This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
Almost 17 years after Washington's war on terror was launched, de'j vu all over again hardly sums up the situation. Still, it's a place to start. Take a headline from nearly a decade ago -- July 2009, to be exact. By then, the American war in Afghanistan (the second Afghan War of our era) was already years old and not exactly going well. "U.S. Marines pour into Helmand," went that headline, "in biggest offensive against Taliban for five years." That July, in the first year of the Obama administration, more than 4,000 Marines were being dispatched to the heartlands of Helmand Province to secure Afghanistan's major opium-poppy-growing region. That was, of course, nearly eight years after the Bush administration had declared the country "liberated" by an American invasion. By the fall of 2014, after five more years of fighting the Taliban and advising Afghan security forces in Helmand -- and hundreds of American deaths -- those troops were finally withdrawn from "one of the few bright spots in the Afghan war." However, a corrupt Afghan government and its security forces, filled with "ghost soldiers" and "ghost police" (mostly paid for with U.S. funds), couldn't even hold onto their paychecks, no less the parts of the province that had been "liberated" from the Taliban and the remarkably irrepressible opium trade that went with it. Slowly, much of the province fell back into Taliban hands as opium farming only spread and flourished.
And so in January 2017, headlines like this one began popping up: "U.S. Marines headed back to Taliban hotspot 2 years after pullout." And not long after, several hundred Marines were indeed rushed back into a Helmand that seemed on the verge of falling to the Taliban. In January 2018, a second rotation of Marines was sent in (a number of whom had been deployed to the same province before 2014, undoubtedly giving that de'j vu feeling a deeply personal meaning) and soon after you got headlines like this: "Inside the Marines' new mission in Afghanistan: Taking back territory previously won."
Imagine, then, the headlines still to come in 2020 or beyond in what has now, in American military lingo, become not permanent war but "infinite war" across significant stretches of the planet. One thing not to wait for: headlines like "Taliban defeated, Helmand Province completely in government hands." To put this twenty-first-century version of American war in context, consider the truly long view offered by a man who gained such a vantage point firsthand, TomDispatch regular and former Vietnam War correspondent Arnold Isaacs. Tom
Why Can't the World's Best Military Win Its Wars?
Americans Need to Rethink War and Look Honestly at Ourselves and Our Friends
By Arnold R. Isaacs
"This time, they think they have it right."
So declared an Associated Press story reporting an upbeat assessment by this country's top military officer at the end of a five-day visit to Afghanistan earlier this spring. Marine General Joseph Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was heading home from the war zone, the AP reporter wrote, "with a palpable sense of optimism" about the U.S.-supported war against Taliban and Islamic State fighters there.
Light at the end of the tunnel, perhaps?
The story didn't say whether any of the reporters listening to General Dunford asked why it had taken more than 16 years for the world's leading military power to come up with the "fundamentally different approach" that the general believes has put U.S. and Afghan forces on the path to success. (None of the changes he mentioned really sounded fundamental, either.) Still, it's a question worth asking: If Americans are right in ceaselessly telling themselves that theirs is the most powerful country the world has ever seen and that their military is the "greatest fighting force ever," as President Trump calls it, should it have been this hard and taken this long to find a way -- if they really have -- to defeat enemies whose war-making resources are a tiny fraction of ours?
As has happened often during our current conflicts, that piece of news from Afghanistan got me thinking about an earlier war that I witnessed first-hand as a correspondent for the Baltimore Sun during its final three years.
In Vietnam, as in subsequent American wars, the United States and its local allies had staggering advantages in all the conventional measures of military strength, yet failed to win. It makes me wonder: If U.S. political and military leaders and the American public remembered Vietnam more honestly, if painful truths hadn't been cloaked in comforting mythologies, might this country have responded more intelligently and effectively to the violent challenges we've faced in the current century?
Consider, for example, the persistent story that America lost in Vietnam because U.S. troops fought with one hand tied behind their backs -- because, that is, the politicians were "afraid to let them win," as Ronald Reagan once put it. The implication is clear: we could and should have won that war by doing more of what we were already doing or keeping at it longer (and should do the same in other conflicts, if military force does not seem to be succeeding).
But did the United States really lose in Vietnam for lack of force?
Not Exactly a Limited War
Plenty of facts suggest otherwise. Take the amount of destructive power the U.S. employed. "Devastating conventional firepower unparalleled in military history," a study by the Army's logistics command called it, adding that, along with extraordinary tonnages of air and ground ordnance, American commanders fought with virtually no restrictions on mobility, equipment, or supplies: "The logistics scene was characterized by almost unlimited supply, remarkable high operational readiness rates as applied to equipment, a seemingly endless flow of ammunition and petroleum, and immunity for the most part from external fiscal restraints."
Even to one who heard a bit of the gunfire from time to time, the statistics on U.S. firepower are mind-boggling. Pentagon records show that, for long periods, the American military and Saigon government forces fired ammunition at rates up to an astonishing 600 times higher than the enemy's -- 100,000 tons of ground munitions a month for all of 1969, for example, compared to just 150 tons from the Communist side. In 1974, with U.S. forces no longer directly engaged in combat and allied South Vietnamese commanders moaning nonstop about shortages caused by reductions in American military aid, Saigon's forces still used 65 tons of ammunition for every ton fired by the enemy.