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America’s Perpetual Wars

military-soldier-sunset

With just over six months left until the end of his Presidency, President Obama was reminded recently that he stands to leave office as the first two-term President who presided over eight years of seemingly endless military conflict:

Throughout this trip, Mr. Obama has confronted the reality that the United States is engaged in military operations around the world. At a NATO summit meeting in Warsaw, he announced that American troops would lead a battalion stationed in Poland to deter an aggressive Russia. The destroyer in Rota is a pillar of a missile-defense program that Mr. Obama has stuck with despite the tensions it raises with Moscow.

Small wonder, then, that Mr. Obama was in a reflective mood on Saturday when a reporter asked him at a NATO news conference about the nature of war in the 21st century — and, specifically, how he felt about the likelihood that he would be the first two-term president to have presided over a nation at war for every day of his presidency.

Mr. Obama characterized his approach to war as a hybrid: committing limited numbers of American troops to conflict-ridden countries, but working with those countries to develop their own armies and police. He drew attention to an announcement at the Warsaw meeting that NATO would begin training Iraqi troops inside the country. (The alliance had already been training them in neighboring Jordan.)

The result of such efforts, Mr. Obama acknowledged, is mixed. Iraq’s American-trained army melted away in the face of the Islamic State’s jihadist fighters in 2014, forcing him to send troops back into a war he thought he had ended two years earlier. Weaknesses in the American-trained Afghan Army allowed the Taliban to retake some lost territory.

“What I’ve been trying to do is to create an architecture, a structure — and it’s not there yet,” the president said. The difficulties of working with unreliable partners is “probably going to be something that we have to continue to grapple with for years to come.”

Mr. Obama said chronic, low-level counterterrorism campaigns could have a debilitating effect on society. “This different kind of low-grade threat, one that’s not an existential threat but can do real damage and real harm to our societies, and creates the kind of fear that can cause division and political reactions — we have to do that better,” he said.

Earlier in his presidency, Mr. Obama spoke of taking the United States off the perpetual war footing of the post-9/11 era. These days — with troops going back into Iraq and Afghanistan, airstrikes in Libya, and drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan — he says less about this.

The current state of perpetual war that the nation finds itself in didn’t begin with this President, of course, but started some eight months into George W. Bush’s Presidency with the September 11th attacks, followed a year and a half later by a war in Iraq that in retrospect was both unwise and unnecessary, and which led directly to many of the problems we are dealing with today. It also won’t end when this President leaves office. Afghanistan is likely to continue to be as unstable as it is today, with a war between the government in Kabul and and the Taliban and the reports of ISIS intervention in the country resulting in a extended American presence that is likely to last well beyond the time that President Obama leaves office in January 2017. The war against ISIS is likely to continue in Iraq and Syria for some time to come and could easily spread to Libya, Yemen, or other parts of the region depending on where ISIS tries to set up camp next. Outside of the campaign against ISIS, the ongoing issues regarding Russia’s involvement in Ukraine’s civil war, China’s continued encroachments in the South China Sea and other surrounding areas, and of course the ongoing problem that is North Korea, will no doubt be on the plate of the next President. While none of these situations rises to the level of a military conflict, each one of them could easily flare up to the point of crisis at any point.

In other words, the period of seemingly perpetual war that began some fifteen years ago shows no sign of ending any time soon. ISIS and al Qaeda will continue to be problems into the foreseeable future, as will our relationship with other potentially hostile regimes around the world. While this doesn’t mean that we’ll need to maintain the same kind of military commitment that we did during the majority of the Bush Administration, and much of the Obama Administration, it’s still likely mean continued military commitments around the world that are far different from the relatively peaceful bases we kept in Germany and Japan after World War II. Additionally, the seeming uptick in terrorist activity, especially from so-called ‘lone wolves’ who may have been inspired by foreign radicals but not directly commanded or controlled by them will make issues of domestic security far more of a concern than they have been in the past.

