Someone, somewhere, first said -- and it has now become a truism -- that "In war, truth is the first casualty."
That seems to be so. And since you and I have a certain respect for the truth (even though we might usually prefer entertainment), it could be worthwhile to think about what kind of truth dies, or is damaged, in times of war.
I am going to approach this subject like any second-rate high-school history teacher might -- the style seems to come naturally to me, for some reason -- and so I will begin with a rather loose definition of terms, identify one or two relationships, and use them to comment on a few historical events and facts. Let us begin by defining the terms in the title of this article, from last to first.
First of all, Naming. Good naming is not an easy art. I shall make up this definition of Naming: "The artistic, scientific, linguistic, and mystical process of selecting words, sounds, and symbols related to a thing, in order to best represent its essence, or its essential characteristics." Choice of names, like choice of words, is necessarily important to language and good communication. We want to say as clearly and as fully what we truly mean.
(Except if we don't. Then we hide the truth behind euphemisms, vague terms, false labels, acronyms, and the like. So: I think proper naming is important.)
Secondly, Wars. For the purposes of this discussion, I shall use this definition of War: "A complex event that is precipitated when one group of human beings, acting under some form of leadership, physically assault another group of human beings, with the intent of damaging or destroying living human flesh."
This definition is a narrow one, in that it excludes many legitimate uses of the word War. For example, it excludes cosmic wars, spiritual warfare, war on smallpox, and the wars of ants, since I am restricting the definition to human beings. For the same reason, it also excludes wars on abstractions, such as war on poverty, war on drugs, war of ideas, war on terror, cyber-wars, and the like, since abstractions are not human beings. Unless, of course, these abstractions are used euphemistically to partly conceal the fact that they really are directed against human beings. Then we would be talking about a real war.
To summarize: We are talking only about organized, conventional wars in which people use weapons to kill and maim other people.
The next term is, U.S. For the purposes of this discussion, I shall use this narrow definition of the U.S. (which leaves out the colonial wars and the revolutionary war): "The body politic organized by the Constitution of 1787, with the governmental powers distributed variously and specifically among the Congress, the President, the Courts, the State Governments, and the People." Since we are talking about war, we will simply note that under the Constitution, the war-making power is reserved to the People acting through the Congress, and the execution of any war so declared is the specific responsibility of the President in his duty as Commander-in-Chief.
The final term is, Truth. This is one is quite difficult to define, since the word has been the common property of the human race from time immemorial. I'll just work with this expedient description of truth: "That which we desire to know when we want to distinguish between that which is in some sense, Real, and that which is in some sense, Not."
So we have worked through the definitions of the title. Are we interested in knowing the truth about U.S. wars? Let us work through a few observations about relations.
First of all, the American constitutional tradition acknowledges that men make war. The people, acting through Congress, are held responsible for choosing war (and, having done so, must openly declare it). War being what it is (like fire, it can easily get out of control; like a game, someone must decide which moves and stratagems to use), the conduct of war must ultimately come under the authority of a single man; in our case, the President.
Real wars are made by real men. They begin with real (though perhaps obscure) motivations in one or more real human brains. Motivations are strengthened into specific intentions, and at this point the group must become involved: intentions must be frankly discussed in order to be turned into concrete plans. At this point human hands must become involved: preparations must be made, weapons assembled, supplies gathered, and the warriors must be recruited, trained, and motivated. Usually this occurs under conditions of partial -- and sometimes near total -- concealment. Leaders are chosen, and contingencies are discussed and provided for. Stages in the unfolding plan are established. Except in small tribal affairs, war plans require months; more often years; occasionally decades.
At some point the executive makes a series of decisions: the time, place, and nature of a set of stratagems and attacks. At some point, he decides to launch the operation, and proceeds to execute it. Basically, all wars start in this way.
They are not unforeseen catastrophes or disasters. They do not "erupt," like volcanoes. They do not "break out" like diseases, or "spread" like epidemics. They do not "happen," like a random meteorite striking the earth. All wars are prepared for, intended, planned and executed by men: usually planned by staffers, executed by commanders, and fought by warriors. (Unasked question: who finances them?)
Let us now consider an actual list of some of America's wars. (The total list is too long and too tedious for this article: with all due respect to the precious lives lost in those omitted wars.)
1794: the Whiskey Rebellion
1812-1815: the War of 1812
1845-1848: the Mexican War
1861-1865: the Civil War
1860s-1870s, and thereafter: the Indian Wars
1898: the Spanish-American War
1917-1918: the First World War
1941-1945: the Second World War
1950-1953: the Korean War
1964-1975: the Vietnam War
1990-1991: the First Iraq War
2001-Present: the Afghanistan War
2003-Present: the Second Iraq War
Now, as a step in restoring truth about war, let us begin by naming the wars after the great men who execute them. Since military discipline holds subordinate commanders fully responsible for their appointed parts in the war, it is appropriate for the Commander-in-Chief to take full responsibility for the war that he executes. In our Constitutional system, the President must secure a declaration of war before he proceeds (unless he acts, beyond the Constitution, on his own). So here goes: let the Presidents take full responsibility, whether that be to their blame, or to their credit. I make no judgments.
The Whiskey Rebellion is renamed George Washington's War.
The War of 1812 becomes James Madison's War.
The Mexican War is James Polk's War.
The Civil War is Abraham Lincoln's War.
The Indian Wars are the Ulysses Grant-Rutherford Hayes Wars.
The Spanish-American War is William McKinley's War.
World War I is Woodrow Wilson's War.
World War II is Franklin Roosevelt's War.
The Korean War is Harry Truman's War.
The Vietnam War is the Lyndon Johnson-Richard Nixon War.
The First Iraq War is the George H. Bush War.
The Afghanistan War is the First George W. Bush-Barack Obama War.
The Second Iraq War is the Second George Bush-Barack Obama War.
Now that will help us learn some American History, and it will help our troops to know more clearly just who they are fighting for.
Then we can discuss who they were fighting against, and why. But that should be the subject of another article. Stay tuned.
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Comments always welcome, pro and con.