War Department vs. Defense Department: Words Matter

By | May 29, 2019 | 2 Comments

           War Office

Army Dept

The upper image is the old seal of the War Department, in use since the United States was founded. The lower image is the current seal of the Department of the Army, which was established in 1947 when the services were unified under a Secretary of Defense.

Until then, we had a separate secretary of War and a secretary of the Navy, with only the president and his staff to coordinate the two. Surely it makes sense to have a secretary of Defense over the entire military establishment, supervising sub-cabinet secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force. But whether something makes sense, and whether it actually works in practice, may be two different things entirely.

In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there is. − Jan L. A. van de Snepscheut

The current departmental seal bears the words “Department of the Army.” Oddly enough, the words “United States of America” were on the top of the old seal, but were moved to the bottom of the new seal. I wonder who made that decision.

However, the old seal with the words “War Office” was used for years after 1947 – probably until supplies of the old forms were used up. My Army Reserve commission dated 1962 carries the old seal with the words “War Office.” I have a clear recollection of receiving the commission, then reading these words and feeling a deep sense of obligation. It is impossible to overstate the gravity of the word “war.”

This brings up two questions: (1) When we had a War Department rather than a Defense Department, we were better at winning wars? (2) If we call things by their proper names, are we more likely to think clearly and hence to accomplish our goals?

These questions are especially relevant today. If we call upon Americans to risk life and limb, the very least we owe them is to define the mission clearly, then to give them everything they need to achieve it, and take care of them afterward.

Can you imagine our most successful generals – from George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant to John J. Pershing to Dwight D. Eisenhower – talking about “a sensitive war,” or “a light footprint,” or “overseas contingency operations”? Can you imagine them refusing to name our enemies, but instead referring to our enemies by the generic term “violent extremists”? Can you imagine them trying to rally their troops to defeat our enemies, but then being afraid even to name those enemies? You can’t imagine it? My point exactly. But President Obama was fond of using those expressions.

Admiral Hyman Rickover, the “father” of the nuclear submarine, wisely observed:

It is necessary for us to learn from others’ mistakes. You will not live long enough to make them all yourself.

So what can we learn from the past? Can we learn anything? We can’t if we are juvenile narcissists, who ignore anything that happened before we were born. We can’t if we are raging egotists, who believe we are more intelligent than anyone who ever lived. I leave it to you to decide whether these descriptions apply to former President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Suffice it to observe that neither of these dignitaries quotes their illustrious predecessors or displays any desire to emulate them.

We can learn from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who used his first inaugural address to reassure Americans that “…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself…” But President Barack H. Obama did not bother to learn that lesson. Instead of reassuring the people, he did the opposite and warned of dire consequences if we did not enact his big-government programs.

We can learn from President Harry Truman, who was the last president not to be a university graduate. But he was a lifelong student of American history. When he was faced with a problem, he would recall what one of his predecessors had done in a similar situation. He spoke plainly, but he spoke the truth as he saw it. He didn’t need a law degree from Harvard to do that. In fact, one could argue that the exact opposite was the case.

We can learn from Presidents Ronald W. Reagan and George W. Bush. Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” and Bush referred to nations that sponsored terrorism as an “axis of evil.” Like Harry Truman, they weren’t afraid to speak the truth as they saw it.

Yes, Reagan and Bush were severely castigated for using such terms. It wasn’t just that critics disagreed with their assessments of the nations concerned. It was that critics disagreed with the concept of evil itself. To the liberal critics, the communists couldn’t be evil. The extremist Muslims couldn’t be evil. But Reagan and Bush could be evil. They were conservatives, weren’t they? To many liberals, conservatism is evil – in fact, the only evil. Liberals boast that they are “non-judgmental,” because they refuse to judge communist dictators or Islamist fanatics. But they feel free to judge conservatives, as harshly as possible.

We used to be able to speak plainly. We used to be able to see clearly. When we had a War Department, we came through the most terrible wars in all history – and we and our allies won. Then we changed to a Department of Defense. We had Korea, which was a stalemate. We had Vietnam, which was a military stalemate but a political defeat. We had the first Gulf War, which was a victory, but only by a narrow definition. And we had – and still have – Afghanistan and Iraq. After 18 years, “victory” does not seem to be the word to describe either one, at least not without several modifying adjectives that severely degrade the significance of the term.

Could all this be a coincidence? Surely the world is much more complex than it was in the past. Or is it? Is the world more complex, or have we become incapable of seeing through the complexity and perceiving the underlying truths?

At least it is worth considering that so long as we – and our British allies – had a War Department, we knew how to fight and win wars. But now that we have a Department of Defense, we tend to think defensively, that is, passively. We plan how to react to possible threats. But we do not plan how to defeat possible enemies. For example, under President Obama, we attempted merely to “contain” or “degrade” ISIS, but not to destroy it. President Trump has different ideas. In fact, he has a different world-view.

We didn’t “contain” or “degrade” Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. We killed as many of the enemy as possible, and destroyed as much of their infrastructure as possible, until we had utterly broken their power to threaten their neighbors. That’s what war is. That’s what War Departments do.

Perhaps, just possibly, we should reconsider how that change in terminology may have caused an undesirable change in our thinking, a change that endangers our survival as a free nation.


I have seen much war in my life, and I detest it profoundly. But there are worse things than war, and they all come with defeat. − Ernest Hemingway

History does not long entrust the care of freedom to the weak or the timid. − Dwight D. Eisenhower

Contact: dstol@prodigy.net. You are welcome to publish or post these articles, provided that you cite the author and website.

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