Steve A. Stone
Dear Friends and Patriots,
Some things in life are good, regardless of who accomplishes it. It is a bit odd, though. You should recall President Trump's attempts to pull out of war zones in the Middle and Near East, as well as drastically reduce our military presence in Europe and Korea. The Pentagon brass hats stalled him. The National Security Council staff stalled him. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle questioned his leadership and understanding of "complex geopolitical and military matters." But, that was Trump and then, and this is the Biden administration and now.
Joe Biden will be able to claim he ended wars. The political junkie in me recoils at the very thought, but the military retiree in me is pretty happy – for our troops.
I've never once thought Afghanistan was going to turn out well. I knew the history of the region, and understood from the start if our sole objective was to deny Osama bin Laden a safe haven, we could do that with ease. We didn't actually have to invade the place. But, President Bush 43 wanted to go in, and our forces went. The Taliban ran Afghanistan back then, as they are certain to do once again. They were ideological twins with al Qaeda and decided to actively support them. Perhaps the Taliban considered their actions defense of their country against foreign usurpers (us, not al Qaeda). If we were in their place, with a foreign power landing troops on our soil, wouldn't we do the same? Shouldn't someone in Washington have known better?
Our engagement in Afghanistan is actually a great example to illustrate the general foolishness of military adventurism. While it may be popular to think of the beginnings of our adventures there as "payback," "retribution," or "just desserts," what was it really?
America's military was given the mission of prying Osama bin Laden and his cohorts from Afghanistan; to deny al Qaeda it's training sites and safe havens. That seemed clear enough, but that mission was accomplished in a very few days. In the process we managed to "acquire" a lot of truly bad people and had a legitimate logistics problem on our hands – what were we to do with them? After all, didn't they wage war on the United States? Didn't they pose existential threats to our vital interests in the region? Weren't they Islamist terrorists and a threat to Americans everywhere? Can you answer any of those questions with complete certainty? GITMO's Islamist stockade was born from our uncertainty.
Military philosophers usually agree on the theory of a "just" war. They agree that in cases where the political will to maintain peace breaks down, diplomacy provides no answer, and the belligerence of the adversarial parties cannot be suppressed – war may be inevitable. The most oft-used modern reference to a just war is World War II. If there was ever a just war, wasn't that it? Perhaps you will agree; I know I do.
The Axis Powers were a cabal of greedy, power-hungry maniacs whose grand design was to rule the planet according to their own dictates. Their evil deeds seem unimaginable to us today, yet they happened. The genocides of the Nazis happened. The almost animalistic brutality of the Japanese occupation forces was real. The Italian Fascists – they tried to be big, bad, and fearsome, but in the end they succeeded only in becoming something of a sick joke. But, the point is – the Axis Powers told the world of their grand designs; their intent to impose their totalitarian rule on the rest of the planet. If there was ever a just cause to fight a war, the Axis Powers seemed to provide it. That was World War II, though. What about all the wars that have been fought since?
There's no point in dwelling on the countless "brush fire" wars that have been fought across the globe since time immemorial. Trying to discuss each one that occurred in 20th Century Africa alone would require at least 1,000 pages. In the end there would be a very small number of instances where a claim of "just" could be made, while most would be the same old thing – wars fought because those who desired political power or wealth provoked them. The underlying motivations seem to remain constant. Power and wealth – they seem to be universal and immutable forces that move those with the most evil of intent. That is, if killing your neighbor is to be considered evil. It seems to be the opposite of loving him, so it stands to reason it is.
If we exclude "third world" brushfire wars, how many that have been fought since World War II could legitimately claim the mantle of "just?" Was the "police action" in Korea? Was Vietnam? Was the Soviet Union's own incursion into Afghanistan? How about the wars in the Middle East that pitted Israel against her many enemies? Perhaps you might want to consider the civil war in Cuba, the one in Nicaragua, or the many that occurred in several South American nations. The list goes on and on, but parsing them into the categories of "just" and "unjust" is a relatively easy exercise. Just examine the power dynamics that were present at the beginning of a conflict, determine if one nation was clearly an aggressor, then judge the ultimate results. Even if it could be substantiated that the incumbent power was brutal and authoritarian, was the subsequent power any better? Perhaps that's not the best metric to use. After all, "just" is not about power or wealth, it's about right and wrong.
It seems right to refer to defensive actions as "just." They're at least justifiable. If one nation wishes to impose a war on another, the defender appears to have the moral high ground in subsequent actions. Germany attacked Poland, France, Russia, and Great Britain before declaring war on the United States. Were subsequent actions by the Allied Powers just? Was there any other solution to the problem of war with Germany than to demand an unconditional surrender? And, what of Japan? Was there any real difference worth discussing? As late as the end of 1942 the fate of the world was a real question. Who had the moral high ground? Are there any parallels between the situations of World War II and Afghanistan? Were we in any real peril from the Afghanis? Once the threat of al Qaeda was removed, why not just pull out and leave them to their own devices?
Not long after our troops went in to Afghanistan and established our military dominance the Bush administration changed the mission. They made the exact same mistake the Clinton administration made in Somalia. One rule of military strategy that's been validated and re-validated is: once into the execution phase of a military mission do not change the mission. Everything on the ground, at sea, and in the air is tailored to the approved mission. If that mission is changed without reassessing, strategizing, repositioning and equipping to the new mission before the change-over – disasters can happen.
