The nature of war has changed pretty dramatically over the years, often driven by new technologies (e.g., stirrups, rifling, motors, computers), tactics, logistics, and national cultures (e.g., the levee en masse during the French Revolution brought about the era of mass armies and total national participation in the war effort). In (some of) our own lifetimes, we have seen the rise of highly mobile and mechanized forces and planes and missiles projecting force at distance: the stretch from WWII to Vietnam to Desert Storm.
How well military thinkers have adapted to these changes in the 21C is a topic for another day. My concern here is with how the general population perceives and understands how wars work and their resulting expectations. Taking down Saddam Hussein (2003-2010) was, from a military perspective, pretty comparable to prior actions. The war in Afghanistan was another kettle of fish entirely. No lines, no fronts, embedded guerilla opponents, weakly maintained government in “controlled” areas; all a la Vietnam, only more so. The difference with Vietnam is that the earlier conflict was all about territorial control and stabilizing our local proxy government. In Afghanistan, the goal was global terrorism suppression: eliminating one country as a hub of radical Islamic terrorism. It’s not clear, even if we had “won” in Afghanistan, that we would have accomplished our goal.
It’s really hard for an organized state army to defeat motivated and well-supported guerillas. In Vietnam we finally realized that we couldn’t and quit (as did the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s and the British in the 19C). As we found lately in Iraq (and Libya) nation-building is also really hard and requires at least a couple of generations. It’s taken us much longer to come to terms with this in Afghanistan, but to the same result, because nation building was only a means to a global end.
From a domestic perspective, the US left Vietnam because of military frustration and difficult PR undermined popular support for the massive number of troops necessary to fight and even have a shot at winning. The war in Afghanistan avoided that problem by keeping US troop levels (under 30K, except for the Obama “surge” from 2009-13, and only briefly hitting 100k) and casualties (under 2500 deaths) relatively small. But this was not sufficient to withstand the rising weariness with the war (even if domestic protests were proportional to the US casualties, compared to Vietnam).
So, what was the problem? I think we just got bored with the “Global War on Terrorism.” Any war that we couldn’t win reasonably quickly wasn’t worth fighting. This attitude comes from our 20C experience of wars (WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm) in which victory parameters were clear and—win-or-lose—resolvable at some sort of peace conference. 21C war against non-state actors, principally anti-terrorist/guerilla in nature, requires changing (as they said in Vietnam) “hearts-and-minds.” Its slow and arduous work. It also requires thinking non-spatially. Maps (at least at the strategic level) aren’t much use; it’s not about controlling territory, but changing people. It’s a different kind of war and we don’t have the patience for it.
US attitudes are also colored by the fact that most of us don’t know what war is actually like. There hasn’t been a sustained war on US territory in over 150 years (and the only one in the last 200 was a domestic war). The last “all-in” mobilization was over 75 years ago (16 M served, over 10% of the total population; for Vietnam, it was 2.7M or only 1.3%, Afghanistan, even if twice as long, is even less). Vietnam was unique visible because of TV coverage, but the war in Afghanistan gets only a tiny fraction of media attention compared to Vietnam.
As a result, we face the political issue of maintaining a war that is unwinnable in the short-to-medium term, without the support of people who aren’t so much opposed to it as bored or mystified by it. The esprit de corps which might have animated us if the war were on our territory, visible or clear-cut is lacking. The (potentially dire) consequences of giving the Taliban a breather seem too distant as a motivation either. Domino theory rationalizations for sending US troops half-way around the world went out of style fifty years ago.
Nonetheless, established states and societies remain at risk from asymmetric disruptive forces which take advantage of our complacency and our unwillingness to deal with a mode of warfare in which don’t fit into neat military tactics and John Wayne-style denouements. The story of military technology over the past 500 years has been the dispersal of power, not its concentration in formal state organizations. This has not only heightened the risk from biological/cyber/nuclear attacks but enabled a wider range of those dissatisfied with the existing global political order to support disruption for longer and for less money than ever before.
The era of relatively short, well-defined wars is not over, but it’s no longer the only game in town. If those—on both the left and the right—don’t have the attention span to recognize that a much more determined, strategic, stance is necessary to fight a quasi-permanent form of warfare, then things will get messier, sooner.