Can America Still Win Wars?

Public skepticism about war is healthy. But civic cynicism is not, and it means we can never be the unified country we were in World War II.


Remember in Stripes, when Bill Murray said “We’re America! We’re 10-1!”? It was funny for two reasons. First, the reduction of war to a football statistic; but second and more meaningfully, because we all knew what that “1” was. By 1981, the year the film came out, the national consensus was that the Vietnam War had been a disastrous undertaking from the start, which is perhaps why Murray was able to make a joke of it. And besides, we knew that that 10 included the big one, beating Hitler, so on balance we could feel all right about things.

But was Murray right? If you want to reduce the Korean War to a football-ish stat, you could probably call it a win: Our side repelled a North Korean invasion and pushed the enemy back to the same 38th parallel that marked the border when the conflict began. But you could also decide that that’s a stalemate—and it was one that cost 33,000 American lives and hardened geopolitical lines for decades.

And how about since? The record isn’t good. In fact, since Korea, in conflicts that have involved commitment of a reasonably large number of ground troops (which excludes actions from Kosovo on down to Panama and Grenada), the fact is that we’re America, and we’re 1-2-1. And the win was the puniest of the conflagrations, the Persian Gulf War. The big loss of course was Vietnam. I’m calling Afghanistan a draw—we did remove the Taliban, and we eventually got bin Laden, but at an awfully high cost over 13 long years that most Americans now think hasn’t been worth it.

And I’m calling Iraq a loss, which is perhaps uncharitable of me, but here’s the thinking. If the goal of the Iraq war was only to oust Saddam Hussein, well, we did that, so you could call Iraq a draw (never a win—it was too dishonorable an enterprise to start with ever to be labeled a victory, and besides the price has been way too high). But that was not the sole goal. The broader goal was to oust Saddam in order to build a beautiful democracy in the Middle East and thereby transform the region. We’ve transformed the region all right, but not in the manner promised. Loss.

So here we are embarking on another one. With some reluctance and with full awareness that a lot of gambles have to pay off for this thing to work, I support it, because the world—not just the United States; the world, and especially the Arab world—needs to do something about the Islamic State and probably ought to do it sooner rather than later. We also want Syria rid of Bashar al-Assad. This is a secondary goal, and it’s not one the administration talks about much because public opinion supports fighting ISIS but is hesitant at the thought of America getting deeply involved in another country’s conflict, even one that’s by now more a genocide than a civil war. But it’s certainly a goal. And there’s another secondary goal that has to do with helping Iraq finally become a stable nation; having made the mess there, we bear some degree of moral responsibility for cleaning it up.

But our recent history makes me wonder whether the United States can even win wars anymore (and it should be noted here that even with the ones we disapprove of, we should hope once they start that they end up going our way). There are immediate military reasons why these wars have been harder that mainly have to do with the fact that we’re not fighting nation-states anymore that can surrender and sign armistices when they know they’re beaten. But there are home front reasons too, and these are more interesting.

I don’t mean here the “peacenik, anti-American” left that the right is always accusing of undermining our troops. I mean political choices and market forces that have combined to make the American people quite properly leery of war but quite improperly lacking in any sense of the kind of galvanizing communal ethos that’s required when a nation is trying to address a crisis.

The political choices have been straightforward enough. Our last three big wars have all been built to one extent or another on lies. For Vietnam, it was the Gulf of Tonkin “attack.” For Iraq, it was the WMDs and the mushroom clouds (and yes, they were lies, people, not intelligence failures). For Afghanistan, there were not lies in quite that category, but the Bush administration was being fundamentally dishonest with the public from the start, because already at that point, the Bush people knew they wanted to invade Iraq, which is why the Afghanistan invasion force was so small, but they told us none of this. And of course there were the promises from the administration that it was going to be easy, that the United States was far too powerful and sophisticated to repeat the errors of the British and the Russians. Not quite lies, but self-deluding and irresponsible fantasy.

With this track record, how could the American people be anything other than suspicious of war? They damn well should be. Obama hasn’t had to lie about the justifications for this war, since ISIS’s barbarism—and the pleasure it seems to take in that barbarism—is there for all to see (whether he was completely truthful on 60 Minutes about a different question—our intelligence on the threat ISIS posed—isn’t clear). And of course the beheadings had a huge impact. So the public is supportive for the time being but suspicious of this war for other reasons—that it’s going to take years and that it will inevitably (so people believe) require U.S. ground troops.

All the above amounts to a proper and essentially democratic skepticism. But that skepticism travels with a less healthy companion, a kind of civic cynicism that pervades almost all public questions these days. I have trouble conjuring up, for example, any event that could make us anything like the unified country we were during World War II. All Americans really did sacrifice then, accepting strict food and gasoline quotas and doing without a lot of things. At that point, most people were sacrificing already anyway: The median household income in 1941 was around $1,500, or $24,000 or so in today’s dollars, which for a family of four is just above the official poverty line (today’s median household income is around $52,000).

We’re a much better-off country, and of course that’s good. But the best off are really, really, really better off, and our deregulated and wealth-glorifying economy has produced far too much inequality and social stratification for an idea like shared sacrifice to ever take hold in this country again. If the United States really had to fight a big war today, the rich wouldn’t sacrifice a thing. They’d pay more taxes…I think…but in the economic climate that exists in this country, they’d grouse long and loud about it. And even the plugged-in upper-middle class would find a way to steer clear of much discomfort too, as someone would no doubt develop an app offering inventive and morally dubious ways of increasing your beef quota.

ISIS isn’t Hitler, thank goodness, so the above is largely abstract, I know. But what if this war does eventually involve ground troops, and what if it does just grind on for years? And if those circumstances obtain, there’s a reasonable chance it’s going to require a draft—after Afghanistan and Iraq, the armed services are spent of fresh soldiers. How would the nation react to that—say, in 2018, proposed in her second State of the Union address by President Clinton?

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Nobody wants a big war, obviously, but many writers and critics over the years have observed that World War II did have a number of positive effects for the country. It reinforced civic bonds, gave everyone a shared experience, and made the idea that at the end of the day we’re all Americans a real one (it’s no accident that polarization started when the generation of people who hadn’t known the war began to take positions of power). It’s pretty sad to think that it would take a big war to retrieve those lost features of our civic life. But it’s sadder still to think that retrieving them is all but impossible, which is probably the truth.