On American Warfare

I’m currently a Presidential Leadership Scholar.

Over the past two days, I’ve had the opportunity to hear Robert Gates speak, as well as many thoughtful presidential researchers. All of this has taken place at Mount Vernon, and there has been a focus on George Washington’s presidency.

It’s been quite stimulating, as well as useful to step out of the education bubble.

See below for some reflections on American warfare, of which I’m not an expert.

Also, none of the below should be mistaken as opinions of any of the speakers of the program.

1. George Washington relinquished twice. First, when he gave up being the head of the army after the revolutionary war. Second, when he stepped down after serving his second term as president. At either point, he had the opportunity to make a run for King of the United States of America, but he did not. This is a great contribution to our nation, and perhaps to future education leaders, especially future superintendents.

2. Robert Gates did not call on me during Q&A, but this would have been my question: from LBJ onward, what wars did we fight that we should not have fought; and, were there any wars we should have fought that we did not? My personal answer would have been numerous on the former (Vietnam; our excursions in South America; Iraq; to name a few, and I could go on) and zero on the latter. Rwanda would be the only situation to make me think twice about a war we should have entered but did not. Even there, it’s hard for me to predict what our intervention would have accomplished.

3. Some of my biggest questions around warfare have to do with counterfactual scenarios of just wars. Clearly, in both the Civil War and World War II, the victorious side was also in the moral right. However, this does not mean that war was justified on utilitarian grounds. Perhaps sustained political efforts would have ended slavery in the next few decades without a civil war. Perhaps Hitler’s land grab could have been slowly unwound over time without armed resistance. I don’t know. But I think these scenarios need to be grappled with deeply; and, in the lay media at least, I don’t think they are given enough serious consideration.

4. Here would be my advice to future presidents: when in doubt, don’t go to war; when confident, don’t go to war; when certain, consider the fact that many president have erroneously been certain before.

5. People whose stock is rising on my brilliant strategist list: Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama.

Again, none of this reflects the opinions of those who run or participate in the program.

These are simply my reflections on a few days worth of programming.

3 thoughts on “On American Warfare

  1. badgehs

    Thanks, Neerav.

    The Civil War is the strongest candidate for this rethinking. African Americans would almost certainly be better off TODAY if a more relinquished approach had been taken 150 years ago.

    However, the war (for Lincoln) was about keeping the Union. We’d be how many countries today if their hadn’t been a war?

    And if we were 2,3, 5, 7 countries today, what would the rest of the world look like? Would Europe have stayed Nazi? Would Hawaii be Japanese? Would the Emperor harshly rule Manilla and Bataan?

    Today the big fat elephant in this thought line is Ukraine. Russian tanks, sensing Western non-resolve, have happily rolled over what was sovereign territory. Everyone was shocked. How could this happen in 2015?

    For a couple days. Then that pacifist strain that rose in ’68-72 reared it’s cognitive dissonance and we quickly found justification for non-concern. Ah, you say, those people speak Russian. They belong with Russia. That’s all the farther Putin will want to go.

    Except that Kiev is considered Russia, too.

    I wonder if the Presidential scholars mention the 100, 000 political prisoners in gulags across North Korea? Do they mention the millions who died of hunger, cold, and hard labor in the Stalin era gulags? Or the hundreds of thousands of merely political prisoners who languished in these camps, on until the end of the USSR?

    Do they talk to the Polish, who love us for rescuing them from German, or Russian domination? Or the people of rural France, who still remember what it was like to be freed?

    If we are to take this advice, we must accept it in all that it implies. Louis XVI should have had nothing to do with war in the US. His relinquishment would have meant the end of the Revolution. And with it, a stopping of the idea of government by the people and the subsequent explosion of individual freedom.

    1. nkingsl

      Thanks – just to be clear again, all these opinions and questions are my own. Many of the issues raised in my post were not even contemplated by the program.

  2. badgehs

    Neerav, to bring this back to K-12, there is so much here that could be grounds for good civics learning in school. It starts, however, with being well grounded in the basics of history.

    You and I went through school after they’d done away with what was called Western Civilization. Which was the story (told well or not) of how we got to be in the position of leading the world and having all these choices to make.

    How do we give schools (those with students with the ability to read really well) the freedom to explore much more of western and world civilization?


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