In Jared Diamond's book The Third Chimpanzee, he points out that we share about 98 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees, which is not much greater than the difference between chimps and bonobo pygmy chimps. He also postulates that human behavior is merely an elaboration of basic primate behavior. Bands of chimps hold a territory, and the young males instinctively patrol its boundaries, keeping watch for leopards and the young males of adjacent bands who sneak in and steal bananas. When that happens they beat them up or kill them if they can.
I've found that a great deal of puzzling human behavior becomes perfectly clear if one thinks of our species as chimps with nukes.
All of our statecraft and "military science" is an elaboration on the theme of stealing and protecting bananas. We just do these things more intelligently than chimps, which is where the real danger lies. A behavior pattern that results in a dead chimp may make sense. One that results in a dead planet does not.
There is probably no one of average or better intelligence who does not believe that war, the way we wage it now, is insane. Yet we keep doing it, blaming each other, captive of our primate genes.
This article is not an argument for or against war. Winston Churchill was right that slavery is worse than war. Dishonor is worse than war. Lots of things are worse than war. What it's an argument for is leaders who know this first hand.
Harry Truman fought in France in World War I. Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon all took the oath and wore the uniform. Even Reagan did that, though he only made training films in Hollywood as a captain in the Signal Corps.
FDR didn't serve, of course. He was wheelchair-bound. But his son Elliott served as second in command of a Marine Raider Battalion. There is no more hairy assignment than that. From a geopolitical standpoint, it makes no sense to have the son of the head of state subject to capture by the enemy. Young Roosevelt undoubtedly wanted to be in the war, but if his father allowed it, this must have been, at least partially, to make an egalitarian statement to the country.
Vietnam was not a popular war. Getting out of it replaced baseball as the national pastime in the early '70s. Though his father had served in World War II, George W. Bush skated in the Texas Air Guard. Cheney, Wolfowitz, and Pearle had deferments. Only Rumsfeld was a Navy pilot, prior to Vietnam.
These are not bad men. But if you haven't seen your best friend's face turn to red goo before your eyes, or watched a child die because you made a simple mistake throwing steel around at supersonic speed after three days without sleep -- well, if you haven't done that, then, by definition, when it comes to war, you don't know what you're talking about.
In March of 1964 I was the "Senior Advisor" of a patrol of four Americans and a platoon of Jarai Montagnard tribesmen. We were out hunting for the entire population of a Jarai village that the Viet Cong had kidnapped to use as slave labor in the jungle. It was a small patrol, put together quickly. Frankly, we knew that the chances of finding the village were almost nil, but we had to make a good-faith effort or risk losing support from the other villages.
We had mounted the patrol so quickly that there was no interpreter available. I was "advising" the Montagnard "commander" with hand-and-arm signals and about 150 words of survival French I had learned on Okinawa. Ksor Yul, the platoon leader, also remembered some French from his service in the Indochina War. Some of them were the same words.
Oddly, this worked well enough. We couldn't discuss philosophy, but we could patrol.
About noon of the second day we crossed the Li Piao River, Ayunapa in Jarai, and moved parallel to it, hidden in the bush. Most of the central highlands was dense jungle, but this was open and parklike. Then my left flank guy signaled that he had spotted something. It was three Bahnar tribesmen, young boys working in a rice field by the river. I wanted to ask them if they had seen our VC and their group of villagers. We moved around them in the jungle, surrounding them on three sides, with the river on the fourth. The river was three-feet deep and more than a hundred feet across. No one but a fool would try to escape across it under such circumstances. A fool or a kid.
The boys broke for the river. I charged after them, into the water, wearing 40 pounds of gear and clothes that soaked and dragged me back. It was like running in a nightmare. My Americans fired warning shots. We had taught our Jarai a lot, but not about warning shots. They had been at war with the Bahnar, on and off, for about 900 years. They shot to kill. I screamed, "No g'pow! No g'pow!" g'pow being Jarai for gun. Probably the only thing that saved two of them was that my troops had to shoot wide to avoid hitting me. But they hit one of them and blood ran down his back as he ran. The other two scampered over the bank and into the jungle on the other side, but this kid wavered and fell by the river.
He was bleeding from a head wound. We bandaged it, but that didn't stop the bleeding. I didn't have an American medic, but we pulled a can of blood expander out of our Montagnard medic's pack. He had filled it with aspirin.
Then a sniper opened up from across the river. I took a squad, moved back into the jungle again, crossed the river out of sight around a bend, and moved through the jungle toward the sniper. None of my squad would take the point, so I did. I knew the sniper, if we found him, would have the first shot. I have great confidence in my marksmanship. If he missed me on the first round, I'd kill him before he got off a second. That's a big if, and I was more scared than I've ever been.