Living With War

One has to go back a few years to find a time America was not in a war, conflict or policing action. The U.S. military is used around the world like a Swiss Army knife (pardon the pun), for protecting American interests and citizens to to cyber security to peacekeeping and humanitarian missions. The use of today’s military, mobilizing troops and assets, are not your grandfather’s military.

The thoughts and opinions here in no way reflects on the dedication of the men and women in uniform.  We call, they answer.

As a parting reflection on being president, Dwight Eisenhower warned of the military industrial complex and its appetite for the United States treasury.   America is armed to the teeth and trained for just about any type of conflict, though the battles now include cyber and economic and biological threats.  We truly live in a global community, less separated by physical borders and more defended by firewalls.

Jimmy Carter is proud that his administration kept the country out of conflicts. The Embassy hostages in Iran was a conflict that largely doomed Carter, and the failure of the rescue mission underscored the military’s difficulty with such operations. That would change.

Carter still had to deal with hostilities and a world that turned to the U.S. for help. Relations heated up in Korea when two U.S. servicemen were killed by North Korea at the DMZ.  That did not result in war.  Carter also sent U.S. troops to Zaire to provide logistical support, not combat action, for French and Belgian rescue operations.

Since 1775, nearly every year lists one or more military operations involving the U.S. somewhere in the world. These range from long-term concentrated deployment of combat troops under declaration by Congress or in support of a UN resolution, to singular operations for rescue, humanitarian efforts or launch a limited assault on a target.  In 2014, the Pentagon acknowledged military personnel in 134 countries, many providing strategic value, training host countries personnel, or participating in a variety of aid missions. Our military are kept busy.

We live in a country where it is permissible to question authority and political decisions. The decision to use the military is made by civilians: the President and the Secretary of Defense. Policies of engagement are made by senior leadership, and by United Nations in joint operations. The soldiers on the ground, in the air or on the ships do their best to follow their orders, trusting the decisions are made with the best information, follow regulations and policy, and provide logistical and combat support. Those in authority making these life and death have a tremendous moral and strategic responsibility. Military and civilian lives are lost in conflict zones.

In my lifetime, Vietnam stands as a flashing beacon of war gone wrong. Vietnam was a wealth of lessons, some of which we heeded, others we ignored and repeated.  It was the first conflict that I recall widespread criticism and pushback from average Americans.  Vietnam was divisive, it tore apart families, communities and the country. It proved to be an unpopular war that punished the military personnel who returned home to protests and blame. And in the end, Vietnam was unified under the communist government of the north.  Forty years later, Americans vacation in Vietnam, how wacky is that?

That war divide America into hawks and doves; but is it that simple? Can hawks also be doves sometimes and vice versa? Can you support the mission, but oppose the execution? Can you oppose the mission, but support the troops?

Sadly, Americans love simplicity. White. Black. Good. Evil. Right. Wrong. Conservative. Liberal. If it cannot be distilled to a bumper sticker, many Americans flip the channel.

Vietnam changed America and it changed how we approach combat situations. For awhile, we stayed out of many international conflicts, but Iran seizing our embassy personnel changed that. The pendulum swings back and forth and the world recalibrates. Our challenge is to adapt and not repeat past mistakes.

Iraq was also a learning moment.  False evidence pulled the trigger for taking out Saddam Hussein. A bad guy, yes.  But invading Iraq destabilized a patchwork of groups that led to greater conflict and contributed to instability in the region that killed thousands of civilians, including the use of chemical weapons against children.

History is a great lens of the past and exposer of mistakes and missed opportunities. Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense, under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, ran the war in Vietnam like a business.  He was a Harvard MBA graduate and taught statistics to Air Force Officers, before going to the auto industry. During WWII he created a unit of statistics and analysis of bombing missions of East Asia and Pacific islands.  His work for General Curtis LeMay ensured greater accuracy of incendiary bombing of targets.  Aerial bombing and destruction became a science. Charts and graphs were tools of strategic bombing.

In 1996, McNamara published In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, where he outlined eleven critical mistakes and failures in executing the war; mistakes he owned.  In 2003, McNamara was featured in Errol Morris’ The Fog of War, which retraced the evolution of modern warfare, drawing on McNamara’s experience in WWII and beliefs the American leadership used in orchestrating the war in Vietnam.  This is an amazing film.  McNamara lays out the mistakes and misguided assumptions of the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, believing that their approach to war would bring victory, despite the losses and the intensity of fighting by the enemy.

Still the analyst, McNamara presented his points with both penetrating reflection and emotion. The film is both a confessional and a fair warning.

Skip ahead two decades and we are now debating the end of America’s longest war: Afghanistan. Pulling out combat troops was something Presidents Obama and Trump grappled, but not accomplishing. Now Biden has announced that the remaining combat troops will leave before September 11, 2021. More than 800,000 American military personnel have served there over two decades, with about 2,300 deaths, and 20,000 wounded.

