Centre for International and Defence Policy

Centre for International and Defence Policy
Centre for International and Defence Policy

The Wages of War

Louis Delvoie, Op Ed
Kingston Whig Standard, January 29, 2016

Sir Winston Churchill is reported to have once said that “jaw, jaw is better than war, war.” And Churchill knew from direct experience of what he spoke. He had seen first-hand the carnage exacted by British military campaigns in Sudan and South Africa. He had been a senior minister in the British government during the First World War, and as First Lord of the Admiralty had been one of the main architects of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. And in a letter to his brother in 1915, he expressed the fear that, “The youth of Europe — almost a whole generation — will be shorn away,” a fear that turned out to be remarkably prophetic. Churchill, of course, returned to high office in 1940 and led Britain through the uncertainties and miseries of the Second World War. With that sort of experience of war, it is perhaps not astonishing that he came to prefer diplomacy to combat.

Others, however, seem to adopt a more insouciant or hawkish approach to war. There is, of course, the oft quoted and much misunderstood statement of the Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz to the effect that, “War is merely the continuation of policy by other means.” Those who choose to take this statement in isolation are apt to regard war as little more than a normal exercise in politics. Then there are those who take to bravado in their approach to the subject. Thus American air force Gen. Curtis Le May, who advocated bombing North Vietnam “back into the stone age” in the 1960s. Of more recent vintage is Ted Cruz, a candidate for the Republican party in the current presidential campaign. Mr. Cruz suggested that the way to deal with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria was to engage in “carpet bombing,” with little thought given to the civilian casualties that might ensue. Most recently, there has been the inimitable Sarah Palin urging Donald Trump to “kick ass” in the Middle East.

It is something of a truism that those who are most enthusiastic for war are often those with the least direct experience of it. Many generals are far more reluctant to send their troops into combat than are their civilian masters. And many generals conclude their military careers by devoting themselves to diplomacy and the promotion of peace. The most notable recent phenomenon of this tendency was Gen. Colin Powell, a former distinguished chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff who went on to become secretary of state. And Canada’s military history is replete with examples of this. In the early decades of the Cold War, there were Gen. Andrew McNaughton, Gen. Georges Vanier and Gen. ELM Burns. More recently, there was Gen. John de Chastelain, a former chief of the defence staff, who laboured tirelessly and for many years in promoting the peace process in Northern Ireland. These were all men who knew the true costs of war and, therefore, valued peace.

These reflections are prompted by the publication of a new book entitled Lessons Encountered: Learning from the Long War. Published by the National Defence University Press in Washington, this is a collection of essays on the military experience of the United States in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It covers the full range of relevant topics from policy planning to battlefield tactics. It is replete with astute analyses of what went right and what went wrong. It ends with an Annex on “The Human and Financial Costs of Operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.” This annex makes for particularly sobering reading.

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