Eight Years On
October 7/8 will mark the eighth anniversary of the opening salvo on the “Taliban” faction of the ruling Afghanistan government, institutions, and people. At that point, there will be only 123 days – almost exactly one third of a year – before the White House, the Pentagon, and the American public find that the nation’s escalating involvement in Afghanistan has surpassed the length of another U.S. conflict – the American Revolutionary War.
It is worth noting, up front, that this milestone leaves only the Vietnam War as the nation’s longest. That dubious distinction may fall as well – that is if the U.S. and NATO commander of coalition forces, General Stanley McChrystal, finds the White House amenable to adding as many as 40,000 more U.S. troops to the 68,000 who are due “in-country” by the end of the year.
President Obama has stated that he remains undecided about the “surge” in troop numbers requested by McChrystal. The president is said to be making another strategy review, one which comes hard on the heels of “leaks” from the general’s “formal” update (presumably sent through Central Command Commander, General David Petraeus, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates). The leading alternatives are counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, a mix of the two, or another approach that expands the range of available options.
What is at stake is the answer to two interrelated yet simple questions. Is the vital interest of the United States – its continued existence as a nation-state – at risk from the actions of any other nation-state? Do the actions undertaken by the United States in or to other nation-states threaten their interests and continuity?
The answers can be found in the intellectual fervor at work in the decades before the formation of the United States. Many of the new ideas had been championed by English thinkers such as Adam Smith and John Locke (reason, natural law, government and social contract, economics), and French theorists such as Baron de Montesquieu (division of political power and the role of law) and Jean Jacque Rousseau (individual freedom, civil liberty). For these men the principal standard by which a person’s actions were to be judged rested not on the dictates of religion or royal privilege but on the patient and thoughtful use of reason to examine relevant circumstances that influence personal choices (and limitations on choices) by individuals and by the agreement of society as a whole. These were the tenets for which the “Founding Fathers” fought a war (albeit one supported, opposed, and ignored by approximately one third of the colonial population).
Thus the Revolutionary War was first and foremost a dispute over controlling the prevailing economic model in North America from the Atlantic shore to the discontinuous elevations that pass for a “mountain range” in the continental east. It was also a dispute over the emergence of national policy as settlers moved westward.
By the early 19th century, the ruling elites in Europe had succeeded in creating a multi-polar international system designed to dampen the frequency and intensity of wars. But the rise of unbridled nationalism undermined this promising trend, as it did the existence of equal and reciprocal obligations, responsibilities, and rights to be enjoyed by every individual in every country.
By the mid 20th century, disputes had become so intense that many predicted a permanent state of war in a bifurcated globe. Those who held a wide concept of the national interest also held that sustaining this interest required an unlimited readiness to apply military power to “resolve” all “zero-sum” disputes (those in which one side – us – wins everything while our adversary loses everything) in favor of the United States. Moreover, the freedoms and liberties inherited by the people became submerged to the rise of a new governing Leviathan, the “national security state.”
What the 43 year “Cold War” displaced in our history is the memory of how a people, for all the mistakes in their often assertive self-declared international pragmatism, managed to retain actively the intellectual foundations of their revolution for others to absorb. Historically, this struggle began April 3, 1775 when the “shot heard ‘round the world” was fired at Lexington and Concord, and was technically terminated at the signing of the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783. That shot continues to be heard around the world to this day – not to announce the integration of western freedom with the culture and traditions of others but to assume that U.S. national interest must and will be sustained – even if the last throw of the dice – through military power.
It is time to end the Pentagon’s addiction to the paradigm of annihilation – what some have labeled as “industrialized warfare” – that has become the last justification of the traditional American approach to war. Such wars may be “safer,” more palatable, and even more popular than wars of attrition. But they surely are no more “right” simply because fewer fatalities result with reduced exposure to danger by foreign forces.