Foreign Policy, Top Stories

The Illusion of a Gentle Machine Gun Hand

On May 31, 2018, Canada’s Minister of Public Services and Procurement announced the construction of new Joint Support Ships (JSS) for the Royal Canadian Navy. “With the construction of the JSS,” declared Carla Qualtrough, “our government is delivering on our commitment to support the men and women of the Royal Canadian Navy as they undertake humanitarian and military missions on behalf of our great country.” While the core capability of the JSS will be the “provision of fuel, ammunition, spare parts, food, water, and other supplies to warships at sea,” the Minister presented these ships as instruments of humanitarian operations, not war or peacemaking.

The messaging from Justin Trudeau’s dovish Liberal government in regard to the JSS is part of a larger trend, whereby many Western governments now seek to downplay the true character of their tools of war—in large part because they know that voters now have little stomach for contemplating the idea of actual combat. While such messaging may provide comfort, it causes a rift between citizens and military personnel when wars must be fought. Conditioned to view their military as a globe-trotting emergency-response service, the public is taken by surprise when hostilities break out.

In the United States, by contrast, hawkish politicians tend not to downplay the traditional war-fighting role of the military. Just the opposite: They accentuate it—sometimes to a fault. Indeed, reverence for the military runs so high that aggressive warfare sometimes is proposed as a solution to purely economic or political challenges.

In 2017, the annual U.S. defence budget was expanded by US$54bn—a sum larger than Russia’s entire yearly defence spending. When faced with a diplomatic and humanitarian challenge in Venezuela, President Donald Trump reportedly asked if invasion was the appropriate response. (The obvious answer was no.) He also seemed to believe that indiscriminate carpet bombing of Iraq could solve the region’s intractable problems, and has casually aired the idea of attacking North Korea and Iran. Some U.S. liberals were so dismayed with the result of the 2016 election that they were driven to muse about a military coup. The preponderance of former generals in Trump’s cabinet would be seen as problematic in most democratic countries. But in the United States, they are widely viewed as guardians of the country’s true character.

The larger problem, in North America and Europe alike, is that ordinary citizens and their leaders are becoming disconnected from the real capabilities, uses, and limitations of military power. In Canada, Europe, and Japan, the dominant conceit is pacifistic. In the United States, it is militaristic. Neither is healthy for democracy.

The true and proper role for the military in all cases is to pursue the political goals of the state—but only when all other methods of achieving such goals have been exhausted. As the godfather of military studies said: “War is merely the continuation of policy by other means.” Carl von Clausewitz also warned that no nation should field an army unless it is willing to accept the costs that go along with the act of deployment. Armies do not go to war. Entire nations do, both through the sacrifice of sons and daughters, and the payment of war’s costs.

When did Western populations begin losing touch with the purpose of their military forces? One factor has been the move from the citizen army to a professional model, which allowed armies to become smaller and more effective, but also loosened ties with society at large. Another factor is the lack of large-scale conflict in our era; and the consequent peace dividend, which, following the end of the Cold War, allowed politicians to shift funds from defence to welfare and tax cuts. During the Cold War, and the hot wars that preceded it, the risks and reality of conflict had to be communicated to citizens in a generally honest way. Once the Berlin Wall fell, this changed—notwithstanding the interregnum of 9/11 and the regional wars that followed.

Each country features its own particular political factors, as well. In Germany, the ghosts of fascism and militarism continue to exert their influence. In Canada, the desire to create a national identity that stands reflexively opposed to the United States has led politicians to focus on ‘peacekeeping’ as a means to differentiate the country from the supposedly more warmongering Americans. And in Japan, a postwar constitution prevents the existence of an armed forces per se (even if successive governments in that country still have found a way to develop the world’s eighth largest defence budget).

In the United States, by contrast, all problems tend to look like a nail—because the American public has come to believe in their country’s enormous air-power capabilities as the ultimate hammer. The success of precision-guided munitions in the first Iraq war, and then again in the Kosovo campaign, have created the misapprehension that such successes can be repeated. (The ongoing war in Afghanistan, now almost 17 years old, betrays the naïveté of such beliefs.)

