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August 06, 2010

Historical Perspective on Wars of Choice and ROE

I saw this item a few days ago, but wanted to think about it a bit before responding:

The Department of Defense announced today that retired Air Force Major General John D. Lavelle has been nominated posthumously by the President for advancement on the retired rolls to the rank of General. This follows an Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records decision and recommendations from the Secretary of Defense and Secretary of the Air Force.

In April 1972, Lavelle was removed from command as a result of allegations that he ordered unauthorized bombing missions into North Vietnam, and that he authorized the falsification of reports to conceal the missions. Lavelle was retired in the grade of major general, two grades lower than the last grade he served on active duty. Lavelle died in 1979.

In 2007, newly released and declassified information resulted in evidence that Lavelle was authorized by President Richard Nixon to conduct the bombing missions. Further, the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records found no evidence Lavelle caused, either directly or indirectly, the falsification of records, or that he was even aware of their existence. Once he learned of the reports, Lavelle took action to ensure the practice was discontinued.

In light of the new information, a request was made to the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records for reinstatement to the grade of general, Lavelle's last grade while on active duty.

The natural or instinctive reaction is to feel outrage at the injustice to an officer who turned out to be acting under orders and in full harmony with the desires of civilian leadership. It seems unfair to punish a subordinate for exceeding his authority when in fact he did no such thing.

My reaction, though, was a bit different. For the past 8 years we have watched two wars conducted under the relentless scrutiny of 24/7 news coverage. We have seen repeated leaks of classified information - often information that hampered the war effort or endangered warfighters - justified on the dubious grounds of transparency. But the notion that military decisions ought to be completely transparent - even to the enemy - is a relatively recent one. The expectation I grew up with was that nations are entitled to keep secrets during wartime even if that practice inadvertently provided cover for questionable acts and decisions.

The assumption that Nixon should have 'fessed up assumes there is no justification for a government conducting unannounced military operations during wartime. The difference between today's climate and the one I grew up with is that it was understood that the national interest required that some things remain secret until decades after the war's end. It was also understood that there was a reason for this secrecy: that war is by nature a dirty, messy business with few moral bright lines and that continually questioning every military decision (especially when the strategy chosen by military leaders are at best the least bad of a range of ugly options) makes war not just difficult to prosecute but nearly impossible to win.

A continually scrutinized war will tend to be one conducted by inefficient and roundabout means rather than one that is brutal, effective, and above all short. Such wars require patience.

But we live in an impatient age. We want quick results, but the zero defect mentality doesn't lend itself to the bold innovation and risk taking most likely to give us what we want. There is an old saying: you can have it fast, or you can have it good.

We want both: the speedy resolution without the messy moral ambiguity. We want the illusion that war can be conducted without collateral damage. We want the end state without the price tag.

I've been thinking about America a lot lately. More and more, we seem to have adopted a bizarre value system that prizes individualism over a more constrained vision that balances individual happiness with a sense that we are part of something larger than ourselves; that our affluence and security were bought and paid for by sacrifices our parents and grandparents took for granted. Unlike past generations, what we take for granted is not duty to others, but individual fulfillment. Our preoccupation with our own happiness crowds out any duty we might feel to ensure that the benefits we inherited will be available to our children and grandchildren.

I can't help but think that part of the problem is that, unlike previous generations, the adults of today have never faced an existential threat to their existence

Existential war? Whazzat? For us, the Revolution, War of 1812, Civil War, possibly WWI, and certainly WWII were wars where we firmly believe our national exsistence were at stake, and we fought them as such. The other wars we've fought have been wars of choice, in one form or another. You can argue WWI both ways, though I, in the end, would come down to a finding of it was a war of choice that most of the people fighting it thought was a war for existence, though the top political leadership in the US, President Wilson, may have seen it more as an opportunity to remake the US into a state more amenable to his preferred manner of governance. Yeah, weaselly.

