- - Thursday, September 25, 2014

We live in an age of latte salutes and rampant military illiteracy, our military history neglected by faculties of Vietnam draft-dodgers. When only one-half of 1 percent of Americans serve in uniform while the other 99 percent kibitz from the sidelines, the greatest social danger is not uneven sacrifice, but something far worse. What happens when those military illiterates elect one of their own as president?

It is as though the passengers on a crowded Airbus, before the doors were closed and the aircraft pushed back, were asked to elect one of their number as pilot. The results were on display the other day when President Obama returned the crisp salutes of his Marine guards with a latte in his right hand. Because we come from the same culture, I can tell you exactly what those Marines were thinking: “So who elected this guy?” (That’s soldier-speak cleaned up for publication a family newspaper.) It’s a good question best answered in front of a mirror.

Because it was written by the survivors of Valley Forge, men who had faced the massed volleys of British regulars, our Constitution does not view national defense as a spectator sport. Our Founders viewed faith in God and personal morality as the essential underpinnings of liberty, particularly the all-important ideal of duty. To a generation that spawned the Minutemen, a standing Army was not only unnecessary, but unthinkable. Duty would raise any armies needed in the event of what George Washington called “any interesting emergency.”

At least until 1973, when military service became a personal option, not an obligation of citizenship. Thereafter, we embarked on a new era of American wars being fought with Other People’s Kids. Even after Sept. 11, 2001, the volunteer military was working so well that you were more likely on American campuses to encounter virginity rather than prior military service. My kid is doing just fine at Maryland; thanks for asking. And is yours surviving his second tour in Kandahar?

It’s shameful of course, but the real costs of the all-volunteer military became fully apparent only with the election of Barack Obama, a junior senator whose prior service had been community organizing. It might have been less hazardous for the republic had one of those Airbus passengers been elected Pilot-for-A-Day. Even when he finally authorized this week’s airstrikes over Syria, Mr. Obama displayed neither the aggressive spirit of a war chief, nor the strategic grasp of what warfare is really all about. The American way of war is what happens when the nation’s air, land and sea forces apply devastating force against a deadly enemy. It is neither a diplomatic signaling device nor an interim step while awaiting a U.N. resolution.

This president is famously dismissive of all military advice, firing almost as many generals as Stalin. Even so, one of them might have tried explaining that the first day of an air campaign is like the opening day of deer season. Gunshots are heard, some bucks are taken and everyone has a great time. But thereafter the deer are nowhere to be found, concealing themselves in the darkest woods and deepest thickets until the hunters put away their orange vests for the season. It’s the same thing with terrorists targeted solely from the air.

Because terrorism is warfare by the weak against the high and maybe-not-so-mighty, its practitioners develop an exquisite sense of survival. Above all: Is the enemy Neville Chamberlain or Winston Churchill? So how impressed was the Islamic State, aka ISIS, when the long-delayed American air campaign began in the dead of night, apparently to avoid casualties on both sides? Buildings rather than people were the main targets, and even then with a notable effort to limit collateral damage. If you want to convince history’s newest barbarians that you’re really serious, then accompany the airstrikes with simultaneous raids by special-forces, paratroops or Marines. Since ISIS seems to like using bayonets, show them how an American Ranger uses that weapon in hand-to-hand combat against an armed adversary, not a helpless hostage.

By failing to engage ISIS immediately from air, land and sea, President Obama has shown how little he understands a malevolent threat that cannot be stopped with halfmeasures or half-hearted leadership. Even now, ISIS war leaders must be mobilizing every sleeper cell or sympathizer with an urgent message: Strike the American infidels through the weak points of their own border, that same border Mr. Obama so arrogantly bypassed. From shopping malls to oil pipelines, it matters little how or where those attacks take place: Only that Americans understand they will pay a price for resisting ISIS.

The enduring lesson for this the brave new world of transnational warfare: Before intervening overseas, lock the back door first.

Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel, is a military analyst and author on national-security issues.

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