It took some time for the nation to appreciate the services offered and sacrifices endured by men and women who served during the Vietnam War. In addition to 58,000 deaths, there remains the enduring physical and psychological trauma experienced by many Vietnam veterans. Those of us who served during the Vietnam War appreciate the belated acknowledgment conveyed by the now-often expressed, “Thank you for your service.” Our national gratitude rightly belongs to everyone who served in America’s military.
In the mid-1960s, while watching TV news coverage, I wondered if the war in Vietnam would ever end. American involvement officially began in July 1959 with the deaths of two U.S. advisors and concluded a few days after the fall of Saigon in late April 1975 with combat losses suffered fighting the Khmer Rouge on Koh Tang Island in the Gulf of Thailand.
Today, the United States is involved in a much longer war, one as much a “twilight war” as the one fought in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. While the war on terror—like that in Vietnam—is complex in its causes, there remains the commonality of suffering for the good of the nation. What also endures is American impatience with long wars fought for ill-defined objectives. Shortly after WWII, General George Marshall noted Americans lack the patience for a Seven Year War. Indeed, public opinion turned sour after the Tet Offensive in 1968, approximately seven years after President John F. Kennedy drew a line in the sand in Vietnam. It has been almost 14 years since the United States entered its war on terror.
The barbarous acts of ISIS—beheadings, slaughtering captive POWs, crucifying Christians, raping and selling captive women into slavery—prompted President Obama to recommit U.S. forces, albeit in such a limited way as to prompt our enemies to possibly doubt American resolve. In part, President Obama is reacting to public frustration with a long war. A remedy gaining some notoriety is to fight ISIS with hired mercenaries. It is thought that mercenaries unencumbered by traditional rules of engagement might fight more viciously.
This would be foolhardy. The U.S. military can find, fix, and annihilate any opposing force if allowed to do so. The Constitution places responsibility for raising military forces on Congress and on the executive branch for employing them. It would be inimical to the democratic and republican nature of the American political system to rely on hired mercenaries.
The decision to go to a volunteer force in the aftermath of Vietnam was, indeed, a step in that direction by instituting a professional standing military. For most of America’s history we have relied on militias and volunteers to fight our wars. During the Civil War, conscription to supplement volunteer and militia units prompted riots, lawsuits, and resistance on both sides. The sometimes abhorrent conscription notwithstanding, a democratic republic should rely on citizen soldiers.
The problem lies with our political leadership and not with our armed forces. Two millennia before General Marshall hinted at the nation’s impatience with long wars, Alexander the Great declared that he feared “an army of sheep led by a lion more than an army of lions led by a sheep.”
The American military ultimately answers to elected leadership. During the Civil War, World War II, and the Cold War, victory flowed from determined leadership: President Abraham Lincoln, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and President Ronald Reagan, who correctly and boldly identified the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire.”
The primary purpose of our armed forces is to fight and win the nation’s wars. Whatever detracts from this mission is superfluous and detrimental to that mission. The United States can win this with its army of lions. We need leaders worthy of them. And so, to our lions—to our men and women who have served and who continue to serve—thank you for your service.