You can’t win wars that should never have been fought. The U.S. should never have fought the Iraq and Afghan wars, nor should we have fought the Vietnam War.
It’s not that we need to know and master the foreign enemy. We need to know and master the enemy within. The domestic enemy. For the US is defeating only itself in fighting these wars. Yet “experts” in the military and government focus on how to prosecute war more effectively; rarely do they think seriously about ending or, even better, avoiding wars.
Part of this is cultural. Americans are obsessed with the idea of winning, defined in terms of dominance, specifically military/physical dominance, taking the fight to the enemy and never backing down. The best defense is a good offense, as they say in the NFL. Winning is the only thing, as Vince Lombardi said. While those maxims may apply to football, they don’t apply to wars that should never have been fought.
Turning from football to tunnels, how about that image made popular during the Vietnam War that “We can see the light at the end of the tunnel”? Victory, in other words, is in sight and can be reached if we “stay the course” until the tunnel’s end. Few ask why we’re in the tunnel to begin with. Why not just avoid the tunnel (of Vietnam, of Iraq, of Afghanistan) and bask in the light of liberty here in the USA? Indeed, why not brighten liberty’s torch so that others can see and enjoy it? But instead US military forces are forever plunging into foreign tunnels, groping in the dark for the elusive light of victory, a light that ultimately is illusory.
Another point is that the Pentagon is often not about winning wars without; it’s about winning wars within, specifically budgetary wars. Here the Pentagon has been amazingly successful, especially in the aftermath of the Cold War, which should have generated a major reduction in US military spending (and overseas military deployments). The other “war” the Pentagon has won is the struggle for cultural authority/hegemony in the USA. Here again, the Pentagon has won this war, as represented by presidents from Bush to Obama to Trump boasting of the 4F military (the finest fighting force since forever), and as represented by the fact that the military remains the most trusted governmental institution in America. Indeed, most Americans don’t even think of “our” military as being part of the federal government. They think of it as something special, even as they profess to distrust Congress and hate “big government.” Yet nothing screams “big” like our steroidal federal military, and few entities are more wasteful.
My point is that many military commentators and critics frame the problem wrongly. It’s not about reforming the US military so that it can win wars. Americans must reform our culture and our government so that we can avoid wars, even as we end the ones we’re in. For constant warfare is the enemy of democracy and the scourge of freedom.
A final point about winning that’s rarely acknowledged: America’s wars overseas are not all about us. Winning (whatever that might mean) should be unconscionable when it comes at the price of hundreds of thousands of dead, millions of refugees, and regions blasted and destabilized.
In sum, ending wars is winning them.
William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools and blogs at Bracing Views. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.