The Bush Administration’s foreign wars were initiated with a combination of popular support, messianic foreign policy goals, and a desire for revenge that are reminiscent of the European Great Powers in 1914. Like that conflict, and most wars since then, the military realities were far different from what was expected and promised. Just as Europeans got bogged down in destructive, but ultimately useless carnage in World War I, just as the British and the Soviets foundered in their attempts to conquer Afghanistan, just as the United States could not accomplish any of its goals in Vietnam, we are bogged down in Afghanistan. We elected Barack Obama President to make new decisions about the critical issues facing our country, here and abroad. And now he has decided to send more troops.
I don’t doubt Obama’s strategic intelligence, his seriousness of purpose, his American patriotism, or his decision-making process. But I think his decision is wrong. We can’t do anything there but continue to lose lives and money.
Once begun, wars are very difficult to end. Allied and German armies fell into a hopeless stalemate on the Western Front soon after the first shots in 1914, but none of those governments was willing to tell their citizens that they could not win. So hundreds of thousands of lives were lost in suicidal charges to prove that the war could be won. After American forces tipped the scale in 1917, the German government was so unwilling to inform its citizens about the military realities that surrender in 1918 was a great shock to the German people.
In Vietnam, we constantly pursued new military and political strategies in a cause we could not win. The problem was not our military capacity, but the inability of a foreign power to maintain control over a hostile population without constant loss of life and massive expenditure. In the end, we wreaked vast destruction on a tiny nation and its people.
Liberals and conservatives share a belief in the power of American will: if we want to accomplish some foreign policy goal, we can do it. Politicians of all types constantly tell the American public that there are no limits to our abilities, that we are the greatest country that ever existed, and that God is on our side. Therefore historical lessons are irrelevant, since we can accomplish goals which have eluded other, less fortunate nations. No political leader wants to argue that because the British imperialists and the Soviet Communists could not control Afghanistan, we shouldn’t try it.
The American military is one of the best fighting forces of the world, backed up by a military spending which is nearly as large as all other nations put together. Yet over eight years we have not been able to control Afghanistan, one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. A foreign military, not matter how powerful and dedicated, cannot impose an alien political ideology on an unwilling Afghan population. Their widespread illiteracy, tribal social system, and lack of communication will allow the Taliban and other anti-American forces to constantly renew themselves.
Our venture in Afghanistan has involved us in the heroin trade, and forces us to support corrupt politicians, kill untold numbers of civilians, and spread the fight into Pakistan. Thousands of Americans have been wounded or killed, thousands of American families are forever damaged.
We can stop the killing, of our people and theirs. We can spend our wealth on more useful projects. We can admit that we can’t win.
Mr. Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (Palgrave, 2004) and Shanghai-Geschichten: Die jüdische Flucht nach China (Berlin: Hentrich und Hentrich, 2007).