Military: A Little Ruthlessness Now and Then Is a Good Thing

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Mr. Safranski is a frequent contributor to H-Net, the scholarly list serve.

One aspect of the war on terrorism that has been little noted, except by piecemeal complaint by a few critics, is how George W. Bush's administration has recently begun prosecuting the war with a quality long absent from American policymaking, sheer ruthlessness. We had hints of this tendency with the Pentagon decision to deploy special forces in Afghanistan; and if the dropping of 15,000 lb"Daisy Cutter" megabombs on Taliban troops did not clarify that something new in U.S. policy was afoot then President Bush's executive order authorizing special military tribunals to try Al Qaeda chieftains established the matter beyond doubt. America has embraced ruthlessness in a way not seen in fifty years and to see such a characteristic in our leaders once again is cause for celebration.

To be ruthless is not necessarily to be admired, except of course by Machiavellians, but it is an indispensable quality for wartime leadership. To imagine a Churchill who lacked ruthlessness is to imagine a Nazi seizure of the French fleet and a subsequent German conquest of Great Britain; to imagine a Lincoln without the nerve to make amoral choices at hard times is to imagine a Lincoln accepting a diplomatic settlement with an independent Confederacy. Without their daring reach for victory we might as well have had Neville Chamberlain or George McClellan running the show. To paraphrase Gordon Gecko, the Wall Street character played by Michael Douglas,"Ruthlessness is good" and George W. Bush appears to be very good indeed.

It is ironic though that Americans, who brought warfare into brutal modernity during the Civil War, eventually reached a nadir of passivity in the late 20th century, such that Hezbollah terrorists could blow up hundreds of marines because the guards posted to defend the barracks were forbidden to carry weapons with live ammunition. Later a U.S. ground commander in Somalia would have his request for armor and heavy weapons personally overruled by the Secretary of Defense only to have his undersupported troops torn bodily apart by an enraged mob of Islamist barbarians, who then dragged their entrails through the streets of Mogadishu. In neither debacle did the political heads making such astonishingly stupid calls roll.

Compare those examples with that of General William Tecumseh Sherman, the father of total war, who in his March to the Sea to"make Georgia howl" in November 1864, ordered that in the event"guerillas or bushwhackers molest our march" then"army commanders should order and enforce a devastation more or less relentless." It is hard to conceive of Sherman calling for a postwar role for"moderate Confederates" or deliberately holding back an active army in the field, as the State Department succeeded in doing until recently with the Northern Alliance.

Timidity in the exercise of power, the debilitating opposite of ruthlessness, crept up upon American statesmen in the postwar world first as a consequence of an escalating race in nuclear arms and the psychological trauma of the Vietnam war. Truman used the atom bomb. Twice. And he would have kept using the bomb until Japan surrendered, unconditionally and not with Gulf War style caveats and weapons inspection shell games. However, the increasing size of the Soviet arsenal made nuclear brinkmanship unpalatable to American presidents. Even by the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Dean Acheson's belligerent recommendations at Excom sound anachronistic and reckless -- and this was when the U.S.S.R. had only six functioning ICBMs and the U.S. led the Soviets by the hundreds in nuclear warheads. The prospect of twenty million dead led JFK to negotiate where a decade earlier Ike would have threatened"massive retaliation."

The Balance of Terror taught the habit of circumspection to U.S. policy makers and they remained circumspect even after the U.S.S.R. itself was no more. Certainly presidents would continue to talk tough -- Nixon in particular was eager to appear more ruthless than he really was and he egged Kissinger to tell his Communist adversaries that Nixon"was out of control" on Vietnam. However, Nixon was anything but out of control and the specter of Vietnam weighed heavily on future presidents considering the use of force, no matter how justifiable or limited out of fear that the cry,"Another Vietnam," would be heard in the halls of Congress.

As George W. Bush authorizes CIA covert operations to get bin Laden"dead or alive" and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announces that we will"take no prisoners" in Afghanistan, we seem a light year away from the Clinton administration, which ordered U.S. Navy warships to retreat in the face of lightly armed Haitian Tontons Macoutes waving their fists menacingly on the seedy docks of Port-au-Prince.

The men and women around Bush who advise the president speak to the public with the seriousness of statesmen who understand that the nation is at war. Their voices and words contain a conscious sense of national survival unheard of since the days of Marshall and Stimson. There is a World War II gravity in the implementation of war policy where realistic options against Al Qaeda are not a priori foreclosed to the president for political reasons. The unreality of minutely calibrated escalation, of negotiating endlessly with cynical tyrants, of cruise missiles launched at empty buildings, of unloaded Marine rifles, are mercifully absent with this new war.

Most likely after Afghanistan the United States will wage war against Iraq even if it should come to pass that America must do so alone; not merely because Saddam Hussein may be complicit in planning 9-11 but because we have dearly learned the price of dealing stupidly and gently with terrifying adversaries. America has changed, we have become ruthless once again.

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daniel e teodoru - 11/28/2001

In the Cold War International History Project's WORKING PAPERS there is one entitled, "77 Conversations." One of the conversations is between Mao TseTung and Pham Van Dong right after the Tonkin Gulf Incident that provoked American bombing of North Vietnam. Mao admits that he worried that the US might react very violently to Hanoi's war in the South, possibly even against China, and so he sought to restrain Hanoi. However, said Mao, in light of America's reaction, he fully welcomes Hanoi's escalation because HOW the US reacted convinces him that it is not able or interested in a sustained and intense war in SE Asia. It is, therefore, ironic that the air campaign aimed to show America's resolve was proof, instead, that America was not prepared or interested in seeing the struggle through. Mr. Bush, in my view, would do well to study that episode because he had signalled our enemies a lack of resolve by (1) attacking the weakest of all Muslim states only and (2) forming alliances with the very Muslim states that made alQaeda and Taliban what they are: Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

So, it seems to me, if you are ruthless, you better also show resolve. If you do, your enemies will fear you and so will inhibit their rage. If you don't, THAT absence of resolve will magnify their rage and it will translate into far more viscious counter-blows. Recalling the infamous McNaughton memo that the US is in Vietnam 70% for its own prestige, one can conclude that by 1968 America had shot itself in the foot through its policies. Mr. Bush should have shown a willingness to go after terrorism *alone*, following only his own council, and should not have singled out the Taliban because it refused to extradite binLaden. We talked like a cop but bombed like a warrior. That suggests inconsistancy-- small nations, like adolescent children looking at their parents, seek inconsistancies to justify resistance. As it is, the Moslem press sees the US attack on Afghanistan as an attempt to punish the weakest Moslem nation, bombing its innocent women and children in order to avenge the American innocents that died on Sept. 11th.

Mr. Bush should not have reacted to Sept 11th; now that would have been an unexpected action, leaving the Moslems in a quandry. Then, he should have warned that NEXT TIME America alone would retaliate, will "nuke" the *states* from which we know came sustinance for alQaeda. Under such circumstances, them that made binLaden would unmake him for us before he could act again. The Moslem world has a long history of costs-benifits analysis; alQaeda, to them, would not have been worth the risk of Bush meaning what he says. But, by acting, he signals his limits.

Daniel E. Teodoru