Powell: War Is the Scourge of God

Excerpted from Colin Powell’s US Forces: The Challenges Ahead, Foreign Affairs, Winter 1992:

Military men and women recognize more than most people that not every situation will be crystal clear. We can and do operate in murky, unpredictable circumstances. But we also recognize that military force is not always the right answer. If force is used imprecisely or out of frustration rather than clear analysis, the situation can be made worse.

Decisive means and results are always to be preferred, even if they are not always possible. We should always be skeptical when so-called experts suggest that all a particular crisis calls for is a little surgical bombing or a limited attack. When the “surgery” is over and the desired result is not obtained, a new set of experts then comes forward with talk of just a little escalation–more bombs, more men and women, more force. History has not been kind to this approach to war-making. In fact this approach has been tragic — both for the men and women who are called upon to implement it and for the nation. This is not to argue that the use of force is restricted to only those occasions where the victory of American arms will be resounding, swift and overwhelming. It is simply to argue that the use of force should be restricted to occasions where it can do some good and where the good will outweigh the loss of lives and other costs that will surely ensue. Wars kill people. That is what makes them different from all other forms of human enterprise.

When President Lincoln gave his second inaugural address he compared the Civil War to the scourge of God, visited upon the nation to compensate for what the nation had visited upon its slaves. Lincoln perceived war correctly. It is the scourge of God. We should be very careful how we use it. When we do use it, we should not be equivocal: we should win and win decisively. If our objective is something short of winning–as in our air strikes into Libya in 1986–we should see our objective clearly, then achieve it swiftly and efficiently.

I am preaching to the choir. Every reasonable American deplores the resort to war. We wish it would never come again. If we felt differently, we could lay no claim whatsoever to being the last, best hope of earth. At the same time I believe every American realizes that in the challenging days ahead, our wishes are not likely to be fulfilled. In those circumstances where we must use military force, we have to be ready, willing and able. Where we should not use force we have to be wise enough to exercise restraint. I have finite faith in the American people’s ability to sense when and where we should draw the line.

Update: More on the application of this article to the current situation can be found in Nicholas Johnson’s War in Iraq: The military objections. Johnson observes that military commanders frequently are more rational about the use of military force than are their civilian overseers. That certainly seems to be the case here. A quotation:

By the time an officer reaches the top of today’s U.S. military you can bet that he or she is bright, extremely well educated in the liberal arts as well as military history and other matters, and possessed of a good analytical mind.

As you know, a central principle of American government is what we call “civilian control of the military.” Of course, I support that principle. Few would deliberately choose life under a military dictatorship.

But when I compare the approach to war of some civilian politicians with that of the military’s leadership I have occasionally commented that what we really need is “military control of the civilians” – at least the civilians’ decisions about war.

When evaluating a sophisticated issue involving politics, foreign relations, and the global economy, it is usually the politicians, not the military officers, who are the first to forgo thoughtful analysis for expressions like “send in the Marines,” “let’s kick some butt,” and “nuke ‘em.”

It is the military that modestly suggests the need for prior application of rational thought.

I love that quote about macho politician-speak for going to war. Especially in light of the recent Time article revealing that the course for war upon Iraq was laid in March of 2002, when Bush told a group of Senators, “Fuck Saddam. We’re taking him out.” It doesn’t really square with the President of the United States’ job description to be quoted using the F-word, especially when the President in question likes to claim moral authority as a born-again Christian, but I suppose the White House thinks it’s the kind of thing that will actually boost his popularity. But regardless of how it plays with the electorate in terms of making the commander in chief seem like an ordinary guy, the willingness to talk that way about going to war, and what’s more, to actually follow through on it without carefully considering the costs and benefits beforehand, reveals a profound unsuitability for the task of wielding US military power.

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