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Pence’s Dangerous West Point Sabre-Rattling

Vice President Mike Spence, speaking at the Southern Baptist Convention (Fox4 News DFW screen grab)

Mike Pence made an alarming prediction in his commencement speech at West Point this weekend:

It is a virtual certainty that you will fight on a battlefield for America at some point in your life. You will lead soldiers in combat. It will happen.

Some of you will join the fight against radical Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some of you will join the fight on the Korean Peninsula and in the Indo-Pacific, where North Korea continues to threaten the peace, and an increasingly militarized China challenges our presence in the region. Some of you will join the fight in Europe, where an aggressive Russia seeks to redraw international boundaries by force. And some of you may even be called upon to serve in this hemisphere.

And when that day comes, I know you will move to the sound of the guns and do your duty, and you will fight, and you will win.

Pence’s rhetoric is extremely belligerent and also very confused about what the U.S. military is doing in most of these places. The only places that he mentions where U.S. troops are engaging in or have recently engaged in combat are Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no “fight” to join in any of these other places, and we should be very glad that there isn’t. If all goes well, there will never be any occasion for American forces to “move to the sound of the guns” in Europe or East Asia or Latin America, and we should all be working to put an end to the forever war that the U.S. continues to wage across much of the Middle East and in parts of Africa. Pence assumes that all of these conflicts are practically foregone conclusions when all of them could be easily avoided.

Promising these soldiers that these wars are a “virtual certainty” isn’t just mindless sabre-rattling and demagoguery, but it also has the potential to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When political and military leaders in a country convince themselves that war with another state is inevitable, they tend to take actions that make it harder to avoid that war. George Kennan warned about the perils that would come from believing that a war was inevitable. He wrote this in his history of the Franco-Russian alliance, The Fateful Alliance:

In the history of the negotiation of the Franco-Russian Alliance one can witness the growth of a whole series of those aberrations, misunderstandings, and bewilderments that have played so tragic and fateful a part in the development of Western civilization over the subsequent decades. One sees how the unjustified assumption of war’s likelihood could become the cause of its final inevitability. One sees the growth of military-technological capabilities to levels that exceed man’s capacity for making any rational or intelligent use of them. One sees how the myopia induced by indulgence in the mass emotional compulsions of modern nationalism destroys the power to form any coherent, realistic view of true national interest. (p.257)

Pence’s speech gives us examples of all of these same mistakes. There is the myopia of treating every region in the world as if it were an equally vital interest that the U.S. should go to war over, there is the casual embrace of armed conflict with at least three nuclear weapons states, and there is the blithe belief that these wars are going to happen in the coming years. Pence is out of his mind if he thinks that the U.S. will “win” multiple wars with nuclear-armed powers. None of these wars could possibly be “won” at anything like an acceptable cost, and to fight any of them would be to incur horrific losses on a scale that dwarfs anything we have seen in our lifetimes. This is what decades of unthinking pro-war cheerleading has encouraged among this country’s political class. Instead of striving to avoid senseless slaughters and preserve the peace, some of our leaders take it as a given that the U.S. will be fighting in ever-larger and more destructive wars. In Pence’s case, he seems to be eager to get started.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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