Mind you - that characterization oft-times only applies to one side in a conflict. Our Revolution and the War of 1812 were not existential wars for the British Empire. Both were, in fact, distractions to them from greater concerns- and were conducted accordingly, good thing for us. The Indian Wars were optional for us, existential for the native americans. The Korean War was existential for South and North Korea, but not for any of the other players. One of the problems inherent in that kind of war is exactly what we've seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both wars, as conducted, are wars of choice for us, but not for the people who live there - for them, it's existential, which allows, encourages, perhaps even demands that they fight in ways we find bewilderingly brutal, while we tie our hands with political constraints. Just as we were pretty brutal fighting the Civil War and World War II.

In the discussion of ROE in Afghanistan of late, there are parallels, ghosts, of Vietnam. I'm not making an Afghanistan=Vietnam argument - the premises for both conflicts are as different as their structural components are different. But that doesn't mean that there aren't similarities in some of the political realities.

It has become axiomatic to point out that our involvement in WWII only lasted a few years while the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have dragged on and on. But the means to any end are greatly affected by circumstance and exigency.

I suppose it's possible to argue that Vietnam - a war of choice - didn't justify the sort of secrecy routinely employed in existential wars. I might even buy off on such an argument, though as we're likely about to see with the recent Wikileaks, transparency can exact an equally high price.

What I find remarkable, however, is the degree to which Americans assume that individual fairness should outweigh duty to one's country. My heart goes out to General Lavelle and I recognize the injustice in the way he was treated.

My sense of history, however, tells me there was a time when leaders willingly suffered injustice as the means to a larger end. They "took one for the team", as it were. And rather than lamenting the necessity, we honored such choices and the sense of duty that made them possible.

We saw heroes, not victims. Nowadays, however, the man who gives his all to protect something larger than himself is not a hero, but a chump. Explains a lot about today's world, doesn't it.

Posted by Cassandra at August 6, 2010 08:49 AM

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I believe it was George Marshall who, referring to officers who were replaced under the pressure of wartime exigency, said something like, "One man sacrifices his life, another his career, in the same cause."

Posted by: david foster at August 6, 2010 12:02 PM

Kind of gives "courageous restraint" a whole new meaning, doesn't it?

Posted by: Cassandra at August 6, 2010 12:14 PM

The quote is even closer to the situation.

"But war is a ruthless taskmaster, demanding success regardless of confusion, shortness of time, and paucity of tools. Exact justice for the individual and a careful consideration of his rights is quite impossible. One man sacrifices his life on the battlefield and another sacrifices his reputation elsewhere, both in the same cause. The hurly-burly of the conflict does not permit commanders to draw fine distinctions; to succeed, they must demand results, close their ears to excuses, and drive subordinates beyond what would ordinarily be considered the limit of human capacity.“
--- George C. Marshall
Of course, these days we've totally confounded "hero" with "celebrity", and "courageous restraint" is an oxymoron of the highest (or is it lowest?) class.

Posted by: htom at August 6, 2010 12:53 PM

I love the quotes, gentlemen.

You have conveyed what I was thinking better than I was able to, and for that I thank you.

I think people lose sight of the reason the US military consistently outperforms other institutions: it's precisely because they are held to a far higher standard, because excuses are not considered substitutes for results, and above all b/c the individual is NEVER as important as the group.

It seems odd to me that conservatives will, on the one hand, extol the virtues of the military and on the other complain bitterly about the very conditions that make the military one of today's rare success stories.

I had a long talk with a family member over vacation. She couldn't understand why I believe that creating identity groups within the armed forces is deleterious to efficiency, good order, and discipline.

The irony here is that recruit training seeks to suppress individuality and foster a sense of belonging in the group. I am not and have never been a fan of aggressive, in your face individualism.

In a very real sense, most of us are all free riders who enjoy the benefits of a world we did nothing to create and do little to maintain. That world would not exist, were it not for a sense of duty and a belief in something beyond individual happiness and well being.