On some level, one has to wonder what all of this will mean for the nation as a whole and how it will change the country. The Cold War lasted 45 years, of course, but with the exception of wars in Korea and Vietnam that lasted for discrete period of time, this wasn’t a 45 year period during which we were essentially constantly at war. Now, though, we stand ready to enter our sixteenth year of conflict with no end sight and we can already see ways in which the country has been changed ranging from the relationship between the military and civilian worlds to the beating that civil liberties have taken in the name of “security.” The longer this situation continue, the worse all of that is likely to become. This is especially true given the fact that neither Presidential candidate has presented a pan to end the perpetual war, they’ve only talked about fighting it more aggressively. This means that the war without end will continue well into the first term of the next President and probably well, well beyond that.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. steve s says:

    We have a ready supply of war money, war technology, and war personnel.

    Supply creates its own demand

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  2. Gustopher says:

    It’s also a perpetual war that the vast majority of Americans don’t feel the effects of.

    We have a volunteer army, which limits the families directly impacted. We’ve done a great job of limiting American casualties. The wars are small enough to not effect our economy, and they are all very far away.

    Our enemies aren’t really able to engage us over here effectively — they can inspire American Crazies as lone nut terrorists, but their reach doesn’t seem to reach far enough for direct conflict. It adds some flavor to our series of mass shootings, but it doesn’t even hold the news cycle because of all the other mass shootings and cops shooting black folks in what appear to be bad shoots.

    I honestly don’t know what it does to America or the world to have a perpetual war that we don’t really feel at home.

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  3. michael reynolds says:

    It’s become police work, in effect, stomping on terrorists. Instead of kicking in doors we fire a Hellfire.

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  4. Mikey says:

    followed a year and a half later by a war in Iraq that in retrospect was both unwise and unnecessary

    In retrospect?

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  5. c.red says:

    A distinction with less than no meaning; it is meant to demean Obama and can only be applied by being willfully ignorant of our history.

    We have had military personnel deployed yearly to various hostile territories since at least 1980.

    Kennedy would have certainly qualified had he not been assassinated.

    In the early 20th century with various insurrections for years at a time in Central America including Haiti from around 1915 to something like 1930, Nicaragua from 1912 to around 1934 – which puts Woodrow Wilson on the list (he also gets WW1, so much higher body count overall as well)

    Also early 20th Century we had the First Philippine War from 1899-1902 and the subsequent Moro Rebellion until 1913 (around 8000 and 1000 US casualties respectively) so throw Theodore Roosevelt into the running.

    If you want to go back further you could easily make a case for Civil War and Restoration and various Native American actions and actions against Mexico.

    Basically being a major power means being in perpetual conflict with someone. Distinction with less than no meaning.

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  6. Tony W says:

    @steve s: I don’t know why you are being downvoted – this is precisely the problem.

    Congress passes spending bill after spending bill giving our military weapons system after weapons system that are neither wanted nor needed to secure the United States. They do so in a cynical and self-serving attempt to generate jobs and other forms of corporate welfare back home for which the rest of the country pays and pays.

    This is a tale as old as time, and won’t stop with our generation.

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  7. Scott F. says:

    @steve s:

    Yep, “use it or lose it” is a concept well understood by the military industrial complex. Breathless media coverage of death and destruction with a healthy dose of jingoism plays a part as well. There’s profit to be made in people living in fear.

    The problem is that the public opinion would have to lead the way out this mess and I don’t see how that happens. Polls would suggest that people are fed up with constant military conflict, but still the “lone wolf” action in the US leads to calls for more bombing in the Middle East. The President declaring that ISIS doesn’t represent an existential threat isn’t enough in the face of the Republicans claiming a clash of civilizations and too many Democratics too cowardly to stand up to it. Until such time as doing nothing in response to the latest terrorist attack is seen as a vote getter, we’re stuck with this perpetual war.

    Fear is a powerful tool and all momentum favors giving in to it.

