We must be wary of our commitments
CLIFFORD F. THIES
When he was running for president, Donald Trump said we shouldn’t have invaded Iraq, but once we did and then stabilized the country, we should not have withdrawn. Now, he has withdrawn from Kurdish-controlled Syria. Was one withdrawal good and the other withdrawal bad; and, if so, which one?
The first time the United States withdrew an army of occupation was following the U.S. Civil War. During the war, a Union army, drawn not only from the North, but also from the South, and including many ex-slaves, defeated the army raised by the Confederate States.
Almost all of the men of the Confederate army were poor whites; very few of them owned slaves. To the Billy Yanks, following the Emancipation Proclamation, the war was a holy cause, a war to free the slaves. To the Johnny Rebs, the war wasn’t about slavery. It was the War of Northern Aggression. Such is war, a terrible business in which the patriots of different countries must fight and kill each other.
Following the Civil War, the North had a plan to secure the rights of the newly emancipated blacks of the South: organize them and whites embracing the ideals of this country into National Guards. But, starting in Mississippi in 1874, the grizzled veterans of the Confederate Army, re-organized as the KKK, routed that state’s National Guard. In New Orleans, a motley army formed from the police and that state’s National Guard, and led by former Confederate general James Longstreet, was defeated. In South Carolina, the KKK defeated the National Guard under the command of our country’s first black general, Henry W. Purvis.
By 1876, the Democrats and the KKK had taken back most of the Southern states. In that year’s election, two sets of electoral votes were sent to the Congress from three states, one set by the electors chosen by the voters, still protected by Union troops, and the other set by the electors appointed by Democrat-controlled state legislatures. A constitutional crisis ensued that was only resolved by a 15-member commission, on a 6-7 party-line vote.
The newly elected President withdrew the Union troops from the South, and in so doing forfeited much of what our army gained in the Civil War. The plan to secure the rights of the newly emancipated blacks of the south had failed.
Similar patterns emerged in Vietnam and in Iraq following our withdrawals. The armies of those countries that we helped raise, train, and equip, proved unequal to the task of defending their and our hard-won gains. Likewise, Afghanistan appears incapable of defending itself, even though we’ve been “rebuilding” that country’s army for almost a generation. In each case, the situation is complex. Particular army units of these countries distinguished themselves in battle. Political corruption at very high levels has often undermined the army.
It is beyond naïve to think that we can use our army to flit about the world, resolve centuries-old conflicts, and reconstruct economies that had never been constructed in the first place. In a world in which we have few allies willing and capable of projecting force, we have to be very careful about our commitments.
Clifford F. Thies is a professor of economics and finance at Shenandoah University and a resident of Winchester. Institutional affiliation is for identification only. Any opinions expressed are his alone.