Wars are acts of destruction, of people and property, and thus are to be avoided whenever possible. But even the most destructive actions hold lessons for the future, both in how to avoid them and, if necessary, how to carry them out more effectively. Effectiveness in this case means how to protect our nation at the least cost to American and civilian lives.
We have been at war for a decade in Afghanistan and approaching a decade in Iraq. Together, they represent almost twenty years of military, and political, experience. Since neither war is going to end with a victory celebration, there will be every human inclination to dust our hands, walk away, and forget both of them as quickly as possible.
That would be a mistake. Even more, it would disrespect the tens of thousands of Americans, mostly young, who fought in those wars. However you felt about the wars in the first place, and many of us thought Iraq to have been unnecessary and Afghanistan to have expanded unnecessarily, we owe it to those who were sent there to have learned something from their experiences.
It would be an act of leadership, even statesmanship, for President Obama to appoint a commission to study the lessons of the long wars. And he should do that now, not when all the troops are finally withdrawn. Great leaders share a common characteristic: they understand the importance of history. And history deserves to know two things: what did those people think they were doing; and what did they learn from their experience.
When combat winds down, troops are dispersed and commanders are re-assigned. They need to be interviewed now when memories are fresh. This is especially true at the combat unit level. This is not an exercise in recording war stories. It is an intricate examination of what worked, and more importantly what didn’t work, in actually conflict. We are highly unlikely to fight nation-state wars. We are fighting, for better or worse, and will continue to fight irregular, unconventional conflicts involving indigenous forces using improvised weapons.
It took months, even years, for us to realize in both theaters that our Cold War divisions equipped with heavy weaponry were not designed for this new kind of conflict. It cost us many lives to learn how to operate in this new environment, and even then the combat troops themselves had to demand new kinds of equipment, often less sophisticated from what they had been given, and new kinds of operations.
Many years from now, the American people may have occasion to remember and thank the Obama administration for studying the wartime experiences it inherited and the lives and treasure that were saved as a result of its decision to learn the lessons of history and offer them to future generations.

9 Responses to “War Offers Lessons To Those Who Will Learn”

  1. Forest Book Says:

    Your recommendation is important, but; in a culture whose military industrial complex may be the most sustainable business model, we need to confront a central question: “Will this business model of war ever allow itself to be reduced, or transformed?” Secondly, isn’t war just another gateway drug? Giving rise to addiction of the rhetoric? Addiction to its engagement, and addiction to the megalomania attached to the brand moniker of “super power”? Why do we need a another investigative committee focusing on war when we know its characteristics? And let’s be clear: Mr. Obama will never, ever take such a recommendation seriously. I recommend reading “The Ordeal of Change” by Eric Hoffer. His analysis of both then nature of change, and the pluck required for such profound national change (to define a national strategic enterprise beyond war) is telling; and in fact may define the United States as incapable of either learning, or changing at this time in its history.

  2. Left Coast Says:

    Yeah, great idea but it’s already happening, and has already been underway for some time. Get in the loop.

  3. Gary Hart Says:

    May I say to “Left Coast” that, as someone with several decades experience in defense and national security matters, I am well aware of studies conducted within the services and the Department of Defense of ongoing combat operations. What is being recommended here is quite different. It is an extended, thorough-going, even historical overview of the two long wars that incorporates the judgment of civilian leaders, military historians, retired flag officers, and what statesmen there are left around.
    Thanks for your comment, but I’ve “been in the loop” for quite some time.

  4. Gary Hart Says:

    Further to “Left Coast.” There is a great difference between debate and ridicule. Those of us old enough to know the difference do not mistake the two. This site is intended for serious thought and polite discourse. Sadly, that has become old fashioned.

  5. Chris R. Says:

    Senator Hart,

    While I must agree that the causes of these long undeclared wars should be investigated,, the salient point is that they first must be ended. Historians will indeed ask what Presidents Bush and Obama thought that these conflicts would accomplish. Once we conclude that they will not end with victory parades, as you have stated, then the issue must continue to be, “Why are we still there?”

    However, I very much doubt that President Obama wants to address why he has handled these conflicts as he has done. The answer to that question, in my opinion, likely revolves around decisions which are more political than military. President Obama clearly built his candidacy in 2008 around his opposition to the war in Iraq, and his promise to end it. Yet, that occupation still continues. In his handling of the Iraq conflict, President Obama’s policy of largely staying the course of his predecessor can be compared with Nixon’s “secret plan” to end the conflict in Vietnam. Once elected, Nixon’s plan became clearer: to use the conflict for his reelection. President Obama’s policy appears to be aimed at appeasing any potential neoconservative critics, both inside and outside the Democratic Party, while taking the progressive base of the party for granted.

    That raises the issue. Where are the President’s critics who want to end these conflicts? Polling results show that 60% of Americans want to end these conflicts, but the only candidate who has been talking about doing just that in Republican Ron Paul. Senator, you have previously asked on your blog who will speak for the less fortunate in our society, and “Where is Bobby Kennedy?” I must ask you about that other great Democratic senator who first challenged LBJ in the snows of New Hampshire over his war in Vietnam: Where is Eugene McCarthy? Who in the Party will stand up and demand an end to playing politics with these unpopular military occupations?

