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One hundred years ago this month the United States entered World War I, what we still call the Great War. Worldwide more than 70 million military personnel joined the 1914-1918 conflict, and more than 9 million soldiers perished in it, plus 7 million civilians. The war hastened the end of the Ottoman Empire and the collapse of the Russian government, ushering in a Marxist revolution that began 100 years ago this month. The war also launched genocides, including the massacre of 1.5 million Armenian Christians at the hands of the Muslim Ottoman Turks.
Last summer I had the privilege of visiting in Belgium the Ypres battlefields (think Flanders Fields), arguably the bloodiest ground of the war. Six battles took place, and nearly 1 million Allied and German soldiers lost their lives there. Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien all served in Ypres, each profoundly shaped by their experience.
I gave talks in the city’s Cloth Hall, which at one point served as barracks for invading German troops. The Great War is still very much present for Ypres residents, and not only for the tourism it brings. Farmers on the outskirts of town regularly plow up unexploded shells and bombs, and the army collects at least 100 tons of World War I ordnance each year.
Because live shells can become more dangerous as the zinc detonators deteriorate with age, Belgian army trucks patrol the area every day, picking up the shells and other ordnance placed at collection points along the side of the road. In 2014 two Ypres men died when one such shell exploded, and the army that year also recovered 200 German mustard gas shells only recently discovered. Wars, especially the great ones, have a very, very long shelf life.
The United States is embarking on a strategic defense buildup. President Donald Trump’s budget submitted to Congress in March proposes a $54 billion increase in Pentagon spending—a 10 percent increase. Besides a $603 billion defense budget, Trump proposes a $65 billion overseas contingency fund, not subject to budget caps. It’s fair to assume the president means to use the armed forces he wants U.S. taxpayers to pay for.
The bigger point, in so large a defense buildup, is what philosophy is driving the numbers.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., has said Trump’s budget won’t pass the Senate. The bigger point, in so large a defense buildup, is what philosophy is driving the numbers. War fighting needs to be at the forefront of any defense budget debate. Taxpayers deserve to know under what circumstances this administration would take us to war and what are the national interests. The fact is, a world war is underway, if you consider the ISIS threat, and the current refugee crisis resembles World War II levels.
The United States that fought world wars in the 20th century is the United States that in the 21st century will start wars but lack the will actually to fight and complete them. The rules of engagement for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—both ongoing, it’s worth noting—have kept most combat units inside hardened bases doing chores behind blast walls with rare excursions into the streets. Only a few gained regular access “outside the wire.” It’s fair to ask whether such rules of engagement haven’t extended conflict, with the war in Afghanistan—nearly 16 years on—now the longest war in our history.
The rise of Islamic insurgency, still a relatively new and leading type of war, makes these urgent, and difficult, conversations. U.S. air fighters have succeeded in helping the Iraq army win back territory from ISIS, once they agreed to allow Iraqi forces to call in airstrikes. Strategically embedding Marines and Special Forces in other local forces fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq, sooner rather than later, may have changed what’s now a devastated landscape.
Americans rightly resist unlimited and vague commitments overseas that involve our very own blood and treasure. But wars are inevitable, and we deserve from our leaders forthright conversations about what’s needed to secure our peace.