The tapes tell the tale. Go back and look at images of our nation’s most senior soldier, Gen. Martin Dempsey, and his body language during Tuesday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on Syria. It’s pretty obvious that Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, doesn’t want this war. As Secretary of State John Kerry’s thundering voice and arm-waving redounded in rage against Bashar Assad’s atrocities, Dempsey was largely (and respectfully) silent.
Dempsey’s unspoken words reflect the opinions of most serving military leaders. By no means do I profess to speak on behalf of all of our men and women in uniform. But I can justifiably share the sentiments of those inside the Pentagon and elsewhere who write the plans and develop strategies for fighting our wars. After personal exchanges with dozens of active and retired soldiers in recent days, I feel confident that what follows represents the overwhelming opinion of serving professionals who have been intimate witnesses to the unfolding events that will lead the U.S. into its next war.
They are embarrassed to be associated with the amateurism of the Obama administration’s attempts to craft a plan that makes strategic sense. None of the White House staff has any experience in war or understands it. So far, at least, this path to war violates every principle of war, including the element of surprise, achieving mass and having a clearly defined and obtainable objective.
They are repelled by the hypocrisy of a media blitz that warns against the return of Hitlerism but privately acknowledges that the motive for risking American lives is our “responsibility to protect” the world’s innocents. Prospective U.S. action in Syria is not about threats to American security. The U.S. military’s civilian masters privately are proud that they are motivated by guilt over slaughters in Rwanda, Sudan and Kosovo and not by any systemic threat to our country.
They are outraged by the fact that what may happen is an act of war and a willingness to risk American lives to make up for a slip of the tongue about “red lines.” These acts would be for retribution and to restore the reputation of a president. Our serving professionals make the point that killing more Syrians won’t deter Iranian resolve to confront us. The Iranians have already gotten the message.
Our people lament our loneliness. Our senior soldiers take pride in their past commitments to fight alongside allies and within coalitions that shared our strategic goals. This war, however, will be ours alone. They are tired of wannabe soldiers who remain enamored of the lure of bloodless machine warfare. “Look,” one told me, “if you want to end this decisively, send in the troops and let them defeat the Syrian army. If the nation doesn’t think Syria is worth serious commitment, then leave them alone.” But they also warn that Syria is not Libya or Serbia. Perhaps the United States has become too used to fighting third-rate armies. As the Israelis learned in 1973, the Syrians are tough and mean-spirited killers with nothing to lose.
Our military members understand and take seriously their oath to defend the constitutional authority of their civilian masters. They understand that the United States is the only liberal democracy that has never been ruled by its military. But today’s soldiers know war and resent civilian policymakers who want the military to fight a war that neither they nor their loved ones will experience firsthand.
Civilian control of the armed services doesn’t mean that civilians shouldn’t listen to those who have seen war. Our most respected soldier president, Dwight Eisenhower, possessed the gravitas and courage to say no to war eight times during his presidency. He ended the Korean War and refused to aid the French in Indochina; he said no to his former wartime friends Britain and France when they demanded U.S. participation in the capture of the Suez Canal. And he resisted liberal democrats who wanted to aid the newly formed nation of South Vietnam. We all know what happened after his successor ignored Eisenhower’s advice. My generation got to go to war.
Over the past few days, the opinions of officers confiding in me have changed to some degree. Resignation seems to be creeping into their sense of outrage. One officer told me: “To hell with them. If this guy wants this war, then let him have it. Looks like no one will get hurt anyway.”
Soon the military will salute respectfully and loose the hell of hundreds of cruise missiles in an effort that will, inevitably, kill a few of those we wish to protect. They will do it with all the professionalism and skill we expect from the world’s most proficient military. I wish Kerry would take a moment to look at the images from this week’s hearings before we go to war again.
Robert H. Scales, a retired Army major general, is a former commandant of the U.S. Army War College. He wrote this for The Washington Post.