The purpose of all wars is peace. So observed St. Augustine early in the first millennium AD. Far be it from me to disagree with the esteemed Bishop of Hippo, but his crisply formulated aphorism just might require a bit of updating.
I’m not a saint or even a bishop, merely an interested observer of this nation’s ongoing military misadventures early in the third millennium AD. From my vantage point, I might suggest the following amendment to Augustine’s dictum: Any war failing to yield peace is purposeless and, if purposeless, both wrong and stupid.
War is evil. Large-scale, state-sanctioned violence is justified only when all other means of achieving genuinely essential objectives have been exhausted or are otherwise unavailable. A nation should go to war only when it has to—and even then, ending the conflict as expeditiously as possible should be an imperative.
Some might take issue with these propositions, President Trump’s latest national-security adviser doubtless among them. Yet most observers—even, I’m guessing, most high-ranking US military officers—would endorse them. How is it then that peace has essentially vanished as a US policy objective? Why has war joined death and taxes in that select category of things that Americans have come to accept as unavoidable?
The United States has taken Thucydides’ famed Melian Dialogue and turned it inside out. Centuries before Augustine, the great Athenian historian wrote, “The strong do what they will, while the weak suffer what they must.” Strength confers choice; weakness restricts it. That’s the way the world works, so at least Thucydides believed. Yet the inverted Melian Dialogue that prevails in present-day Washington seemingly goes like this: strength imposes obligations and limits choice. In other words, we gotta keep doing what we’ve been doing, no matter what.
Making such a situation all the more puzzling is the might and majesty of America’s armed forces. By common consent, the United States today has the world’s best military. By some estimates, it may be the best in recorded history. It’s certainly the most expensive and hardest working on the planet.
Yet in the post-Cold War era when the relative strength of US forces reached its zenith, our well-endowed, well-trained, well-equipped, and highly disciplined troops have proven unable to accomplish any of the core tasks to which they’ve been assigned. This has been especially true since 9/11.