War Between the Head and the Heart – America’s Timidity at War in the 21st Century


By: Warner Todd Huston

There are two kinds of war, when you get right down to it, and the USA has had a little of both. First is the idealistic kind, evinced in that of the American Revolution and WWII, which were both fights to free a continent from despotism. Even Korea and Vietnam can be fitted into the idealistic category because the main goal with each was to stop the evils of communism from spreading further. Then there is the pessimistic kind, like ours with Mexico in the 1840s and most of our various Indian wars from Andrew Jackson’s Seminole excursions in Georgia and Florida to the last major actions against the Nez Perce in the Pacific North West. Few of them were little else than overt land grabs.

One axiom, however, can be applied equally of all our past wars up until recently; war means fighting and fighting means killing. Or, as Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman once unapologetically said, “If the people raise a great howl against my barbarity and cruelty, I will answer that war is war, and not popularity seeking.”

Americans, like other warriors of days past, rarely felt squeamish about killing the enemy, even when they were other Americans — whether they be “native” or Southern. Save for a brief time early in the Civil War as the residents of Virginia were spared too much deprivation by Union forces, or when Lee invaded Maryland and Pennsylvania, even civilians were not spared the hard hand of the God of War. The internecine border war in Kansas and Missouri was vicious for its attacks on civilians even as North and South played at their temporary, tender sensibilities in Virginia and the surrounding countryside for that brief moment of mercy.

For the most part, our ancestors knew that war was a hard business and fought it that way. Theirs was a war of the head. A war where one and all accepted the dreaded but necessary fact that people would die, even if some of those people never raised a hand in anger.

But, around the time of the actions in Vietnam, things began to change in the larger perception of the American populace. The idea that only “the enemy”, often an amorphous term, should be harmed in war began to gain cache. Fire bombing of the likes of a Dresden or the A-Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki began to take on barbaric overtones until we have, at last, arrived at the ridiculous phrase “collateral damage” to explain unwanted, but unavoidable civilian deaths.

This sentimentalizing of the victims of war has damaged our ability to fight wars as we should fight them with the intent to win early, often, and with overwhelming force. The maxim that General Nathan Bedford Forest didn’t say, but certainly practiced, was that wars are won by those who get there first with the most men and then to use those men to crush the enemy without mercy. (Grant knew this, too. He lost somewhere near 4,000 men in around 1 hour of fighting at Cold Harbor in 1864 and also was vocal about making war hurt the Confederacy’s civilian population. He eventually won the war with those ideals in play.)

This overly developed conscience is currently preventing the American populace from understanding and supporting the Global War on Terror in general as well as our specific actions in Iraq and Afghanistan in particular. It is also creeping into the minds of our troops and not necessarily to the best end.

This is a war of the heart where we bleed out our compassion, which will all too often be an action that defeats our own and doesn’t, in the long run, save anyone from the extent dangers that sent us to war in the first place.

A school of thought holds that a war should be awful, but quick and done with. But, we have made the “awful” part far too subordinate to the “quick” part. We just aren’t man enough to fight a war anymore. The head fights the heart and the enemy reaps the benefits of that battle.

This is a tragedy for our future safety. Should we turn even more pacifistic than we now are we risk the danger of the fate of a pacifist society warned about by C. S. Lewis.

“In the [Leftist] society the number of pacifists will either be large enough to cripple the state as a belligerent, or not,” Lewis warned, “If it is large enough, then you have handed over the state which does tolerate pacifists to its totalitarian neighbor who does not. Pacifism of this kind is taking the straight road to a world in which there will be no pacifists.”

So, now we have “rules of engagement” that often means that soldiers cannot have bullets in their firearms, or rules that prevent closing with the enemy, etc. And these “rules” pervade the thoughts of our troops to such an extent that it often paralyzes them from proper action.

Such a failure to stark but necessary action occurred to a Navy Seal Team in June of 2005 to disastrous effect as was recently written about in the Houston Chronicle.

In June 2005, on a barren mountain high in the Taliban-infested Hindu Kush, Luttrell and three fellow Navy SEALs came together to talk. Their mission — to locate and possibly take out an important Taliban leader hiding in the Afghan village below — had just been compromised. Three goatherds, one a boy of about 14, had blundered onto their position. Sitting against a log under the watchful eyes of their captors, the Afghans clearly weren’t happy to see the Americans. On the other hand, they were unarmed, technically civilians.

The Seal Team that was about to hit a nest of Taliban killers debated about what to do with these civilians. Kill them so they don’t alert the enemy or let them go and hope they don’t alert the enemy.

The consensus among the Seals was to be the nice guy and let them go. Upon release, these “civilians” promptly let the Taliban force know of the whereabouts of the Navy Seal Team. In the resulting fight every member of the team was killed but one.

Unfortunately for his conscience, that one survivor was one of the soldiers who voted to let the “civilians” go. That decision helped lead to the deaths of his comrades and one he has said he will regret for the rest of his days.

I don’t want to be misunderstood to be heaping any blame on this particular surviving hero and I am not attacking him. They made a judgment call based on many factors from training to institutional to societal. But his decision is indicative of the general weakness that we suffer from as a society now in wartime. It is far easier to look back in mock disgust at hard decisions made during war and cast aspersions and judgments upon them when in the peaceful glow of the calm and safety won by that war. But it is harder on everyone to try to tip toe through a war guided by sentiments that tend more to get your fellows killed and your cause lost to a more purposeful foe than anything else.

Now, certainly I am not suggesting we just “Kill them all and let God sort them out”, but there has to be a time when we fight to win and MEAN to win, even if that means that some “collateral damage” will occur.

These Navy Seals died as a result of timidity in war, a timidity not just ensconced in a “failed Bush” strategy, but in the whole of our society.

One last quote, one from John Stuart Mill who once expounded upon this very theme.

“War is an ugly thing but not the ugliest of things; the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feelings which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. A man who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”

We must realize that our cause is just. Islamofascism is a threat to all mankind, not just the USA. It threatens to sweep over everything in its path and it is not a force geographically isolated, but one with a presence the globe over. And to fight this terror timidly will be the death of us yet.

Like I said, war means fighting and fighting means killing.

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