To War or Not to War

September 8, 2021 Updated: September 8, 2021

When I was a young lieutenant sitting alert on an F-4 Phantom in West Germany in the mid-’70s, waiting for the signal to go bomb a target in response to an attack by Russian forces from Communist Eastern Europe, I figured the chances of returning would be slim, assuming there was an airbase left to return to. We were given an eyepatch to wear, so that if an enemy nuclear weapon detonated far enough away not to vaporize us, but near enough to blind us in flight, we would still have one good eye to make it to the target. Although that signal never came, we were willing to risk it all if called to do so for God, country, and the American way of life. We won that Cold War through deterrence; always a better alternative to death and destruction.

When I think back on that, it surprises me that I gave so little consideration then to potentially taking thousands of lives, and the thought of it now weighs heavily on me. I never had to fly in combat, never took an enemy’s life, but I’ve lost track of the number of books I’ve read on the act of killing in war, the combat experiences of our young men and women serving in wars from WWII to Afghanistan, and their silent suffering on return to America. It is clear to me that with every life taken, a normal, civilized, Christian person loses a part of their humanity, never to be recovered, and the psychological ravages of combat live on forever, even if you return whole.  Our Special Ops warriors might argue that this is to be expected; that we are too soft and, as a weakened civilization, have strayed too far from our ancestors’ readiness to fight and kill in defense of family and country. But Special Ops warriors are exceptional; specially trained to employ and control the primal instincts needed for capture/kill and rescue missions. Training in these skills and the warrior ethic would help us all put our freedoms in perspective and make us better citizens. But for better or worse, today’s America is not a warrior nation, and most of the military, while dedicated to defending America, are just people like you and me, still subject to the consequences of fighting and killing in war.

To be clear, the military is a warfighting machine. Period. Victory requires overwhelming force and the will to relentlessly kill and destroy the enemy until it surrenders or is annihilated. Victory requires pre-conditioning to kill, then sacrificing your humanity to do what’s necessary. This is not a complaint about suffering. Noble sacrifice and hardship are a blessing; they renew our spirit and are a necessary part of being prepared for war.

But suffering death, injury, or psychological damage in battle is honorable only if it is both necessary and just. When politicians employ military force out of vengeance, for regime change, or for ill-defined and culturally unachievable geopolitical ends, they abuse their power and our military forces and only make America look weak. Worse, the level of force deemed politically appropriate is typically much less than required to achieve a swift victory and ultimately winds up being used in roles for which it was never intended, such as “nation-building,” “winning the hearts and minds” of a corrupt culture or training foreign security forces to defend a corrupt government. In debating whether to employ military force to these ends, politicians who defend its employment by saying “why do we have a military if we don’t use it,” or “it’s a volunteer force and they should know what they’re getting into” have no real concept of the sacrifices they expect of our military members. Perhaps, if their sons and daughters were being deployed, they would see things differently.

“If we don’t fight them ‘over there,’ we will have to fight them here” is convenient rhetoric for the military-industrial complex and the politicians funded by it. But is this really true? Could it be that if we just stopped interfering with them “over there,” they would not come here? Think of the number of places al-Qaeda can train “over there”—will we fight them all? Will sovereign nations of Europe and Africa really allow a radical Islamic caliphate to spread over their continents? I think not. And if they do come here, so what? Even at my age, I am more than willing to fight them here.

If war is necessary, so be it, and always be ready for it. But the unspoken word “we the people” should give to our military forces is that we will not send them into combat unless absolutely required for our national survival. The following is a slightly more restrictive version of the Weinberger Doctrine, which was based on lessons learned from Vietnam. I believe we should follow something similar:

– The United States shall not commit military forces to combat unless pursuant to a state of war declared by Congress, required by lawful treaty, or under imminent threat of direct attack against the United States, and then only as a last resort when all other means of conflict resolution have failed.

– When the decision to commit is made, a clearly defined end state will be used for military planning and employment.

– The United States shall commit with military objectives and levels of forces and tactics necessary to quickly overwhelm and defeat the enemy in achieving the end state.Liberal Censorship

Presidential and congressional candidates should have a military employment doctrine in mind, state it as part of their political platform, and be held accountable for it.


Charles South, Colonel, USAF (Retired)

New York