Mr. Obama, fight to win, or bring troops home

Terry Garlock's picture

At this writing I don’t know what President Obama will decide and announce this week on Afghanistan, but I do hope he considers the men and women in our armed forces at the top of his priority list. Presidents have not always done so.
Making strategic decisions that deploy our armed forces inevitably costs the lives of some of our troops; surely those decisions weigh heavily on every president. The least America can do when we send our sons and daughters to war, it seems to me, is make sure they have the best chance of victory. But the modern world does not favor secrecy, a prime ingredient for military victory.
Little escapes the notice of our news machine with worldwide instant communication, and the loyalty and self imposed reporter caution in war – loose lips sink ships – seems to have died long ago. Reporters scramble for any nugget of prediction, naively pressing questions about “exit strategy” though any seventh-grader should know you don’t win wars by defining for your enemy the terms and timeframe of your planned withdrawal.
For those who need a more authoritative source of war-fighting wisdom, there is “The Art of War,” a collection of the writings of Sun Tsu, a legendary Chinese military commander who is believed to have lived in roughly 500 BC. Sun Tsu’s writings to guide his generals are still studied by military professionals around the world. His timeless insights are many, here are just a few:
“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.”
“If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. If sovereign and subject are in accord, put division between them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.”
“Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys. Look on them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death!”
“To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”
“It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war that can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on.”
“He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight. He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces. He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks. He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared. He will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign.”
Think back to recent American wars. In the first Gulf War (1990-91), General Schwarzkopf could not avoid publicity of a huge logistical buildup in Saudi Arabia, just across the Iraq border. But he did deceive the U.S. and world press with his surprise “left hook” by sending a major arm of his forces through many miles of desert to surprise the Iraqi forces, attacking them from an unexpected direction. And President H.W. Bush did not interfere.
In 2002 I worried about the many speeches President George W. Bush gave as he rattled the sword to sell the idea of war in Iraq, announcing to Saddam Hussein a thousand times that we were coming. I even yelled at the TV, “Don’t do it!” now and then.
The president did stay out of the way after giving General Franks the green light to launch his high-speed charge to take Baghdad in 2003, and at least that part of the war was hugely successful.
Think back further, to the war in Vietnam, a war associated with failure. There were, indeed, egregious mistakes in that war. The irony is that the anti-war left did such a fine job disparaging the war and our own troops that the public still believes many things about that war that are not true, and most don’t know what really went wrong. That fog must lift if you wish to think clearly about how America uses its military might. Here’s the shorthand version.
Our part in the Vietnam War was a noble cause to stop the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia. We had recently fought the Chinese to a stalemate in Korea and stared down the Soviet Union at the nuclear brink over missiles in Cuba.
Accordingly, President Johnson (LBJ) ordered a “limited war” in Vietnam that constrained the U.S. military in hopes of containing the war and preventing its spread. That sounds reasonable on the surface, but tying one hand behind our military’s back while they fight a war has consequences.
U.S. forces were prohibited from crossing the Laos and Cambodia borders, though covert ops did so while the president denied they were there. The problem was, our enemy’s supply lines, training camps and supply depots were across those borders; we gave them sanctuary from which to attack us.
Feeding the enemy supply lines was a steady stream of war materiel arriving on Russian ships in North Vietnam’s Haiphong harbor, but U.S. forces were not permitted to attack there. Our bombers were prohibited from flying within 30 miles of Haiphong harbor. Requests to mine the harbor were denied.
Enemy surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) were used to shoot down our jets, but an enemy SAM site under construction could not be hit until it was complete and operational, shooting at our pilots; politicians feared we might kill Russian advisors helping with construction, which would be ... provocative.
LBJ once bragged that our military couldn’t bomb an outhouse in North Vietnam without his permission. The sad thing is that comment is close to right. For a considerable period, bombing targets were selected in a White House weekly meeting by an advisor group, sometimes controlling the ordinance and direction of attack, like requiring a bomber to run down a river to hit a bridge, reducing the risk of a long or short shot that might inflict civilian casualties, but reducing the chances of hitting the bridge and increasing the risk of the bomber being hit by enemy guns.
You can imagine the ineffectiveness of a remote non-military group making these decisions, and the delay in reacting immediately to on-site situations. Our jet pilots risked their lives on missions to bomb the same useless but approved target repeatedly, like a road intersection, while prime targets, like an enemy Mig base, were off-limits. The movie “Flight of the Intruder” is an entertaining illustration.
The patchwork of rules of engagement in Vietnam got a little crazy. We had to have radio clearance to fire on the enemy, and the enemy often escaped as we waited for the green light, which in some cases had to come from a Vietnamese province chief who might respond, “No VC in my area!” We often wondered where loyalties lay.
Our troops fought with strength and honor in Vietnam despite the constraints. If I had to choose one word to describe what went wrong there, it would be the “politics” that turned the war into a meat-grinder that voraciously ate Americans and Asians. I think if Sun Tsu had reviewed our war strategy in Vietnam, he would have puked.
And now a new president has difficult war decisions to make. I hope he minimizes the politics in his decisions. I hope he decides on a strategy that makes victory an achievable goal. I hope he orders all the resources our troops need to prevail.
I hope he does not reveal to our enemy what our strategy will be. I hope he turns loose our military might to take sanctuary away from the enemy. I hope he does not advertise to our enemy the terms and timeframe in which the U.S. will withdraw.
I hope he does not impose complex rules of engagement that prevent our troops from giving each other the combat support they need. I hope he does not put the safety of Afghan civilians on a higher priority than our own troops. I hope he gives the generals free reign to get the job done. I hope.
Afghanistan has proven historically to be a very tough venue for military action. If we don’t fight there in a way that would bring a nod of approval from an ancient Chinese commander named Sun Tsu, I hope we do the right thing by our troops and bring them home.
[Peachtree City resident Terry Garlock’s email address is tgarlock@mindspring.com.]

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