Because the impulses at play in the United States act in reliable opposition to those in other Western countries, there is a predictable pattern that plays out when the world suffers a humanitarian crisis caused by violence: Americans tend to express an underlying belief that some form of military invention could solve the problem, but are wary about the underlying idea of humanitarian intervention. Other Western populations are more culturally conditioned to view such interventions as morally legitimate, but also tend to recoil at the prospect of either taking innocent lives with airstrikes, or losing the lives of their own sons and daughters if boots on the ground are required.

By the time a global emergency develops, it is too late to prepare a population for the sacrifices that war entails. Responsible political leaders have to take the long-term view by explaining to voters, beforehand, why their country has a military, what it could be asked to do, and, yes, the real possibility that lives may be risked and lost when deployments occur. Unfortunately, such candor is often mischaracterized as a form of populist hawkishness. To talk about the possibility of kinetic military responses is (wrongly) seen as actively welcoming or glorifying the horrors of war.

Military recruiters and communications officials themselves often embrace a strategy of depicting soldiers as Emergency Medical Services workers rescuing civilians from floods, or inoculating children in the developing world. The cover of a Canadian defence policy document released in 2017, for instance, features a collage of seven pictures:

Only two of these photographs depict military personnel in combat situations; one depicts a uniformed soldier greeting what is presumed to be his own daughter; two depict humanitarian missions; and one shows two people working over a map. In true Canadian fashion, the last shows a soldier on a snowmobile. New Zealand’s 2018 defence white paper opens with a full-page glossy of a helicopter team on a medical mission, helping a little girl wearing a princess backpack. In the 2016 version of the same document, the first mention of operations in the Prime Minister’s opening statement related to earthquake response.

As the post-Cold War system breaks down, and the unipolar world becomes multi-polar, conflict between nation states has again become conceivable—thanks in large part to increasingly assertive postures by Russia and China. And some Western democracies, to their credit, are waking up to this renewed threat. Sweden is bringing back conscription, and last month distributed pamphlets, not seen since the Cold War, explaining what to do if the country were to be occupied by a foreign power. Denmark has announced it will be creating a battlegroup purposed for deployment to the Baltic region in the event of a Russian invasion. Australia is executing a massive recapitalization of its Navy and Air Force. But even in these countries, discussions at the political level—especially during election campaigns and in media interviews—often bypass harsh geopolitical realities.

When Canada recently sent an infantry battalion to Latvia, Canadians were told that “NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence is part of a defensive and proportionate response to the evolving security environment in the region. The Battlegroup is training with the Latvian Land Forces Infantry Brigade, with which it will work hand-in-hand to deter, and if necessary help defend, the people of Latvia from aggression.” This statement is full of euphemisms. In reality, these soldiers are being sent on a dangerous and possibly even fatal mission: They constitute what is called a tripwire—a force whose role in war is, in effect, to prove to the world that a real invasion has taken place, by means of their getting killed, wounded, or captured. Canada and its allies would be expected to further commit to the campaign because the enemy has already proven its aggressive intentions by drawing first blood.

As of this writing, it appears that the NATO commitment to the Baltic nations has had its intended effect. The Russians have slowed down information campaigns against these countries, and it now seems unlikely that a Ukrainian-style hybrid war will be used to carve off Russian-speaking areas. But the Russian method of warfare—whereby belligerents use a mix of propaganda, guerilla attacks, cyberwarfare, economic pressure and conventional tactics—likely provides a template for the way state actors fight in the future. This includes China, as it seeks to exert control over the South China Sea.

In the wake of a 2012 U.S. presidential debate, Mitt Romney was famously mocked for suggesting that Russia was America’s greatest geopolitical foe. “The 1980s called, they want their foreign policy back” Barak Obama quipped. Since then, Russia has invaded and occupied parts of Ukraine, and attempted assassination with chemical weapons on British soil. Obama got his laughs, but the joke no longer sounds particularly funny.

It is during actual deployments when the distance between political rhetoric and boots-on-the-ground reality can be become widest. The ongoing War on Terror, in particular, periodically results in troops dying in obscure corners of the world that few ordinary people even know to be battlefields. In many cases, these deployments are sold as training or ‘advise and assist’ operations—as with European and now Canadian deployments to Mali. Missions described as ‘peacekeeping’ are usually, in fact, focused on counter-insurgency and state-building. American, French, and British (and potentially Australian) Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea risk escalating into legitimate Great Power confrontations. U.S. Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis tells reporters that these are “international waters, and a lot of nations want to see freedom of navigation. So we’ll continue that.” But the Chinese describe FONOPS as a “serious military provocation.”

