Once again, we are we seeing Americans being airlifted to safety amidst chaos and defeat, abandoning many of those who helped us. There will be much finger-pointing and political posturing about who is to blame. We can have those conversations. But the question no one is discussing is why for decades successive administrations of both parties continue to involve us in wars that not only we don’t win, but that for years we keep on fighting even when we know we can’t win and our objectives in those wars are confusing and malleable. If you look back over the history of our war in Afghanistan, it was clear as early as 2002 that we didn’t fully understand what we were doing there anymore or how to go about doing it. Yet we remained for nearly 20 more bloody years.
Why do we keep doing this? How can we stop?
We get into these wars on the recommendations of presidents who are influenced by their staffs, most of whom are selected by the president and share the president’s viewpoint. These come after we are already involved militarily. Before the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, Green Berets were advising the South Vietnamese armed forces, our Air Force was bombing North Vietnamese supply routes in Laos, and our Navy was supporting South Vietnamese raids against the North Vietnamese coastline. Before the October 2002 authorization of the use of force (AUF) in Iraq, we were operating a “no fly zone,” and had military bases in several neighboring countries, a clear signal we were prepared to use military force if Saddam Hussein didn’t behave. A decade before the October 2001 AUF in Afghanistan the CIA had been helping the Taliban fight the Russians and we had supplied them with sophisticated weapons. One month before that resolution, President Bush was openly talking about “the war on terror.” What debates there were over these AUFs were largely full of jingoism and rah-rah warrior language, the last thing we want when committing our young to their possible deaths.
Most Americans don’t seem to care about any of this until, after a series of escalations, the national pain crosses some hard to define threshold and the American people want out. The policy makers usually do not want out. Their reasons range from genuine belief in the war’s objectives to self-serving fear of being blamed for failure and the ensuing damage to their political or bureaucratic careers.
We often hear about fighting to defend “American interests.” There are a host of American interests ranging from protecting American citizens abroad to protecting American trade and markets. If we’re being honest most U.S. foreign policy focuses on the latter. There is nothing wrong with this. They are American interests. They are just not worth killing and dying over, ever. Yes, we need to defend American interests, but with the powerful tools of the Departments of State, Justice, Commerce, the Treasury, and the intelligence services, not those of the Department of Defense. Yes, we need to hunt down terrorists, but terrorists are not trying to destroy the foundation of American democracy; they are generally using terror to try to change U.S. foreign policy by killing innocent people with highly symbolic attacks against such targets as the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and the satiric newspaper Charlie Hebdo, or by making us afraid to use airplanes. These are criminal acts. They are not attempts to overthrow our government. They do not threaten our values; they threaten our lives. By giving terrorists, as we have proclaimed for 20 years, the status of being involved in a “war” against the U.S., we give them the prestige of “warriors,” which aids their recruiting and propaganda efforts and builds their morale. Moreover, holding them for years as “prisoners of war” without trial is a direct violation of American values and our hypocrisy helps fuel their recruiting.
Instead, we need to rethink our entire approach to the so called “war on terrorism.” Terrorists commit criminal acts which should primarily be in the province of international courts and police, such as Interpol, the FBI, and the French Gendarmerie Nationale. These organizations can be greatly aided by organizations such as British MI6, the American CIA, and the French DGSE. Only rarely should they be aided by the judicious use of special military units, such as the SEALS, who are trained and designed to strike and get out.
Unleashing the awesome and massive power of the American military should only be done to defend against threats to our democracy and the values and hard-won rights of its citizens. Since World War Two, we have repeatedly used this power unwisely, resulting in a humiliating cycle of wasted lives and money.
But there are a wide range of ways to stop this. One way is getting more combat veterans, who have personally experienced war’s horrible costs, involved in decision-making, reigning in the corruptive elements of the military-industrial complex, and weeding out people whose careers are more important than what’s good for the country. But the best and overriding means of ending this cycle, however, is to get back in touch with what ultimately is worth fighting for. In Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq we sacrificed our young and spent massive amounts of money fighting to build nations that look and think like we do, a. goal that most Americans don’t really care about, especially when they don’t face getting drafted. In those wars there was no direct threat to Americans that our fundamental values would be taken from us. The reason we lose these wars is that our opponents are fighting for something they care about very much indeed.
These rights and values are broadly defined and open to interpretation. There is no hard line about when these rights and values are jeopardized enough to go to war. That is why our founders required that the Congress declare war, not the President, so that Congress can debate and discuss our choices. At best, in our current political balance, just over half of the American electorate has voted for a President and the policy debate about using military force takes place among people who work for and are chosen by the President. The Congress is a broad representation of the American people and therefore has a much better chance of expressing in open debate the wide range of opinion about what is at stake and how scared we should be about it. The debate should range over numerous interpretations and judgements, but then there is a vote. The result of the vote is an unambiguous hard line. What follows then is the strongest military organization in the world doing its Constitutional duty to fight or not fight and members of Congress having to go back to their states and districts to justify and defend their vote in open debate before their electorate. Politicians have sensitive antenna about voter opinion. If the American people decide they want out of a war, the Congress has far more incentive to do so than the Executive. Members of the House face a vote every two years. The President only faces a vote if the decision came in the first half of a two-term presidency.
