This week’s back-and-forth over Donald Trump’s implied disrespect of an American Muslim officer killed in Iraq is appalling — but purely symbolic, emotional and utterly beside the point. That “debate” might be typical for a declining superpower where the only serious question is: Which of our enemies takes us down first? Will we lose a carrier in the Pacific, will Putin call NATO’s bluff in the Baltic states or will Iran’s first test of a nuclear weapon be a low air-burst over Tel Aviv? Unless you are persuaded beyond all reason that America fights only one war at a time, then why not all three?
Some future historian (probably Chinese, Russian or Persian) will surely be puzzled by the midsummer-madness of American politics in 2016. When did America lose it mojo? How was the election of our next commander-in-chief reduced to a series of miserable Hobson’s Choices? On the one hand, voters might pick the first-ever female president (good!) but one who seemingly cannot speak without uttering new falsehoods (Surely you’re not serious, Ms Clinton?) On the other, we could elect a braggadocio billionaire who has never learned that most fish are caught only after opening their mouths. (Surely you’re not serious, Mr. Trump?)
How has it come to this? Have neither of these prospective leaders nor American schoolchildren been taught the great histories of World War I, the lessons learned from World War II? Don’t they know that the Guns of August began with a single pistol-shot in the streets of Sarajevo in August, 1914 – a place most Americans couldn’t locate on a map, then or now? Or that American entry into the global holocaust of World War II began on a quiet Sunday morning in a peaceful, far-off place called Pearl Harbor?
These wars all began when the protagonists devoutly believed in peace, while they were primarily occupied with their own concerns. Even now, Americans celebrate the ideals of world peace on every occasion, from beauty contests to Model UN conventions. And yet the Romans drew on centuries of bitter experience to concoct a timeless piece of statecraft: Si vis pacem, para bellum (If you would have peace, then prepare for war). If you think those laws are obsolete, such advice too cynical for our super-sophisticated, data-rich and wonderfully enlightened modern age – well then you’re probably a half-educated, 30-something on Obama’s White House staff.
But the rest of the world pays considerably more attention to what the Russians call the “permanently operating factors” of state power. For example, a country’s national debt (US: 19 trillion and climbing); the educational levels of its children (US: 32nd in math, 24th in science); or the percentage of GNP it commit to its own defense (under Obama, dropping from 3 to 2 percent). All answer fundamental questions: Is a country ascending or declining? Does its perception of its own strength match it actual capabilities? In short: the basic calculus of war and peace.
Elections are supposed to help democracies to manage those eternal questions of guns versus butter. Two distinguished American generals recently attempted to begin that conversation. General John Allen endorsed Hillary Clinton at the Democratic Convention, arguing that our soldiers should never be ordered to torture their enemies. In a wide-ranging speech to the Republicans, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn outlined Trump’s case for re-building the American military. Those are eminently reasonable positions to take, especially for men who have spent their professional lives in a uniform that only 1 percent of their countrymen will ever wear.
Yet both were promptly denounced by General Martin Dempsey. In a letter to the Washington Post he wrote, “Politicians should take the advice of senior military leaders but keep them off the stage. The American people should not wonder where their military leaders draw the line between military advice and political preference.”
What pompous nonsense!
Our Constitution and civil-military tradition recognize that the full First Amendment rights of our soldiers are restored the instant they leave active duty. But as JCS Chairman, no one was more political or politically correct than General Dempsey, zealously inflicting the Obama social agenda on our military establishment.
So let us now debate that agenda and its costs, the ones we now know about as well as those in our very near future.