One partial strategy for addressing these issues would be to preserve the military’s traditional sense of mission by creating dedicated humanitarian agencies equipped with hospital ships, helicopters, and other dual-use equipment such that would enable a vigorous response to humanitarian crises. This compartmentalization of mission would help provide a reality check when politicians seek to gloss over the real purpose of equipment procured for the military.

Another solution, though one that admittedly would require a generational time frame to play out, would be to reform primary education in way that helps educate students about an important historical lesson: that the freedoms we enjoy in the West came about in large part because of hard-fought victories on the battlefield. When children aren’t taught why we have a military, they cannot be expected to become adult voters who support the troops.

There is perhaps no greater threat to liberal democracy than the spirit of pacifistic complacency that emerges in peaceful times. An honest conversation about the role of our armed forces in the world can help ensure that this complacency does not metastasize to such point that we cannot defend ourselves against the foreign threats that already are beginning to stir themselves on our allies’ borders.


Mathew Preston is president of Heartland Strategic. He received his Master of Strategic Studies from the University of Calgary. Follow him on Twitter @prestonm2


  1. In what universe are NATO and the US at risk of pacifistic complacency in peaceful times? We are already at permanent war in multiple nations. Canada and Europe follow the US’s lead, as the response to 9/11 and two wars clearly showed. This unilateral US agency still runs the world.

    The idea that Russian and Chinese “aggression” are reasons for an eternal faux Pax Americana, as if US aggression has not shaped the entire modern world, are one sided and not fit for a truly multipolar world. The US has the South China Sea and Russian border surrounded, conditions that if any nation attempted to leveraged upon the US, would be accepted as acts of war. The faux moral superiority of the Western world, their right to run the globe militarily forever, emerges from a mythmaking that sees Russia’s annexation of Crimea as an unprecedented crime when no sane person would deny that the Iraq War was a far greater crime with far more consequences and casualties.

    The real myth here is that the Western trigger finger can be handled gently to subdue the world ad infinitum.

  2. Andrew_W says

    Interesting read.
    I suggest, that at least for Western nation,that the ever increasing media presence (both formal and social network) on the battlefield has meant that soldiers today have to be increasingly humane in their dealings with civilian populations The goal of “the continuation of policy by other means” just doesn’t work by crushing civilian populations and causing them maximum hardship. Hearts and minds has always been important in the winning of wars, today it is doubly so as the hearts and minds both of the people of the nations under the battlefield and the people back home and their perceptions of the conflict and the behaviour of their troops are far more influential on the course of the conflict and its final outcome.

    • ga gamba says

      Hearts and minds has always been important in the winning of wars,

      Always, eh? Genghis Kan tell you this? This gambit is a fool’s errand.

      Wars are won by destroying the enemy, not only the soldier in the field but by waging war on those in the homeland sustaining the force by manning the war-material factories, growing the crops, birthing the next generation, etc. It needs to be made so horrible for them that surrender is the desired consolation: “Thank God that’s over.”

      The last “total war” the West fought was WWII. It had a clear objective: unconditional surrender of both the Germans and the Japanese. To this end the US and UK firebombed numerous enemy cities, and ultimately the US dropped two atomic bombs on cities selected because they hadn’t yet been firebombed to the point of (near) obliteration.

      From the people come the war fighters and the leaders who decide to wage war and do so. Civilians are dancing in the streets when victories are announced. They happily accept the windfalls of war, such as economic growth. They are legitimate targets until they, like the soldiers in the field, raise their hands in surrender.

      More recently, the Sri Lankans embraced this when they decided to end the existence of the Tamil Tigers (TT). For more than 25 years a civil war waged, and when the TT’s capacity to fight withered it would find some busybodies, often Westerners, to demand Colombo accept ceasefires, talks, and “confidence building measures”. During this time the TT would recomposition its forces, rearm, and resume the offensive. Again and again this went. Colombo determined the TT’s desire to conduct peace talks was a cynical ploy, and, now fully appreciating the definition of insanity, the Sri Lankans resolved to drive the TT into the sea. Despite pleas from meddlesome NGO’s the war was fought until the TT were literally gunned down in the sea – you may google photos for this.

