War, as has been said before, is hell. It is that realization that prevents most sane leaders from engaging in war activities unless they have been left no other option. But when war does become unavoidable, it is the duty of every leader to make sure that war is as short as possible, as precise as practical, and as forthright as it can be. The people in leadership positions must be made to realize that war is not an opportunity to reward their contributors with lucrative contracts, nor is war a game played on a playground. War is brutal. People die. Cities get destroyed. Nations get ravaged.

American’s understand that the use of military power is an awesome choice to make. As such, the public hesitates to get behind any military action that is not necessary for the defense of the homeland. Unfortunately, the politicians recognize this reluctance all too well, and, along with their corporate conglomerate contributors, connect all military actions to our own national security and paint a picture of imminent doom without the use of force. Sadly, most of the time, these representations are not accurate. Occasionally, these representations are downright dishonest.

American’s can discern the difference between a war for security, a war for freedom, and a war for profit. We will all fight to protect ourselves. Many will fight for the freedom of others. Few will fight merely for profit. History will show us that the wars America has fought to preserve her own freedom have been more successful than the wars that we’ve fought to supposedly assist others in gaining theirs. World War II, and to a lesser degree, World War I were successful for the U.S. because American’s understood that their very way of life was in danger if they failed to act. America was in full support of those efforts, and the policies of the government and the actions of the people expressed that support. Korea, Vietnam, and many of the other skirmishes from the 60’s to the 90’s were unsuccessful (or at best, less successful) because the American public was not in direct danger, the administrations of the time could not realistically defend their positions to the public, and the public did not rally around their stated cause.

There is little dispute that the United States has the most comprehensive and powerful military in the world. We have the capability to deploy our forces anywhere in the world pretty quickly and we have the might to destroy almost any enemy on the battlefield. We also have an arsenal that guarantees destruction to any organized country that would try to attack us. Our technology is incredibly sophisticated, so much so that other nations are clamoring to get some of it for themselves. And our troops are educated both in running that technology effectively and winning military victories. In short, we carry a very big stick and everybody knows it.

Because we carry such a big stick, we rely on the benefits of that power to further our national security policies. American military policy is an offensive policy, and has been since the end of World War II. In recognizing that our security at home depended on a stable geopolitical atmosphere, the United States placed our military forces in strategic locations across the globe to rebuff any nation from becoming too aggressive and developed terrible weapons to ensure devastation to anyone who would consider attacking the homeland. That America has gone 60 years without being attacked by a foreign aggressor nation is a testament to that policy, and if it had stopped there, we might have been okay. Instead, through the years, successive administrations of both political parties have squandered the reputation of the Benevolent American Military and have given it the reputation of Imperialist American Military. Rather than just sticking to the mission of promoting peace through strength and preventing discord through presence, our leaders also embarked on a course of active intervention to achieve their goals.

The decision of when to use military force can be a complicated issue. Without question, any attack on our homeland can be retaliated against with our military. In this one instance, the choice is pretty clear. We get attacked, we find who attacked us and we attack them back. This is a basic “law of the jungle” situation that is pretty much accepted by most people. The goal of this kind of action may be simple retaliation, or it may go much deeper to include the destruction of an aggressive government to prevent future attacks. Once we move beyond this kind of situation though, the use of the military to achieve foreign relations or national security objectives becomes a bit trickier. Do we attack a country because we just don’t like their government? Do we attack a country because we want easier access to their resources? Do we attack a country in order to establish a democracy for their people? Who we attack, when we attack, and how we attack are vital questions for any military action. Perhaps most vital though, is why we attack.

The U.S. military machine is a formidable part of our national security apparatus. However, it is imperative that we adhere to some set of standard operating procedure whenever we call out the fighting forces. Because we carry the biggest stick, we are always going to be scrutinized and judged when we wield our might. Different people, depending upon which side of the stick the see, will interpret our conduct on the battlefield in different ways, and for that reason, we must be extra cautious in our objectives and our planning. We must have clearly defined reasons for using our power, we must have clearly defined goals for our forces, and we must have clearly established plans for ending any conflict. We must be prepared to be decisive and use all of our means to achieve a quick, clear victory to reduce the costs (both human and financial) of war, and we must attempt to avoid the devastation of civilian infrastructure to reduce the costs of reconstruction. Without these elements, any military action taken by the U.S. will always create argument in the world body and at home.

Our government must also learn to recognize the difference between fighting a war for our own protection and fighting a war on behalf of others. Fighting to support the freedom of others requires a different mindset than fighting a war of self-preservation. I’m not talking so much about the mechanics of the war, but rather the attitudes of the warriors. If we send our military to support a popular uprising against a brutal government, or even if we initiate the uprising for some reason, we must recognize our place as secondary in the conflict, and not demand to drive the battles towards our own goals. We must recognize that other cultures may strive to get out from under the thumbs of despots, but need only our military might to support them. If we decide to help them, we should be upfront regarding what we expect in return for our assistance, namely the establishment of a more secure and democratic government. But we must also remember that any resolution resulting in a freer society leaves us victorious and safer anyhow. Sometimes, it is enough to just be the tool of freedom that another wields, for in the end, we gain an ally and lose a foe in one fell swoop.