A Non-Interventionist and Veterans Day

Mike Dwyer

Mike Dwyer is a former writer and contributor at Ordinary Times.

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55 Responses

  1. Kim says:

    We use the military when other options might suit better because it’s politically expedient to do so.

    We could have characterized Bin Laden as a criminal, and not gone after the Taliban, wholesale. Kill off whatever leaders necessary, but allow the basic structure to still function.Report

  2. Chris says:

    I generally think of it as Armistice Day.

    Then I remember that on that day in 1918, between 5 a.m. when the cease fire agreement was signed, and 11 a.m. when it went into effect, there were more than 10,000 pointless casualties on the Western front*, and I just think of it as another day on which we’ve fought pointless wars, and I get depressed and try to comfort myself with the fact that college basketball season is about to start.

    * 10,000… in 6 hours… after the peace was signed. Think about that! In the last hours of that war there were more casualities than the Allies suffered on D-Day, more casualties than all but the bloodiest battles in the American Civil War.

    For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
    For a botched civilization.Report

  3. Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    As a vet, I have a few thoughts:

    as if no other professions come with risks or importance for society

    This is true. What sets the soldier/sailor apart from the cop/EMT/firefighter is the legal framework they operate under. The enlistee, once they are voluntarily inducted, willingly surrenders the right to say no to danger. They suborn themselves to the decisions of those above them in the chain of command, and face imprisonment and death should they fail to obey.* No civilian faces that (& yes, cops are civilians, even if they like to pretend they aren’t). If the NYC Police Commissioner tells a beat cop to enter a building with a known active shooter, the beat cop can refuse, and the worst that will happen is he’ll be fired.

    So in that regard, giving the active duty guys and the vets a modicum more respect is appropriate.

    It has been a long time since the freedoms of Americans were in need of actual military intervention to remain intact.

    I think WWII was the last time the US military had to deploy to protect America. If the Nazi’s weren’t halted, their ambitions could have very well led to our shores. I’m less convinced Imperial Japan needed to be met, but that might be hindsight talking.

    Aside from that, I think you are right. Terrorists have always been a ‘police’ problem. Using the core military to fight them is like using a sledge hammer to drive home a finishing nail. We probably would have had better results bolstering the ranks of our SpecWar teams & having them pound nails when they appeared. Deploying the regular army & Marines is a colossal waste and is a perfect example of why the founding fathers distrusted standing armies.

    Still, for others who read this, remember to save your ire for the politicians & pundits. Anyone under the rank of O-6 is most likely just a pawn to be moved & used by those above. And most enlistees do so for the job security, the benefits, the job training, the money for school, a chance to escape poverty, the desire to serve, or a combination thereof. The sociopath who truly wants to kill (as opposed to simple posturing) is a rare bird.Report

    • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      Oh, my *

      An enlistee is not obligated to follow illegal orders. However, the determination of what is & is not an illegal order is usually not something that can be made in the heat of the moment, and as such the recommendation during battle is to obey all orders, and if you think one or more was illegal, take it up with JAG after the fact (should you live through the battle). Outside of combat, there are orders that are clearly illegal (such as ordering a subordinate to have sex with you), but if one is not 100% certain it’s illegal, you follow it & talk to JAG afterward.Report

    • aaron david in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      I am not sure that law enforcement is a good choice for anti terrorism threats either, as seen by our new Warrior culture of police. Then again, having special anti-terrorist groups doesn’t appeal much either, as we have seen how they get deployed in North Ireland and other spots of trouble. I don’t have an answer as to what should be the solution, but whatever it is, it really needs to be thought through carefully.Report

    • +1 @mad-rocket-scientist

      And most enlistees do so for the job security, the benefits, the job training, the money for school, a chance to escape poverty, the desire to serve, or a combination thereof.

      I interviewed hundreds of veterans and active-duty service men and women from 2002 to 2005. I wrote for Veterans Business Journal; aimed at veteran-business owners; law at the time set aside 3% of federal contracts for Veteran-owned businesses. Of course, the only department of government that always met that set-aside was DOD, we were at war, and there were a lot of opportunities for veterans to start or join fast-moving companies in the defense industry; so that’s who I wrote about. I also wrote for a sister publication, GI Jobs, aimed at people leaving the military and entering the civilian work force. These led to work writing for The Officer, the publication of the Army Reserves.