      You don’t hear about the Tamil Tigers anymore.

      • Andrew_W says

        Always, eh? Genghis Kan[sic] tell you this? This gambit is a fool’s errand.

        Khan’s expanding empire brought peace between the previously warring tribes of Central Asia, which made his rule preferable to the situation that preceded it. The Mongol Empire eventually ran into strife when it waged war on peoples too different in religion and culture to accept Mongol rule – it came into conflict with peoples who could not be won over (Christians and Muslims), ditto for other empires, including the British Empire. Hitler was always going to fail because he couldn’t win the hearts and minds of the peoples he conquered, very few French, Greek, Scandinavian, Polish, Russian, Dutch, Yugoslav or Czechoslovakian’s fought for Hitler, he was stuck with just the German, Austrian and Italian nationals that he started with, not so Khan.

        Wars are won by destroying the enemy, not only the soldier in the field but by waging war on those in the homeland sustaining the force by manning the war-material factories, . . .

        Battles are won that way, wars are won by ending the conflict, The US lost in Vietnam because it couldn’t end the conflict, Germany, Italy and Japan became US allies because after their military defeat they were won over through intelligent post conflict policies, the sort of policies whose absence after WWI led to WW2.

        My main point though is that, because of greater media coverage, in todays world Western Powers are far more limited in their ability to wage total warfare and then win the peace through hearts and minds, today it’s all too easy to lose popular domestic support through media coverage and to earn international condemnation. Of course countries such as Russia where the public are not supplied with honest coverage have less concerns about losing domestic support, but still suffer punishment from the international community.

        Today total war, other than to protect oneself from a genuine military invasion, is usually not a viable long term option.

        • ga gamba says

          No, Ghenghis Khan destroyed any city that refused to surrender. Not only did the Mongols eliminate those who opposed him and who might attempt to revolt under Mongol rule, it so terrorised others they promptly surrendered rather than face the same fate. The trade you mention came after the enemies were destroyed and the defeated integrated into the system. Granted, some knew of the benefits they may acquire, yet there were others who knew this and refused still to bend the knee, for example Baghdad.

          No, war is won by defeating the enemy’s capacity and will to not only sustain the fight but to resume it at some later point. The peace is won afterward because the will of the defeated to wage war again has been shattered. In WWI Germany’s will had not been shattered, so though there was peace, it was an illusion and temporary. We got to enjoy WWII. Both Germany’s and Japan’s wills were broken in 1945, which is why not only have we not seen them rise militarily, we find a large portion of the population are highly adverse to undertake any military action other than exclusively self-defence.

          In Vietnam the US fought a limited war. It certainly wasn’t fought as WWII was fought. For starters, the US refused to invade North Vietnam. Not only do you need to drive the enemy out of your territory, you have to deny him the (relative) safety of his own.

          Total war is not a long-term operation. Limited war is this because once the fighting ceases, such as by a ceasefire, there is still the requirement to maintain men and manpower to defend what is held. The enemy is able to reconstitute, rearm, refine, and acquire new technologies in the hope to resume the fight at some future point. WWII’s European theatre was from ’39 to ’45. The US has been sustaining an armistice with North Korea for decades.

          • Andrew_W says

            Early in the expansion of the Mongol Empire there was no need to burn cities, ordinary people were willing to join the empire and their sons would fight for it, it was only towards the end when, as I said, the Mongols came up against peoples of cultures and religions so foreign that easy conversion to subjects of the empire wasn’t possible. The result was that the expansion was no longer profitable, the growth in resources and manpower became negative, and just 12 years after taking Baghdad the Mongol Empire fell apart. So in the end, as with Hitler, the Mongol empire lost its war of conquest because it could no longer win over the people in the newly conquered lands.

            Returning to my main point, Total war (at least for Western countries) is nigh impossible in todays world, the world is too small for it, you start using the tools of total war: starving civilians, bombing indiscriminately, maximizing the suffering of enemy civilians, and the global community and your own civilians will stop you, it’s all too easy for the man in the street in NY to identify with starving children and injury civilians in Damascus.

          • ga gamba says


            (I have to post this here because there’s no Reply link below your last comment.)

