War Games: ‘The Only Way to Win is Not to Play’

Matthew Dowd

By Matthew Dowd

Sep 4, 2013 1:51pm

NEWS ANALYSIS by Matthew Dowd:

I remember so well the heady days of “war” games in Detroit growing up with my ten brothers and sisters.  We would pick sides and find sticks shaped like pistols or rifles, and then play war.  We made lots of sounds simulating gunfire, whether it was a single shot shout or the sputtering of our mouths creating a machine gun effect.  Once you were “killed,” you had to wait again until the next round to play once more.  It is something so many kids have done and continue to do across our great country.  But a couple of things really hit home to me in the last ten years that war is no game.

In 2004, I was chief strategist for the re-election of President George W. Bush.  We were in the midst of the Iraq War, and I was in the midst of the intense battle of the presidential election campaign.  I had developed many misgivings at that time about the war and what led us there, but like so many folks, I trusted that leaders in the government who were supposed to know more, actually knew more.  And regretfully, I didn’t really have a personal passion about it.  That all changed when my oldest son enlisted in the Army in the summer of 2004.

I remember the call so well when, upon finishing his college freshman year, he phoned me and said, “Pop, I have joined the Army and they are going to send me to the Defense Language Institute to learn Arabic.”  I was stunned that this flip-flop wearing Austin kid who never expressed an interest in military service made this decision.  He did it for many reasons, not the least of which was trying to do something meaningful with his life.

He came to work on the re-election campaign in Arlington, Va. (also home to the Pentagon) for a bit, and then days before Election Day I took him in my truck from the campaign and dropped him off at the Army station where he would get transportation to boot camp in South Carolina.  I hugged him, held him for a bit, told him I loved him and was proud of him, jumped back in my truck and drove back to the campaign headquarters with tears rolling down my cheeks.

Many emotions and feelings ran through my heart and head, including the fact that I was about to help re-elect the man who would ultimately make the decision to send my “boy” into harm’s way.  It was so incredibly confusing and conflicting that I had to physically shake my head to try and put things in some kind of order.  I never really did.

My son did well at boot camp and then graduated from the language school fluent in Arabic. He was awaiting his orders to head to a forward operating base in Iraq when he came home to stay with me for a few days in Texas.  It was a wonderful time with him and I realized this boy was now a man.  As he was getting ready to leave, to drive back to his base and then get on a plane that would take him to Iraq, I helped him pack up his Jeep.  I remember like it was yesterday carrying his uniform, all pressed and neat, and his Army duffle bag and setting it gently in his car.  I touched his name on his uniform and the thought of him being in this war very soon hit home in a wrenching way.  One of the last things he told me before he drove off was, “Pop, I don’t want to get killed, but I really don’t want to have to kill anyone.”

I had already had a big public break with the President on the front page of the New York Times over many things, including the folly of the Iraq war.  But these moments forever changed my view of that war and war in general and the use of violence for “good” ends.  I have serious doubts about the good of any war and the moral justification for it in any instance.  But I can understand why many leaders and governments might want to justify its use for laudable reasons.

As we face the prospect of another war, this time in Syria, I have a few suggestions for our leaders and those pushing for military action.

1.  We shouldn’t go to war unless the country is fully behind the action and involved.  If our leaders can’t convince the country it is the right thing to do, then we should hold off.  I believe that each war should involve a draft where every part of America is impacted.  It is too easy for leaders to make these decisions when the only people deeply affected are our volunteer military and their families.  Broaden the impact by a draft and leaders will have to really examine the effect and have a consensus on the action.

2.  We need to exhaust every peaceful means available to resolve the situation.  I mean every means, with personal meetings between our leaders and leaders throughout the world, including directly with Bashar al-Assad in this instance.  And when we think we have done enough to resolve this peacefully, then we should do even more.  We should do our best to put a spotlight in an intense way on the situation and isolate the offenders with moral conviction. Our leaders should let their own egos, and the false belief that strength is shown through war, take a back seat.  The stronger and more patriotic leader finds a different way through peace and compassion.

3.  Every time we go to war we should have to pass a special tax to fund these actions.  War is a very expensive proposition and we have just come out of ten years of conflict that have cost this country dearly in blood and more than a trillion dollars.  Money that could have been spent on infrastructure improvements or investments in long-term efforts that would help our country move into the future with hope and optimism.  If the war really is essential, then leaders should be able to go to the country and ask everyone to pay for it.  Credit-card wars are just way too easy purchases.

Again, my own feeling is that it is extremely hard to justify war today in any instance from a moral or humanitarian perspective, but if our leaders really feel it is necessary then they should follow these three points I have laid out, in addition to the obvious points of having of a transparent and open game plan to win and ultimately to exit the conflict.

And let’s remember that the strongest person in a fight is the one who chooses not to hit back or hit in the first place.  As the computer in the movie “WarGames” said, “A strange game. The only way to win is not to play.”

There you have it.

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