      I always asked why someone had opted to join the military. The most common answer was education. Next came family tradition and honor; but a big part of that tradition and honor was education. Rare was patriotic fervor; I only ever heard ‘getting towel heads’ as a good reason to serve from civilians, nothing remotely like that from someone actually serving. But I was the press, and they were on good behavior.

      I also wrote about the HR bias against military resumes. I suspect there’s still hangover from Vietnam at work here.

      My stepfather just died. He was a gunner on a plane in WWII. They were on the 41 mission (43, and you got to go home.) Shot down over Czechoslovakia, fractured his spine landing his jump. Spent a year in a POW camp and then got sent out on the death marches.Report

      • Mike Dwyer in reply to zic says:


        “The most common answer was education.”

        That jives with my anecdotal experience talking to friends and coworkers who have served. I wonder though, is that the image we have when we have a Concert for Valor or offer free meals at restaurants on Veterans Day? I think that the image of noble service or dying for your country is somewhat tarnished if the soldier says, “It was the easiest way to get money for college.”Report

      • Kim in reply to zic says:

        not at all, when you consider the marked tendency of our armed forces to involuntarily drug servicemembers.Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to zic says:

        The Army is currently running a TV commercial in which a stereotypical drill sergeant praises a new recruit because he has joined the Army to become a graphic artist.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to zic says:

        I served with a few guys who would talk the gung-ho attitude, but that was just smack talking among shipmates. In the clinch, when the impeller is flinging the poo, you aren’t trying to keep score like Gimli & Legolas, you are just trying to make it through the excitement while letting the training take over.

        Most of the guys I served with wanted the training & the GI Bill. Quite a few were actively escaping poverty or gangs.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to zic says:


        A lot of times, that desire to serve comes later. It’s hard to explain, but something happens when you are part of a team & you train together, & work together, and somewhere along the line you realize that you really can do great things together. That is when the desire to serve takes hold.

        For instance, alone, I can’t do a whole lot for disaster relief. But as part of a 5 mine hovercraft crew, I can help deliver 60+ tons of supplies to people having a really bad day. It takes 5 people to operate that LCAC, and those 5 people collectively have hundreds of hours of training & experience in order to safely operate it. And together they can make a huge difference, and because they can, they want to.

        But you need to get them through the door first.Report

      • Kim in reply to zic says:

        yeah, that sounds an awful lot like “making the magic happen” — takes tons of preparation, lots of hard work, but at the end of the day you’re pulling something off that’s necessary and needed.Report

      • kenB in reply to zic says:

        A lot of times, that desire to serve comes later

        That’s really interesting. Recently I found myself in conversation with a few vets, and it was amazing how service-oriented they were — I felt rather abashed at my relative self-involvement. I just assumed they were like that from the get-go, but it makes sense that that might’ve been an effect of their military service as much as a cause for their signing up in the first place.

        But you need to get them through the door first.

        I don’t have the details at hand, but I recall reading about a certain Buddhist monk who ran a popular meditation center — he apparently was an attractive guy, and he said that some people joined just because they wanted to be around him, but that was OK because regardless of what brought them there, once they were inside the doors they learned the wisdom he had to teach.Report

    • I think WWII was the last time the US military had to deploy to protect America. If the Nazi’s weren’t halted, their ambitions could have very well led to our shores.

      I realize that’s only a minor point in a very good comment, but I don’t agree, or at least I suspect it’s wrong. Maybe–maybe–a Nazi victory would have led to something like the Cold War the US had with the Soviet Union, but I don’t think they posed an existential threat to the US. (To be clear, the US entering the war was a good thing, and it was just for it to do so, and an Axis victory would have made the world a darker, more horrible place than it actually is. But I think the US qua US would have survived.)Report

  4. Saul Degraw says:

    Like Chris, I always think of it as Armistice Day.

