Generals waging peace

This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower

By Sam Todd

Christ is the Prince of Peace; so you would expect many clergy to be peaceniks. But some generals have been as well.

From Washington to Eisenhower, we have elected nine former generals to be President of the United States. Not one of them then led us into a foreign war. Some other Presidents sort of promised not to. In 1916, Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” The next year we entered World War I.

Here is Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigning for a third term: “I have said this before, but I will say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent to any foreign wars.” (10/30/40) The next year we entered World War II.

Campaigning in 1964 Lyndon Baines Johnson promised not to “send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys should be doing for themselves.” The next year he sent 184,000 of them to Vietnam. By 1969, 537,000 “boys” and girls were there.

Is this remarkable contrast between the former generals and other Presidents happenstance? After his two terms in office, Dwight Eisenhower, who had the most military experience of any of our Presidents, told someone, “The Untied States never lost a soldier or a foot of ground in my administration. We kept the peace. People asked how it happened – by God, it didn’t just happen, I’ll tell you that.” (Peter Lyon, Eisenhower: Portrait of the Hero. P. 854)

Do generals know something civilians do not? They certainly know who will do the dying. General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, famously stingy with his soldiers’ lives, said at West Point: “The soldier, above all other men, is required to practice the greatest act of religious training – sacrifice…the soldier, above all other people, prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.” (5/12/62)

MacArthur was our most decorated general. He was proudest of his proconsulship of Japan of which he said, “Could I have but a line a century hence crediting a contribution to the advance of peace, I would yield every honor which has been accorded by war.” (New York Times obituary 4/6/64)

Our entry into the War of 1812 was egged on by some congressmen dubbed “the war hawks” who “wished to scuttle diplomacy and economic sanctions and declare war against Great Britain.” (Samuel Eliot Morison, The Oxford History of the American People, p.380) But they themselves would not be fighting the war.

Ralph Nader has suggested that: “anytime the Congress and White House gets this country into war, there should be a statute that moves immediately to conscript all military-age, able-bodied children of members of Congress, the president and the vice-president.” (Newsweek, 3/24/08, p. 52)

Eisenhower knew the trade-off the arms race entailed. “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.” (Speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors 4/16/53)

Generals want to be very clear about ends and means. Following the Persian Gulf War, Gen. Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, replied to “those who have asked why President Bush did not order our forces on to Baghdad after we had driven the Iraqi army out of Kuwait. …Even if we had been able to capture [Saddam Hussein], what purpose would it have served? And would serving that purpose have been worth the many more casualties that would have occurred? Would it have been worth the inevitable follow-up: major occupation forces in Iraq for years to come and a very expensive complex American proconsulship in Baghdad? Fortunately for America, reasonable people at the time thought not. They still do.” (“U.S. Forces: The Challenges Ahead,” Foreign Affairs, Winter 1992)

In the run up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, testifying before the Senate Armed Forces Committee and pressed to estimate the force required for a successful occupation of Iraq, said, “something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers…would be required. We’re talking about post hostilities control over a piece of geography that’s fairly significant, with the kinds of ethnic tensions that could lead to other problems.” (2/25/03)

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called the general’s estimate “far off the mark.” Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, testifying before the same committee two days later said, “It’s hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself….” (2/27/03)

Hard for Wolfowitz maybe; the general knew.

Perhaps, above all, generals are keenly aware of their and our finitude. Though our military is the most powerful in the world, it is not all-powerful. Only God is Almighty. The army is breakable. In full combat gear our troops look very formidable and are. But beneath the uniform is frail flesh and blood which, no matter how fit, is easily penetrated by a bullet, torn by shrapnel, blown apart by explosives. Their courage is so important precisely because they are not supermen or women.

Recently “Admiral William Fallon resigned as head of U.S. Central Command, having served less than a year in the post, with responsibility for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. ….The administration says that, ‘all options are on the table’ with Iran, but Fallon told the Financial Times that military action was not “in the offing. Another war is not where we want to go.” (National Review 4/7/08 p.6)

So there are peaceniks in the navy too.

The Rev. Sam Todd is dean of the IONA School for Ministry and retired associate rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston. This column originally appeared in the May issue of the Texas Episcopalian.

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