Our previous experience with Afghanistan was presented in the film, Charlie Wilson’s War.  America furnished money and arms to rebels fighting the Russians.  Once the Russians were repelled, we forgot about the area, which gave rise to the Taliban, who gave safe haven to Al Qaeda.  We have pulled out of Afghanistan before, only to see the Taliban fill the vacuum. Afghanistan is hardly unified and the Taliban controls most of the area outside of cities.

So, I guess my question is, can you be both for and against war? I prefer to give peace a chance, but there are times when military intervention is, in my view, the best strategy.  In war, everyone loses, just some lose more.  That is the ideal answer, but wars are fought for different reasons.  In World War II, the Germans and Japanese fought wars of conquest and inflicted atrocities against humanity.  The United States, Great Britain and other countries fought to repel this threat and liberate enslaved territories.  This war is often looked at in its purest sense: good v. evil.  Like the First World War, warfare in the late 1930s was modernized with technology and science.  Enter Robert McNamara on improving bombing efficiency and the scientists of the Manhattan Project to develop the Atom Bomb.  There are certainly moral issues to contemplate even when you are on the side of good. How many lives are expendable? To kill with nuclear energy is okay, but biological weapons are not? Killing is not just killing. There are supposed to be rules in warfare.  When you do not adhere to them, you may be guilty of war crimes.

The image of G.I. Joe around the world holds many impressions. To some, America is evil and immoral, a soulless aggressor.  To others, America is a white knight coming to the rescue.  And others have some version of those, a mighty force that has to kill something in order to save it.

America entered Vietnam to stop the spread of communism. The domino principle. We had pledges of protection and interests in South Vietnam, but we didn’t learn a damn thing from the French. Vietnam is in the rear view mirror of history, but it remains a cultural reference point for me. In a different blog I talked about my views, struggles understanding that conflict and the lasting aura of Vietnam on the American psyche.

As McNamara recounts, America drastically underestimated our strategies and understanding of Vietnam.  Taking hills and body counts proved poor strategies.  Hearts and minds, and nation-building also failed.  In some situations those work, or work better.  Iraq is a struggling work-in-progress. In the matter of Afghanistan, what have we accomplished in 20 years? Is Afghanistan a functioning democracy? Outside of Kabul, are villagers and farmers safe? Can girls attend school in rural areas?  Has the growth of poppies decreased with different cash crops?  Do the Afghanis even like us?  Haji Hekmat, a Taliban leader, after hearing Biden’s intent to withdraw troops said, “We have won the war and America has lost.” The Congressional Budget Office estimated that by the end of 2017, the war effort had cost $2.4 trillion.

How many administrations have grappled with how large of a military do we need, and what is our commitment around the globe to protect and defend our interests, and those of our friends?  Constantly updated weapon systems and maintaining standing forces in many foreign countries are a huge part of the federal budget, competing with many other needs.  Annual defense spending is in the area of $936 billion.  That includes funding for the armed services, special funding to fight the Islamic State ($69 billion) and other agencies part of Homeland Security, the Department of Energy, the FBI and Cybersecurity Agency.

Since Vietnam, the U.S. has sent military assets into a variety of situations around the world.  Here are the ones I have been able to find.  Not all of these were combat actions, many are humanitarian or rescue operations, but every time we send our military somewhere, the potential is there for conflict and escalation of tensions.  As citizens, we do not vote on what conflicts or missions we approve.  We do vote on the people who authorize many of them, and in a general sense, our philosophy of how the military is used around the globe.  Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Carter?  That is a simplicity but you get my drift.  Democrats as well as Republicans authorize drone strikes and Special Forces operations.  Wouldn’t be nice is there was no aggression or conflict, and we needed a smaller and different kind of military?  Until that happens, we live with the threat of war.


Cambodia, U.S. ship Mayaguez seized (1975)

Lebanon, military rescue of convoy from fighting factions (1976)

Korea, two American soldiers killed in DMZ (1976)

Zaire, military used to assist French and Belgian rescue operations (1978)


Operation Eagle Claw (1980) mission to rescue the hostages in Iran.

Operation Bright Star, military forces in the Sinai Peninsula for training after the Camp David peace accords (1980,1982).

El Salvador, military advisors sent for counterinsurgency training (1981)

Peacekeeping during the Lebanon civil war (1982-1983)

Invasion of Grenada (1983) to get rid of dictator Hudson Austin.

Chad (1983) military and logistical support to government to combat rebels.

Honduras military assistance to the government regarding foreign aggression (1983,1986)

Saudi Arabia (1984) military aircraft support against Iranian fighter aircraft.

Italy (1985) military aircraft forced down an Egyptian airliner carrying hijackers of the Achille Lauro.

Libya, several operations in retaliation for attacks on American citizens and military forces (1981,1986,1989)

Persian Gulf (1987-1988) actions against the Iraqi and Iranian military for attaching U.S. and other ships.

Invasion of Panama to topple Noriega (1989)

Philippines (1989) support to government to combat a coup attempt.