    I am not a complete non-interventionist because non-interventionism will always carry a whiff of people who called WWII, a “Jewish war” and also the people who destroyed the Spanish Republic by preventing them from buying U.S. made weaponry. I’m the kind of lefty that has a bit of romanticism over the International Brigades and Abraham Lincoln Battalion.Report

    • and also the people who destroyed the Spanish Republic by preventing them from buying U.S. made weaponry. I’m the kind of lefty that has a bit of romanticism over the International Brigades and Abraham Lincoln Battalion

      Hmmm….that in the same breath as WWII. I’m not convinced that the Sp. Repub. would have survived if only for the provision of US-made weapons, and therefore I’m skeptical that denying the Republicanos those weapons was what really destroyed that republic. But I don’t know many of the details of that conflict, so maybe you’re right.Report

  5. Burt Likko says:

    I feel impelled to push back against the notion that it is not necessary to defend the homeland against foreign invasion. It is necessary to do that, in this day and age. A significant reason that we do not perceive a credible threat of invasion at this point in our history is precisely because our military could respond to an invasion with overpowering force.

    This is not the only reason, of course — we have cultivated excellent diplomatic relations with the only two nations that share borders with us; we are generally more valuable to the rest of the world as a functional economic marketplace for their nations’ goods to be traded and as the guarantor of the strength and reliability of the world’s reserve currency rather than as a spoil of conquest.

    But I’ve no doubt whatsoever that if our military were weaker than it is, other nations would calculate their own desires for expansion with portions of territory under our direct control in mind as potential targets of acquisition.

    Ukraine failed to maintain a substantial enough military to deter invasion, and consequently has conceded territory to an expansionist Russia. Iraq and Syria both lost, for different reasons, the ability to maintain autonomy of force in portions of their territory and a band of bandits have proclaimed themselves a Caliphate where that power vacuum was permitted to persist. To be sure, these are different and unique situations in their own rights, but the broader lesson remains: the age of nation-states using military force to alter territorial boundaries has not come to an end simply because we Americans wish it were so.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Now, I should add, as I’m broadly sympathetic to the foreign policy tone of the OP: yes, nation-states will alter and seek to aggrandize their territorial power. ISIS is a nascent state, not yet a full one, but on its way. How bad would it be, really, if it became a full nation-state and took a place at the table of nations? It’s run by thugs and criminals and is a brutal military dictatorship. But so are lots of other nation-states that we deal with. Our big strategic concern is that the oil flow, and an ISIS-turned-Caliphate-for-real would sell oil as demonstrated by the fact that the protostate of ISIS is selling oil. We found modi vivendi with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Mao’s PRC, Stalin’s USSR, Chavez’s Venezuela, etc.; we have something of a modus vivdenum with Iran and even Putin’s Russia today; indeed, we’ve even found a way to keep the periodic saber-rattling of Kim Jong-Un’s DPRK down to the level of an irritation periodically flaring up to an itch rather than anything like an overt threat.

      Those modi vivendi derive, in substantial part, from our possession of potentially overwhelming military force. We could, if we chose and took the time and expense and were willing to spend the blood necessary to the project, force regime change in any of these nations. We do not, because the costs would be very high and the use of force against these rivals is inferior in predicted outcome even to a BATNA. We are in a position to rank these diplomatic and economic choices precisely because a strong military affords those choices to us. We are in a position to champion the rule of law and the soft power of trade and cultural openness in part because we exist under the umbrella of a sufficiently potent force — one which is itself culturally committed to things like the rule of law, I might add — that such attributes of civilization can not only exist but thrive in those portions of the globe where we hold sway.Report

      • I agree. I was drafting some additional qualifications to the effect that this does not mean there is not significant room for adjusting the size of both our budgetary and our geographic military commitments at the margin and indeed past the margin consistent with the general thrust of your point. There is. But the basic point stands.

        Broadly, I’d add, I don’t think the point rides much at all on how we assess the wisdom or execution of the current efforts to counter the self-proclaimed Caliphate. Those can be debated and it can certainly be argued that that fight isn’t consistent with confining our attention to the military’s primary function as you describe it. But regardless, that function will continue to be carried out, and that’s because our commitment is clearly large enough that it can be, with or without peripheral conflicts like that, so long as there aren’t too many at any one time.Report

      • Barry in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Burt, I feel that your comment confuses ‘we should have lots of muscle available’ with Mike’s real complaint, ‘we use that muscle unnecessarily’.Report

      • “In theory our military exists to defend the homeland against foreign invaders however, we all know that role really isn’t necessary.”

