Since the late eighteenth century, the United States has been involved in an almost ceaseless string of wars, interventions, punitive expeditions, and other types of military ventures abroad — from fighting the British and Mexicans to the Filipinos and Koreans to the Vietnamese and Laotians to the Afghans and Iraqis. The country has formally declared war 11 times and has often engaged in undeclared conflicts with some form of congressional authorization, as with the post-9/11 “wars” that rage on today.
Recent presidents have conducted such wars without seemingly asking the hard questions — whether about the validity of intelligence claims, the efficacy of military power, or the likely blowback from invasions, drone strikes, and the deposing of dictators. The consequences have been catastrophic for Afghans and Iraqis, Libyans and Yemenis, among others. At last, however, we finally have a president willing to raise some of the hard questions about war. Well, at least, about one war. Or, rather, questions about one war that are, at least, hard to decipher.
“People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War?” President Donald Trump wondered in a recent interview, referring to America’s nineteenth century war over slavery. “Why could that one not have been worked out?”
Trump then suggested that, had President Andrew Jackson — to whom he’s compared himself — been in office, he would have avoided the conflict that claimed more American lives than any other: “He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, ‘There’s no reason for this.’” Of course, Andrew Jackson, who fought in his fair share of America’s ceaseless conflicts (including against the British during the War of 1812 and the Seminoles in Spanish Florida), died in 1845, more than a decade and a half before the Civil War began.
No matter. The important thing is that we finally have a president willing to ask some questions about some wars — even if it’s the wrong questions about a war that ended more than 150 years ago.
Today, TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich offers a cheat sheet of sorts: the real questions about war and national security that should be asked but never are in these United States. Since it’s bound to take President Trump some time to work his way to the present — what with all the questions about why we fought Japanese, Koreans, Spaniards, Filipinos, Chinese, Mexicans, Nicaraguans, Haitians, Japanese (again), Germans, Koreans (again), Chinese (again), Vietnamese, and so many others — it’s incumbent upon the rest of us to start asking Bacevich’s questions and demanding some answers.