            No, your main point was “Hearts and minds has always been important in the winning of wars. This is absolutely incorrect. In fact, with the adherence to this misguided strategy post WWII winning wars has proved rare and perhaps impossible.

            Though it was first expressed in 1895 by a French general, we find it was WWII where this strategy was not adopted by the Allies that a clear military victory against both the Germans and Japanese was won. Moreover, Franco didn’t seek to win hearts and and minds in Spain. The British didn’t worry themselves with winning the Boers’ hearts and minds; it tossed the rebels’ families in concentration camps. Certainly the Russian Civil War did not involve hearts and minds.

            Further back in history William the Conquerer’s Domesday survey and the Harrying of the North are other evidence of no thought given to hearts and minds.

            We can look outside the Eurasian continent too. In 19th century North America the Indian Wars and the US Civil War, specifically Sherman’s march, were not about winning hearts and minds.

            And for the Mongols, one only needs to look at their war with the Jin of Northern China, i.e. the Mongols’ neighbours, to see the utter destruction of population wasn’t something experienced by “cultures and religions so foreign that easy conversion to subjects of the empire wasn’t possible”; Jin population in 1207 (pre Mongol invasion) was 53.5 million people living in 8.4 million households and fell to around 10.5 million in 1236. The Jin Dynasty succumbed when its last city, Caizhou, was defeated and the emperor killed himself in 1234. The Mongols won blood and corpses. During Ghengis Khan’s rule from 1206 to 1227 it’s estimated 40 million died, and of course the Mongols weren’t yet finished.

            The Mongols collapsed from within due to their own internal rivalries; the division of the Empire began when Mongke Khan died in 1259 without a successor. It had nothing to do with organised insurrections by those conquered or at the hand of some other outside power potent enough to defeat the Mongols. Though the Mongols suffered some significant military defeats, some bordering on catastrophic, their ambition to defeat all remain undiminished.

            As for the man-in-the-street’s view, it’s because leftist academics, journalists, and politicians demanding hearts and minds be won and all kinds of social justice issues be imposed on the local population that’s given rise to muddled and self-defeatist ideas. If the military leaders and politicians were to disregard these and issue one demand – victory – it would be accomplished. The public tires of war that seems to progress nowhere by failing to seize, hold, and gain new territory. Frequent helicopter trips to revisit the same rice paddies or desert scrubland day after day is not what the general public expects. It will tolerate a lot when the objective is understood and progress to that end is being made.

            A way to accomplish this is for the host government to exclude journalists by refusing to issue visas, something the Sri Lankans did. They also tossed out the NGO’s and refused diplomats’ demands to visit the frontline. Further, the military does not owe the press access. Journalists don’t accompany the fire brigade into burning buildings nor are police required to have the press join them when SWAT storms a building during a hostage situation. A military is allowed to maintain operational security. We don’t see the press sitting in GCHQ’s/NSA’s and MI6’s/CIA’s operations centres.

            War must never be entered into lightly. Often these limited operations are more easily approved than genuine war as a way to get around legislative oversight and public scrutiny. “Don’t worry, it’s just a police action,” and “We’re deploying troops there to train and advise. That’s all.” Then mission creep happens. Politicians should be fully involved when deciding whether to deploy armed forces, but they must not be involved in establishing the rules of engagement; that’s the military’s role. Politicians doing so are looking for CYA so when something goes wrong, and it will in war, they can blame the military for failing to adhere to the limits imposed. Having soldiers manning checkpoints without loaded weapons is a disaster in the making.

        • ADM64 says

          Total war was an option for the Romans, not just the Mongols.

          • Andrew_W says

            Prior to todays interlocked and interdependent world total war has often been an option, but to “win the peace” – if conquest or converting the nation to be an ally was the goal, winning over the population of the conquered lands (or exterminating them) has always been necessary, otherwise your new lands/ally will be in a state of constant rebellion.

      • peanut gallery says

        Ugh, the first time I heard the “hearts and minds shtick was from the Bush II admin. I think I’m in agreement on the above. I’m as anti-war as one can be without being a pacifist, because when it’s necessary to go to war, I don’t believe in playing around. You win, decisively and leave. If the enemy wants to use churches to hide, you bomb the church. Otherwise they can hold you hostage forever. We had cause to invade Afghan after the leaders of the country declared responsibility, but we should have taken care of business, humiliated them, and left as quickly as possible. We’d have saved many more lives as a result. Instead, we’re in this “hearts and minds” quagmire. What a crock of shit.

