Commentary: The guns of peace
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 26, 2010 - My parents were born in the decade following WW I -- also known as "The Great War," "The War to Make the World Safe for Democracy" or "The War to End All Wars." Their children were born in the decades following WW II -- an armed conflagration of global proportions that demonstrated that the first one hadn't ended wars, after all.
The atomic weapons deployed in 1945 to finally stop that bloodshed were so horrific in their destructive power that they made mass warfare among superpowers impractical. It became generally recognized that a WW III would entail the utter destruction of human civilization -- a no-win prospect that gave rise to the modern habit of limited combat.
I was an infant, and thus blissfully unaware, when the Korean War broke out. There, an American-led coalition operating under the aegis of the United Nations fought to maintain the boundary between the communist North and democratic South at the 38th parallel. To the extent that said border endures to this day, the effort must be considered a qualified success, although we still pay for about 36,000 American troops stationed in-country to defend it.
Congress last voted a formal declaration of war in 1941, which is not to say that our armed forces have been idle lately. Below is a brief synopsis of significant combat operations undertaken since 1950. These were initiated by executive fiat; sometimes in consultation with Capitol Hill, sometimes without:
|1961||Invasion of Cuba | Bay of Pigs||0|
|1962||Cuban Missile Crisis||1|
|1965||Invasion of Dominican Republic||13|
|1965-73||Vietnam War (advisers deployed in 1961)||58,236|
|1982||Peacekeeping in Lebanon||241|
|1983||Invasion of Grenada||19|
|1986||Air strike in Libya||2|
|1989||Invasion of Panama||23|
|1991||Liberation of Kuwait||157|
|1993||Relief Mission in Somalia||19|
|1994||Invasion of Haiti (restores Aristide)||1|
|1994-95||Air strikes, peacekeeping in Bosnia||0|
|1999||Air War in Kosovo||2|
|2001-present||Invasion of Afghanistan||1,234*|
|2003-present||Invasion of Iraq||4,416*|
*As of 8/18/10
[Note: I did not include the 1979 attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran because that mission was aborted before contact was made with the enemy. I also did not cite military casualties from the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon as that tragic episode was not a foreign expedition.]
By rough count, that's 100,880 Americans killed in foreign military operations in the past 60 years -- an average of about 1,681 combat-related deaths per year and one major military excursion every 3.75 years.
And those daunting statistics do not approximate the number of people we killed in these ventures. In Vietnam alone, it is estimated that 2 million civilians perished along with an additional 1.1 million communist combatants.
Reviewing this history, I am reminded of a friend from college. He was a good guy, well-intentioned, and he certainly didn't think of himself as a bully. He was also quick-tempered and had an unfortunate tendency to debate with his fists -- especially if we'd been drinking beer, which we normally were. While he didn't fight every time we went out, it was a fair bet that if a disturbance broke out, he'd wind up near the center of it.
He had a justification for every fight he got us involved in. Some were more convincing than others but all were offered with passionate sincerity. After a while, however, you couldn't help but notice that he was the one commonality in all the mayhem. Adversaries and issues changed from fight to fight, but he was invariably there throwing punches on behalf of his vision of justice.
Of course, this kind of behavior has consequences. All the guys he'd decked had friends and relatives of their own. Eventually, we had a posse of aggrieved associates hunting us, looking to even the score.
Like my barroom brawler buddy, America has reasons for its use of force. Some are compelling (Kuwait & the initial invasion of Afghanistan), some are compassionate but misguided (Lebanon & Somalia) and others are ridiculous (Panama & Iraq). Regardless of the rationale, there are consequences for action and these are usually not paid by the people who made the decision to break out the guns in the first place.
Back in the '80s, Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi asserted territorial rights in the Gulf of Sidra beyond those provided for by international law. We responded by conducting naval exercises in the disputed waters. Two Libyan MIG fighter aircraft approached the fleet and they were promptly dispatched to the bottom of the sea by our superior aviators.
Libyan agents responded by detonating a bomb in a nightclub in West Berlin frequented by American GIs. Ronald Reagan subsequently launched a night bombing raid against Libya that, among other targets, hit the royal palace, killing Gaddafi's young daughter. Later, Libya blew up Pan-Am Flight #103 with 179 American passengers and 11 American crewmen onboard.
I make no defense of the cowardly psychotic Gaddafi, and I offer no criticism of the principled and courageous Reagan. But on behalf of the innocents of Flight #103 and their grieving loved ones, I've got to ask just what vital national interest does the United States have in the Gulf of Sidra?
The late Kurt Vonnegut was a POW in Dresden during WW II. He drew upon those experiences to write his seminal masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-5, which became a counter-cultural favorite during the Vietnam years.
He was once approached by an aspiring young writer who confided that he was working on a major anti-war novel. Vonnegut responded by suggesting that he write an anti-gravity book instead.
Indeed, history teaches that war is inevitable and a strong defense is necessary. As Caesar remarked, "if you love peace, prepare for war." To the extent that we currently comprise about 5 percent of the planet's population but our annual defense budget is greater than the rest of the world's combined, it would seem that we've heeded his sage advice.
But for a peace-loving nation, we've left an awful lot of corpses in our wake.
M.W.Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.