What struck me about Ralph Peters’ article, Wishful Thinking and Indecisive Wars, spring 2009, was its aggressive tone, made poignant by a lack of both evidence and sources. The article displays a hawkish bias, unsurprising as Peters is a retired U.S. Army officer. What I disliked about the article was that it gave me the impression that if I sat at the negotiating table with this man, I would be shouted down by opinion guised as fact, claims that raise more questions than answers and that sense of self-righteousness reserved for those far too accustomed to characterizing reality and not having it questioned. What I liked about this article was its carnival atmosphere, much like watching Fox News for entertainment value: the fireworks, bells, and whistles.
Peter’s argument is that the U.S. has “forgotten what warfare means and what it takes to win,” resulting in American amnesia about the cost of victory. He provides six reasons for the onset of this diagnosis: (1) the prolonged feeling of security in the U.S. (2) the forgotten European-sponsored wars of the last century (3) the shift to a volunteer military and the resulting detachment of the population (4) the defence industry along with academics having successfully promoted the idea of bloodless war (5) the soft and alarmist “white-collar society” of the U.S. and (6) unrepresentative history taught in American schools. After his introduction, Peters proceeds through three sections (“The present foe”, “Other threats, new dimensions”, and “The killers without guns”), where he characterizes as deferential the relationship of America, its people and institutions, to its enemies.
The main reason I don’t find his argument convincing is because he provides little evidence and few examples and sources to support his claims. While haranguing the “chattering classes”, “hostile” media (who he claims believe U.S. troops are always guilty and enemies are always innocent), and an ignorant citizenry for having little sense of the realities of war, he fails to mention a critical point about the nature of the most violent and expensive current war: the United States invaded Iraq under false pretences, and against the will of the United Nations Security Council.
He builds straw man arguments for those whose views he believes counter his, without acknowledging legitimate reasons why some have what he calls an “effete” view of warfare. The significant amount of civilian deaths in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, that the United States caused, and its violations through history of other countries’ right to sovereignty, substantiate a cautious view of when U.S. military intervention is appropriate. It is concerning that United Nations’ perspectives, among other institutions in the international community, are ignored in this article, as if what the United States military does in other countries is its business alone.
His claim that “our enemies cannot defeat us in direct confrontations, but we appear determined to defeat ourselves” raises the question: how does Peters define victory in war? The will and strategy of the Viet Cong, for example, contributed, to U.S. defeat in that country. It is a hasty generalization to state that America cannot be defeated. Depending on the criteria employed, the war in both Afghanistan and Iraq could be considered successful or unsuccessful. Also, to claim “(despite the now faded shock of September 11, 2001) that we simply do not feel endangered…” appears to disregard residual fear in the U.S., evident through the extent of Homeland Security and border control, and extensive media coverage of domestic acts of terrorism since 9/11.
The “acclaim” sought by academics and the profits sought by the defence industry are termed by Peters an “unholy alliance” to influence political leaders into war ill-prepared. That Peters would know the motivations of these unnamed scholars for putting forth policy options leans toward presumption. He provides no examples, such as names, and no evidence to support the claim.
This retired military officer states that the U.S. has become a “largely white collar suburban society,” alarmist in its views of violence. It is possible that he refers to that aspect of society that would be most inclined to read his article, i.e. the educated middle and upper classes, but does not give explanation as to how he arrived at this conclusion. There are millions of citizens in lower classes, many of whom, as well as those who wear white-collars, know enough about the “grit” of day-to-day life and of war through their own experience, or those of friends and family members.
The notion that U.S. political leaders believe that anyone wishing to do harm against the country must be the result of a misunderstanding is misguided. I’m not sure in which America Peters lives, but I have not heard influential political leaders since 9/11 (George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, John Kerry, John McCain and Barack Obama) speak about enemies that way. His characterization is inaccurate. These leaders have talked tough rhetoric, committed the troops, sustained the losses and, as a result of their directive, thousands of innocent civilians have been killed. While calling dialogue a “lethal narcotic of the chattering classes” sounds contrary to the spirit of conflict prevention, resolution, or transformation, Peters’ views seem all the more ridiculous in that political leaders, in large majority, have supported quick leaps to war.
He uses the examples of significant World War Two battles to contrast how relatively few deaths have occurred in post-millennial wars and how many in the U.S. have lost such perspective. To me, it is reasonable that journalists and citizens now insist on less death in war. Does the author seek a return to the level of “grit” suffered in World War Two? He characterizes reporters as “prize hunting,” while by-passing the important function they serve in remaining critical of why and how war is fought.
I agree with Peters when he says “we have cheapened the idea of war.” It does appear that Americans have a penchant for the language of waging war on things (poverty, cancer, drugs), often when it may not be appropriate. But I think he misses an important point: the value of human life is cheapened by war. Whether successful or not, the price of war is always expensive. Reducing its cost is a noble endeavour.
The example of Gandi having become a figure of non-violence because his enemies were willing to play along is incomplete. Gandi’s message of non-violence and the persuasiveness with which he promoted it were no small factors in his success. It is not relevant to imagine Ghandi in Mao’s China or Stalin’s Russia.
“Expecting Iraq, Afghanistan or the conflict of tomorrow to end quickly, cleanly and neatly belongs to the realm of childhood fantasy, not human reality.” Peters fails to mention that George W. Bush is, in part, responsible for that fantasy. The unfurling of the “Mission Accomplished” banner showed a president eager to sell victory before its time.
This next statement is contradictory: “we have the power to win any war.” He provides no evidence to support his claim, which raises questions. If it was true, the United States would have won both the Korean and Vietnam War. Who says the U.S. has the power to win any war? He points out elsewhere in the article that to win a war, one side does not have to possess more weaponry than the other.
The present foe
Peters provides little evidence to support another sweeping generalization: “the problem is religion.” It is more accurate to say that how humans interpret and act under the banner of religion is a greater problem than religion itself. It is not the content of the religion that starts a jihad.
The language Peter’s employs is careless and insensitive. How can he presume to know that Islamists are “furiously jealous”? He arrives at the conclusion that the Muslim world has no “world-class” universities of its own, but does not provide what, if any, criteria he uses. His description of the enemy’s “meagre but pesky” capabilities does not begin to describe the impact of the attacks on the World Trade Towers, or significant loss of American life in Afghanistan and Iraq.
His statement that Islamic terrorists “revel in bloodshed” is another hasty generalization. How does he know what they revel in? And his statement that the tendency in his country to avoid criticising the Islamic religion of the enemy is “as if we sought to analyze Hitler’s Germany without mentioning Nazis” provides a weak analogy. The Nazis committed genocide, which is not the same thing as Islamic extremists waging war against the U.S. “We want to make terrorist are friends.” Who does? It’s possible Peters provides little evidence because he has little. “And we must stop obsessing over our minor sins.” Someone who says such a thing has little respect for the sanctity of life. There is nothing minor about the amount of civilian deaths incurred in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The killers without guns
With little evidence provided, this article is like an online blog rant of an uninformed novice, which seems ironic as he was a military professional. He projects his conception of what the U.S. intelligentsia believes when he claims they believe “our civilization is evil.” Many of his statements point to a limited perspective within U.S. military culture. “The point of all this is simple: win….nothing else matters,” he says. Many other things matter, such as promoting human rights abroad, respecting the Geneva Convention, reducing bloodshed, and transforming conflict into peace and security. The article pushes an ethnocentric pro-war bias and an unquestioning American exceptionalism. “Of all the enemies we face today and may face tomorrow, the most dangerous is our own wishful thinking,” he concludes. Remove the word “wishful” from that statement, and I would tend to agree.