"Anyone who has ever looked into the glazed eyes of a soldier dying on the battlefield will think hard before starting a war."
Otto Von Bismarck (1815--98), Prussian statesman. Speech, August 1867, Berlin.
"We used to wonder where war lived, what it was that made it so vile. And now we realize that we know where it lives, that it is inside ourselves."
Albert Camus (1913--60), French-Algerian philosopher, author. Notebooks, volume 3 (1966), entry for 7 September 1939
"There never was a good war or a bad peace."
Benjamin Franklin (1706--90), U.S. statesman, writer. Letters to Sir Joseph Banks, 27 July 1783, and Josiah Quincy, 11 September 1783 (published in Complete Works, volume 8, edited by John Bigelow, 1887--88).
The American way of war has always had a remarkable degree of moral inconsistency associated with it. From the beginning, we have the example of George Washington, who insisted upon the humane treatment of prisoners of war (in sharp contrast to the way American soldiers were treated by their British captors). Contrast this with Andrew Jackson, whose practices in the early Indian Wars and the War of 1812 were brutal, presaging America's wars and policy against the Native American population for the rest of the century.
The Civil War brought the concept of "total war" into the American system of warfare, with the actions of Union Generals Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan authoring the basic textbook that the rest of the world was to copy and expand upon for the last one-hundred and fifty years. Destroying your enemy's will to fight, so that abject, unconditional surrender of the enemy is the sole objective of your military, began to embed itself into the minds of the American military as war's real goal.
Our next three wars--the completion of the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, and the Philippine Insurrection--lacked the necessary elements for the use of a strategy of "total war" against our enemies. The Native American tribes were far too diverse and anarchistic to destroy all of the tribes will to fight at once: they had to be dealt with one by one. The Spanish-American War was not a war where we had any desire to conquer Spain: only take her Caribbean and Pacific colonies. The Philippine Insurrection was similar to the Indian Wars, except we inherited the rebellion from Spain; putting it down was a part of solidifying our seizure of the Philippines. It was not a generalized uprising, but primarily limited to the Muslim dominated Islands of the Southern Philippines. The Philippine Insurrection is of note for no other reason than the many similarities between it and our current difficulties in the Middle East.
Next came the First World War--if you discount chasing revolutionaries in Mexico, Haiti, Honduras, and Nicaragua to protect American commercial interests. We arrived in that war probably just barely in time to forestall a stalemate: Germany was starving and exhausted, Austria-Hungary disintegrating; Russia on the verge of revolution,; Italy retreating; France facing mutiny in its Army; the Ottomans on the verge of collapse; and Great Britain's morale flagging after the Royal Navy barely won at Jutland, while its Army suffered 600,000 casualties on the Somme. Without the intervention of the Americans, the Armistice in November 1918 might well have been for a negotiated peace status quo ante bellum in the West, not a dictated one.
The First World War was only the fourth time in American History that Congress had formally declared war on an enemy country--if you consider declaring independence in the midst of an insurrection different from a formally declared war. The War of 1812, The Mexican-American War, and The Spanish American War were the only three previous instances. It is also the sole instance where the United States Congress has declared peace, rather than have a formal peace treaty negotiated and then ratified by Congress.
Then came the Second World War, and every participating nation practiced Grant's, Sherman's, and Sheridan's concept of total war to a degree that would have sickened the concept's architects. When it was done, Europe lay in ruins from the Pyrenees to the Volga; China, Southeast Asia and Japan were abattoirs. More than seventy million lay dead worldwide: one person in every thirty who was alive when the war started. That war to end the genocidal mania of Hitler and his allies may have been necessary, but the ghosts of more than seventy million people crying out that they had died before their time makes clear that there is nothing truly good about that war, or any other. Benjamin Franklin has been proven a prophet again.
In the six-and-one-half decades since the end of the Second World War, the United States has not formally declared war even once. We have had five major wars (Korea, Viet Nam, Gulf War I, Afghanistan, Gulf War II), and countless "brushfire" conflicts (Lebanon, Grenada, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Nicaragua, the Mayaguez raid, the Aborted Iranian Hostage Rescue, Somalia, in addition to providing advisory support to nations around the world), plus the so-called "Cold War." Three of those wars (Korea, Viet Nam, Gulf War I) ended with a negotiated peace treaty, and the withdrawal of all or nearly all American forces. The other two major wars are pending resolution.
And yet, we count all three of those wars as losses because we did not utterly defeat and/or destroy our opponents.
Of our five declared wars (six if you count the Revolutionary War), in only one--the Second World War--did we completely and utterly defeat our opponents, capturing our enemies' nations and annihilating their military. The War of 1812 was a negotiated peace, because Great Britain was tired of being at war for a quarter century, not because we had beaten them. (Remember, the Battle of New Orleans occurred after the Treaty of Ghent was signed.)