I don’t personally know anyone who has been directly impacted by our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If you told me that such and such acquaintance whom I don’t regularly see has a son or a grandson or a nephew serving, I’d believe you. But since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, I have not held one conversation with a close friend or family member about the danger his or her son or daughter is facing or has faced in either war. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not touched me personally.
Such was not the common experience in World War II. Between 1941 and 1945, sixteen million Americans, mostly men, put on a uniform. Of those, 310,000 never came home and another 600,000 were injured. No part of America was untouched. Not a family, not a church, not a school or a neighborhood. Virtually every American had a family member or a close friend in the uniform. Virtually every American knew someone that died.
The human cost of World War II didn’t stop with military casualties. Countless hundreds of thousand of civilians in Europe and Japan were killed as a direct result of American bombing or invasion.
World War II was a complete victory that was purchased at a staggering price. But complete it was and thus the price that was paid is seen today by clear thinkers as the regrettable but necessary price of peace. America’s sacrifice left Germany and Japan utterly devastated and completely incapable of fighting. That complete victory cleared the way for them each to be rebuilt as the responsible, productive and peaceful world citizens that they are today.
World War II was a full price war. But the paying of that price left emotional scars and as a result, America has since engaged in the ongoing delusion that wars can be fought in a contained and limited way. Call it “discount war.” That delusion is proving costly.
We pulled our punch in the Korean War and thus fought to a draw. After 137,000 American casualties including 36,000 dead and nearly six subsequent decades of defending a fragile peace, North Korea continues as a regional menace while her people live in abject hopelessness.
In Vietnam Lyndon Johnson kept America engaged in a war that he would neither finish nor quit. More than 58,000 American boys died toward no purpose and America left Vietnam in defeat.
Bush 41’s Gulf War of 1991 was incomplete. We succeeded in getting Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait but we left him in place to cause further trouble. Bush 43 got Hussein out of the way but left his supporters, sympathizers and regional troublemakers capable of mischief that we can be sure they will cause in the days ahead
After spending the majority of the 21st century engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, we find ourselves in what amounts to a rolling stalemate that is both chronic and intolerable.
Thus, as I watched President Obama’s speech Tuesday night, I reached the late conclusion that we should never have gone in to Iraq and Afghanistan. We went in to both wars for the right reasons. But the price of clear, overwhelming and decisive victory appears to be greater than the majority of Americans are currently willing to pay. Bush tried without success to keep America rallied. Obama is not even trying.
As a result of that unwillingness, the day will come that something so terrible, so unimaginably barbaric and so heinous happens that Americans will again find the will to pay full price for a war. And a full price it will be.
Until then we should keep this in mind. Discount wars like discount versions of name-brand goods often wind up absorbing the purported savings many times over in the much higher cost of their ultimate unsuitability and failure.
We therefore need to avoid discount wars. We can’t afford them.