1865||4 yrs.||33 yrs.|
|Spanish War||1898||1901||3 yrs.||16 yrs.|
|World War I||1917||1918||2 yrs.||23 yrs.|
|World War II||1941||1945||4 yrs.||5 yrs.|
|Korean War||1950||1953||3 yrs.||12 yrs.|
|Vietnam War||1965||1972||7 yrs.||11 yrs.|
|Grenada War||1983||1983||4 mo.||7 yrs.|
|Gulf War I (Desert Storm)||1990||1991||1 yrs.||10 yrs.|
|Gulf War II||2001||2015||14 yrs.|
Two key facts jump out of that table. First, most American wars – at least, the successful ones – have been of fairly short duration. About four years seems to be our ideal maximum. When a war drags on longer than that, citizens grow impatient, and an anti-war political faction arises to take advantage of war-weariness. The Vietnam War and Gulf War II are good examples of this phenomenon. For various political reasons, presidents adopted a low-level strategy in both wars, producing extended conflicts and no clear victory. In both cases, liberal Democrats made political hay by becoming the anti-war party.
A GOP administration got us into Gulf War II in 2001, with wide bi-partisan support. But by 2004 Democrats were arguing that Iraq was “the wrong war,” and Senator Hillary Clinton was accusing overall Commander Petraeus of lying about the war’s progress. Democrats swept both houses of Congress in 2006, and peacenik Senator Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008 by promising to end wars, not start them. Americans were heartily sick of the war, and they blamed Republicans for not winning it. They had a point. You can’t win a war while trying to keep the public from feeling that we are at war. It was a fatal mistake.
Democrat President LBJ got us into the Vietnam War in 1965, but by 1968 a strong anti-war faction – led by Senator Robert Kennedy – had arisen in his own party to contend for the presidency. The much-hyped North Vietnamese Tet Offensive in January ‘68 – which was far less successful, militarily, than represented by the American media – was a mortal blow to public support for the war. America’s trusted TV elder statesman, reporter Walter Cronkhite, pronounced the war “lost,” and many people believed him.
Seeing the handwriting on the wall, LBJ announced his intention not to run for another term in ‘68. RFK looked strong for the nomination, but his assassination in June caused the baton to be passed to Vice-president Hubert Humphrey, who loyally vowed to see the war through. Wild anti-war demonstrations by stoned hippies at the Dems’ convention in Chicago, however, ruined Humphrey’s chances in the general election.
Republican Richard Nixon won handily on a promise to bring the war to a speedy conclusion. It took him four years to end it with an armistice in late 1972, but it was too late. Vietnam had become “Nixon’s War.” Democrats, college students (who were teeny-boppers in 1965) and much of the media had completely forgotten that Democrats got us into that mess. But over 50,000 young men lost in seven years of wretched jungle-fighting was our limit. When the North Vietnamese broke the armistice and stormed into Saigon, in 1975, we didn’t lift a finger. We were tapped out on Vietnam.
The other fact that emerges from the war-table (above) is that a between-wars recess of at least 15 years is the ideal. Americans dislike a shorter respite, as happened with Korea, in 1950. Still smarting from rationing and 400,000+ gold stars (representing sons or husbands lost in WWII), citizens were unhappy about a new war – the more so when they saw that President Truman wasn’t trying to win it. In the midst of the argument over his “containment” strategy, Mr. Truman sacked the extremely popular WWII General Douglas MacArthur who wanted to drop the atomic bomb on the North Koreans. Mr. Truman could have run for another term in 1952, but he sensed defeat and bowed out.
Another popular general, Dwight (Ike) Eisenhower, routed Adlai Stevenson – carrying even the Solid South, which had been reliably Democratic since Reconstruction. Ike promised to bring the North Koreans to the peace-table and get a treaty. He did it within six months of his inauguration. It has been whispered ever since that he broke the logjam by threatening to drop the a-bomb on the recalcitrant commies.
The recess after Korea was marginal (12 years), which helps to explain why opposition to Vietnam arose so quickly. Anti-war activists argued that fighting some strange dudes in the jungle served no national interest. They had a point, of course, although it wasn’t necessarily the only point to be made. Why young American men should fight and die in a far-away place that seemed utterly unrelated to us was not obvious to many Americans. Absence of a perceived emergency weakened support for the war from the start.
All that being said – Americans have shown themselves more than willing to make war if they see a real threat to the country, and if enough time has elapsed since our last war. Americans’ willingness to give battle is a much-misunderstood aspect of our national character – a sort of “flip side” of our habit of waiting until the enemy is “coming down the chimney” before we rouse ourselves to arms. (We seem to be in this phase right now.) Usually, it takes a significant direct attack to blast us off dead-center. The up-side of this habitual procrastination is that a violent event can rouse peace-loving, tolerant, live-and-let-live Americans to a level of fury that is often quite astonishing. (The Japanese and the Germans could readily testify to this.)
Surprise attacks can happen because enemies often mistake our amiable nature for weakness or timidity. This has happened in the past, and will certainly happen again. Internal political squabbles, social contention, a fascination with pleasure, and our preoccupation with building tranquil, productive lives for our families can shroud Americans’ warlike nature for long periods. Outside observers intent on harming us rarely look below the surface of the American character to grasp its complexity.
Americans are a generous, tolerant lot. We don’t want anyone starving, and we don’t want to see children hurt or in need. We will put ourselves out for people we don’t even know – sometimes to the detriment of our own national interests. A nefarious enemy will push us and push us, with little (or no) push-back – often inferring that our willingness to turn the other cheek is limitless – until finally he pushes us too far.
This has been going on with Islamic State forces in recent years. So far, they have paid little cost for their beheadings, kidnappings and other vile atrocities. They sense that Mr. Obama really doesn’t want to fight them, and they can see that the American people don’t want more of their young men to die in the Middle East.
This “immunity” (for ISIS) will last for the next year or so, while Mr. Obama polishes his legacy as America’s penultimate “peace president.” The ISIS cutthroats will continue to push and taunt us – firing their guns in the air, like schoolboys at a rugby match, and joyously yelling “Allahu akhbar!” – until they exceed our limit.
When they do, things will get ugly: Americans will go to war again with a will of iron. We won’t give the enemy a break or the benefit of the doubt. We won’t be patient or understanding because his is “a religion of peace.” We’ll implacably destroy him and bomb his cities into rubble. It’s just a question of when.
When Franklin Roosevelt called for a declaration of war against Japan, following their attack of December 8, 1941, he made this stirring pledge:
“…No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory. …we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us. …our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger. With confidence in our armed forces – with the unbounding determination of our people – we will gain the inevitable triumph, so help us God…” (Try to recall when you last heard a politician use the phrase, “righteous might.”)
In an equally dark time, Winston Churchill charged his people:
“Therefore, let us brace ourselves to our duties, and so conduct ourselves, that if this empire and its commonwealth should last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour…’”
In the Lord’s perfect timing, Americans will once again choose leaders who can lead us to defeat evil and gain the “broad, sunlit uplands” of a peaceful and productive future. Work toward that end. And, if you’re a person of faith, pray for that day. We need all the help we can get.