Roles (sadly) reversed: conflict and competition

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said the other day that he wanted the relationship with our adversaries to be one of competition, not one of conflict. In essence, that’s what the Cold War was with the USSR — a battlefield of ability not implementation. Sometimes, the wisdom coming from experienced military officers cuts through the daily issues of “Why is the country divided and in ruins?” and “How did this happen to America?” with alacrity.

If anyone has served on or near a battlefield — in any capacity — the reality and possibly trauma of that witnessing, affect every consequential living moment; coloring morals, resetting perspective and, above all, permitting a level of evaluation absent in those who have never served (served meaning served in or with or as a consequence of battle: soldiers, airmen, nurses, doctors, managers and families who lost relatives). The great problem facing America today may be that the Greatest Generation and their dependents are now too few in number.

As a nation we give lip service to the participants of the Vietnam War, never affording them the mantle of moral leadership we did to those who survived the Second World War or the Korean Conflict. WWII was a moral crusade to fight and defeat fascism and evil and, after the initial hatred of the Japanese for WWII, the senior military leadership turned away from revenge and rallied under the banner of defeating evil. Korea was, under the charter from the U.N., a police action to stop the slaughter and take-over of South Korea — we were protecting a population. Now, however, the survivors of the Afghan and Iraq wars are tarnished by being viewed either as “just following orders” combatants or misguided (by their superiors) in a war no one really ever understood that was cobbled up out of lies (Weapons of Mass Destruction — WMD) and a spirit of revenge (9/11). Where is the moral value, the American sense of right and wrong at play in today’s military actions? Of course, at the level of actual combat the U.S. military moral command of values is intact, but who can forget Abu Ghraib and other such events caused by ripple-down immoral leadership?

Today’s Pentagon has worked hard, especially from 2008 to 2016, to remedy that and right the ship, as well it should. Today’s military (not political military) leadership are back on track, representing the best of American policy, even if they have to do a two-step to avoid undue pressure in the use of party politics as a means for globally leading away from competition into conflict.

However, inside America, competition of opinion that has stood for 100-plus years has been decimated in favor of conflict. This was not done by accident. The Cold War between the political parties, bought and paid for by major donors, has been escalated into a real war, one that affects every aspect of daily life. People don’t merely disagree anymore, they quickly vilify and hate, they stop negotiation and engage in direct conflict and personal attack with potentially irreversible consequences.

If you study American history leading up to the Civil War, you will see similar traits that ended ripping the country apart and killing hundreds of thousands. Compromise, when Lincoln took office, was already a thing of the past and to engage in return battle, Lincoln used the “nuclear” option: The Emancipation Proclamation.  But before his time, President Buchanan lit the fuse wanting to allow Kansas to enter the Union as a slave state. Lincoln had to fight back. Once lit, that fuse could only result in war.

In Germany in the Weimar period known for humanistic cultural values, opposition grew out of financial issues. In a moment of seized vulnerability (economic collapse partly brought on by post-WWI allied constraints), the National Socialist Party stopped competing and directly engaged in conflict (e.g. suborning the media, thwarting the law, selective murders and, later, burning down the Reichstag — or congress hall) — startling events that would lead that nation and the whole planet into deadly war that only ended 75 years ago.

In America, we’re at one of those two crossroads. Seeing armed protesters boldly march into state assemblies demanding “freedom” that their beloved leader espouses, hearing thousands of our leaders’ lies (think WMD) and the truth (no WMD) later revealed, fearing one’s fellow citizens and neighbors for their fervent “new” blind faith and beliefs over who you always thought they were, seeing politicians daily escalate the rhetoric and, above all, witness the actions that leaders (elected and appointed) undertake to undermine American values or refuse to protect Americans in need — these are signposts for our troubled times. No good wishes or happy thoughts can easily turn the tide now. I fear the internal hatred is all too rampant, the world-wide condemnation of the USA too prevalent. But if we are being forcibly moved away from competition into conflict — and this is early days when compared to 1858 or 1933 — and if we don’t do everything in our power to stop it now, the consequences may be more deadly than history has ever known.


Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now lives in New Mexico.

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