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  8. Mu says:

    The real problem is that while we’re paying a lot, and paying it with IOUs, we’re not paying the whole bill. Most of our equipment is so worn down that if we had to fight a real war, against an opponent who’d actually be threat to the US, we’d have to start over in production to replace all the junk now being kept together by duck tape until its due for replacement 10 years from now. Plus the enormous medical bill load we’re pushing down the road in the form of PTSD, the military’s best effort to reclassify it to not having to acknowledge it as combat related notwithstanding.
    Lets just hope that the constant drain will not lead to a hard landing similar to the USSR. Maybe someone will stop the dream of nation building and fight strictly threat elimination wars.

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  9. Ben Wolf says:

    “How do we win?” is a question no longer asked. Nor is the corollary: if we can’t win, how do we get out? Neither ending the Long War or mobilizing the nation’s resources toward an all-out effort for victory are acceptable options among politicians or the military and Americans don’t appear to care enough to demand action.

    Drones and assassinations and expanding our operations to every corner of the planet aren’t a strategy, they’re the absence of one.

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  10. steve s says:

    @steve s: I don’t know why you are being downvoted – this is precisely the problem.

    there are 4 or 5 super-clueless trolls on this site, and i only have 2 downvotes, so we’re currently operating within normal parameters.

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  11. Mister Bluster says:

    I think Duck Tape is a brand name and duct tape is the product.
    http://ductapegirls.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Duck.jpg
    SFW

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  12. Pch101 says:

    The ratings for Game of Drones are a bit down as the show enters its 15th season, but it’s still popular enough to keep it on the air.

    There are so many who want to appear in the program that it could become like a soap opera that just keeps going and going without any real end or finale in sight. Combine that with members of the audience who enjoy the fear and the opportunities to feel indignant about The Other, and you’ve got a hit on your hands. Action!

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  13. Mister Bluster says:

    Maybe there should be a Poll Troll Tax on the Up Vote-Down Vote.

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  14. Scott says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    “How do we win?”

    We also can’t define “What is winning?” and “How we know if we have won?” In the conflict in which we are engaged, there are no answers to these questions. Therefore, it is perpetual.

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  15. C. Clavin says:

    America has been in “perpetual war” for most of it’s history. 90% of the time.
    ODS Doug neglects that fact in describing these police actions as perpetual war.
    http://www.washingtonsblog.com/2015/02/america-war-93-time-222-239-years-since-1776.html

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  16. Guarneri says:

    What is this “war” you speak of? The administration tells us it is only involved in “kinetic military activity.” And I believe them. Next thing you know there will be bald faced lies about terrorism to cover up the sins of offensive YouTube videos.

    What’s a man got to do to get truth around here?

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  17. Mister Bluster says:

    America’s Perpetual War on the Streets.
    Just heard the Dallas Police Choir sing the Star Spangled Banner.
    President Obama and Senator Cruze traveled together on Air Force 1 to Texas and they heard it too.
    I remember reading the paper on November 23,1963 wondering why I didn’t cry.
    I think today I am catching up on the tears.

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  18. Tony W says:

    @Guarneri:

    What’s a man got to do to get truth around here?

    Apparently the opposite of your daily routine.

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  19. Slugger says:

    During the seventy years of my life, the US has had a military presence on every continent, a military budget larger than any three other nations, and a steady low level of actual involvement in shooting wars around the world. I wish someone would create a graph for annual US KIA for the years since the end of WW II. Kipling from the right and Lenin from the left considered military engagements as part and parcel of sustaining an empire. Many of these engagements recede in memory like the wars in Panama and the Dominican Republic, actions in Lebanon and Somalia, bombings of Serbia leaving only markers in Arlington.
    I certainly feel that Obama deserves a good deal of blame. The regime change war in Iraq should certainly have taught him to avoid a regime change war in Syria. It is a real failure on his part. The only excuse is that it is probably hard to stop the momentum of the militaristic Juggernaut.
    After having dealt the Russians a resounding defeat in the Cold War resulting in a collapse of the USSR, did we need to further humilitate them by expanding NATO? I don’t see anything to win over there.

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  20. C. Clavin says:

    @Guarneri:

    What’s a man got to do to get truth around here?

    Try being the change you want to see in the world.