        • Andrew_W says

          ga gamba
          Obviously if genocide is an option hearts and minds isn’t necessary. So back to my main point again, in todays world genocide isn’t an option for western nations, and neither is total war (which includes starving civilians, bombing indiscriminately, maximizing the suffering of enemy civilians).

          • ADM64 says

            “Genocide” or total war will again become an option for the Western world when it a) recovers its civilizational confidence and/or b) when it gets tired of losing and realizes that tis civilization can perish through a thousand cuts – physical and intellectual – whether inflicted on it by others or by itself.

          • ga gamba says

            No, genocide needn’t be used. It wasn’t perpetrated against either Japan or Germany. What was pursued was bringing the war to the homeland so the people got to experience firsthand the carnage they demanded their own militaries inflict on others. No one was telling the German people “our war isn’t against you, just your government.”

            If you’re going to wage war with a hand tied behind your back, which is what hearts and minds is, then it’s pointless to wage war – which I suspect is a motivation for those who advocate this policy. The winning of the hearts and minds, if it’s pursued, comes after the enemy’s capacity to sustain the fight in manpower, material, and the will to fight on ends.

            Winning hearts and minds does not win war.

      • TarsTarkas says

        A successful insurgency requires recruits, resources (money & materiel), and refuge (the last not necessarily territorial if one can hide amongst the populace or with a friendly power). If Batista had chosen to ruthlessly go after Castro in the Sierra Madre after Fidel’s first disastrous campaign, the history of Cuba and the Western Hemisphere would be much different today (and probably better).

        • Andrew_W says

          Batista was overthrown by a popular rebellion, he chose to rule as corrupt dictator thinking that his friendship with the US would keep him wealthy and safe, he lost the battle for hearts and minds because he didn’t think the peasants were of any importance. He threw open the door for Castro.

  3. Graeme Sutton says

    The examples you used to illustrate the US’ militarism are mostly just examples of the Trump administration’s incompetence. Trump asked about invading Venezuala because he’s a total ignoramus and the rest of the american establishment rushed to point it out. Similarly the only reason why generals are viewed as the voices of reason in his cabinet is because the rest of his appointments have been a mix of incompetents and extremists of various stripes.

    • “Trump asked about invading Venezuela because he’s a total ignoramus.” How about a different interpretation – Trump sought the advice of his advisers on taking a drastic step, and accepted their advice not to do so. Try and think outside the MSM box. That’s why Quillette was created, to encourage independent thought.

      • Bill says

        Exactly. It’s classic disruptive brainstorming you see in business as part of the “getting to Yes” technique. Someone tells you things can’t be done, you throw out an extreme in order to break the logjam of ideas.

  4. pacific says

    Hi Matthew,

    Interesting article/perspective. I’ve a question about your suggestion to “educate students about an important historical lesson: that the freedoms we enjoy in the West came about in large part because of hard-fought victories on the battlefield”. What book of history would you most recommend which supports/provides evidence for your perspective? As opposed to the Howard Zinn/Noam Chomsky view that military interventions by the USA et al. have served only the designs of the elite few; or Andrew Bacevich’s (more convincing) argument that recent US military interventions have been largely counterproductive.

    • X. Citoyen says

      My two cents: For general overviews, see Paul Johnson, “Modern Times,” anything by Robert Conquest, Victor Davis Hanson, and John Kegan.

      Unlike Zinn and Chomsky, Bacevich seems to rely on facts, instead of theories, but takes the worst possible interpretation of the facts and, in my opinion, seems to see bad faith in everything (when naivety and incompetence suffice).

      • Mathew Preston (author) says

        Hi, sorry I’m late to this. In addition to Kegan, I would recommend anything by David Bercuson for straight up history, and for a more political version, a good work around this topic is Who Killed the Canadian Military by Jack Granatstein

        • pacific says

          Thanks X. CItoyen and Mathew – those are some great recommendations.

    • In the Anglosphere, I’d suggest questioning the author’s premise that our collective liberties, such as they are these days, were either won or preserved on the battlefield. Since 1621, all of our victories, except those gained by the Presbyterian-Independent coalition after Nasby and by the Independents after Preston, have been won, preserved or lost either in Parliament or in Congress.

