Opinion Forum

Robert B. Simpson: Hard lessons

I learned many lessons from my brother when I was a child. Some were easy to grasp, but others were learned the hard way. He was five years my senior, and I often considered him a bully and an enemy. Not that he wouldn't protect me among outsiders. He did, because he didn't want anyone else bothering his kid brother. He kept that privilege for his own use. He invented a great variety of taunts, threats, and physical challenges to provoke me and amuse himself. At some stage in each episode of these provocations, I reached a boiling point and reacted in rage, attacking with fists flying.

He cleaned my clock. Every time. Apparently I shared Sir Galahad's position that "my strength is as the strength of ten, because my heart is pure." That might have worked for Galahad, but it failed me miserably.

Once we were both adults, my brother and I became good friends. But the lesson he'd taught me, that purity of heart has little or nothing to do with combat success, has stuck with me.

I think of it now when I hear demands that we go in and wipe out ISIS. Anger at the heartless and bloodthirsty actions of people who are sworn to destroy us is very human. Frustration at the sense that we are not going all out to wage war against them is understandable. But a cursory study of history cautions us to be careful before we rush into (another) ground war.

We have a history in this country of hurtling into war with less than adequate knowledge of our opponent. I could have fought my brother with more chance of success if I'd known and understood the little tricks he used to defeat me. And if I'd been mature enough to hold onto my temper for a moment and consider how best to defeat him. We as a nation may need to do that.

We went into the Korean War with minimal understanding of what drove the North Koreans, of what was a likely trigger for China, and even of the motivations and needs of the South Koreans, our allies. Years later, we moved in to assist South Vietnam and gradually took over the entire long, costly war. And all the time, we had far too little understanding of the people we were fighting against and the people we were ostensibly fighting for.

General Maxwell Taylor, photogenic and intellectual paratrooper commander in World War II, close adviser to President Kennedy and Robert Kennedy in the run-up to taking over the Vietnam War, and later still ambassador to South Vietnam during the war, had an interesting explanation for our shortcomings in this regard. Perhaps condemning himself along with others, he said, much after the war ended, that we had thought we were going into another Korean war, ignoring the fact that these were different people in a different country involved in a totally different kind of warfare. He said we didn't understand our South Vietnamese allies, much less the enemy. He said unless we know ourselves, our allies, and our enemy, "we'd better keep out of this dirty kind of business. It's very dangerous."

I think his words are as true today as then. Like him, I don't rule out the necessity for war in some cases, and this may be one of them.

But, please, not until we know ourselves, our allies, and our enemy. And when public figures seem to be advocating an angry, all-out charge into a murky situation in that most complicated of regions, the Middle East, and when they toss about ill-informed comments about carpet bombing in the process, it doesn't sound to me as if the people who should know those three components -- ourselves, our allies, and our enemy --- are up to speed yet.

If only some of these firebrands could have tangled with my brother.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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