  6. Chris R. Says:

    Senator Hart,

    While I must agree that the causes of these long undeclared wars should be investigated,, the salient point is that they first must be ended. Historians will indeed ask what Presidents Bush and Obama thought that these conflicts would accomplish. Once we conclude that they will not end with victory parades, as you have stated, then the issue must continue to be, “Why are we still there?”

    However, I very much doubt that President Obama wants to address why he has handled these conflicts as he has done. The answer to that question, in my opinion, likely revolves around decisions which are more political than military. President Obama clearly built his candidacy in 2008 around his opposition to the war in Iraq, and his promise to end it. Yet, that occupation still continues. In his handling of the Iraq conflict, President Obama’s policy of largely staying the course of his predecessor can be compared with Nixon’s “secret plan” to end the conflict in Vietnam. Once elected, Nixon’s plan became clearer: to use the conflict for his reelection. President Obama’s policy appears to be aimed at appeasing any potential neoconservative critics, both inside and outside the Democratic Party, while taking the progressive base of the party for granted.

    That raises the issue. Where are the President’s critics who want to end these conflicts? Polling results show that 60% of Americans want to end these conflicts, but the only candidate who has been talking about doing just that is Republican Ron Paul. Senator, you have previously asked on your blog who will speak for the less fortunate in our society, and “Where is Bobby Kennedy?” I must ask you about that other great Democratic senator who first challenged LBJ in the snows of New Hampshire over his war in Vietnam: Where is Eugene McCarthy? Who in the Party will stand up and demand an end to playing politics with these unpopular military occupations?

  7. Stephen D. Pillow Says:

    Senator Hart,

    During the Viet Nam “War”, which wasn’t a war as defined in the Constitution of the United States of America and there has not been an actual Constitutional WAR since World War II, the population of the US was bombarded with daily reports of what was happening in Viet Nam. The result being that the American people demanded a halt to the carnage and did not want to know what the causes or the actual results were. The political system since then has taken it upon themselves to keep the public ignorant of the actual facts, whether to preclude any anti-war reaction from the public or to keep the public in the “ignorance is bliss” situation that so many want to enjoy. Likewise, the Military establishment does not want the general public to review any of its actions, much in the same manner as lawyers and doctors do not want the public to review the actions of their members, because outsiders could not possibly understand the complexities of the actions that have occurred.

    In your reference to your response to “Left Coast” I would like to add another group of individuals who, I feel strongly, should be included in the review group. Being a former serviceman, I feel that former servicemen and servicewomen, who actually served “on the ground, on the sea, and in the air” in either Iraq or Afghanistan, should also be included in the review group. This group of individuals will not have any obligations to any constituency other than their fellows-in-arm who actually placed themselves in harm’s way. Since most of the members that you listed will have a more subjective than objective perspective that they apply to the review, I feel that our active duty service members should also have equal representation on this review panel.

  8. Paul G Says:

    War of Words – Obama NOT “ich bin ein Berliner” no more?

    The financial daily Handelsblatt writes:

    “That’s not how friends talk to each other. That applies particularly to friends who have themselves failed to get a handle on their own, self-made crisis. Barack Obama governs a country where, despite billions in state aid, the economy is stagnating, companies refuse to invest despite calls for patriotism, and which gets embroiled in one political trench war after another … Now this country is dispensing advice, suggestions and finger-pointing.”

    “These are suggestions that have already failed to work in the US: Money is supposed to save Europe — quickly and in the largest quantities possible. US Secretary of Treasury Timothy Geithner has been trying for more than two-and-a-half years to suffocate his crisis with money. But aside from the lack of success, the collateral damage is immense. It manifests itself in a loss of government credibility, a loss of trust in the currency and the paralysis of any sort of dynamism — because the crushing debt mountain is robbing the famously optimistic Americans of their confidence.”

    “The fact that Barack Obama, who is a brilliant thinker, knows full well that things are much more complicated in reality does not help. Indeed, it does the opposite. In the desperate battle for his re-election he’d rather construct myths, such as claiming that the Europeans alone are responsible for the American mess. Not only is this fundamentally wrong, but — coming as it does from a friend — it’s downright pitiful and sad.”

    http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,788807,00.html

    A wise person is alleged to have uttered these words: “when your enemy knows the thing that’s most important to you, then everyting else is negotiable.” Pitifully sad, therefore, is the growing recognition – not just among Europeans – but even among his own CBC whom he recently dissed [“stop your cryin’; stop your grumblin, take off your slippers, put on your marching shoes y’all; help ME get re-elected”] that WE matter less than his billion-dollar grin of ambition. Now, there’s a lesson to make Sun Tsu shudder.

  9. Stephen D. Pillow Says:

    Senator Hart,

    Thank you for your second comment to “Left Coast”. I was excited when I found The Huffington Post in May of 2005 at its early beginnings. I soon, however, became greatly disillusioned with the site when it deteriorated into the depths of ridicule and histrionics, so much so that I stopped participating in any “serious thought and polite discourse”, which became impossible to do. I applaud your stand and support it totally. I am not against well thought out opinions that disagree with another’s opinion, but ridicule of another person’s opinion has no place in a public forum, nor should it be tolerated.

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