Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Distrust in war saps a nation’s spirit |

Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Distrust in war saps a nation’s spirit

Jack R. Van Ens
Vail, CO, Colorado

Trust is a vital dynamic in raising a healthy republic, declared Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

It acts like sinews tying together important muscles in the body politic. If trust is lacking, our government is weakened. Citizens and politicians don’t have to agree on policy for our nation to endure. But when they distrust government, the republic totters.

Trust in government is comparable to camaraderie friends share.

We feel stronger when this key person is around. We confide without measuring our speech and share silences without discomfort. We don’t have to prove a friend’s loyalty; it’s experienced. When relationships are injured, whether in war or on a personal level, trust wavers.

Two hundred years separate the War of 1812 from today’s exhausting conflict in Afghan-istan. Yet both wars got caught in an undertow of mistakes, resulting in a riptide of distrust between supposed allies.

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James Madison, who served as president during the War of 1812, learned hard lessons about combat. He believed American power would prevail against the British because the redcoats were stretched thin in military engagements across the globe.

Madison turned a blind eye to the fact that to begin a war is easy but to end it is hard. Sending troops into battle is the simple part. Extricating them from conflict often sinks a nation.

Madison’s generals were a sad collection of over-the-hill Revolutionary War military leaders and new soldiers not yet battle-hardened. Trust broke down between state militias and the small standing national army.

Presidents Madison and Jefferson scaled down the army because they didn’t want to grow Washington’s budget.

Both presidents predicted that when the U.S. came under attack, patriotic Americans would enlist in the national army to beat back the enemy.

But arguments against increasing the national army’s size proved too convincing. America’s farmers distrusted big government’s enlarged army. Many stayed home or half-heartedly joined ranks of state militias.

Madison declared war in 1812 to assert U.S. military strength against Britain and France, who had bullied our country since the Revolutionary War had concluded.

The United States won several significant naval battles. But the land war went badly.

British forces torched the Capitol and left the President’s House in flames. Later, restorers covered sooty walls with whitewash, and the home was referred to as the White House.

The War of 1812 drained national spirit. Finally, to save face, Madison parlayed a peace pact.

Historian Richard Brookheiser, in his recent biography of our fourth president, describes how Madison snatched victory from defeat’s jaws. “The War of 1812 was a war of national self-assertion – a second war of independence. In such contests, the underdog has bragging right. By not losing, America had won. Tacitus (Roman historian, A.D. 55-120) had one of his barbarians say of the conquering Romans: ‘They made a desert and called it peace.’ Madison made a peace and called it victory, and the nation was so giddy from a combination of relief and pride that no one disputed him.”

What happens when we forget to count the cost when forging friendships or fighting wars? Trust breaks down. Friendships splinter. Such wars suck dry patriotic spirit.

Before going to war, savvy leaders take seriously Jesus’ teaching: “What king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends an emissary and asks for terms of peace” (Luke 14:31-32).

Today, our nation’s spirit is spent, just as at the War of 1812’s conclusion. Madison lost the confidence of citizens who didn’t want to grow a large federal army.

Victory in Afghanistan remains elusive because the Afghan people distrust their allies — U.S. troops.

President Hamid Karzai, reeling from a crisis of confidence toward Uncle Sam, demands that our troops pack their bags from village outposts. He’s ordered U.S. forces back to their military bases, which would cripple the joint strategy of pacifying villagers who have sided with the Taliban.

Is it possible to scrape off layers of encrusted suspicion in joint Afghan-U.S. military operations? Trust fractured when a U.S. soldier wandered off base in Kandahar and massacred 17 civilians, mostly women and children.

This horrendous crime follows flare-ups that have shattered confidence between supposed allies: A top Afghan peace negotiator was murdered, some Marines urinated on Taliban corpses, and others burned sacred Koran texts that terrorist prisoners had used to pass secret messages.

Some Americans seemed oblivious to the fact that Muslims believe the Koran is the very word of Allah.

To dispose in the garbage dog-eared copies of the Koran is regarded as supreme sacrilege. Anti-American riots erupted after this religious taboo was shattered, resulting in two U.S. officers being killed by an Afghan policeman.

It’s hard enough to wage battle when allies don’t trust, let alone win a war. Borrowing a phrase made famous by culturally naive warriors in the George W. Bush administration, Commander in Chief Barack Obama called the war a “hard slog.”

It’s hard because trust between allies doesn’t exist. When distrust prevails, the enemy wins.

The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (, which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.

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