South America (1989) military support sent to help combat the drug trade

The First Gulf War to liberate Kuwait


Liberia (1990) additional military troops sent to guard embassy and evacuate American citizens.

Iraq (1991-1996) various military actions against Iraq, to protect the Kurds and to provide relief supplies.

Zaire (1991) transporting Belgian troops and supplies, and to safely remove American citizens.

Sierra Leone (1992) after a coup, military evacuated hundreds of foreign nationals to safety.

Enforcement of Iraq No-Fly Zone (1992-2003)

Somalia (1993) U.S. Ranger and Delta Force helicopters encounter urban warfare, losing two helicopters and 18 Americans killed.

Macedonia (1993-1994) military troops to join UN Protection Forces.

Bosnian War (1992-1996) humanitarian relief during the Yugoslav Wars, enforcement of no-fly zone, and combat air encounters with Bosnian Serbs.  U.S. and NATO aircraft ordered to bomb Bosnian Serb positions (1995).

Haiti (1994-1995) Operation Uphold Democracy, the Navy blockaded Haiti and troops restored President Jean-Bertand Aristide to power.

Kuwait (1994) Operation Vigilant Warrior, U.S. forces moved to counter Iraqi forces.

Kuwait (1996) Operation Desert Strike, military strikes against Iraqi aggression against Kurds.

Central African Republic (1996) troops dispatched to protect embassy and evacuate American citizens.

Bosnia (1996) U.S. and NATO forces sent to enforce the peace.

Albania (1997) Operation Silver Wake to evacuate American citizens and government employees.

Congo and Gabon (1997) troops sent for additional embassy security and possible evacuation of American citizens.

Sierra Leone (1997) troops sent for possible evacuation of American citizens and government employees.

Cambodia (1997) troops sent for possible evacuation of American citizens.

Iraq (1998) Bombing of military targets.

Kenya and Tanzania (1998-1999) military personnel were sent after the bombings of embassies and both countries.

Afghanistan and Sudan (1998) air strikes against terrorist training camps and chemical factory.

Liberia (1998) troops put on standby to evacuate embassy in Monrovia.

East Timor (1999-2001) troops deployed with UN personnel to restore peach.

Serbia (1999) U.S. and NATO bombing of Serb positions from their refusal to end aggression from ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.


Sierra Leone (2000) Navy sent to support evacuation.

Nigeria (2000) Special Forces sent to aid in training.

Yemen (2000) USS Cole attacked in the port of Aden. Military forces sent.

East Timor (2000) military sent to aid UN forces.

Afghanistan (2001-present) Operation Enduring Freedom.

Yemen (2002) missile strike against an al-Qaeda leader thought to be behind the USS Cole attack.

Philippines (2002) counter insurgent forces sent to train Philippine military.

Cote d’lvoire (2002) military sent for possible evacuation of American citizens.

Iraq War (2003-2011) Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Liberia (2003) during civil war, troops sent to protect embassy and evacuate American citizens.

Georgia and Djibouti (2003) additional counterterrorist troops sent area.

Haiti (2004) troops sent to protect embassy and assist American citizens after coup.

Georgia, Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia, Yemen, Eritrea (2004) war on terror activities.

Pakistan (2005-2006) military provided assistance to region rocked by earthquake.

Lebanon (2006) evacuation of American citizens due to fighting between Israel and Hezbollah.

Somalia (2007) military assets used to prevent piracy.

Indian Ocean (2009) Operation Ocean Shield, NATO effort to stop pirating in the Indian Ocean, Red Sea, Adriatic Sea.


Yemen (2010-present) drone strikes against al-Qaeda and ISIL positions.

Libya (2011) bombing of Libyan forces per UN Security Council Resolution.

Pakistan (2011) Osama Bin Laden killed.

Somalia (2011) drone strikes against militants.

Uganda (2011-present) combat troops sent as advisors.

Jordan (2012) combat troops sent to protect against spillover from Syrian Civil War.

Turkey (2012) troops and missile batteries sent in case Syria strikes Turkey.

Chad (2012) troops sent to evacuate American citizens and embassy from rebel activities.

Mali (2013) troops and aircraft sent to aid French troops with refueling.

Somalia (2013) Special Forces raid against terrorist.

Uganda (2014) troops sent to assist military.

Syria (2014) attempted rescue of James Foley and other hostages held by ISIL.

Syria (2014) airstrikes against ISIL in Syria and Iraq.

Yemen (2014) military forces aided Yemen military in rescue of hostages.

Straits of Hormuz (2015) naval vessels sent to protect shipping from Iranian ships.

Cameroon (2015-present) support of government military and conduct reconnaissance flights.

Second Libyan Civil War (2015-2020)

Syria (2017) missiles hit Syrian base in retaliation for chemical weapons attack against civilians.

Syria (2018) missiles hit Syrian targets in retaliation for chemical weapons attack against civilians.

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