What war teaches us

South Vietnam, January, 1968: Flares fall over Hill 50, west of Landing Zone Ross, silhouetting troops from 2/12, 1st Cavalry on a three-day operation in Que Son Valley.


By BENJAMIN GINSBERG | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: November 10, 2014

Organized warfare is among the most common and persistent of human activities. Yet war is usually said to be irrational, even a manifestation of collective insanity. In his eloquent 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Riverside Church in New York, for example, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared, “Somehow this madness must cease.”

War is brutal, but it would be incorrect to say that war generally exemplifies or fosters irrational thinking. Quite the contrary. As terrible as it is, war and the possibility of war exert considerable pressure upon societies to think and plan logically to protect their security interests and, sometimes, their very existence.

War, as an ancient Greek historian said, is a harsh teacher. Those societies unable or unwilling to engage in logical thinking and planning are not likely to survive what might be called the audit of war. Over time, war not only promotes rational thought in the security sphere but produces a spill-over effect into other realms. The fields of planning and engineering, for example, as well as bureaucratic forms of organization, all have military roots.

Far from representing or promoting irrational thinking, war tests the validity of assumptions, penalizes errors in judgement and, above all, severely punishes those who engage in actions based upon fanciful or magical thinking.

Consider the example of the Lakota “Ghost Shirt.” During the 1880s, some members of the Lakota Sioux came to practice a version of the “Ghost Dance” ritual they believed would restore the power and prominence of Native Americans and halt the spread of white settlements. Associated with this ritual was the wearing of Ghost Shirts that were supposed to possess magical properties including the ability to stop bullets. A battle between a band of Lakota and a contingent of heavily armed U.S. cavalry troopers culminated in the infamous Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, the last battle of America’s so-called Indian Wars.

Whatever else they may have demonstrated, the carbines of the cavalry rather conclusively proved that religious rituals and Ghost Shirts offered no protection from bullets. In this example, war definitively refuted a form of magical thinking that had been gaining adherents among Native American tribes for a number of years. Absent the harsh audit of war, the magic of the Ghost Dance apparently had been attractive and plausible to tens of thousands of individuals. After the Wounded Knee battle, Ghost Dancing and magical Ghost Shirts fell from favor having failed a rather significant reality test.

When we consider the Vietnam War, at least two important lessons should have been learned. These are the wisdom of the Constitution’s framers and the importance of being cynical when listening to the claims of politicians.

The framers assigned war powers to both Congress and the president. To Congress they gave the power to declare war and to raise and support military forces. To the president they gave the power to command those forces. Thus, it was understood to be the province of the Congress to determine whether, when and against whom to wage war, and the duty of the president to seek to bring the war to a successful conclusion. The framers assigned the power to declare war to the Congress, rather than the president, because they thought representative assemblies that bore the costs of war were less inclined to engage in bloodshed than executives who might seek to reap the glory of military adventures. James Madison called war “the true nurse of executive aggrandizement,” and declared it to be “an axiom that the executive is the department of power most distinguished by its propensity to war.”

Despite this concern, the framers knew that only the president could act quickly if the nation was attacked. Hence, Article II gives Congress the power to “declare” war rather than the language originally proposed, which was to “make” war. Madison, along with Massachusetts delegate Elbridge Gerry, moved successfully to alter the proposed text, “leaving to the executive the power to repel sudden attacks.” In an emergency, the president could defend the nation without waiting for congressional approval but, otherwise, only the Congress could send Americans to war. Presidents, including Barack Obama, have asserted that their duties as commanders-in-chief give than an extra-constitutional “inherent” power to do whatever is needed to defend the nation even, if need be, ignoring the objections of Congress and the courts. Over the decades, presidents have taken effective control over the power to initiate hostilities and pushed Congress to the sidelines. In so doing, in Vietnam and other conflicts, they have proven Madison right.

Cynicism should be understood as a reasonable, if mainly intuitive, popular response to the realities of politics. Millions of Americans see that politicians and government officials routinely deceive, mislead and misinform them, offering pretexts while masking their true plans and purposes.
Benjamin Ginsberg

A second clear lesson of the Vietnam War is be cynical.

Members of the national news media frequently urge Americans to eschew cynicism, even as they present unflattering accounts of governmental and political processes, “Cynicism can destroy our nation as readily as enemy bombs,” wrote one columnist who apparently loves hyperbole as much as he abhors cynicism. Condemnations of cynicism, though, seem rather misguided.

Instead, cynicism should be understood as a reasonable, if mainly intuitive, popular response to the realities of politics. Millions of Americans see that politicians and government officials routinely deceive, mislead and misinform them, offering pretexts while masking their true plans and purposes.

  • “I have previously stated and I repeat now that the United States plans no military intervention in Cuba,” said President John F. Kennedy in 1961 as he planned military action in Cuba.
  • “As president, it is my duty to the American people to report that renewed hostile actions against United States ships on the high seas in the Gulf of Tonkin have today required me to order the military forces of the United States to take action in reply,” said President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 as he fabricated an incident to justify expansion of American involvement in Vietnam.
  • “We did not, I repeat, did not trade weapons or anything else for hostages, nor will we,” said President Ronald Reagan in November 1986, four months before admitting that U.S arms had been traded to Iran in exchange for Americans being held hostage.
  • “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction,” said Vice President Dick Cheney in 2002. When it turned out that these weapons did not exist, Assistant Defense Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, explained, “For bureaucratic reasons, we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction (as justification for invading Iraq) because it was the one reason everyone could agree on.”
  • “First of all, if you’ve got health insurance, you like your doctor, you like your plan, you can keep your doctor, you can keep your plan. Nobody is talking about taking that away from you,” said Obama as he prepared to launch a program that would compel many Americans to change their physicians and health plans.

Since politicians and public officials are hypocrites, it is quite appropriate for ordinary citizens to be cynics. Nineteenth century journalist Ambrose Bierce defined a cynic as a, “blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.” If anything, too many Americans lack a requisite sense of cynicism.

Shouldn’t every American be just a bit distrustful of a class of individuals whose most prominent members, contrary to all logic and evidence, claim never to have inhaled, aver that they hardly even knew that pesky Ms. Lewinsky, or suggest they reluctantly agreed to forego the opportunity to serve in Vietnam in order to undertake the more onerous task of defending the air space over Texas.

These are two of the lessons to be learned from the Vietnam War. Cynical readers, however, might judge that we did not learn these lessons as well as we should. But, that is one of the tragedies of war – rather than learn from our harsh teacher, we repeat our mistakes.

Benjamin Ginsberg is David Bernstein Professor of Political Science and chair of the Center for Advanced Governmental Studies at Johns Hopkins University. His book “The Worth of War” came out in September.