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  21. gVOR08 says:

    @Scott: Often when someone has said to me that we must win in Afghanistan or Iraq I’ve asked, “What does win mean?” I’ve mostly gotten a blank look in reply that means, “What, are you, stupid? It means we win.”

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  22. gVOR08 says:

    A contributor at Juan Cole’s blog had a pretty good piece a week ago on Iraq and oil. At least since the Carter Doctrine of 1980 it’s been explicit that we would protect Middle East oil supplies not only to protect our supply, but to maintain our role as hegemon, protecting and partially controlling everybody else’s oil supply.

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  23. Mikey says:

    @gVOR08: I think “win” in Iraq or Afghanistan means a relatively stable government capable of defending itself without the assistance of American forces, governing a relatively stable state not plagued by constant acts of terrorism. It doesn’t have to be democratic, or lack corruption, or look like ours, but it should meet these two criteria at least.

    In this context, we mostly failed in Iraq and are utterly failing in Afghanistan. The prospects for “winning” are indeed bleak.

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  24. Pch101 says:

    @gVOR08:

    I’m constantly amused that the Jimmy Carter who initiated the oil-driven policy agenda of the Carter Doctrine and support for the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan is considered to be some sort of peacenik, while the Ronald Reagan who fled from Beirut and sold weapons to Iran was a tough guy.

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  25. michael reynolds says:

    World War 2 ended over 70 years ago. That was the last war with a clear winner and a clear loser. Obviously the paradigm has changed. Continuing to moan, ‘when are we gonna win, daddy?’ has gone from slightly clueless to just plain stupid.

    We are no longer fighting wars of state-on-state. We are now fighting wars that blur the line between war and law enforcement. We aren’t doing this because we think it’s fun, we’re doing this because (a) We won the state-on-state wars and are in a position to win any such in the near future, and (b) the nature of war has changed because (a).

    Duh.

    Anyone think walking away from Afghanistan will make the world a better place? No? Then unless you have a suggestion that in the REAL world would yield a preferable result, grow up. “Waaah, where’s the victory parade, waaah?” is not a policy.

    Walk away from Afghanistan and we give it to Al Qaeda and ISIS. You don’t think so? Make your case. Or shut the fwck up. This is the world as it is. This is reality.

    I am sick of preening narcissists whose ideas amount to nothing more than, ‘gaze upon my moral superiority and admire my perfection!’ Jesus H. Christ, people, sometimes life is a sh!t sandwich and you man up and fwcking eat it.

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  26. Pch101 says:

    Anyone think walking away from Afghanistan will make the world a better place?

    It would have been better off to have not gone in the first place.

    We had a grievance with a few miscreants, but we turned it into a costly full-blown unwinnable war instead. (Nobody leaves Afghanistan as a winner.) The policy seems to have been motivated by machismo rather than by common sense.

    It would have been cheaper and less painful if the US had sent in some missiles and hit squads on a limited mission to selectively kill off some of the offending leaders in the Taliban and al Qaeda, and then got out. Nationbuilding is a bad idea, particularly for a country such as the US that isn’t particularly good at it.

    Set achievable goals and meet them. Don’t get all high and mighty when you create a clusterf**k and can’t figure out why everyone else isn’t rallying behind you when it doesn’t work out.

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  27. gVOR08 says:

    @Mikey: While I agree, In Iraq we had your conditions for win before we invaded. And I expect it’s roughly what Obama’s trying for now. I don’t know if it’s possible.

    In Afghanistan, we could meet your standards tomorrow by turning it over to the Taliban. I might accept that as maybe our least bad option. I never quite figured out how a punitive raid against Al Qaeda turned into a war against the Taliban. Most Americans would count it a loss, ergo politically unacceptable. Reagan decided to have his recession at the start of his term and it worked well for him politically. Maybe Hillary could decide to lose Afghanistan early.

    I saw somebody years ago say “Taliban” is more a lifestyle than an organization. That defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan is like invading Georgia to overthrow the rednecks. Right off the top, who ca sign a surrender document binding on all of them?

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  28. Guarneri says:

    @Tony W:

    Woo. Cutting edge commentary there.

