When we start a war, it’s called a crusade; When we stop, it’s called a mistake
By Herbert Rothschild
An acquaintance sent me one of those lists of amusing statements that circulate on the web. One of them read, “If you’re worried that you’re not accomplishing much, remember that it took four presidents, 20 years, thousands of lives and trillions of dollars to replace the Taliban with the Taliban.” That statement stood out for me, not because it’s amusing but because it’s tragic.
Adding to its tragic affect was knowing that, with a little tweaking, the same sentence could describe our military intervention in Vietnam. That earlier war of choice also took four presidents (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon), 20 years (1954 to 1974), and trillions of dollars to confirm the union of Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh’s leadership, the very outcome Eisenhower tried to prevent by aborting the national referendum stipulated in the 1954 Paris Accords. The primary difference between the two wars is the number of lives lost—greater on the American side and much greater on the Vietnamese, although the desperate plight in which we left the Afghan populace, which our news media no longer feel obliged to notice, may even up the latter tally.
For 40 years, then—almost half my life—administration after administration has chosen to wage wars from which no one benefited except weapons makers and military contractors. One would think that such leadership would be deemed an abject failure and repudiated by the political opposition and the general public. That hasn’t happened.
In the 1968 election, Nixon didn’t try to saddle Hubert Humphrey with his boss’s appalling war. It was a Democrat, Gene McCarthy, who ran as a peace candidate that year, but he couldn’t secure his party’s nomination. After four more years of gratuitous death and destruction, Democrats did pick a peace candidate, but George McGovern lost the general election by the biggest electoral vote margin in history.
By 2008, the Republican-initiated war in Iraq looked as futile as the war in Vietnam did in 1972, including a similar belated discrediting of its justifications. Obama managed to win the Democratic nomination over Hillary Clinton, who as senator had voted for the Iraq War. He didn’t run as a peace candidate, however, and once in office continued to wage war in Afghanistan and Iraq and allowed Clinton, as his secretary of state, to start new ones in Libya and Syria.
A sitting president has never said to the American public, “Waging that war was as stupid as it was immoral.” When each war starts, it’s a crusade. When it ends, it was a mistake. And there seems to be general agreement in this country to simply move on, so we don’t even learn from what we did, much less atone for it. Couldn’t a political insider have cautioned Bush and Cheney that Afghanistan was going to end for us just as Vietnam did? Couldn’t some member of Congress with more clout than the prescient Barbara Lee, a second-term black representative, have said that on the floor of the House or Senate? Couldn’t anyone in the mainstream media have issued that warning to the American people? Apparently not.
We aren’t forced to acknowledge our repeated failures because, though we are defeated, we are not conquered. We simply come home, and our chosen antagonists are relieved to see us go, like a years-long drought or plague. Nonetheless, the failures are costly.
The obvious cost is borne by our fellow Americans who return from the wars damaged in body or mind and by the families of those who return in body bags. Yet, we manage to obscure that cost to ourselves and to most of them by exalting the maimed and dead as heroes. Who would dare tell them they were poorly paid mercenaries bamboozled by their paymaster? Not I. They deserve my compassion, not my scorn (I reserve that for the politicians who so grievously misled them). But neither will I hold them up as role models. I’d rather honor returned Peace Corps veterans, which I arranged for Ashland to do on Veterans Day in 2018.
The not-so-obvious cost is paid by our entire population. Our huge expenditure on war-making has coincided with a public disinvestment in the health, education and welfare of our own people. It’s true that we are wealthy enough to fund both guns and butter, and to his credit President Biden, unlike Clinton and Obama, has tried. But Republicans won’t allow the proper taxing of the very small minority of the population who have engrossed most of the wealth all of us have created, and it seems unlikely that Progressives will ever control Washington.
No matter what its choices, the U.S. could not have retained the unrivalled global position we occupied after World War II, when the rest of the industrialized world lay in ruins and China, still reeling from Japan’s savagery, was embroiled in a civil war. Nonetheless, our heavy reliance on military might to retain our preeminence has eroded it needlessly. We can never make America great again unless we revise our understanding of greatness.
Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid Ashland.news board member. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.