Warfighter or Peacekeeper?

Since the beginning of the Bush II Administration, there has been a shift in the terminology used to describe American soldiers. Back in the 90’s American troops were called “Peacekeepers”, now they are called “Warfighters”. I’ve often wondered if this was simply a difference in mission, or if there was something implicit in the terminologies that went to the attitude of both the civilian and military leadership. Additionally, I have wondered if there is a specific posture that is trying to be advanced by the use of these different terms.

If one goes back and looks at the deployments in the 90’s, Somalia, Kosovo, to name two, which were peacekeeping missions under the banner of a UN or NATO resolution, with decidedly different outcomes. Still the mission defined the role of the soldiers serving in that capacity. They were there to maintain a fragile peace in an otherwise warring environment. Both deployments were supported internationally, though the US contingent certainly made up the majority of both. However, there was a international call for this posture and, it was largely maintained with no loss of life in the Kosovo example.

Contrasting those peacekeeping missions are the Afghanistan and Iraq deployments of the current administration. Both are aggressive, largely unilateral engagements (though I should note that Afghanistan has maintained international support throughout the deployment) that advance the idea of soldiers as warfighters instead of peacekeepers.

Indeed, in the first months of both engagements, until the toppling of their respective governments, our soldiers were “warfighters”, in that there was a defined enemy whose military and political power we sought to overthrow. In both cases the actual “war” ended relatively quickly and turned into an occupation, which would point to a new designation of peacekeeper, as the war was over with the overthrow of the nation’s government. However, with the war on the nation won, the soldiers deployed to these regions continue to be defined as “warfighters” and their mission remained largely unchanged.

We are now 4 years into the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as they are being called. If one agrees that our “war” was with the governments of these nations, not the people, then one must also agree that the war against these nations is over, and as such we are an occupying force whose mission is akin to that of a peacekeeper. If, for instance, our mission is to help the Iraqi government through its transition, which is the continuing position of this Administration, then one would assume that the war is over, we’re not fighting the government anymore, and we are on a peacekeeping mission to support the new government. However we are still technically at war due to our offensive posture in Iraq for instance. The difference is that we are at war against a group, or groups of people, at the sometimes-resistant request of the Iraqi government.

What about the attitude of the leadership in the DOD and the administration at large has enabled this seismic shift in terminology. The use of the term “warfighter”, the rhetoric that goes with that term, and our posture put the Iraqi people in a position of defending what is left of their country against an internal and external threat. Had American forces been called “peacekeepers”, which is what our mission became once the government of Saddam Hussein was overthrown, and adjusted our tactics accordingly, not to mention our policy, things might be different now.

There’s nothing sexy about the term “peacekeeper”. It is as passive term. “Warfighter”, by contrast, invokes the romanticism of WWII era storytellers and movies. “Peacekeepers” never get the girl, “Warfighters” on the other hand, get all the play. Perhaps that’s what’s going on with the semantic shift. Perhaps this is a throwback to the romanticism of an era that died in Vietnam. Unfortunately, all the romanticism in the world can’t change the reality.

It is likely, that by our inability to be nimble in our word and political posture in Afghanistan and Iraq, that we have won the war, but lost the peace. No matter your position going into this engagement, this is still a tragedy for America, and for the soldiers thrust in the position of enacting this discordant policy.

As you look to the remainder of Passover and the coming Easter weekend, please keep these soldiers in your hearts and minds. Perhaps say a little prayer that they make it home safely, despite our inability as a nation, to adequately define their role as peacekeeper, in a world of warfighters.

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