        But I actually think you’re right; I think Mike misstated his intended meaning there. I think he meant, “…however, we all know that role really isn’t what our military is primarily used for these days.”Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Burt Likko says:

        At least to hear him tell it, Secretary of State Madeline Albright once criticized Colin Powell, then still in the military, with the famous quip, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” which of course was as obviously asinine then as it is now (and so makes we wonder if then-General Powell was relating the story entirely accurately).

        But this too gets to a point upon which there is consensus from the OP down to these comments: the military itself is not at fault if it is used unwisely. If it makes you feel any better, interpret my comment as an equally obvious caution that just because the military is used unwisely from time to time does not mean that we can do without it.Report

    • Don Zeko in reply to Burt Likko says:

      I don’t disagree with any of this, but it remains the case that the actual ways in which US military power is used today don’t really constitute defending our freedom in any but the most attenuated sense. That’s not to say that they aren’t often doing valuable, worthwhile things, but the best case scenario nowadays has servicemen and servicewomen defending the freedom of assorted other people around the world, or perhaps defending the economic health of the US at best, and at worse has them fighting and dying to not even accomplish that much.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Don Zeko says:

        This goes to the question of who underwrites with force the norm that other countries shouldn’t be attacked without cause (which granted, we’ve done some damage to in attacks that we posit have cause, but fail to attain consensus on the point). If weaker countries do not have stronger countries to defend them, then that norm is underwritten with less force, meaning that in practice the norm is easier to violate. Over time that makes everyone somewhat more likely to be attacked. Which means that instead of having both a strong, observed global norm and a deterrent to protect ourselves, we have a weaker global norm or no global norm, and our deterrent.Report

    • Mike Dwyer in reply to Burt Likko says:


      Perhaps I will write a companion piece entitled, “Mike Dwyer Tries to Re-Invent the Military” where I go into this a lot further, but my position has always been that the National Guard should be in charge of national defense, while the regular military (and reserves) take care of our offensive needs if necessary. So I agree that we need a significant standing army to prevent us from becoming Ukraine, however because we have that army we have felt the need to use it instead of just being Switzerland.Report

    • Patrick in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Ukraine failed to maintain a substantial enough military to deter invasion, and consequently has conceded territory to an expansionist Russia.

      Ukraine made the mistake of assuming that “we give you our share of the USSR nukes means you leave us alone” was a binding contract.Report

    • Slade the Leveller in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Burt, I’m going to disagree with your last statement in the first paragraph. In the first half of the 1930s American troop strength averaged in the neighborhood of 135K. Hardly enough to fend off any determined invasion force. What kept us free from invasion was two things: neighbors with no interest in invasion because, as you say, “we have cultivated excellent diplomatic relations with the only two nations that share borders with us”; and, the presence of 2 very wide oceans on either side of our nation.

      In the 2010s, there are several nations that could pose an existential threat to the United States should they desire to. Those nations are the ones with atomic bombs. Some are our friends, and some are not. The doctrine of MAD prevents them from using them in an offensive capacity, and I’m a firm believer in realism, one of the tenets of which is that states are rational actors. Rationality precludes use of atomic weapons in an offensive capacity.

      The states, and non-states, we are currently engaged with militarily do not, and could not even hope to, pose an existential threat to the United States, other than to cause us to unnecessarily throw away our freedoms in service of protection from the imaginary threat our leaders would have us believe exists.Report

    • Kim in reply to Burt Likko says:

      “excellent diplomatic relations with the only two nations that share borders with us”
      … that include indirectly causing many orphans via the drug war, some of whom come fleeing to America.
      … excellent, indeed.Report

  6. Barry says:

    “On the latter front, according to retired Army major general Robert Scales, “If nine Iraqi brigades with their U.S. advisers can’t do it next year, the clock will keep ticking. And Obama will have two options: Accept an Islamic State “caliphate” that occupies much of Iraq and Syria or add more U.S. forces to the opposition.””

