We go to the polls without the candidates having exchanged meaningful thoughts about the American way of war — and what we might do differently.
On Nov. 3, Americans will have an opportunity to vote and affirm their vision of the future. Eight days later, on Veterans Day, many will pause to honor those who have served. This is an occasion to reflect on some of the consequences of earlier elections for national security strategies and military engagement.
It is unfortunate that the we have had little opportunity for such reflection during this campaign. In 2020, the presidential candidates have described and debated their views on COVID-19, economic recovery, on confronting chronic racial inequities, and on climate change. The campaign has seldom provided crisp answers, but at a minimum we have some sense of what to expect of the candidates on these critical matters. However, we lack any detail on the candidates’ views on the American role in the world and the use of U.S. military force.
This could be a pivotal election in terms of America’s global role. We can only infer from their records what Donald Trump and Joseph Biden might do with the next four years. The second debate had a section scheduled on “national security” that quickly deteriorated into conflicting allegations about bank accounts and Burisma. We learned virtually nothing about either candidate’s worldviews.
Over the last four years, President Trump has demonstrated that he is driven by competitive instincts and a narcissistic ego. He has little sense of strategy or interest in or regard for history. He prefers transactional arrangements, bilateralism or unilateralism, to working with traditional allies and other international parties. He has ranged from sudden announcements of troop withdrawals to threatening war with Iran and North Korea.
Biden’s record as U.S. senator and as vice president in the Obama administration is more traditional. He supports NATO and multilateral agreements and treaty commitments and recognizes American global obligations and responsibilities. But he has been inconsistent on his specific plans for American troop engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Both candidates supported the Iraq war — before they didn’t. Joe Biden has talked about maintaining some troop presence in Afghanistan. President Trump, in contrast, promised on Oct. 7 to bring the troops in Afghanistan “home by Christmas.” This tweet-as-policy decision was later hedged by other administration officials.
As we consider the candidates’ views and their records, this Veterans Day also provides us with an opportunity to confront our own history. It is relevant. Fewer than 3 percent of the living veterans we will honor this year served in World War II. Their war was fought with a clear military mission — unconditional surrender of the enemies — the achievement of which would mark the unambiguous conclusion of the war.
Our subsequent wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan have generally lacked clear and consistent military missions. With one outlier — 1991’s Operation Desert Storm — they devolved into repeated military tactical operations lacking any clear national strategy or specific goal. November provides a good marker to reflect on this record.
Seventy years ago, Gen. Douglas MacArthur promised that American troops in Korea would “eat Christmas dinner at home.” Tragically, the only ones home for Christmas in 1950 arrived on hospital ships or in coffins in the cargo holds. By October, the United States had expanded its goal, from defending South Korea against the invading North Korean army to defeating North Korea.
In that month, MacArthur had U.S. troops move toward the Yalu River, which divides the Korean peninsula from China. He dismissed Beijing’s warnings that they would enter the war if we approached this border. Even as General MacArthur was declaring home-by-Christmas, the American Eighth Army was suffering heavy casualties in a battle in northwestern Korea and the Marine Corps 1st Division engaged in a major battle near the Chosin Reservoir and then fought their way back to the port at Hungnam.
The Christmas holiday found the American forces hounded from the north, enmeshed in a war with Chinese forces that would drag on nearly three more years. Five battles were fought just to control Seoul. Today, American forces remain in South Korea and North Korean flags fly over the Chosin Reservoir.
Fifty-five years ago, in November 1965, the American First Cavalry Division fought the first large battle of the Vietnam War, at Ia Drang. President Johnson had dispatched American ground forces to Vietnam the previous spring “to strengthen world order” and to “protect the people” of South Vietnam.
Each side claimed a victory at Ia Drang, but there was no change in control of the area — a pattern that would hold for seven years, until a truce was negotiated for the withdrawal of all American forces. During those lengthy negotiations in Paris, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger reminded the U.S. military in Vietnam that “we are playing the most complex game with the Soviets involving matters which extend far beyond the battle in Vietnam, as crucial as it is.” Two years after the truce was signed, the North Vietnamese occupied Saigon and today Ia Drang and other battlefields are part of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
The American operation in Afghanistan began 19 years ago as a response to the 9/11 attacks. The U.S. and NATO allies sought to punish Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda militants and replace the Taliban government that supported them. Their invasion began in October 2001, and a month later, this coalition and the Afghan Northern Alliance captured Mazar-i-Sharif and then Kabul and Kunduz. The remaining Taliban forces slipped back to their homes or retreated to Pakistan.
American goals then expanded to more political ones to assure a stable and “democratic” government in Afghanistan and to engage in a “war on terror.” The military launched civic action plans and economic development programs. And the fighting continued. Today, the Taliban have reorganized and are essentially controlling the area around Mazar-i-Sharif and negotiating as equals at the table with Americans and the Afghan government.
Sixteen years ago, in November 2004, American Marines led a force into Fallujah, Iraq, to defeat the Iraqi resistance forces that controlled that city. After nearly a week of door-to-door fighting and heavy casualties, the Marines were largely in control of the city. This battle followed the decision in the spring of 2003 to topple the government of Saddam Hussein and to remove his putative weapons of mass destruction. As in Afghanistan, the war aims then expanded, adding some of the same civic and economic goals, again overseen by the military. In 2014, ISIS forces took over Fallujah; two years later, the Iraqi army retook the city.
One can draw some lessons from all of these wars and those specific battles. First, the American military forces fought bravely and well. But these wars were finally not about winning battles as a step toward victory or even satisfactory resolution. They lacked a clear and consistent military goal and an overarching strategy to accomplish it. And as Sun Tzu wrote some 2,500 years ago, tactics without a strategy are a road to defeat.
These four wars have been costly in American treasure and lives: more than 101,000 service men and women died in them and nearly 310,000 were wounded. And they were even more costly for the local civilian populations.
Many will recall and some ridicule the photo of President George Bush on the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003 with the huge “Mission Accomplished” banner behind him. It is hard to reconcile that sense of victory with the fact that Americans remain engaged in Iraq over seventeen years later. But the irony is that the military had accomplished its mission then—as they had in Korea by the early fall of 1950 and in Afghanistan in 2001, only to lose earlier gains. Vietnam’s mission proved a more elusive one—and the most costly of all these wars.
As happens in life and in war, the goals evolved and political negotiations overrode military engagement. Military engagement and the inevitable casualties that follow must be more than a political bargaining chip. In the summer of 1953, Americans and their NATO allies suffered heavy losses in the battle for Pork Chop Hill in Korea even as negotiators were completing the final truce. U.S. soldiers in Korea talked of “dying for a tie.” We need to recognize on Veterans Day, as we should every day, who holds that bargaining chip and who pays the price.
It is crucial on Election Day to recognize the consequences of electoral choices. It is unfortunate that we have spent little time in this campaign considering and debating what these might be for our national security policy. As we proclaim a widely desired end, the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, let us also consider that those things that got them there too often involved tactical considerations rather than strategic goals. So it might be good now to think strategically about withdrawal. And at this time, it is essential to think strategically about engagement with Iran rather than rattling sabers there. We have seen this movie before.
James Wright, a former Marine, is a historian and President Emeritus of Dartmouth College. His most recent book is Enduring Vietnam: An American Generation and its War.
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