Peace through strength

“If we desire to avoid insult, we must be able to repel it; if we desire to secure peace — one of the most powerful instruments of our rising prosperity — it must be known that we are at all times ready for war.”

Sounds like a quote from a State of the Union Address — and it is. George W. wanted one and all to know that the United States is willing to play the death card in order to protect its hand. And in uttering those words, he was also telling U.S. citizens that they might be called upon to provide the vital fuel for the firing line: the flesh and blood that are the fundamental commodities of war.

The current president’s critics cry “Chickenhawk!” when confronted with such saber rattling by one who never unsheathed a sword in battle. But the above words were actually spoken more than 200 years ago by President George Washington, who (unlike the present chief executive) knew firsthand the grim reality of war. And the similarity of these two leaders’ sentiments across the centuries bespeaks a common thread that has run through the fabric of American history since the country was founded amid the clearing smoke of bloody revolution: As a nation, we have pursued a vision of peace through strength.

The domestic peace we’ve known, however, hasn’t come without a price: a succession of wars and, more recently, undeclared military actions that have left their mark on nearly every generation of Americans.

But is eternal vigilance truly the price of peace? And if so, is it an acceptable one?

Asheville resident Ned Cabaniss, a retired U.S. Army colonel, wonders what price we’d pay if we didn’t remain vigilant. In his view, there “are certainly situations where military force is required. … My perception is that those who oppose war in all circumstances underestimate the threat of terrorism.”

At the same time, Cabaniss doesn’t think the U.S. should go it alone. “I’ve argued that now might be a bad time; there needs to be U.N. approval as well as congressional approval and that of our international allies,” he notes. For Cabaniss, however, the need for multilateral support is strictly pragmatic. “One of the things I disagree with Bush on is dealing with international issues unilaterally; I don’t think we have the resources.”

Cabaniss’ belief in the importance of prioritizing needs and quantifying threats also figures in his opposition to the president’s newly proposed missile-defense system for the U.S., which Cabaniss calls “an incredible waste of resources. The threat of a missile attack is marginal, and those resources could be used for other aspects of the military.”

Asheville City Council member Carl Mumpower says his experience in Vietnam more than 30 years ago will forever shape the way he views war and the questions of how and when the U.S. should wage it. He even wrote a book called Vietnam: Coming all the way home, aimed at helping veterans come to terms with their experience and heal. Yet Mumpower remains adamant about the role of war in the international arena.

“I would clearly stand firmly in the belief that war is a necessary evil,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s having the ability to respond through the variety of realities that life throws at us. There’s a lot of people who won’t necessarily play by the rules, and that requires a certain level of resiliency. And one form of that resiliency is certainly strength.” That strength, he notes, may take many forms: “Wisdom is strength, maturity is strength, compassion is strength.”

Mumpower’s take on the prospect of war with Iraq, though, is seasoned not only by his own youthful experience in Vietnam but also by the fact that he now has a son of military age.

“We’re paying attention, and we’re talking about it,” he said. “I won’t want my son to participate in another Vietnam.”

Asked what criteria were guiding those discussions with his son, Mumpower quickly noted: “If there is a measure of competency, fairness and justice, then I’ll help him make the right decision. But if it’s a mess of confusion, of unclear objectives and lack of commitment, then … well, one of us is enough.

“When I volunteered for Vietnam in 1970, I did so for three reasons: I didn’t want to miss out on what was happening around me; I believed it was the right thing to do; and I felt I owed something back to my country. When I left for Vietnam, those things were clear and right in my mind. But after a year, those notions became pretty beat up. The war was so poorly run, so poorly defined.”

Yet Mumpower also maintains that we, as a nation, have collectively learned from our Vietnam experience: “We’ve matured through the years; each generation learns a little more. We’re smarter now, and we’re not going to get conned like my generation was. We may be willing to do our part, but not foolishly. But when there is a threat to our people and to what’s right and just, people have the ability to step beyond themselves, and I think that potential is very much alive today.”

When asked if he feels war is inextricably linked to the human condition, Mumpower responded: “We have to recognize the natural order of life, and violence is a reality — whether we like it or not. In nature, things eat other things; things do harm. It’s good for us to try and resist, but these negative things aren’t going to go away.”

In the coming months, many of us will wrestle with these fundamental questions. And as we do, we might consider these further words of wisdom from the first President George, who delivered them in his 1796 farewell address:

“Observe good faith and justice toward all nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all. … The nation which indulges toward another an habitual hatred or an habitual fondness is in some degree a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest.”

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