      It is also interesting that US invaded Canada regularly between 1640 and 1812, that the Stuarts were always on the verge of Invading New England and the US and GB were at war twice between 1775-1815; but in many ways these were just consequences of the English Civil War.

      I’m tending to think that the Hitlerite and Stalinist aberrations of the 20th Century spawned a total victory mentality that is very counterproductive when dealing with threats that are in fact negligible to to us and leave us using a sledge hammer to kill ants and anyone or anything in the vicinity.

      • TarsTarkas says

        The four colonial wars in North America (1689-1763) were part of the ongoing struggle for supremacy between England and France which had been going on since the reign of Henry II Plantagenet, The conflict only ended when (guess what!) Britain achieved total victory in the field and then did NOT hand the territory conquered back to the Bourbons, as they had in the past.

        I disagree with your implication that the War of Independence (the Revolution actually occurred later, that being the adoption of the present US Constitution) did not constitute a victory for liberty, especially since you consider that war an outgrowth of the English Civil War. Why wouldn’t the WOI be considered a victory by the latter-day Roundheads of the colonies over the constant encroachments on their freedoms by Royalist London after the French and Indian War? The US Constitution, the Ten Amendments, and the Bill of Rights merely cemented many of the gains or recaptures won in that war.

  5. neoteny says

    The ongoing war in Afghanistan, now almost 17 years old

    But the war in Afghanistan is a business proposition: the military-high tech complex benefits immensely from it. For them, the worst possible thing would be a “win” which ends the war and with it kills the goose which lays their golden eggs.

  6. Tim says

    Since then, Russia has invaded and occupied parts of Ukraine, and attempted assassination with chemical weapons on British soil.
    Author forgot to mention 2016 US presidental elections involvement and other unproven allegations.

  7. markbul says

    Hillary Clinton went to Afghanistan, and portrayed the mission as building schools for Afghan girls. So it’s not only Canada, Europe and Japan.

  8. That the Russian government would intervene in the affairs of other foreign countries is a problem, and as they are NATO should honour their defence commitments to Baltic nations. And I don’t know what should be done about the South China Sea. But it’s not like even if Hillary Clinton had won Western countries would be pushing Russia back out of Crimea. Indeed, that the hawkish Clinton would maintain a double standard of pushing an aggressive agenda on Putin, risking the end of the world, while not waging war on so many other illiberal countries whose despotism serves American investor interests was why many Americans voted for Trump or just stayed home. And it’s far from the case the options for diplomacy with China regarding the South China Sea has been exhausted.

    It’s not like Western countries aren’t so innovative if the alternative to not trading with opposed nations is to invade them, they’ll take it. Nothing about economics prevents the cultures of Western countries that allowed them to prosper and flourish by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps to do so again. More people believe that now than in a long time, and not a shallow nationalism but a uniting patriotism can heal divisions in the West today. And what with their knowledge of history, voters today are cynical about exhortations to spread liberal and democratic Western values to other countries is a just motivation to wage war. While I agree awareness of the importance of preventing the spread at home and abroad of radical Islamic and other terrorist groups from growing in countries around the world to protect people, that hardly warrants more intractable wars in North Africa or the Middle East that will only invite more hatred upon the West.

    You write about the importance of a democracy’s citizenry to appreciate the value of a military in times of peace. But the threats to Western democracy we see in the world today don’t strike me as warranting war or militarism. And you don’t pin down what enemy you think most threatens us, that would have Westerners invest more confidence in their militaries. I don’t think anyone disagrees militaries aren’t important, that the United States is becoming more militaristic, and perhaps this should be balanced out by NATO countries carrying more of their own weight. I agree. But that doesn’t warrant now to see the world through a paranoid lens that shows the longest period of peace in the history of the Western world is about to come crashing down, and thus pacificism must end. One of the cardinal values of the Western world has become human universalism. I think our humanism gives Westerners more than before, and that while we’ll defend ourselves and our allies, we’re no longer entitled to destroy people and cultures around the world just because we don’t like what their governments are doing.

    It’s from within the Western world itself people on both the left and the right see an establishment that threatens both themselves and the world order. And it’s from generations of seeing the world came to hate us due to our political elites never trusting the natural human will for peace.