I used to think of myself as a conservative b/c I thought conservatives understood the balance between freedom and duty/responsibility. While I still believe this balance lies at the heart of conservatism, I see little evidence that mainstream conservatism "gets" it any more.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 6, 2010 01:08 PM

Mainstream conservatism isn't conservative in any old-fashioned meaning of "conservative". What they are interested in conserving is not standards but political power, which they want to exercise, rather than to distribute it to the people.

Posted by: htom at August 6, 2010 01:34 PM

Thanks, htom, for that completely off topic bit of inanity. Are you by chance the President of the American Non Sequitur Society (proud motto: "We may be irrelevant, but we do like pizza!")

What impressed me the most about the Lavelle story was that he took the bullet and retired in shame, knowing that he'd been sold out, thrown to the wolves by the chain of command.

We truly do not deserve such men.

Posted by: Steve Skubinna at August 6, 2010 02:08 PM

It seems odd to me that conservatives will, on the one hand, extol the virtues of the military and on the other complain bitterly about the very conditions that make the military one of today's rare success stories.

That's because the individual is what makes a collective, like the US military, strong. Same for a benevolent dictatorship. It's not the dictator, but the people he dictates, that determines the dictatorship's strength.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at August 6, 2010 02:14 PM

What impressed me the most about the Lavelle story was that he took the bullet and retired in shame, knowing that he'd been sold out, thrown to the wolves by the chain of command.

Funny, my husband had a completely different take (one that, FWIW, is about the same as mine). He saw a leader who understood his role and his relative importance in the overall scheme of things and willingly took a bullet. What happened to him wasn't as important as what happened to his country.

Officers frequently have to put a good face on decisions they disagree with, implement plans they think are stupid, and even take the blame for things they didn't do.

Part of the territory - that's why officers are saluted: it's a recognition that there are significant costs that go along with the privileges of rank. Or at least there used to be.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 6, 2010 02:17 PM

Transparency, a good word filled with good intentions, but I'm reminded about paving a certain road.

The Wikileaks business has left me with a certain sense of wonder over what exactly did we learn? For example, could the tactics employed on the ground in Afghanistan lead us to believe illegal orders have been given? No. Have we learned anything at all that the military has hidden from us that would give us pause? Once again, no. It is abundantly clear that the military has acted according to the orders that the Commander in Chief has promulgated, and none of those orders give me a cause for concern.

What we did learn, and the enemy learned, is how we conduct missions at a tactical level. That's not transparency, that's betting someone else's life for personal gain. In today's world it seems the "news" is about who can get us the biggest "leak" while simultaneously providing us with no valuable information.

Posted by: Allen at August 6, 2010 02:20 PM

Steve, I think htom was responding to my prior comment. His response isn't off topic unless my comment was also off topic.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 6, 2010 02:20 PM

Yes, ma'am, you are correct.

I've long thought that what has now been revealed about Gen. Lavelle was something like the reality of what had happened. I didn't serve under him (or if I did, have forgotten, AFROTC was long, long ago), but knew people who did. (And wonder just a bit if Bush should get a little of the credit for the investigation.) You've got to stand up, and take what's unjustly thrown at you, and then sometimes, the hardest part, turn and walk away without responding. Trust, honor, and betrayal can become complicated when grand strategy is involved. He did, and I salute him for it. Semper Fi, General.

Posted by: htom at August 6, 2010 02:47 PM

What impressed me the most about the Lavelle story was that he took the bullet and retired in shame, knowing that he'd been sold out, thrown to the wolves by the chain of command.

He didn't retire in shame, although that's what it looked like to outsiders.

Those Who Knew, Knew.

Posted by: BillT at August 6, 2010 03:27 PM

I'm not sure our viewpoints are so far apart, Cassandra. Lavelle had to know he'd been hung out to dry, and he still went quietly. Today he'd have had the opportunity to sign on with some cable network as an analyst, and a dozen ghostwriters would be clamoring for the contract to write his "tell all" autobiography. The left would have found a new champion as some guy smeared by the machine (and if you don't think that opportunity was available to him back then, look into the story of LCDR Marcus Aurelius Arnheiter). Hell, Michael Moore and Oliver Stone would have a steel cage death match for who got to make the film.

