It is still there, sitting at the crest of a small hill. It is surrounded by row upon row of the white headstones. The flag pole remains white, although through the years I suspect it has been repainted. But the main mast of the battleship Maine is in better shape at Arlington National Cemetery than when it was retrieved from the bottom of Havana Harbor in Cuba.
Although no one was able to determine a cause of the explosion that sent the Maine down at the time, Spain was quickly blamed. Subsequent studies, including one published in 1976 and reissued in 1995, determined the ship was destroyed when burning coal in a bunker triggered an explosion of ammunition stocks.
The Spanish-American War of 1898 was most likely triggered by a simple accident, and would not have happened had our ship not been there or had more time been taken to investigate the cause of the sinking.
It also was unlikely, when the great powers of Europe in the second decade of the 20th century were entering treaties of support to each other, that it would be the assassination of an heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne by a Bosnian-Serb that would ignite the world into the First World War. Even after the war started, the combatants weren’t worried, according to Barbara Tuchman’s excellent work, “The Guns of August,” since it was assumed it would only last four months.
Likewise, it was a misunderstanding of an encounter in the Gulf of Tonkin, the waters off the Vietnamese coast, that led to President Lyndon Johnson getting authorization from Congress (the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution) to commence America’s escalation of involvement in Vietnam. In explaining the misreading of the incident, then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara later described it as happening because of the “fog of war.”
One can comprehend, in reviewing how wars can start, that miscalculation and mistakes are, unfortunately, sometimes a key ingredient.
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Iran doesn’t want a war. Israel realizes Iranian missiles, crude though they be, would fall like rain upon the land. I think Syria probably doesn’t want to try, again, to climb the Golan Heights. Saudi Arabia is not interested in conflict in the region. Europe just told U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo less than politely that this time in another Mideast war, America should expect to go it alone.
This doesn’t mean that there isn’t cause for frustration with Iran. The regime arms the Yemeni rebels, providing them with missiles to attack Saudi oil installations; Hezbollah depends on Iranian money to fund its militia. Iran supplies troops and supplies to fight in Syria and maintains a presence in Iraq. It threatens to disrupt maritime operations.
But in dealing with these problems, it is important to remember this isn’t Iraq. As Washington Post columnist George Will noted, “the country is almost the size of Mexico (almost four times larger than Iraq) and with 83 million people is more than double that of Iraq.” While administration officials discuss plans to deploy 120,000 U.S. troops to the region, many military advisers say 600,000 would be needed.
But deploying troops would well lead to just the sort of misstep that could lead us into another war in the Middle East. There are any number of terrorist organizations that would welcome armed conflict in the region and act in a manner that would strike a match to make this happen.
That is why when Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., spoke out forcefully against deployment last week, I welcomed her remarks. She, along with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., among others, have all signed on to legislation attempting to restrict the president’s ability to act unilaterally in the deployment of forces or using force without congressional approval.
The situation, although complex, has one clear admonition: If you don’t walk near the edge of a cliff, you don’t fall off. Now the question is how many Republican senators are willing to act on this legislation and restrain the president. I, for one, do not want to read a tweet at 3 a.m. and find out we are at war again in the Middle East.