Presidents and the politics of endless wars

Shortly after the 1980 election I interviewed former president Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn. At one point in the conversation, Mrs. Carter stood up and walked around the room. “If Jimmy had bombed Tehran,” she said, “He would still be president.” She was right of course. And somewhere soon after presidents learned that nothing helps re-election more than a war.

The men in the American military and their families are in a bind.  The same men are deployed over and over, again and again, and the psychological toll is enormous.  Not to mention the physical toll.

Here’s what’s going on.

Politicians have learned that by keeping the army small and lean and redeploying the same men they reduce the political fallout of a long war.  Why go to war if the enemy knows that you have a time limit before your people call you back?  The enemy can just wait you out.  So there is less danger of an anti-war movement emerging if the numbers of families doing the sacrificing are small.  Of course, long deployments and re-deployments are destroying relationships and marriages. And that is creating a spike in suicides.  But it is a sacrifice the politicians are willing to allow for the good of the nation, not to mention for the increased chance of reelection.

But fewer numbers are just part of it.  There is more.

Politicians have discovered, post Vietnam, the power of reducing the death toll.  It doesn’t matter how many bodies come back missing their legs or brain matter, just so they are alive.  The injured soldiers and their families will tend to be supportive of government because they will need the money and the Veteran’s Affairs Department to help pay for the incalculable medical costs.  So if you can reduce the death toll you can have your war and have great flexibility in pushing your soldiers around the global chessboard, not to mention get re-elected.   All for the good of “freedom,” of course.  And the families who are sacrificing, need you and will support you.

So, at the moment of injury, we have state of the art medical care for our soldiers and a “no man left behind” policy.  Men who would normally die now receive the world’s best and fastest care.  If they are still breathing or if they can be shocked into breathing, we will save them.

Now, the soldiers and the military families think that this is all for them.  They think, wow, we really owe it to our Commander in Chief, he knows the drill, he loves us.  We get care that no civilian gets.  But the politicians didn’t do all this just because they love their soldiers.  If they loved their soldiers the care wouldn’t fade away as they grow older and their last dependable advocates, their parents, die off. The politicians did it because it allows them to have their wars.  And as we have learned, the care only lasts long enough to get the family past that politically dangerous time, once they are in the system and the story is old, they can be shunted off to the cockroach villas where they will be a bi-annual news story of outrage and promises to do better.

This process is fueled by the companies and individuals who are making money off of these wars.  And it is even partly the fault of the soldiers themselves, who have a predictable knee jerk patriotic reaction when a politician, any politician, pushes the right button.  A soldier will say, “I don’t really know why we are here but I will do my duty for my commander in chief.”

Okay, I know, how dare I claim to know the motives of the politicians?

Because the politicians know the damage that is going on and they refuse to correct it.  When there are politicians, outside of power, who try to help the military families, they get shot down by other politicians in power, Republican or Democrat.   For make no mistake, this is not about ideology, it is not about left or right, it is about power.  It is about money. It is about me, the president, having my war when I want it for the purposes I choose, for the good of the nation, and for my own political well being.

In 2008, presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s humanitarian solution was more boots on the ground.  Huckabee said a bigger army would reduce the burden on this small segment of our society that is slowly being bled to death for the rest of us, the lives of the spouses and children, as well as the soldiers.  But Huckabee’s solution was met with a storm of protest.  The incumbent George W. Bush took it as a personal criticism of his policy and the soldiers themselves rallied around Bush who had sent them into Iraq to make the world safe for democracy.

In 2012 Ron Paul was called an extremist for calling for an end to all American initiated wars.  He complained that we have 700 military bases with troops in 140 countries. That the US accounts for 43% of the worlds military expenditures.

It is fascinating to hear the Obama White House defending its own, unique style of patriotic combat.  We are fighting in Afghanistan for women’s rights.  Soldiers in the field are now actually accompanied by State Department officers.  American women, in military garb are sitting down with Afghan women who are pried loose from their husbands to attend meetings outside their own homes.  When generations of British and American Christian missionaries tried such colonization in Africa, teaching natives in distant lands to shake hands and wear western T shirts and say, “Hello” in English, it was considered intrusive.  But the Obama colonization of the Afghani’s is considered noble and worthy.  Bush tried to impose American, Republican democracy on Iraq.  Obama is trying to make good liberal, tolerant Democrats in Afghanistan.  The natives only want us to give them whatever money we will give them and then get the hell out.

