Our Indochina wars were ill conceived, ineptly executed, and too long governed by a fatal combination of inertia and political vanity. We supported grotesque foreign governments, with inappropriate means and strategies that ignored human nature. Yet, after a decade of conflict and 60,000 dead—and despite the public tantrums that briefly aroused our campuses—there was no second American revolution, nor even a student movement approaching the seriousness of the eruptions of 1968 in Europe. The defining motive of American dissent was selfishness, not ideology. Despite broad disillusion with our inchoate efforts in Vietnam, draft resistance never became more than a romanticized anomaly, and the electorate, in the final years of those wars, voted Republican.
Still, the American people did not like those Indochina fights for the simple reason that they have more common sense than any professor will grant them. They knew a losing proposition when they saw one. The message of Vietnam is not that Americans will not take casualties; it is that the American people do not want the lives of their sons and daughters wasted.
The truth is that Americans are fighters. In fact, they are capable of a savagery when provoked that our contemporary elite simply cannot accept. But they want the fight to make sense—and they want to win, win big, and get it over with. It would be easier for Americans to accept 2,000 friendly casualties in a two-month effort that killed a hundred thousand of the enemy and achieved decisive results than it would be for them to accept 200 casualties over two years in an operation with no foreseeable conclusion.
We expect to fight for measurable ends, not delicate modulations in an obscure alliance. Our national "weakness" is not cowardice, but impatience. And perhaps that isn't a weakness at all. Perhaps that impatience with political Hamlets and an endless hemorrhage of lives is fully in consonance with our national character—pragmatic, aggressive, yet mindful of the value of each citizen.
In the nondescript Nineties, we have experienced two profound and costly disconnects between leadership perceptions and the psychology of our citizens. First, at the premature end of Desert Storm, Washington elites—including military leaders—collapsed in panic at media images of the "Highway of Death," the instant junkyard we created from Iraqi formations fleeing Kuwait City with their loot. Part of the concern had to do with worries about the perceptions of our Arab allies (who certainly have never worried much about us), but the primary cause for alarm was the notion that the electorate would be repelled by the images of carnage inflicted on the enemy. In fact, the American people were pleased with the success of their forces and weapons. After two decades of listening to pundits assure them that their kids couldn't fight and their weapons didn't work, the ladies and gentlemen in front of the television sets were proud.
In fact, if there is a dark side to our scrappy national character, it is how little reality enemy lives have for us—especially when our enemies are loud, provocative, and culturally dissimilar. Nobody I know bought the baby-milk factory ruse, and the bunker strike that killed the family members of the Iraqi elite and led to a suspension of strikes on Baghdad was accepted among our population as an inevitable cost of war. We were proud of Desert Storm, and very proud of our troops. The governing elite's rush to stop the violence did not put an end to casualties, just a temporary halt. The elite panicked, and the dilemmas of Mesopotamia remain unresolved. We will go back, and we will pay a higher price next time.
In Somalia, the disconnect was even greater. Somalia was a fickle, confused effort that was executed in willful ignorance. All warnings of that nation’s internal complexity and contradictions were ignored. On the ground, the U.S. armed forces did their best—and their best was very good. Laboring under paralyzing restrictions and political constraints designed to protect Somalis from Americans—a stunning example of the relative concerns of our elite—our military was frustrated but dutifully compliant.
When the environment inevitably collapsed into combat, our forces did a splendid job, despite being denied the appropriate tools for an urban fight. We broke the back of our opponent’s organization and finally were in a position to redefine the local political environment. But the response of our elite was, again, to panic at the loss of life and the perceived popular reaction and quit.
At the same time, the mood at home was vengeful. The American people were ready to support any possible effort against the murderers who dragged the naked, mutilated body of one of our soldiers through those foreign streets. Instead, our national leaders sent an explicit message to warlords and thugs around the world: Kill American soldiers and the Americans go home. This perception, already registered in the wake of the Beirut Marine barracks bombing, will cost the lives of many of our service members in the future. Fear is the best deterrent, but we have done our best to assure potential enemies that our quarter-of-a-trillion-dollar-a-year military is nothing to be afraid of.
It is difficult to rationalize our presence in Somalia, but the manner of our exit amounted to cowardice deepened by folly. In quitting, we broke one of the oldest taboos common to human cultures—we dishonored our warrior dead. In the process, we did more harm than good to a broken country. Now we are told that the message of Somalia is that the American people will not accept casualties.
Of course, it is much the fashion to complain of the self-centered nature of our governing elite, but fashion rarely is a matter of spontaneous generation. Something is deeply wrong. Members of our national elite mouth high ideals, but the test of any ideal is its sponsor’s willingness to sacrifice for it. If service in uniform is a measure of sacrifice—and I believe it is fundamentally so—then our elite fails the test. You can go for years in Washington, D.C., without meeting a single person whose son or daughter—or niece or nephew—serves in our military. Far from risking their lives for their country, members of our elite will not even risk their children in public schools. They cannot imagine their sons or daughters in combat and, therefore, convince themselves that all Americans are as privileged and selfish as they have become.
Americans—those outside the Beltway, whose kids go to public schools—will fight ferociously for a good cause, and they still see our country as the ultimate good cause. They do not and will not welcome casualties, but they understand and accept them. All they want in return is responsible leadership, a just cause, and the assurance that their children’s lives will not be squandered. They do not even demand fairness; they will fight without a senator’s son by their sides. But they believe that the senator should demonstrate courage on Capitol Hill in return for the courage they and their kin demonstrate on our nation’s battlefields.
We have the greatest military in the world—and it is all-volunteer. Instead of mass desertions, Desert Storm saw our service members struggling to get in on the fight—and their families and communities were solidly behind them. The concept of duty is alive and well outside the Beltway.
Even Elvis served his country in uniform, although he could have weaseled out of it. His was a decision our contemporary leaders would not understand.
Following his promotion to lieutenant colonel, Ralph Peters retired from the Army so he could write and speak freely. His current novel, The Devil’s Garden (New York: Avon Books, 1998), deals with strategic resource competition.