Confessions of a military skeptic

When it comes to the use of the military, I am neither a hawk nor a pacifist. I am a skeptic.

One of my earliest memories was overhearing my parents talking about the Korean War. I was sitting under a large sycamore tree in our backyard reading a comic book about World War II. I remember being shocked to learn that war was real; it was not just something in comic books.

Growing up Catholic in the 1950s meant that you heard about the horrors perpetrated by atheistic Communists against believers. At school, we even practiced getting under our desks in case of a nuclear attack. I remember discussing whether a first strike against the Soviet Union and China was morally permissible. People unwilling to consider such a strike were considered soft on communism. "If nuclear war is inevitable, let's make sure we win, even if we do lose a half dozen major cities." This strategy seemed both heroic and realistic to my young mind.

The Vietnam War became my generation's struggle to defeat communism and protect Vietnamese Catholics from torture and slaughter. It seemed a righteous cause in the defense of a people under attack. Only later did I learn of inept military leadership, corrupt allies, and how we destroyed villages to save them. At my 50th high school reunion in 2012, we saw the cost as the faces of classmates who had died in that war were projected on a screen.

After thousands died, North Vietnam won. Catholics are still harassed, but the predicted bloodbath did not take place. The country turned to capitalism and trade, and rather than being aligned with China as predicted, the two countries became competitors. Years later, as I watched the Berlin Wall come down, I thanked God that those nuclear realists never had their fingers on the button.

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Living in New York City at the time of 9/11, I wanted to punish those who planned and organized that attack as much as anyone else, but I became nervous when the war rhetoric sounded quite similar to the anti-Communist messages I had heard as a child, except "terrorist" was substituted for "Communist." Same theory, different enemy.

It is not that I think these are good people. They are fanatical and dangerous, just as the Communists were. But did we not learn anything from Vietnam?

True, the military tactics and weapons are smarter, but the overall strategy is military not political: Kill the enemy. We pretend the world is divided into good guys and bad guys and that our smart bombs can distinguish between them. But by intervening in Middle Eastern conflicts that go back generations, we are stuck with corrupt allies with their own agendas.

So I am a skeptic. Politicians continue to repeat the mantra that we have the greatest military in the world. Then why did we lose in Vietnam? Why did we accomplish practically nothing in Afghanistan? Why are things worse in Iraq than when we invaded? We still believe that we can ride into town, kill the bad guys, and ride off into the sunset like a Western hero. Such arrogance is breathtaking after so many failures.

Yes, we did for all practical purposes destroy al-Qaida, but the Islamic State group has simply taken its place. Do we believe that everything will be fine after we kill the last Islamic State militant? But what if another group takes its place?

The very same talking heads (or their disciples) who led us into Vietnam, led us into Afghanistan, led us into Iraq are now saying we should return to Iraq and go into Syria. Why are we listening to these people?

We spent billions of dollars over a number of years training an Iraqi army that dropped their weapons and abandoned Mosul at the first sign of the Islamic State group. Do we think we can now quickly train new troops to take on Islamic State fighters? It is not about training; it is about political will. After all, what foreign power spent billions training the Islamic State group?

Or do we think that we can defeat with air power a stronger enemy than the one that we could not defeat with air power and boots on the ground? Air power is attractive to American politicians because it does not put American lives at risk, as if an American life is intrinsically more valuable than another person's.

Air power is good at stopping Islamic State fighters' advance when its trucks and troops are out in the desert advancing on a town or city. The same was true for stopping the advance of Moammar Gadhafi on Benghazi. It is like shooting fish in a barrel with the risk of civilian casualties low.

I would support the limited use of American airpower to stop the Islamic State group's expansion. But bombs and artillery cannot liberate a city like Mosul without destroying it. We should have learned that in Vietnam.

There is a real danger that the United States will become an air force supporting a war on Sunnis by the Shiites and the Kurds. This will drive more Sunnis into the arms of the Islamic State group and alienate a majority of the world's Muslims from America.

The only way to defeat the Islamic State group is the same way al-Qaida of Iraq was defeated -- by turning Sunnis against it. It was the Sunni Awakening, not the American troop surge, that defeated al-Qaida. But it will not be easy to get the Sunnis on board a second time after they were betrayed by the government of Nouri al-Maliki, which broke every promise made to the Sunnis. 

There is no military solution to this conflict without a political solution. The political solution is in the hands of Iraqis themselves. If Shiites are not willing to give Sunnis an equal place in the political and economic life of Iraq, then there is nothing the United States can do to solve this crisis. We can stop the expansion of the Islamic State group, but we should not try to roll it back until the Sunnis are on board.

Patience is not a virtue Americans are known for, but it is the virtue of skeptics who have been burned too many times. The Islamic State cannot be defeated quickly or easily because it is a manifestation of much deeper problems. More people are going to die in Iraq and Syria. We need to provide humanitarian aid to refugees and the victims of war. But before we do anything militarily, we need to consider whether we will make matters better or worse. Our track record is not good. 

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is treesesj@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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