It won’t be the first time – and it’s likely not to be the last.
If, as the currently unfolding situation suggests, President Barack Obama determines an incursion of military action into blood-soaked embattled Syria, he will join a long list of his predecessors that used military might in one form or another, attempting to prevent or halt a bad situation from getting worse, whatever the larger and unstated motives may be. Blood will surely be shed, even if it isn’t that of members of the American Armed Forces.
If Obama acts against Syria, the strike would occur in the same geographic region of where the very first President ordered military action outside of U.S.
From 1801 to 1805, third President Thomas Jefferson responded to the seizure of American merchant ships by Tripoli pirates. He sent naval ships to form a blockade and there was also some ground combat.
Fewer than 1000 were estimated to have died, including 35 Americans and many more foreign mercenary sailors and soldiers.
Ten years later, fourth President James Madison had to send U.S. Marines to fight what is called the Second Barbary War, this time against Algiers.
He had just concluded the War of 1812 with the British, with U.S. land and sea forces fighting in Canada and in the U.S.
The toll was surprisingly large, about 15,000 Americans killed and 1,450 wounded.
Concurrent to the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson had led the first attack on Seminole Indian tribes in Florida Territory in his capacity as General.
It was as President, however, that Jackson began the longer and bloodier series of battles known as the Second Seminole War, with the goal of permanently removing them from their land.
Starting in 1835, it continued for seven years under the next three presidents.
About 300 American military died in battle, 1,500 from disease.
A far larger number of Native Americans lost their lives but no record was kept.
Jackson, who once shot a man in a duel and engaged in battle was untroubled by killing, especially when the fallen were non-white; he suggested often enough his belief they were less than human.
In 1846 James Polk sent the military to the recently-annexed Texas and fight back forces from Mexico, which considered the area part of its sovereignty. Polk believed he was carrying out God’s will in claiming the land.
He never expressed regret over the fact that an estimated 13,000 Americans and 16,000 Mexicans died during the two years of the Mexican War.
With the U.S. government then moving westward to claim all territory, every President for the rest of the 19th century had some battle with Native Americans occurring during their Administrations, although the combined number of U.S. forces who were killed and wounded totaled less than a 1000.
As the U.S. assumed the role of global power in the 20th century, military casualties of its armed services personnel continued in overseas conflicts, although not all were during times of declared war and most remained relatively low.
In 1950, Harry Truman sent U.S. troops as part of a larger United Nations force to aid South Korea in fighting off invasion across its border from Communist North Korea. Some 36,000 Americans lost their lives in what Truman initially called a “police action.”
He also claimed to have never lost a night’s sleep in this or any of his other decisions which resulted in the loss of lives.
Given that the active U.S. military incursion in 1991 to help drive out invading Iraqi forces from Kuwait only lasted for 42 days and that the loss of lives was a relatively low number of 1,143, President George H. Bush had little time to second-guess or cause to regret his decision to order the action.
The longer, amorphous and multi-nation “War on Terror” waged by his son George W. Bush in 2001 began with an invasion into Afghanistan to uproot the Al-Qaeda terrorist group which attacked New York’s World Trade and killed over 4000 people of all nationalities, and to end the rule of the Muslim extremist Taliban which gave the group refuge there.
It continued with a 2003 invasion of Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein, its “homicidal dictator,” as Bush called him, based on false reports of his imminent plans to use weapons of mass destruction.
“No one was more shocked or angry than I was when we didn’t find the weapons [of mass destruction]. I had a sickening feeling every time I thought about it. I still do,” Bush wrote in his memoirs Decision Points, published last year.
“Just as there were risks to actions, there were risks to inaction as well.”
Among factors he cited for his decision to invade Iraq, he recalled being implored by holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, who told him, “You have a moral obligation to act against evil.”
While promoting the book, Bush said he regretted the “intelligence failure” and that mistreatment of Iraqis held at the Abu Ghraib prison was “obviously was a huge disappointment.”
U.S. military presence in Afghanistan continues, though reduced and being phased out. It ended in Iraq in December of 2011, resulting in some 5,000 combat deaths and over 50,000 wounded Americans.
Estimates of Iraqis killed are difficult to precisely determine and numbers range greatly, the highest being an Opinion Research Business survey of over 1.2 million.
“History can debate the decisions I made, the policies I chose,” Bush has stated, believing Iraq was better off without Saddam Hussein, and that he had no need to apologize for the choice to go to war.
No President of the United States has ever apologized for committing U.S. Armed Forces into action but none are known to have done so with regret for the death and disability it caused, except perhaps Andrew Jackson. outcome.
However committed to the moral purpose which they claimed guided their decision to order military action or were conscious of the likely death toll, five Presidents suffered emotionally and physically for the wars they either began, entered or escalated to the point of never recovering.
Two left office broken in body and spirit and failed to survive through the term of their immediate successor and three died before their own term was complete.
