The Vietnam War ended over 35 years ago, and the world has changed a lot since then. America is now the world’s sole military superpower, and the wars of the last two decades have had a significantly different character than the conflicts of the Cold War. The U.S. now battles shadowy terrorist groups and rebels who use asymmetric tactics to wreak havoc on civilians and our military alike. But perhaps it is also possible that America’s motivations and goals in engaging in armed conflict have changed as well. The United States may still wage war to increase its sphere of influence and boost its economy, but it is hard to ignore the transformation of our army from a traditional fighting force to one increasingly geared towards humanitarian and nation-building efforts.
One needs look no further than the collapse of Yugoslavia to see the humanitarian and moral potential of the United States’ military. Who knows the countless number of people saved from ethnic cleansing by NATO forces, led by one time Democratic presidential hopeful and four-star general Wesley Clark? In the face of injustice and horrific violence, the U.S. and its allies decided action had to be taken not just to gain influence in a former bastion of despotism, but to prevent atrocities all too reminiscent of World War II from happening again. For this reason, The New York Times has called the conflict in Kosovo “the first humanitarian war.”
Though the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan appear governed by ulterior motives, there is a clear humanitarian element present in these conflicts as well. There must be some correlation between the quadrupling of the 95th Civil Affairs Brigade from around 290 to 1,100 soldiers over the last six years and the turnaround in the Iraq War. The military missions in both of these countries are no longer simply about destroying enemy insurgents; according to the U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual, “The primary objective of any COIN [counterinsurgency] operation is to foster development of effective governance by a legitimate government.”
The positive effects of NATO Provisional Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan, whose mission is closely linked with Civil Affairs, are undeniable as well. In 1996 there were only about 650 functional schools in Afghanistan that only boys could attend; now there are over 9,500 schools that enroll almost 3 million young women. The infrastructure built to stabilize Afghanistan and help legitimize its government not only helps America win its war against Al-Qaeda, but provides tremendous benefit to the Afghan people.
Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of the Coalition of the Gulf War, once said, “Any soldier worth his salt should be antiwar. And still there are things worth fighting for.” Maybe if progressives had heeded these words and been more involved with our armed forces, America’s power wouldn’t have been abused as it has been for the last 10 years. So I ask, what isn’t liberal about using the resources of the U.S.’s military to promote humanitarian causes and provide the necessities of life in the places that need them most? Perhaps editing the Port Side and serving in the United States Army aren’t such divergent pursuits after all.