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Commentary: Limited warfare yields boundless failure

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 14, 2010 - "A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week." --Gen. George S. Patton

William Tecumseh Sherman is generally credited with the observation that "war is hell." At least Sherman, U.S. Grant's chief lieutenant during the Civil War, understood the situation.

After Grant assumed overall command of the Union forces, Sherman launched his famous campaign through the Deep South that would ultimately end the conflict. He realized -- and his close friend, Grant, agreed -- that so long as Confederate supply lines remained open, the war could drag on forever.

Rather than continue to battle the dragon's head, Sherman opted to attack its underbelly. He thus struck at the civilian infrastructure that supported the rebel army.

His legendary March to the Sea left utter devastation in its wake. Plantations, farms, sleepy hamlets and formerly bustling cities were burnt to the ground, rail lines were destroyed and the largely defenseless civilian population suffered greatly. But ultimately, the merciless destruction brought a merciful end to the killing. Such is the savage calculus of warfare.

In my previous column, I was critical of whatever it is we're now trying to do in Afghanistan. I also mentioned that this conflict has now been prosecuted for nine years -- or about as long as it took the U.S. to wage the Civil War and World Wars I & II combined, and pointed out that interminable military commitments of this kind are made possible by an all-volunteer force because today most citizens quite literally have no skin in the game. When it's somebody else's ass on the line, it's always easier to be complacent about the pace of progress.

In a larger sense, however, our problems run deeper than a volunteer military. After all, a lot of nations provide for their defense without resorting to a draft; and they don't seem to get involved in the kind of far-flung entanglements that have become a chronic side-effect of our foreign policy. Our difficulties, I suspect, are rooted in the delusions of hubris combined with a dearth of political will.

The doctrine of American exceptionalism is founded on the conceit that we can do virtually anything. We've been to the moon, twice saved Europe from German hegemony and won the long twilight struggle of the Cold War. We have more nukes than anybody and field history's finest military. The 95 percent of humankind that wasn't lucky enough to be born here is damned lucky that we're nice guys because we can kick butt when and where we choose.

All that may be true, but we still can't make fried ice. As the adage has it, the military exists to kill people and break things. The exercise of these skills is unlikely to instill an appreciation of democracy in the target population. And the political leaders who keep dispatching our troops to remote climes with uncertain purpose have no stomach for the real-world consequences of their decisions.

Note that in the quote starting this column, Gen. Patton -- another guy who knew a thing or two about combat --does not advocate policy implementation followed by phased withdrawal. Rather, he calls for the immediate and violent execution of a plan of attack. The purpose of warfare is to shed blood; and, as Patton was fond of remarking, the trick was to shed more of your enemy's than your own.

Take a look at a typical GI in Afghanistan: clad in helmet and bullet-proof vest, he carries a fully automatic assault rifle, a sidearm, numerous magazines of reserve ammunition, a supply of grenades and, perhaps, a K-bar knife. Does this guy look like a community organizer to you?

This man is trained and equipped for battle, and that is the only task it is reasonable to ask him to perform. Besides, the winning of hearts and minds is best accomplished after the shooting stops.

After WW II, the U.S. Army of Occupation taught the Japanese how to play baseball and the sport quickly became a national passion. Soon, our former foes adopted American styles of dress, music, commerce and politics, transforming a deadly enemy into a trusted and reliable regional ally. But all this happened after the surrender on the USS Missouri. Before that fortuitous event, the people who are presently our friends were trying to kill us.

Given the current situation, a military win in Afghanistan would require us to borrow a page from Sherman's playbook by eradicating the civilian infrastructure that gives the Taliban aid and comfort. Neither world opinion nor the domestic sense of decency would tolerate the carnage and devastation such an undertaking would entail.

The commanding general in the region, David Petraeus, now admits that there is no viable military solution to the present mess. That acknowledgement of the obvious comes along with word that the U.S.-installed government of Hamid Karzai and the Taliban are contemplating talks to negotiate a political settlement. With the scarcity of palatable options left on the table that may be the best we can hope for.

Should the insurgents agree to enter the electoral process, it's possible that Mullah Mohammad Omar -- the Taliban leader we deposed but never captured in 2001 -- could be returned to office via the ballot box. We'd have then spent nine years, more than 1,300 American lives and a current war cost of about $2 billion a week to achieve this contradictory result.

Had we originally gone in with overwhelming force and relentlessly eradicated the al-Qaeda organization and all those who supported it, we could have left years ago and the entire campaign would now be a closed chapter in the on-going effort against global terrorism. Of course, the local female population would still be wearing burkas (and they yet may), but it's unclear how much American blood and treasure we should invest in the debate over Afghan millinery.

In his memoirs, Gen. Sherman wrote, "War is cruelty and you cannot refine it." He might have added that refined warfare tends to produce especially cruel outcomes.

M.W.Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon. 

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