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  29. Guarneri says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Obama’s got that covered. You know, “we are the ones we have been waiting for” “hope and change,” “parting the seas and healing the planet.” That stuff.

    I must admit I did learn something today though, it’s easier for a kid to buy a Glock than a book.

    Who knew?

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  30. Tony W says:

    @Guarneri: I do what I can with the material provided.

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  31. wr says:

    @Guarneri: “What’s a man got to do to get truth around here?”

    Why don’t you start by telling it some time and see what happens?

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  32. stonetools says:

    This is especially true given the fact that neither Presidential candidate has presented a pan to end the perpetual war, they’ve only talked about fighting it more aggressively

    That should be plan, I guess. What would such a plan look like, Doug?. This is an ideological struggle like the Cold War. It’s radical Sunni Islamists against moderate Islam and countries who they consider to be friends of moderate Muslims. If you can think of a way of appeasing the radicals, then let’s hear it.

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  33. Mikey says:

    @gVOR08:

    In Iraq we had your conditions for win before we invaded.

    Yes, ironically.

    In Afghanistan, we could meet your standards tomorrow by turning it over to the Taliban. I might accept that as maybe our least bad option. I never quite figured out how a punitive raid against Al Qaeda turned into a war against the Taliban.

    Our intention from the beginning was to expel the Taliban government and install one not predisposed to sheltering terrorists. While we have largely failed that as well outside of Kabul (thanks in no small part to Bush’s idiotic blunder into Iraq diverting attention and resources), at least it was a reasonable goal to start with and actually linked to the 9/11 attack and al Qaeda.

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  34. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Mikey: Umm… That’s what Iraq and Afghanistan looked like before we started shooting. We HAVE met the enemy and he IS us (most assuredly).

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  35. michael reynolds says:

    @Pch101:

    As soon as we develop time travel your option might be tried.

    But it would still be wrong. Americans don’t have the stomach for the kind of retaliation that would have been required. Blowing up some rocks and raising a cloud of dust would have left the AQ-Taliban connection intact and in effect rewarded them.

    The kind of retaliation that would have actually toppled or crippled the enemy would have had folks like you crying about civilian casualties.

    Hindsight is 20/20, but not in this case. Some wars are not quick. We spent four decades with nukes at the ready, and all the way through it the Left complained and chanted and marched. And then. . . we won. And the ‘endless’ war ended. I’m not saying that will happen in Afghanistan, but I am saying that there never was a good option. We were just being introduced to asymmetrical warfare. It’s hard, complicated, and demands endurance, not just a quick bang-bang.

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  36. Mikey says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker: That irony is not lost on me.

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  37. Mikey says:

    @michael reynolds:

    The kind of retaliation that would have actually toppled or crippled the enemy would have had folks like you crying about civilian casualties.

    Really? I say on the contrary, America loves toppling enemy governments. We toppled the Taliban government in days, the Iraqi government in three weeks.

    What we don’t have the stomach for is the kind of occupation necessary to turn that short-term success into long-term success. We want to do the quick topple and then GTFO. We don’t want to commit the numbers necessary and we don’t want to be a de facto colonial government. And we certainly don’t want to be as brutal as might be necessary.

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  38. Pch101 says:

    @michael reynolds:

    The kind of retaliation that would have actually toppled or crippled the enemy would have had folks like you crying about civilian casualties.

    Gee whiz, we used your approach…and it failed.

    Meanwhile, Bush 43 failed to catch Bin Laden, the one guy who he was supposed to get.

    Perhaps you should dismount the high horse and realize that results do matter. Outside powers can’t tame Afghanistan because it is one big decentralized asymmetric quagmire — a war cannot be won there simply by seizing the capital and taking out one leader.

    Since conquering the place is futile, smart people would look for an alternative that does not make conquest a requirement. If anyone should know this, it should be the US; the Soviets did not exactly have a terrific time in Afghanistan, either.

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  39. michael reynolds says:

    @Pch101:

    Since conquering the place is futile, smart people would look for an alternative that does not make conquest a requirement. If anyone should know this, it should be the US; the Soviets did not exactly have a terrific time in Afghanistan, either.