Highly intelligent, verbally gifted and striving to live with rigorous integrity, Abraham Lincoln couldn’t help but be emotionally shaken by the bloody carnage of the Civil War.
Yet the four-year national nightmare which cost upwards of 600,000 lives was technically initiated by Lincoln.
Before his inauguration, federal government facilities located in the southern states were seized but outgoing President Buchanan refused to use force to retake these, claiming that, “the power by force of arms to compel a State to remain in the Union” was unconstitutional. Confederates offered to pay for the federal facilities. Lincoln would not negotiate because he declared the CSU an illegitimate government. Lincoln ordered the U.S. Army to remain at the federal arsenal at Fort Sumter, South Carolina until it was attacked.
That began on April 12 and b the next day, Union troops gave in. In less than a month, President Lincoln called on all the Union States to raise a volunteer army of 117,000 soldiers. Four southern states refused to do this, and then joined the CSU, giving it a total of eleven states.
In 1832, Lincoln had served but never experienced combat while enlisted in the Black Hawk War, joking he’d only fought “a good many bloody struggles with mosquitoes.” During his tenure in Congress he had attacked Polk from the floor of the House of Representatives, declaring on January 12, 1848 that “the war with Mexico was unnecessarily and unconstitutionally commenced by the President.” Yet now he went full throttle, taking a direct role in directing his military leaders. The war began to affect him with personal immediacy. Among the first of those killed in battle was a family friend. Union troops camped out in the White House itself. Some of his brothers-in-law were killed while fighting for the Confederacy.
Lincoln’s sense of fairness and justice, illustrated by his evolving conviction that all humans held as slave must be legally freed was counter-balanced by his ruthless drive to destroy the Confederacy.
His determination came at a price both physical and emotional.
White House aide William O. Stoddard recalled that, “the perpetual strain upon his nervous systems, with the utter want of all exercise, began to tell seriously upon his health and spirits, and occasioned some alarm upon his gradually changing appearance.”
A journalist who studied the President as he sat in church one Sunday in 1862 recorded that there was a ” cadaverousness to his face,” that animation had “gone out of his eyes, which were sunken…over his whole face an expression of sadness, and a far-away look in the eyes…”
By February of 1863, the U.S. Commissioner of Buildings noted that the President’s hands “trembled as I never saw it before.”
By year’s end, he was hit by a case of small pox and fever so severe he was unable to rise from bed and it even caused the loss of his beard. An old friend Robert Wilson observed that, “the war…imposed on Mr. Lincoln more work than one man could do….He never had any time for rest and recuperation.”
Making daily visits to a nearby telegraph office, he received daily reports of the numbers of men killed on each side.Long prone to depression, Lincoln admitted that he collected and told anecdotes as “vents of my moods and gloom.” Yet the loss of lives caused by his war also led him to repeating poetry rife with the gnawing grief experienced after the death of loved ones, particularly “The Last Leaf” by Oliver Wendell Holmes. Seeking solitude which was impossible as the war raged, when especially large numbers of dead were reported, he abandoned himself to weeping.
In his July 4, 1861 message to Congress, Lincoln made reference to himself in the third person as the “Executive,” and came as close as he ever would to apologizing for the carnage he had unleashed. “It was with the deepest regret that the Executive found the duty of employing the war power in defense of the Government forced upon him,” he wrote.
As the bloodshed worsened, a growing sense of internalized guilt may have begun emerging. Although he never formally joined a church, as the numbers of dead continued to multiply, Lincoln was seen for the first time in his life carrying a Bible and quoting from it.
Gradually, he justified the killing and released not only himself and his generals from blame, but also the Confederate President and generals. It was God’s fault, as he justified in a letter to an Eliza Gurney: “We hoped for a happy termination of this terrible war long before this; but God knows best, and has ruled otherwise….Surely He intends some great good to follow this mighty convulsion…”
By 1864, as shown in a letter to a Frankfort, Kentucky newspaper editor, this had become Lincoln’s excuse: “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now, at the end of three years’ struggle the nation’s condition is not what either party, or any man devised, or expected. God alone can claim it.”
No war in American history cost more lives than the Civil War. Lincoln suggested it was a price worth paying if it ensured the end of slavery, even at the cost of his own life, he suggested in his third-person 1861 message: “He felt that he had no moral right to shrink, nor even to count the chances of his own life in what might follow.”
Five days after the Confederate surrender, Lincoln finally made time for “rest and recuperation” and went to Ford’s Theater where his moral justification for war provoked racist actor John Wilkes Booth to assassinate him.
Next: “The Splendid Little War” and “The War to End All Wars.”
- Andrew Bacevich: The Hill to the Rescue on Syria? (huffingtonpost.com)
- Assad says U.S. strike on Syria “is going to support al Qaeda” (cbsnews.com)
- Obama Goes Full Bush on Syria (rinf.com)
- Viewpoint: On Syria, Words Have Consequences (swampland.time.com)