In both Somalia and Afghanistan the mission was changed to "nation-building." Is there anyone out there who truly believes the United States military is trained to do nation-building? They're trained to take objectives, to kill designated enemies, to train other militaries, and to pacify entire nations if they have to, but they are not, and should not be nation-builders. The entire notion is ludicrous. How exactly does an occupying force establish a government in a foreign land that the people of that land will willingly accept? Can such a scenario ever work? The answer is "yes, but rarely.”
At the end of World War II it was the allied military forces that ran the occupied territories in German and Japan. The allies maintained the real power for years after the war, with the allied military providing security and the bureaucrats of all the allied powers working with the conquered nations' people to establish new governmental orders. That scenario worked – sort of. But, again, that was German and Japan, not Afghanistan. The truth of Afghanistan is it's never had much of a real government, and never seemed to want one. It's a national culture that has always worked by interlocking networks of tribal clans and warlords, a fairly primitive society centered on notions of kinship and shared religion. The Afghanis have no history of western-style, democratic-oriented governance. To expect them to understand and appreciate a Euro-centric type of government is asking a bit much. They understand tribal elders and tribal councils. They understand tribal and inter-tribal conflicts. Their traditional way of governing their society goes back at least 2,000 years. The idea that the United States could come in and "modernize" Afghanistan could well be the most extreme form of hubris. The Russians might agree. They found out the hard way. Now, perhaps we've found out the hard way, too.
The real question of the day is – HAVE WE LEARNED ANYTHING YET?
Take this discussion to a different level. Examine just who starts wars, why, and who pays the price for them.
Wars are almost never started by the combatants. Wars are provoked by political failure of some kind, or because one side is sufficiently power hungry or greedy to engage in the worst kind of adventurism. Go back in time and review the history of the post-9-11 activities of the Bush 43 administration. Go back and read the United Nations resolutions against Iraq.
Iraq? Weren't we talking about Afghanistan? Yes, we were. And, it's true that Afghanistan hosted al Qaeda and Iraq didn't. Yet, all the pre-war hyping was aimed at Iraq and their alleged chemical weapons of mass destruction programs. Does it strike one as a bit strange that the United States chose to attack Iraq before going into Afghanistan? There were plenty of questions asked about all that at the time, but there were no answers given, other than, "Iraq will not comply with UN resolutions or submit to international monitoring." Iraq was built up to be our big existential threat and the drums of war were beaten so loudly that when our military went in to Iraq and began to roll over the Iraqi army like it wasn't even there, most people in this country cheered. Should we have, or would we have been better off spending our time dissecting the power and greed dynamics to better understand exactly what was going on? Think of the military and political situation in Iraq today, then try to answer one question – what was that all about? Let me know if you think you have an answer.
It's clear that wars are not started by militaries. They're started by those who have power over the militaries – the rulers and those who back them. It's also clear that those rulers provoke wars for many reasons, and that some reasons seem apparent, while others are much less so. In some cases the average person may never learn the exact reason a war was provoked. Many are still trying to understand Vietnam, and they'll be going through the same process in trying to understand the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other places. But, one thing is perfectly clear – who pays the price for them.
Price? What is meant by that? We immediately think of combat casualties. They're the most obvious – those who are killed or maimed as a result of direct combat. They're not just soldiers, sailors, and airmen, you know? There are civilian casualties that need to be considered as well. In modern combat it's often true the civilian body count is far higher than that of the military. They're often referred to as "collateral damage." How'd you like that put on your headstone? Then, there are the casualties at home – families of those who died. And, it doesn't end there. Combat veterans suffer from many psychological and physical after-effects that sometimes cannot be resolved. The prices paid seem endlessly varied, and are paid by all sides in a war. There's no escaping it. It's always been that way, and as long as there is war, it always will be.
In the final analysis wars are fought for profit. Wars are always a gamble. The lords of war place their wagers and the military engages. If those who bet are right, there are enormous profits to be made. In the past, entire nations might be appropriated, with all their riches in tow. In more modern times it's true that corporations reap fortunes from military support contracts, while the stock markets of the world allow even average citizens to place their bets and get in on the action. Fortunes are created. Power centers are created or expanded upon. To those who gamble on war it's all just business. The fighting and dying are abstractions – just the messy but necessary part of the wager that makes it all work.
Our adventure in Afghanistan appears to be over. It might just be that there's too little power and money to be gained there now. Those who want profits are showing no returns. It's just time to move on to something else.
Lest you think this analysis makes the military look like pawns and fools, consider the following. Great nations cannot exist without great military organizations. That truth is axiomatic and easily provable. Those military organizations work because they are grounded in principles – honor codes and rules of war. Though they may work for evil people whose motivations are completely dishonorable that has little to do with most military organizations. In the main they believe in protecting their nation and their families. They believe in just causes. They believe they can go forth to kill or be killed in honorable ways. Warriors create brotherhoods that are remarkably alike no matter where on the planet you look. They recognize and honor each other, though they may revile the rulers that employ them. While politicians and corporations engage in war for increases in power and profit the warrior engages for purely ideological reasons like "God and Country." What are their rewards? What does their grateful nation bestow upon them for their sacrifices? Mostly it's pretty metal badges, ribbons, sashes, and promotions, or perhaps a grand military funeral. The enablers of all the increases in political and corporate power and profit are rarely included when it comes to dividing up the spoils. Attila and the Khans did better in that regard.
Of course, this is a simpleton's way of looking at such things. It's much more complex than it's made to appear here. But, unless you're willing to read 20 volumes that expand on such discussions, perhaps this will at least give the reader something to think about. War is something all of us should think about. It's something we should all loathe. But, in our loathing we should all understand a bit more about the true reasons wars are fought and not fix our gaze upon the military organizations when casting about for blame.
Steve© Steve A. Stone
The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.