“You can’t help but be flattered and honored to have a doctrine named after you,” Colin Powell begins the chapter “The Powell Doctrine” in his 2012 memoir It Worked For Me. He finished the thought, “I haven’t figured out yet how it happened to me.”
General Colin Powell, one-time Secretary of State, husband, father, grandfather, and great American, was remembered today in funeral services at the National Cathedral. You would do well to find a video of his son Michael’s eulogy reflection on his dad. It is deeply moving. May all fathers live in such a way to deserve to be so richly esteemed in their son’s eyes.
The boss has already written about Gen. Powell, his life, and legacy. He touched as well on the Powell Doctrine mentioned above. I want here only to elaborate on one element of this Doctrine: Powell’s insistence on overwhelming or decisive force. A correction is immediately in order, however. Powell tells us, “In discussing what they take to be doctrine’s most essential element, commentators have tended to use the term “overwhelming force,” but I have always preferred the term “decisive.” This is much more than semantics.
A force that achieves a “decisive result” does not necessarily have to be overwhelming. That’s to say, “overwhelming force may be too much force.” Given that you don’t need a shotgun to hunt a squirrel, for Powell the important point of focus is the successful outcome of the fight rather than “how thoroughly you can bury your…enemy.” Inherent in this is a restraint even in a commitment to decisiveness.
This doesn’t mean that Powell thinks we should cut things close. Shortly after Desert Storm, during a question-and-answer period following a speech at the US Naval Academy, Powell was asked why he had sent General Schwarzkopf two additional aircraft carrier battle groups instead of just the one as he had asked. Powell’s answered, “Because I didn’t have time to go get the rest of them. This is a gang fight.” More than just a quip, Powell was illustrating that sending more than might have been strictly required was an insurance policy against failure. Just because we’ve marshalled decisive force, doesn’t necessarily mean me need to unleash it all. But, should the fight require it, it is there for our use.
Powell is right. I’ve written before about the importance of leaning toward “clean margins” in planning on the kind of force required for victory. Just as in cancer surgery, you want to be sure you’ve taken care of the entire malignancy before you conclude the bloody business. None of this signals a zeal for war. Quite the opposite, in fact. Because war is profoundly destructive—and almost always most profoundly destructive for civilians—it is a moral good that wars be fought in the shortest amount of time possible, constrained by the requirements of necessity, discrimination, and proportionality. Needlessly prolonged wars needlessly prolong the horrors and harms that always accompany war. Understanding these horrors, the bulk of the Powell Doctrine, preceding decisiveness, calls for the responsible assessment of costs and benefits, for clear and attainable objectives against which we can both measure the probability of success and know what victory will look like, for commitment of resources necessary to achieve that victory, and for the identification of plausible exit strategies. All these considerations, echoed in the just war tradition’s prudential criteria of proportionality, probability of success, and last resort, are aimed at avoiding war if at possible in light of the requirements of moral responsibility. Again–power under restraint.
But horrors and harms, we must remember, can attend not fighting wars as well. When the horrors of not fighting outweigh the horrors of fighting, then war must be. In such cases, restraint is not always a good thing. The debacle of the Treaty of Versailles, I have argued, is a historical prooftext for the assertion that an enemy needs to know they have been beaten before a durable peace can really be won. Too many Germans were not convinced of the decisiveness of the Allied victory. Why should they have been? On Armistice Day, the commander of the German Third Army said to his troops, “Undefeated! You are terminating a war in enemy country.” He wasn’t wrong. When Germany surrendered, its armies were indeed on French and Belgian land—they still held enemy ground and never been decisively defeated on the field of battle. On the contrary, on the Eastern Front Germany had already won the war against Russia and concluded the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In the west, she had come within close reach of winning the war entirely with the Spring Offensive of 1918. On the home front, importantly, German propaganda led—or rather, misled—the German people back home into believing they were winning the contest abroad.
General John Pershing believed the unrepentant Germany martial spirit would prove disastrous:
The German troops today are marching back into Germany announcing that they have never been defeated… What I dread is that Germany doesn’t know that she was licked… Had they given us another week, we’d have taught them.
It would take less than a generation to prove his fears correct. America does not often heed her Pershings and her Powells. Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq II, and Afghanistan all point to a lack of decisive force—often following a lack of decisive objectives. To his dying day, Powell believed this a great tragedy. He expected much of America because America always had much to offer. “America is a remarkable nation,” Powell asserted. He continued:
We are, as Abraham Lincoln told Congress in December 1862, a nation that “cannot escape history” because we are the last best hope of earth.” The president said that his administration and Congress held the “power and . . . responsibility” to ensure that the hope America promised would be fulfilled. Today, 130 years later… We cannot lead without our armed forces. Economic power is essential; political and diplomatic skills are needed; the power of our beliefs and our values is fundamental to any success we might achieve; but the presence of our arms to buttress these other elements of our power is as critical to us as the freedom we so adore. Our arms must be second to none.
Today America eulogized a man who believed deeply that America has, on balance, been a force for good in the world—both within and outside her borders. This belief sustained Powell through many of the calamities that have threatened our nation.
Taken together, I fear that two of Powell’s deepest commitments are under threat. Too many of us, including too many Christians, no longer believe that America is a force for good. And too many of us, including too many Christians, no longer believe that force—let alone the overpowering and decisive force necessary to lick our enemies and win victory—can also be a force for good, or the form that love might take in the last resort when nothing else will protect the sufficiently threatened innocent, requite a sufficiently grave injustice, or punish a sufficiently grave evil.
It was asked at today’s memorial service whether America still makes men like Powell. While I think the last twenty years have proved—decisively even—that we do, it will always remain an important question for us to ask. For the day we stop making men and women like Powell will be the day that America will have lost the capacity not just for greatness but for goodness as well.