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Saturday, September 9, 2000

Americans are still willing to wage the ... good fight

In some quarters of the globe,
there is a dangerous perception that
Americans will only fight
a bloodless war

By Richard Halloran
Special to the Star-Bulletin

RUMBLING through Asia and the United States with increasing intensity is a perception that Americans are no longer willing to spill blood to defend their national interests. That notion, which is erroneous and for which Americans themselves are partly to blame, is dangerous because it could provoke a potential adversary to miscalculate, ever the greatest cause of war.

In particular, some Chinese have asserted that Americans will quit if confronted with the prospect of heavy casualties. Two colonels of the People's Liberation Army, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsu, have written in their work, "Unrestricted Warfare," that "the U.S. wants victory but no casualties."

Chinese generals have contended that the United States will not risk war with a China armed with nuclear weapons. Chinese scholars have asserted that the U.S. will not help to defend Taiwan, the island over which China claims sovereignty. Said a Chinese academic flatly, "The U.S. will not fight for Taiwan."

National Archives
A comrade comes to the aid of a
fallen GI during World War II.

To buttress their argument, Chinese point to a set of American strategic thinkers. The view of a widening school of thought was examined by a retired lieutenant general of Marines, Bernard E. Trainor, who wrote to lament, "The (U.S.) military has become casualty shy."

The Chinese are not alone in this thinking. A senior Indian officer echoed judgments heard from Korea to Singapore to Pakistan when he asked: "Have changes in the culture of the United States affected military decisions?" Some Asians say the United States might intervene but not with ground troops. The U.S. would conduct an air campaign, as in Kosovo, or a naval incursion, as with the two aircraft carriers sent to Taiwan in 1996, to keep American bloodshed to a minimum.

IN contrast, Adm. Dennis Blair, who commands U.S. forces in the Pacific and Asia, has declared that the United States will, if necessary, use force to defend its interests. About Taiwan, he told an audience in Alaska, "We do have a policy that Taiwan's future will be determined peacefully. This means that we will not allow it to be bullied or invaded."

The admiral was even more blunt about South Korea, declaring, "In Korea, our forces there ensure that the North Koreans know that if they start anything, it will be the last thing they started and will be the end of their regime."

The perception that the United States has lost the will to fight arises from several sources, notably the agonizing war in Vietnam that ended in defeat a quarter century ago. Since then, Americans have engaged in other failed operations in Lebanon and Somalia and appeared to have been gun shy in Bosnia and Kosovo.

A careful reading of U.S. history in the 20th century, however, shows that Americans will fight in causes they understand to be vital to their principles or national interests. The Kaiser's Germany thought the Americans would not enter World War I in Europe, but they did in 1917 to turn the tide in favor of the allies.

The classic miscalculation was the Japanese surprise attack on the Pearl Harbor Naval Base in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, which aroused Americans to a mighty war effort. The memorial over the sunken battleship Arizona, which still lies on the bottom of the harbor, marks America's greatest defeat. But 200 meters downstream is moored the battleship Missouri, on which the Japanese surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945. The symbolism of the two warships is inescapable.

ANOTHER miscalculation came from North Korea's Kim Il Sung, who was encouraged by Mao Zedong of China and Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union to invade South Korea in June 1950. A badly trained U.S. Army reeled under the attack but the nation, led by feisty President Harry Truman, rallied to aid in the successful defense of South Korea.

Later, Saddam Hussein of Iraq thought the Americans would not fight after his forces invaded Kuwait 10 years ago to threaten the vital oil resources around the Persian Gulf. But the U.S. massed 500,000 troops in Saudi Arabia and, in a coalition with other nations, crippled the Iraqi army in an Operation Desert Storm that lasted only 100 hours.

The lesson? Americans will no longer countenance a war that lacks clear-cut objectives and consumes a nearly endless expenditure of blood and treasure but they will support military operations that apply overwhelming power to defend a well-defined national interest.

Americans are not without fault in these equations. President Woodrow Wilson misled the Germans when he promised in the 1916 election campaign that he would keep the United States out of war. Before World War II, the Japanese were deceived by isolationists such as the famed aviator, Charles Lindbergh, and by anti-war sentiment in the U.S. Congress.

Secretary of State Dean Acheson has often been accused of inviting the communist invasion of South Korea by omitting mention of Korea in a speech in early 1950 that set forth the U.S. defense perimeter in Asia. American diplomats in 1990 were less than forthright in warning Saddam Hussein not to tamper with Kuwait.

TODAY, officials of the Clinton administration might be inviting miscalculation when they advocate "strategic ambiguity," especially in dealing with China. They contend that such ambiguity will keep potential adversaries guessing, and thus deter them.

The record dating back to Alexander the Great shows, however, that ambiguity has often led to miscalculation while strategic clarity would ensure that everyone -- ally, friend, and adversary alike -- knew exactly where the United States stood.

Richard Halloran, a former New York Times correspondent,
is a freelance writer based in Honolulu.

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