It's A Gray Area: U.S. should not intervene overseas

One of the first things done when our country was founded in 1787 was establish the United States Department of War. This agency lasted until 1947, when it was re-organized and re-named the U.S. Department of Defense. But given our history since that time, the title of U.S. Department of Offense would have been more appropriate.

Since 1947, the United States has intervened militarily on more than 40 separate occasions in foreign countries. In addition to the more well-known actions like Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, that list also includes Guatemala, Iran, Cuba, Indonesia, Chile, El Salvador, Grenada, Colombia, Haiti and Somalia. Some of those interventions have produced good and lasting results, but many have produced lasting disasters.

Some of those disasters are out in the open. For example, many people in Iran still hate our government for having deposed its legitimately-elected government in 1953 and imposed the Shah upon them. Similarly, the situations in Cuba, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan in many ways speak for themselves. But other disastrous results are far less visible.

For example, although a large number of people around the world still love America and Americans, they do not like or trust our government because of its interventionist policies. So in many ways we would probably be a lot safer today had we never intervened in many of those places.

Similarly, one of the few positive results of our invasion of Iraq was that Muammar Gaddafi of Libya gave up his country's possession of nuclear weapons. So in "gratitude" what did we do? Within just a short time we attacked him and caused him to be killed! What kind of lesson will other despots around the world take away from that?

So now in Afghanistan, after many years of our troops fighting and occupying that land, what is the status? For the most part, the Afghans hate us. In order to obtain some amount of security and stability, we have supported Hamid Karzai's administration, which has been about as corrupt as it could have been. Maybe it is corrupt by necessity, but the end results remain.

Another critical but less noticed disaster from our military interventions has been the lasting harms inflicted personally upon our own troops. Not only have many of our troops been killed or physically injured while serving our country, but also many have suffered severe mental injuries, which are much harder to see or diagnose. As evidence of this, please note that the suicide rate in our military last year actually surpassed the number of combat deaths in Afghanistan.

So what is the purpose of this discussion?

No, our country should not become isolationist, and, yes, we should continue to intervene militarily when our national interests and security are at risk. And, in addition, we should also assist other countries in intervening militarily in those few situations in which a nation's government is wantonly killing its own people — if we can materially do anything positive to stop it. But we should, and must, be much more selective in choosing those interventions.

In making those determinations, we should always bear in mind the following two quotes about war. The first is from John Stuart Mill, who said: "War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing is worth fighting for is far worse." And the second is from Gen. George S. Patton, who said: "Wars are not won by fighting battles, wars are won by choosing battles."

So when should we intervene? Not nearly as often as we have, and only after Congress has debated the issue, and issued a Declaration of War — just as the Constitution requires!

History should vilify Congress for having passed the Gulf of Tonkin and War Powers resolutions, which, respectively, empowered Presidents Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush to escalate the fighting in Vietnam and Iraq into full-fledged wars at their sole discretion. The deliberations and responsibilities for sending our military into harm's way must lie with Congress, and, thus, more with us all. And, by the way, pursuing this course will result in much greater public support of those interventions if and when they do occur.

Military interventions are some of the most serious things that a government can do. And they have a great cost, both in terms of our finances, security, and the health and safety of our troops in the field and here at home. We simply cannot be the world's policeman: It doesn't work, and we can't afford it.

So I close these thoughts once again by remembering the most sobering experience that happened to me during my 2012 Libertarian campaign for vice president. After a presentation at Stanford University, a tall and good looking young man, who was wearing Gulf War and Purple Heart ribbons on his suit coat, came up to me and said: "Judge Gray, we in the military will go where we are ordered, and we will fight and sometimes be injured or even die. Please make it count."

Not only do we owe that to all of our troops, we also owe it to our country.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired Orange County Superior Court judge. He lives in Newport Beach. He can be contacted at

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