Don’t Dally, Let’s Roll!

August 30, 2002 | by | Topic: American History & PresidentsPrint Print

Grand strategy on the international scale is not an American strength. Historically, Americans have been open, impatient, alternatively idealistic or pragmatic, and until the twentieth century isolated from serious external threats.

Still, successful powers from Rome to the British Empire thought and acted strategically. The extent to which they survived depended on their ability to refine and adjust strategic policies.

Historically, two traditions compete within the American national psyche: the crusader sprit and the isolationist impulse. Pilgrim father John Winthrop epitomized the crusader spirit when half-way across the Atlantic on the Mayflower he wrote, “For we must consider that we shall be as a City on a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” City on

That spirit led secessionists to fight for states rights and their “peculiar institution,” abolitionists to crusade against slavery, and unionists to “trample out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored” in Georgia and the Carolinas.

It led the nation into World War I “to make the world safe for democracy” and most recently sent 58,000 Americans to their death in Vietnam. Typically, since Americans have a low tolerance for moral ambiguity, we like to fight on the side of angels. Our “best wars” have been crusades…often turning into wars of annihilation.

The isolationist impulse competes with the crusader spirit. From 1776 to 1898, Americans faced few external threat with Canada to the north and Mexico to the south and thousands of miles of fish to the east and west. Consequently, we missed the age of balance of power politics (realpolitik) and limited warfare common to eighteenth century Europe. By contrast, America’s wars were crusades and struggles for survival or wars of annihilation against American Indians.

In the 20th century, implicit in defining national interests was the tension between idealism and Clausewitzian realism. The idealism that held sway between 1917 and 1969 died in the jungles of Vietnam to be replaced by Clausewitzian realism during the Nixon administration. President Bush, Secretary Rumsfeld and Dr. Rice seem to be Clausewitzian realists.

Given the Just War Tradition, can the United States attack Iraq and remain within the fold of civilized, international law-abiding nations’ Just War Theory is best applied to war defined as an act of policy undertaken by nation states employing organized armies. It is difficult to apply it to rogue regimes like that of Saddam Hussein and trans-national terrorist groups like Al Qaeda.

In reality, the United States must be prepared for war on three levels. First, there is traditional interstate conflict, state-on-state wars reminiscent of World War II. Second, is intrastate conflict (civil wars) where ethnic and religious hatreds compel the slaughter of civilians. Third, there is infrastructure warfare with “information age” cyber attacks on financial, transportation and political institutions, which target civilians almost exclusively and is potentially the most destructive and heinous form of conflict possible.

Shall the United States take military action against Iraq? The production of chemical/biological and nuclear weapons, refusal to abide by the agreements reached to end the Gulf War in 1991 that provided for United Nations inspection of weapons production sites, Saddam’s cruelty to his own people and the support accorded terrorists probably justify the use of force to supplant the Iraqi regime.

Certainly there are important political, economic and diplomatic issues to be weighed. If President Bush, who is considering this question very carefully and I believe prayerfully, concludes attacking Iraq is in our vital national interest, then we should use force to win quickly and decisively. In other words, “let’s roll!”

Just War Theory is hard to apply in a sinful and fallen world. Moral justifications will be weighed against our moral authority, which is lacking. A nation in which mainline churches argue endlessly over abortion and homosexuality, a country in which half the marriages end in divorce, where pornography is rampant and a nation whose educational systems have been subverted by nihilistic notions of moral relativism and obsessions with multi-culturalism, has little in the way of moral authority on which to rest its case for attacking anyone.

That being the case, keep in mind the words of Sir Francis Drake written on the eve of England’s war with Spain, “I hold it lawful and Christian policy to prevent a mischief betimes, as to revenge it too late. Only you must resolve, and not delay or dally.”

Earl H. Tilford

Earl H. Tilford

Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where he is writing a history of the University of Alabama in the 1960s. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism.

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