The rights and values that I really care about, and I think I’m with a vast majority of Americans, are those clearly articulated in our nation’s founding documents.
I will fight if someone tries to take away from me and those I love the rule of law, trial by jury, the writ of habeas corpus, and a government with nobody above the law. I will fight to preserve government of the people, by the people, and for the people. I will fight to defend the self-evident truths that all people are created equal and have an unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of individual fulfillment. I will fight to protect those I love from violence. And I will fight to preserve a constitution that has wisely established a balance of power between the three branches government, which we are in danger of losing not from external threat, but from dereliction of duty.
We have sent our young to fight espousing these values, but we send them off to countries most Americans couldn’t locate on a map, and few really care about. Worse, too many people in power in those countries don’t really care about these values either, other than to mouth the rhetoric of American democracy to secure massive amounts of money and materiel, which in turn fuels massive amounts of corruption, both political and societal. In Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan we found ourselves involved in civil wars where the opposing sides were battling for power and control, not American values. In Vietnam we sided with a corrupt post-colonial government dominated by minority Catholics in a majority Buddhist nation. The South Vietnamese government was seen by the North Vietnamese government, not incorrectly, as stooges of the U.S. We saw the North Vietnamese government, not incorrectly, as a totalitarian police state that ruled its people by terror.
In Iraq we deposed a dictator who led a totalitarian police state ruling by terror who headed a minority Sunni Muslim government in a majority Shiite country. We put the Shiites in power by stripping the Sunnis of theirs and immediately were caught up in a civil war between the now deposed Sunnis fighting the American-blessed Shiites. In Afghanistan we kicked out the Taliban because we said, not incorrectly, that they were harboring al-Qaeda who had seriously hurt our people and were also horrible and repressive. However, instead of staying focused on eliminating al-Qaida and their leader, Osama bin Laden, we replaced the Taliban government with one riven with corruption and we also exacerbated tension between rival tribes and warlords. We then found ourselves in the middle of yet another civil war when the Taliban returned to fight against the new government.
We often hear the old shibboleth that “we’re fighting them abroad, so we won’t have to fight them at home.” That comes from a time when the only means of projecting power through violence was to invade someone else’s country.
The last nation that could have credibly invaded our own shores was Japan at the peak of its naval power in 1941 and they wouldn’t have gotten off the West Coast. The Taliban and the NVA were never capable of storming the beaches at Santa Monica. Sending in our ground forces to “fight them on foreign soil so we won’t have to fight them on our own” is a specious argument.
What threatens America today are nations with long-range missiles that can be launched intercontinentally from bases deep within their own territory or from submarines. We face cyber-attacks. We face possible chemical weapons attacks. We do not face invasion by China, Russia or North Korea. We are way better and far more experienced in amphibious warfare than any of these nations, and we would fail if we tried to invade them.
Sending in military forces to establish lasting governments in our own image has been demonstrated as a bad idea three times now. Democracy can’t be exported. It has to be home grown over a long time. Those ideals expressed in our founding documents didn’t just arrive in America full-blown in 1776; they developed over centuries in England and Western Europe through the sacrifices of brave men and women who suffered terrible torture, were burned alive, and spent decades in filthy prisons to establish them. The U.S. endured one of the bloodiest civil wars in history to affirm them. And even today in the U.S. we’re still fighting and debating how to uphold these sacred values. Telling nineteen-year-old Marines or paratroopers that they were fighting and losing friends in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan to protect American democracy and American values was seen as bullshit. It is.
“Protecting American democracy” must be a truthful statement, or it will not sustain the morale of those doing the fighting nor the will of the American people to endure the pain of war no matter what the cost and how long the war takes.
The last time Congress declared war was June 4, 1942, when we declared war against Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria, then allies of Nazi Germany. American presidents have gone to war ever since then without Congress fulfilling its Constitutional responsibility. True, Congress has passed authorizations for the use of force. These, however, fall far short of a declaration of war, primarily because of the symbolism of a declaration of war. They also land the decision – and the blame for possible failure—squarely with the Presidency. Authorizing someone else to take responsibility for a decision is very different from taking responsibility yourself.
However imperfect, an openly debated Declaration of War focused on a threat to our fundamental values is one of our best safeguards against repeating the mistakes we made in Vietnam and then repeated in Iraq and now in Afghanistan. We will continue to repeat those mistakes unless we have open, vigorous, and continuing debates about what we are fighting for and why it matters.
More Must-Reads From TIME
- Inside the White House Program to Share America's Secrets
- Meet the 2024 Women of the Year
- East Palestine, One Year After Train Derailment
- The Closers: 18 People Working to End the Racial Wealth Gap
- Long COVID Doesn’t Always Look Like You Think It Does
- Column: The New Antisemitism
- The 13 Best New Books to Read in March
- Want Weekly Recs on What to Watch, Read, and More? Sign Up for Worth Your Time