    And yet the only plan you offered involved reversing time’s arrow, and even then you don’t actually have a plan, just a sneer of disapproval.

    I’m actually sitting in Dresden, Germany as I write this. As I’m sure you know, Dresden was annihilated by the RAF and 8th Air Force. 25,000 dead IIRC. Today it is a peaceful, democratic (and rather pretty) city in a peaceful, democratic (rather dull) Germany. All it took was burning a bunch of cities to the ground, splitting the country into occupation zones, forcibly de-militarizing the country, and about 40 years of Soviet and American occupation.

    Now, in my opinion the firebombing of Dresden was unnecessary and had more to do with Bomber Harris’ ego than military necessity. But that’s almost beside the point, because the simple historical fact is that what it took to stop Germany was utter, crushing defeat and long-term occupation. Ditto Japan. And neither has troubled anyone in 70 years.

    It’s simple historical fact that nations can be subdued. They have been subdued. In fact, it’s happened thousands of times, from the ancient city states to modern times. But it sometimes requires truly shocking brutality.

    Let me pose two alt histories to you:

    1) Instead of going to war with Japan following Pearl Harbor, we retaliate proportionally. Remember that Japan was at war with China. Remember that they had seized Southeast Asia, had designs on Australia, NZ, etc… More or fewer deaths in the end?

    2) Instead of being drawn into all-out war with Nazi Germany (as a consequence of Pearl Harbor) we stay out and declare neutrality. Britain almost certainly falls. The Nazis do to the Brits (and their empire) what they did with Osttruppen, turn Brits into cannon fodder for the Eastern front. More or fewer deaths in the end?

    No Hiroshima, no Hamburg, no Tokyo, no Dresden. Yay! Right?

    Except in example one a fair guess is that tens of millions more Chinese would have died, probably many millions of Indians, Burmese, Vietnamese, Aussies, etc… In example two the likely outcome would be years more war, in fact the war might still be ongoing between Germany and the USSR with tens of millions of additional deaths.

    You don’t like it, I don’t like it, no decent human being likes it, but the historical fact is that sometimes the better, more humane solution is excising the cancer completely. In many cases proportionality = perpetuation. What if North Korea had not had Soviet and Chinese threats to protect them? What if we had been able to do to NK what we did to Germany? More or fewer dead?

    The answer is not always the thing that makes you feel warm and fuzzy.

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  40. Pch101 says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I didn’t recommend time travel. I’m pointing out that doubling down on stupid and sanctimony will not fix the problem that folks in your camp created.

    Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of history should have known that this was a terrible idea, given what has happened in Afghanistan before. I knew it at the time, so why didn’t you?

    At some point, the US needs to leave and let the chips fall where they may. That’s a lousy option, but the other alternatives are worse.

    We would still be fighting in Vietnam had your types of views been allowed to prevail. You’re in denial of the error, while I’m willing to own it given that we have no choice.

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  41. the Q says:

    Michael Reynolds is trying to make a parallel between the Nazi/Japanese/Russian threat and the Taliban? Michael, your inner Nixon is showing.

    We could firebomb/nuke modern industrial populated cities and infrastructure in Japan and Germany, how is that possible in Afghanistan, which to paraphrase Voltaire is neither modern, industrial or populated? They are a collection of nomadic tribes, loyal to clans/bloodlines and, as any idiot with a history book can tell you,Afghanistan is also the burial of empires. You don’t think the Russians didn’t go in there and rape, pillage and terrorize far worse than the U.S. Army in order to pacify the enemy? And look what it got them….an end to the empire of the USSR a few years later.

    Going into Tora Bora made sense, until we made a left turn into the disaster of Iraq.

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  42. gVOR08 says:

    @Pch101:

    Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of history should have known that this was a terrible idea, given what has happened in Afghanistan before. I knew it at the time, so why didn’t you?

    I’d add that war is very difficult and fraught with risk. I thought at the time that going to war under the leadership of W. Bush was a really bad idea.

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