And he didn't play that game. He took the hit, and left under a cloud. Did he think he'd eventually be vindicated? Even if he did, that's small consolation to having a career ended under those circumstances.

And I do realize htom was responding to your point, I just don't see how this became a "conservatives are icky poopyheads" thread.

Posted by: Steve Skubinna at August 6, 2010 03:34 PM

I suppose it's possible to argue that Vietnam - a war of choice - didn't justify the sort of secrecy routinely employed in existential wars.

It *was* an existential war -- for the South Vietnamese. The secrecy was necessary because, after 1968, the North Vietnamese had willing allies in the American Left, and anything open source -- and much that was closed source -- made it to Hanoi even faster than it got to Saigon.

Posted by: BillT at August 6, 2010 03:38 PM

I do realize htom was responding to your point, I just don't see how this became a "conservatives are icky poopyheads" thread.

Fair enough :p

I don't happen to think conservatives are icky poopyheads, but I also don't think it's a bad thing to debate the nature of conservatism either.

For instance, I took issue with Prof. Bainbridge the other day for dismissing conservatives he doesn't agree with (and keep in mind that I don't agree with most of those folks either!) as "dumb and crazy". That's not argument - it's insult, pure and simple.

I'm not so sure htom's point is off base - it seems that conservatives of all stripes are frustrated with conservative leadership for being tone deaf.

My point has been - all along - that a legislator's first duty is to represent the wishes of his/her constituents. If most of them are rock ribbed conservatives, then one expects to see rock ribbed conservatism from their representative.

BUT !! If most of them are moderate or moderately conservative, then one expects to see the legislator champion moderately conservative policies, not far right ones. A legislator from New Jersey (for instance) has no particular duty to a citizen of SC. He gets paid to represent NJ.

But we're hearing a lot of nonsense about the national leadership trying to override the concerns of legitimate constituents with some one-size-fits-all ideological straight jacket. I happen to think that's wrong, wrong, wrong (did I mention I think it's wrong?) and moreover surprising from folks who claim to be - for the most part - federalists.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 6, 2010 03:46 PM

(Going off topic -- I'd say their duty was to represent the needs of their nation first, their state second, their constituents third, their staff fourth, their family fifth, and themselves last. The opposite of what seems to be their current working order of priority. Wants, of which there are an infinite and contradictory number, should be sent to Santa.)

Posted by: htom at August 6, 2010 03:58 PM

If you put it that way, I'm hard put to disagree.

I think I was more looking at the competing duties to one's party and one's constituents, in which case I think a representative has a higher duty to the folks who sent him/her to Washington.

I don't see the duty to a party as being identical to the duty to the nation as a whole but I realize that places me at odds with a lot of folks on both sides of the aisle! :p

Posted by: Cassandra at August 6, 2010 04:14 PM

"That's not transparency, that's betting someone else's life for personal gain."

It's not "betting". The names of the people involved are already in the hands of Taliban assassinations. Some of them are dead now. Really. You don't believe me?

Posted by: Ymarsakar at August 6, 2010 04:25 PM

Cass, you forgot something in you characterization of how to get something, or something done. You said " There is an old saying: you can have it fast, or you can have it good."

When I worked for one of the largest Architect-Engineer firms in the nation we would draw a triangle and on each leg of the triangle we would put a label:"GOOD" "QUICK" "CHEAP" and then explain that they could have any two of the three parts of the triangle, but not all three.

Our version: "There is an old saying: you can have it fast, you can have it good or you can have it cheap. Your choice of any two."

Just wanted to pass them gem.........

Posted by: kbob in katy at August 6, 2010 06:58 PM

"Clean (or Fast), Cheap, Correct, choose at most two" was the way I learned it at Sperry Defense Systems. And "They don't have either the time nor the money to do it right now, but they'll have both the time and the money to fix it later!" coming from those in Marketing (and sadly, Contracts.)

Posted by: htom at August 6, 2010 08:24 PM

When I built computers I heard it as "Price, Performance, Service - pick any two."

