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A veteran's view -- smart power strategy only way to prevent next war

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A Soldier on flag detail prepares to fold Old Glory. (U.S. Army/Sgt. John Carkeet IV)

As Veterans Day approaches, I naturally look back on the years I spent serving my country as a Marine officer. 

One particularly vivid memory I have is standing in an unused sentry position overlooking the Afghan desert and calling my parents on a satellite telephone.

I was calling to tell them I loved them without letting on that they had anything to worry about. 

I was saying goodbye, because the next morning I planned to lead an operation against a 15-year-old suicide bomber targeting my men. This young Pakistani boy was “educated” by religious extremists, deprived of hope for a better life, and then sent to Afghanistan to die in the worst way possible.

The threats we face today are increasingly incubated in weak and failing states, where famine, poverty, and desperation fuel extremism.

The story of the young suicide bomber is not unique, but rather is representative of the changing nature of conflict. Innovative solutions to combat these new threats and protect our nation must fully integrate the civilian agencies and organizations serving alongside our military.

For while it is our fighting men and women who win the battles in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, it is our diplomats and development experts who will secure or forfeit those hard-won victories. 

Former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates stated this truth bluntly, “We cannot kill or capture our way to victory.”

This foreign policy approach of cohesively employing all tools of national security to complete the mission is known as smart power. Given the magnitude of the challenges we face, it is the only approach that makes any semblance of sense. 

Smart power is exemplified by Anne Smedinghoff, a young Foreign Service Officer killed earlier this year while bringing textbooks to a boys’ school in southern Afghanistan. Like the men of my platoon, she was working to root out terrorism. Anne was using books, however, not bullets.

The efforts of Anne and her colleagues have an outsized impact on the community and the next generation of Afghan children. Their efforts are powerful symbols of American good will, contribute to the hope for a better future, and stand as an alternative to the darkness and hatred our enemies espouse.

Smart Power is the new face of national security in the 21st century. As we all well know, our enemies are no longer exclusively nation states. Instead, the threats we face today are increasingly incubated in weak and failing states, where famine, poverty, and desperation fuel extremism.

Our military, with surprising agility and with generous resourcing, completely transformed itself to effectively confront these threats in Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond. Our civilian agencies must be encouraged and resourced to embrace a similar transformation.

Our development and diplomatic operations account for a mere one percent of the federal budget, far short of the 25 percent many assume. It’s a strategic investment in our national security and, as those of us who have served know, it’s a down payment on preventing future wars.

The legendary Marine Corps general and former Commander of Central Command, James "Mad Dog" Mattis, said it best when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee last March, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I’m going to need to buy more ammunition.”

Using diplomacy and aid to promote and secure peace is a cornerstone of our American story.

My grandparents’ generation rebuilt Europe in the wake of World War II through the Marshall Plan. European countries were able to overcome severe instability and near-starvation because we, as a nation, took it upon ourselves to invest in their future and our own.

A generation later, communism was defeated, because America proved through defense, diplomacy and development that it was still a force for hope, moral strength and a better way of life. 

Veterans Day provides an opportunity to recognize all those, like Anne, who fought to keep us safe whether they wore a uniform or not. When it was officially recognized as a federal holiday in 1938, Veterans Day was envisioned to be “a day dedicated to the cause of world peace.”

Today, as we celebrate the men and women who have bravely served this country, let’s also remember that standing behind our development and diplomacy programs helps us avoid sending our brothers and sisters into harm’s way in the first place.

Peter Dixon is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps, serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  He is a member of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition’s Veterans for Smart Power.