    An Islamic State “caliphate” which is really a guerrilla group running around in areas which the central government doesn’t control. Note that the US goal was to destroy the central government of Syria[1], and in Iraq AFAIK they control a bunch of sparsely populated desert area, which is populated by an ethnic group which hates/is hated by the Iraqi central government.

    It’s a problem (and really, really s*cks for the people living there), but it’s a problem to be managed.

    [1] I’m assuming that I dont’ have to persuade anybody here that the idea of clean ‘decapitations’ of governments happens more in books than in real life.Report

    • Chris in reply to Barry says:

      in Iraq AFAIK they control a bunch of sparsely populated desert area, which is populated by an ethnic group which hates/is hated by the Iraqi central government.

      Except for Mosul and some Baghdad suburbs (though apparently the largest was just retaken by the Iraqi forces with the Shia militias), that’s mostly true in Iraq.

      Calling it a guerrilla group is a mistake as well. It is not a guerilla group. Their tactics so far have been organized, large-scale assaults on fixed positions. They are well organized and well-commaned. However, it appears that they have stretched themselves far too thin with what amounts to a 4-front war (2 in Syria and 2 in Iraq), and to fill their ranks have had to basically throw untrained conscripts and volunteers into combat. They have been getting their asses handed to them by the Kurds in both countries over the last month or so (with the help of coalition air strikes) as a result. However, they’re still likely to end up with most of northern Syria, with no possible way of uprooting them, and it’s going to take a long time to root them out of Iraq with Iraqi forces and Iran-backed militias on one side and Peshmerga on the other (apparently Iraqi forces are preparing a large scale offensive moving out of Bagdad, but the start of that is months away).Report

  7. Michael Cain says:

    First off, I admit that I’m some sort of neo-isolationist, even if I can’t put it into words very well. There may be wars worth fighting, but fundamentally, I believe the day is in sight when the US can no longer afford to be the world’s policeman. Everyone might as well start adjusting to that.

    I have a problem with the OP bringing in the Civil War. By definition, it wasn’t fought against a foreign country — the Union’s position was always that it wasn’t possible for states to secede. Taking slavery as the critical issue, one group of states said slavery is legal, the other group said it was not, and the latter group used the US military to subdue and occupy the former when they attempted to secede. An internal squabble. My own secession fetish is based on a belief that there are issues on the horizon that can lead to a similar situation, but that the politics may well be “oh, let ’em go” this time around.

    WWII is always interesting. Just as a hypothetical, assume that Japan didn’t attack Pearl Harbor, and the US had adopted a “keep it out of the Americas, boys” philosophy. Even if Japan and Germany won, how are they going to successfully invade anywhere in the western hemisphere against the wishes of the US? Destroy, yes, given nuclear weapons. Invade? D-Day worked, but across 25 miles of water not 2,500. The US military estimated the minimum cost to invade Japan, even after its industrial capability had been crushed, would be a million casualties; what’s the cost to invade the North American East Coast? To try to stage across Iceland and Greenland, or through Alaska, into Canada? Seize and hold Panama in order to isolate the US from South America, with supply lines running >4,000 miles?Report

    • North in reply to Michael Cain says:

      Mostly true, though the the US could easily have lost Hawaii.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to North says:

        We could have lost our colony to another colonizer…oh, gee, how dreadful. 😉

        (Not that I have anything against Hawai’i, just colonization.)Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to North says:

        Sometimes the best deal you can get is to choose whose colony you’re going to be.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to North says:

        “Mostly true, though the the US could easily have lost Hawaii.”

        Probably not. The main islands relative isolation from anything (2k nm to the American continent, but nearly twice that to the closest permanently inhabitable land to the west) made it the first defensible position from any Japanese advance.

        The Western Aleutians would have probably gone though. And of course, Guam would have been written off. (as well as the PI, but that was on the path for independence at the time)Report

      • Dan Miller in reply to North says:

        @james-hanley Granted that the U.S. wasn’t the most benevolent of colonial overlords, in my understanding we were way better than WWII-era Japan. So keeping them out of additional territory is a Good Thing.Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to North says:

        James – While the Imperial Japanese forces were horrible towards China, apparently in other places (e.g., Indonesia) opinions among the local population were more varied as to whether they were better or worse than the European colonizers (or at least, whether they had a better chance of winning their independence from the Japanese than from the Dutch).Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to North says:

        The Japanese soldiers were also brutal in the Philippines, and their wartime behavior in Korea was even worse than it had been in the previous thirty-odd years of occupation.Report

      • NobAkimoto in reply to North says:

        ….instead the US lost Hawai’i in the 80s and 90s.

