The Last Surrender: What The US Should Learn From The End Of World War II

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In a photo by Ed Westcott, residents of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, fill Jackson Square to celebrate the surrender of Japan in 1945.
Photo by Ed Westcott

In July 1945, President Harry S. Truman issued the Potsdam Declaration, after nearly four years of bloody war with Imperial Japan. "We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces. …The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction." The Japanese government did not respond, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were set in motion.


The fearsome spectacle of whole cities being obliterated by single bombs, coupled with the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, finally drove a Japan, notorious for its aversion to surrender, to the negotiating table. The Japanese government formally surrendered on Sept. 2 (now known as Victory over Japan Day) onboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. This not only signaled the end of World War II, but an end to the era of formal declared war fought until official capitulation by one side or the other. Since then, the U.S. military has been swimming in much murkier waters.

Following its sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and Western targets across the Pacific, President Franklin Roosevelt officially declared war on Japan on Dec. 7, 1941. This was followed by declarations of war against Germany and Italy on Dec. 11, and a final declaration against Bulgaria on June 4, 1942. The declaration against Bulgaria was the United States’ last leading up to the present day.

Since then, war and the enemies we face have changed. Increasingly, they have become open-ended operations against non-state or quasi-state actors, with no declarations of war or surrender, with none of the legal niceties under international law.

The Korean War was referred to as a “police action” by Truman, under the auspices of the United Nations. Never mind that it was very much a conventional war, with armies of hundreds of thousands of troops from North and South Korea, the United States, and China --- the largest actors involved --- with 25 others in supporting roles. Nearly five million died, mostly civilians.

Technically, the war has never ended, even though the Korean Armistice Agreement has been in place since 1953.

Vietnam was no different. What started as 3,000 military advisors attached to South Vietnam by President John Kennedy turned into 549,500 troops engaged in large-scale combat operations by 1969. Much of the war effort was focused on chasing down North Vietnamese-backed Viet Cong guerrillas across South Vietnam, with the line between civilian and soldier becoming increasingly blurred. No war was ever declared, and it ended with a panicked evacuation of Saigon in 1975 as the North Vietnamese army bore down on the capital.

Following the disaster of Vietnam, the United States was understandably reluctant to get involved in another open-ended war, but the military was not idle. U.S. operations in Grenada, Libya, and Panama all involved a limited numbers of soldiers with short-term objectives quickly met. The deployment in Beirut, Lebanon, aimed towards “peace-keeping,” ended less than sanguinely. Compared to Operation Blue Bat in 1958, it was a fiasco that ended with the death of 220 Marines, 18 sailors, and three soldiers in the Marine barracks bombing. During none of these events was war declared.

Even the first Gulf War, almost a model for decisive military action with few casualties, at least on the U.S. side, stretched into almost a decade of no-fly zones, economic sanctions, and constant low-level conflict. Many saw it as a job left unfinished, including most fatefully George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld. The 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation left deep scars in the American appetite for intervention, even as we move towards yet another phase of conflict in Iraq following the rise of the Islamic State.

Finally, we are left with the only conflict zone where a large numbers of U.S. troops is still present: Afghanistan. Following the 9/11 attacks, massive retaliation was not only inevitable, but accepted by most of the international community. But in the nearly 13 years since, the United States has been stuck in a mess of nation building and Islamic insurgency that threatens all the sacrifices made region notoriously known as the Graveyard of Empires.

The rise of Islamic extremism may not be lacking in state actors. Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Qatar have all been accused of fanning the flames of a movement that has gotten the United States involved from Somalia to the Philippines, with mixed results. But we are entering a world that makes official declarations of war and peace seem quaint, driven by ethnic tensions and religious fanaticism.

The United States is no stranger to this, as the Barbary pirates, the Banana Wars, and the interventions against Libya and the Islamic State will attest, but we have to quit fooling ourselves that the old rules of war apply anymore.

Thirteen Marines have been formally charged for their alleged roles in a human smuggling ring, according to a press release from 1st Marine Division released on Friday.

The Marines face military court proceedings on various charges, from "alleged transporting and/or conspiring to transport undocumented immigrants" to larceny, perjury, distribution of drugs, and failure to obey an order. "They remain innocent until proven guilty," said spokeswoman Maj. Kendra Motz.

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Arizona Army National Guard soldiers with the 160th and 159th Financial Management Support Detachments qualify with the M249 squad automatic weapon at the Florence Military Reservation firing range on March 8, 2019. (U.S. Army/Spc. Laura Bauer)

The recruiting commercials for the Army Reserve proclaim "one weekend each month," but the real-life Army Reserve might as well say "hold my beer."

That's because the weekend "recruiting hook" — as it's called in a leaked document compiled by Army personnel for the new chief of staff — reveal that it's, well, kinda bullshit.

When they're not activated or deployed, most reservists and guardsmen spend one weekend a month on duty and two weeks a year training, according to the Army recruiting website. But that claim doesn't seem to square with reality.

"The Army Reserve is cashing in on uncompensated sacrifices of its Soldiers on a scale that must be in the tens of millions of dollars, and that is a violation of trust, stewardship, and the Army Values," one Army Reserve lieutenant colonel, who also complained that his battalion commander "demanded" that he be available at all times, told members of an Army Transition Team earlier this year.

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According to an internal Army document, soldiers feel that the service's overwhelming focus on readiness is wearing down the force, and leading some unit leaders to fudge the truth on their unit's readiness.

"Soldiers in all three Army Components assess themselves and their unit as less ready to perform their wartime mission, despite an increased focus on readiness," reads the document, which was put together by the Army Transition Team for new Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville and obtained by Task & Purpose. "The drive to attain the highest levels of readiness has led some unit leaders to inaccurately report readiness."

Lt. Gen. Eric J. Wesley, who served as the director of the transition team, said in the document's opening that though the surveys conducted are not scientific, the feedback "is honest and emblematic of the force as a whole taken from seven installations and over 400 respondents."

Those surveyed were asked to weigh in on four questions — one of which being what the Army isn't doing right. One of the themes that emerged from the answers is that "[r]eadiness demands are breaking the force."

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If you've paid even the slightest bit of attention in the last few years, you know that the Pentagon has been zeroing in on the threat that China and Russia pose, and the future battles it anticipates.

The Army has followed suit, pushing to modernize its force to be ready for whatever comes its way. As part of its modernization, the Army adopted the Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) concept, which serves as the Army's main war-fighting doctrine and lays the groundwork for how the force will fight near-peer threats like Russia and China across land, air, sea, cyber, and space.

But in an internal document obtained by Task & Purpose, the Army Transition Team for the new Chief of Staff, Gen. James McConville, argues that China poses a more immediate threat than Russia, so the Army needs make the Asia-Pacific region its priority while deploying "minimal current conventional forces" in Europe to deter Russia.

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As the saying goes, you recruit the soldier, but you retain the family.

And according to internal documents obtained by Task & Purpose, the Army still has substantial work to do in addressing families' concerns.

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