Posted by: Steve Skubinna at August 6, 2010 08:57 PM

"Doing More With Less."

"Learning How To Fight Outnumbered And Win."

"Doing It Faster, Cheaper, Better."

Yeah, I remember all those Cold War memes -- I don't think there was a single member of my unit that realistically expected to live through the first 24 hours of WWIII, just based on the stupidity that passed for doctrine which kept erupting from the Puzzle Palace every time some hard-charger discovered a new shiny in some pop-psych PhD's paper.

Posted by: BillT at August 7, 2010 08:23 AM

It's a drill weekend and we are doing the SRP thing, so my reading time is limited. I missed this yesterday, but Peggy Noonan's commentary hit a resonant chord with me today. She doesn't always, but today in her wrap up she stated something that is so painfully obvious and true that it hurts to think about it:

"When the adults of a great nation feel long-term pessimism, it only makes matters worse when those in authority take actions that reveal their detachment from the concerns — even from the essential nature — of their fellow citizens. And it makes those citizens feel powerless.

Inner pessimism and powerlessness: That is a dangerous combination."

Deep thoughts, but unfortunately, spot on. I am thinking of a song by The Beatles....I think it was the flip side of "Hey Jude". What was it called....oh yeah - "Revolution." Insurrection is in the air, and the scent is getting stronger. Maybe a shift in the balance of power in the HOR and Senate could slake it, but it would have to be significant enough to override vetoes....

87 Days will tell us where we are headed. Everyone needs to keep their feet and knees together and be ready for whatever is next.


Posted by: kbob in katy at August 7, 2010 09:40 AM

Problem is, Peggy Noonan thought Obama was an "adult".

Posted by: Ymarsakar at August 7, 2010 11:17 AM


Many were fooled. Maybe it was the hopey-changey crap; maybe it was the fact that the lamestream press only put forth the best picture of PeeBho.

As the song says....

The paranoia is in bloom, the PR
The transmissions will resume
They'll try to push drugs
Keep us all dumbed down and hope that
We will never see the truth around
(So come on!)

Another promise, another scene, another
A package not to keep us trapped in greed
With all the green belts wrapped around our minds
And endless red tape to keep the truth confined
(So come on!)

They will not force us
They will stop degrading us
They will not control us
We will be victorious

Interchanging mind control
Come let the revolution take its toll if you could
Flick the switch and open your third eye, you'd see that
We should never be afraid to die
(So come on!)

Rise up and take the power back, it's time that
The fat cats had a heart attack, you know that
Their time is coming to an end
We have to unify and watch our flag ascend

They will not force us
They will stop degrading us
They will not control us
We will be victorious

Hey .. hey ... hey .. hey!

They will not force us
They will stop degrading us
They will not control us
We will be victorious

Hey .. hey ... hey .. hey!

Posted by: kbob in katy at August 8, 2010 12:09 AM

All wars are wars of choice. We chose to fight for independence. We chose to fight for (or against) the Union. We chose to fight in every single war we've fought. But saying "chose to fight" as opposed to "needed to fight" or "had to fight" implies a moral distinction: "choice" is automatically contrasted with "necessity," and who would choose to fight if he didn't have to? Only an evil man, someone like Hitler, of course.

The categories "wars of choice" and "existential wars" (or "wars of necessity") were invented, I believe, by those lovely lefties we've all come to know and love over the last nine years who, I believe, are trying to break the US and rebuild it as yet another glorious utopia. They needed terms to differentiate WWII from Bush's wars (more of their terms) simply because they had to deny they were against all wars (one way to dismiss their opposition to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan).

(Interestingly, "war of choice" in Wikipedia leads to the page "war of aggression," which is of course a form of criminal warfare of which Hitler's invasions are the prime example. This doesn't prove my point, of course. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_of_choice)

Posted by: lumpy at August 10, 2010 01:25 AM

Sorry, just had to chime in to add another "of course." Hadn't used my quota for the day!

Posted by: lumpy at August 10, 2010 01:26 AM