        It’s the only state in the union where, to my knowledge, you can spend yen at high end boutiques.Report

      • Kim in reply to North says:

        Japan’s still offering to buy Hawaii, isn’t it?Report

  8. notme says:


    If you are going to thank veterans for their service fine but why not just stop there instead of ruining it with the rest of this post?Report

  9. Stillwater says:

    Mike, I’m with ya on this. I see those Regularly Scheduled Thank The Military spots on sporting events all the time and I actually change the channel. Aint working for me. Military service might be laudatory in certain contexts, but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna praise folks for going to Afg or Iraq or drones to Pakistan! to kill brown people because it’s a worthy goal.

    I will cut some slack to veterans of the Great Wars and Korea. Even Vietnam. Folks were only beginning to catch up at that point. Now we know better.Report

  10. KatherineMW says:

    This is why I prefer Remembrance Day, which we have in the Commonwealth countries. Even when the ceremonies try to focus it on being thankful for soldiers preserving our freedoms, I regard it more as a day of mourning for all those lost, soldiers and civilians both.

    My church has buttons reading “To Remember is to Work for Peace”, which I wear in lieu of the poppy.

    Even if it wasn’t intended in this way, I read the line of “In Flanders Fields” stating “If ye break faith with those who die, we shall not rest, though poppies bow in Flanders Fields” as saying “if you get yourself involved in another damfool war like this one, we’re going to come back and haunt you”.Report

  11. Even if one doesn’t agree with Mike Dwyer’s non-interventionism (and by the way, I largely do agree with it and with his OP), there seems to be something rather….cloying about going up to someone who’s served and saying, “I thank you for your service.” Maybe it wouldn’t be cloying, or as cloying, to say it in the context of a parade or in a Facebook blast, but there’s something that just doesn’t seem right about going up to a veteran and saying it unprompted.

    That said, I’ve met at least one veteran, who served in Vietnam, who said that he got angry because usually didn’t get a “thank you” come Veterans Day.Report

  12. Damon says:

    They don’t call Afghanistan “the graveyard of empires” for nothing. I think we can add Iraq to it as well….and Libya. Christ, we’ve destabilized an entire region, fertilized the growth of radicals who now have even more reasons to attack us-and given them targets closer than an ocean away. To add to it, we’ve pissed a few trillion dollars down the hole, sent our troops through the grinder, (Remember all that “stop loss” a while back?) created a major medical burden for the gov’t now to take care of all these wounded vets-even more so than the VA already had, and used up a lot of military resources.

    And what..what have we gotten in exchange for that? Peace in the world? A more stable region? A better economy? ANYTHING?

    You know what Veterans Day means to me? It’s a day I specifically remember all the shitty actions our gov’t has done to our vets who put their asses on the line: crappy medical treatment, crappy administration, denying them coverage, etc. It reminds me that old men send you men off to die because of politics, not to defend the homeland. It reminds me that no one saying “send the troops” will ever see a member of their family killed in some god forsaken part of the globe. It reminds me of the young men who said “I do”, foolishly thinking they were signing up to “protect” America, not implement foreign policy or to line the pockets of others.Report

  13. notme says:


    Do you really think we invaded Afghanistan just for grins? The Taliban refused to hand OBL over. If they had turned OBL over they’d probably still be in power today.Report

    • Mike Dwyer in reply to notme says:


      The invasion of Afghanistan wasn’t the problem. The problem was involving the Taliban in the action. If we wanted OBL, why ask permission? That’s why we have the Special Forces. The Taliban had no ability to prevent us from operating in their country in a search for OBL. We could have dropped our people into that area and done what needed to be done, however we instead decided to run them out of power and then were forced to spend the next 13 years (and counting) trying to make their country peaceful.Report