It is so absurd.  It would even be funny.  Except for this tragic fact.  Many, many people are dying, Afghans and Americans.  Some soldiers are killing themselves.  And others are feeling a pain worse than death as they split from their wives and children and come home as vegetables for their aging parents to hold.

A couple of years ago passengers on a plane landing at Dulles Airport heard this announcement.  “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking.  I have stopped short of our gate to make a special announcement.  We have a passenger onboard who deserves our honor and respect.  He is a soldier who recently lost his life.  He is under your feet in the cargo hold.  Escorting him today is an Army Sergeant.  Also onboard are his father, mother, wife and daughter.  Your entire flight crew is asking for all passengers to remain in their seats to allow this family to exit the aircraft first.  Thank you.”

The pilot later told reporters that the entire plane wept as the little family timidly worked its way down the aisle of the aircraft.  The pilot said he wished he could have said something that would have brought the young man back.  But no one can do that.  The president does not have that power.  There is no department of government that can give back that young man his life.  But we can kill.  The president can kill, the Department of Defense can kill, the State Department can kill, the Veterans Affairs can kill, the CIA and the FBI can kill.  And we will keep killing these small numbers of men and women and our politicians will keep having their wars and they will be re-elected when they do.

The American Empire now has its boots on the ground in 140 nations on earth.  Not only does it take its toll on the few families that bear the physical cost, the financial cost of our ongoing wars is bankrupting the nation.  Our infrastructure, including our great interstate highway system, once the wonder of the world in the 1970’s, has fallen to a level behind Europe and much of the developed world on the Pacific Rim.  People urinate on the marble steps of our monuments in Washington, D.C.  Our educational system is a disgrace.  Our environment is a mess.  We are about to send the largest bloc of our population into retirement without the power to give them back the money they lent us in the social security program.  We have a new healthcare program at the expenses of taxes that are four times higher than the highest rate in Russia.  We elected a president to help us out of a mortgage crisis that had led to a deep recession and he raided the treasury for his favored constituencies and refused to make the smallest tweaks to relieve desperate homeowners.

And now, administration after administration, Republican and Democrat, systematically abuse the trust and loyalty of our own warriors.  We are sacrificing young men and women to stuff the ballot boxes of incumbent politicians, who are guaranteed re-election with a war,  and line the pockets of their friends outside of government.  It is not new.  It is old.  Very old.  It is Medieval, it is Roman, it is Greek and Egyptian and Persian and Chinese.  But until now it has not been American.


Published by Doug Wead

Doug Wead is a New York Times bestselling author whose latest book, Game of Thorns, is about the Trump-Clinton 2016 election. He served as an adviser to two American presidents and was a special assistant to the president in the George H.W. Bush White House.

3 thoughts on “Presidents and the politics of endless wars

  1. This is what happens when our weak, spoiled society tries to engage in a politically correct war. Germany did not fall with precision weapons, but from the might of 24/7 bombing runs on every major city. Wars are won by convincing the population that continuance is futile. This does not mean that we should pillage like Genghis Khan, but the convoluted rules of engagement that witless politicians create are sentencing our troops to death. Since Veitnam, Thousands of American lives have been sacrificed at the altar of political correctness. This should not be. I have felt the effects of a father at war, and heard first hand his stories of needless political interference.

    Americans need to grow up and come to the realization that war is violent and horrible. Trying to engage in this dreadful inevitability with one hand tied behind our backs will only extend the conflict and put our own troops needlessly in harms way.

    The linguine spined anti-war crowd can go bury their head in the sand, and forget about the last 2 millennia of human history.

  2. What I appreciate so much in Doug Wead’s blog is how he so beautifully encapsulates a difficult and complex subject. Would we would all heeds the words and warning to be vigilant and to be faithful to our warriors by defending them with our ballots,not just our good thoughts and well-wishes.

  3. I was pro war in both Afghanistan and Iraq, now I feel like this extended war is truly causing more harm than good.

    Check out this video with Geraldo Rivera interviewing the soldiers asking them about protecting the poppy fields:

    Knowing that our soldiers are supporting a 500 billion dollar opium crop, then if any of it comes back to the states, they arrest our citizens. We’ve become hypocrites as to our reasons for fighting. We’ve lost our way.

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