August 25, 2014

THEY’RE ONLY DIRTY IF YOU LOSE: America Entering New Era of Dirty Wars?

All wars are of course dirty, and many episodes of conventional warfare (for example, both World Wars) in fact saw their fair share of irregularity and dirtiness. During World War II, German soldiers at times pretended to surrender before firing on the apprehending Allied soldiers. American and British bombing missions deliberately targeted urban civilian populations to terrorize the collective German psyche.

America’s self-identity is that we are a reluctant nation when it comes to starting wars, but when forced we fight total wars regularly and successfully—and sometimes even leave behind the defeated societies better than they had been before. In his remarks at the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, President Obama explained to his audience that following victory in this total war American deeds were noble: “We claimed no spoils of victory…we claimed no land other than the earth where we buried those who gave their lives under our flag and where we station those who still serve under it.” As Obama’s remarks reinforced, we etched D-Day into our national memory as a battle that represented the pinnacle of our selfless fight for the “survival of liberty.” Yet despite our desire to fight the good fight against a foe who will play by our rules, America’s history is overwhelmingly one of fighting opaque and incomplete dirty wars—from the American Revolution through Afghanistan.

America’s dirty wars have come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it is maximalist involvement such as the Philippines after 1898, Vietnam, and Iraq. In others, like Greece in the late 1940s or El Salvador in the 1980s, it is by proxy—essentially military aid and training with a miniscule American military combat presence. It is worth nothing that Afghanistan started out as a minimalist dirty war but wound end up being a maximalist one, which by definition tend to be costlier and controversial. Rarely has the United States fought dirty wars on the insurgent/guerrilla side, with one key exception being the fight against British and Loyalist forces during the American Revolution. Another departure occurred in the 1980s, when the Reagan Administration backed the insurgent anti-communist contras against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.

I’m thinking that a useful paradigm for dealing with ISIS is, what would Gen. Curtis LeMay do if he were serving under President Andrew Jackson? But I could be mistaken.

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