  9. Just me says

    The book”What It Is Like to Go to War” by Karl Marlantes comes to mind

  10. Andreas says

    Media should also share in the blame here. The reason for the image of the gentle machine gun hand is to a part that western media is populated with a group of people who pretty much always choose the easy and short sighted solution which is pathos of rhetorics or the emotional/human angle to reporting.
    The greater picture is never discussed, the alternative is always assumed to be that everyone lives happily ever after. The reality is that there is no happily ever after if it is not supported and upheld. Civilization with fairly efficient police, laws and legal systems is not the standard state of affairs and a civilization which is not continuously supported is easily interrupted.
    When civilization is interrupted the realistic alternative is that strength and violence rules, whoever is strongest and most willing to use force decides.

    In western media journalists are horrified when a bomb misses and hits a civilian house, because the victims can be photographed and named, especially if the victims are rushed to western military hospitals. When irregular forces in the same conflict regularly blow up apartment buildings, public transportation or slaughters entire villages, it is viewed pretty much as business as usual. Ten times as many people can die as a result of irregular warfare, but they are more difficult to get high resolution pictures or names of, and it is a lot easier to generate a conflict that you can feed off and make a name for yourself from by attacking your own military than condemning irregular forces in another country. It is easier to find an official or officer in your own forces to question and castigate than some warlord in a remote country, so the journalists pick the easy route.

    The short sighted human angle focuses on close up pictures of the relatively few who died when the bomb missed the target. The larger picture question is how many people will die if you let those irregular forces continue blowing up buildings, buses and slaughtering anyone who doesn’t agree with them. The larger picture does not lend itself to close ups, names or biographies, it relies on the ability to think and reason out the consequences of both acting and not acting.

    War is not a separate issue from politics or diplomacy, it is a part of the political spectrum and not even the extreme end of it, the extreme comes when all the others have failed. When not even the limited rules of war apply and everyone is fighting everyone else, when ethnic groups or families kill each other for no other reason than temporary distrust and power.
    As horrific as modern war is, it kills less people than bad ideologies starve to death when politicians refuse to see reality.

    When you send in the military it should be because the alternatives are worse, if you wanted to send police or find diplomatic solutions you should have done so at an earlier stage. The military is for situations when people will die regardless, when the alternative is collapse or destruction of either your state/nation or someone else’s. Military intervention does not by itself fix a destructive or broken society, but it can limit how far the destruction spreads or allow building or rebuilding a society.

    Sending mllitary to, for example, Afghanistan does not save or magically fix a broken society where clans and warlords rule, it will not create a western democracy, legal system or efficient (not corrupt) police. It will not fix social mores, policies and values which clash with everything the western world takes for granted. It might however slow or prevent the spread of the “infection” to both nearby countries and the western world. If you stay long enough you might be able to build a functioning society, but not by playing both sides.
    The worst thing you can do is probably a military intervention when you either have no intention to stay long enough to get the job done or do not employ enough forces to replace the power structures only destroy the existing ones. If you destroy the existing power structures and then leave, you create a power vacuum which is likely to be worse than what you had before. The only option at that point would be to isolate the country/region and let it self-destruct to the point when the remaining population is either dead or decides enough is enough and starts rebuilding by itself, for many reasons this i usually not a valid option.

  11. Gregory Bogosian says

    ” As the godfather of military studies said: “War is merely the continuation of policy by other means.” ” The problem is that Clausewits was wrong. Warfare predates politics and policy as we know it. Ancient authors only spoke of regulating military affairs, not using war as an instrument of politics.

  12. This claim…

    > Some U.S. liberals were so dismayed with the result of the 2016 election that they were driven to muse about a military coup.

    does not seem to be justified by the article to which you link:

    In fact, the article says that

    1) The number of Americans who “said they favored a military intervention if the country faced rampant crime or corruption” has fallen since 2017.
    2) More Republicans than Democrats hold this opinion.

    It’s true that “the proportion of respondents who said that “very difficult times” would justify closing Congress increased from 9 percent of respondents in 2010 to nearly 15 percent in 2017”. But:

    > In 2017, roughly 11 percent of Democrats and 24 percent of Republicans were in favor of shutting Congress down during difficult times.

    Perhaps the author mistakes these resondents for liberals?

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