In 2010, H.R. McMaster wasn't the former national security advisor to you-know-who but a brigadier general and senior adviser to General David Petraeus, then commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. At that time, he came up with a striking name for America's twenty-first-century wars in the Greater Middle East, then a mere nine years old. In a report titled, "Operating Concept, 2016-2028," looking into the Army's future, he dubbed them our "wars of exhaustion." No general has been quite so grimly honest again, though three years later, in May 2013, Charlie Savage and Peter Baker of the New York Times reported that, when it came to the war on terror, "a Pentagon official suggested last week that the current conflict could continue for 10 to 20 years," which at least sounded exhausting.
Three years later, in June 2016, Army General Joseph Votel, then head of the U.S. military's Central Command overseeing those conflicts, spoke of Washington's war on terror as a "protracted, protracted fight," adding, in response to a question, "I don't know if it's a 'forever war'; define forever." The next year, the general whom McMaster had been advising back in 2010, now retired (having also pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge for mishandling classified material), offered his own version of that phrase in reference to Afghanistan. He told the PBS NewsHour's Judy Woodruff:
"This is a generational struggle. This is not something that is going to be won in a few years. We're not going to take a hill, plant a flag, go home to a victory parade. And we need to be there for the long haul, but in a way that is, again, sustainable."
Exhausting, protracted, generational, maybe even forever-ish, and without a victory parade in sight. As it happened, in 2018, the Washington Post's Greg Jaffe reported that another descriptive phrase had come into use at the Pentagon. "These days," he wrote, "senior officers talk about 'infinite war.'" As Air Force General Mike Holmes explained it, "It's not losing. It's staying in the game... and pursuing your objectives."
I hope that, almost 17 years later, the staying-in-the-game nature of America's twenty-first-century wars is clear to all of you. If not, let me call on TomDispatchManaging Editor Nick Turse, author of Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, to consider just what to make of this country's never-ending wars and the parade that General Petraeus couldn't imagine but our president can. Tom
The U.S. Military is Winning. No, Really, It Is!
A Simple Equation Proves That the U.S. Armed Forces Have Triumphed in the War on Terror
By Nick Turse
4,000,000,029,057. Remember that number. It's going to come up again later.
But let's begin with another number entirely: 145,000 -- as in, 145,000 uniformed soldiers striding down Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue. That's the number of troops who marched down that very street in May 1865 after the United States defeated the Confederate States of America. Similar legions of rifle-toting troops did the same after World War I ended with the defeat of Germany and its allies in 1918. And Sherman tanks rolling through the urban canyons of midtown Manhattan? That followed the triumph over the Axis in 1945. That's what winning used to look like in America -- star-spangled, soldier-clogged streets and victory parades.
Enthralled by a martial Bastille Day celebration while visiting French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris in July 2017, President Trump called for just such a parade in Washington. After its estimated cost reportedly ballooned from $10 million to as much as $92 million, the American Legion weighed in. That veterans association, which boasts 2.4 million members, issued an August statement suggesting that the planned parade should be put on hold "until such time as we can celebrate victory in the War on Terrorism and bring our military home." Soon after, the president announced that he had canceled the parade and blamed local Washington officials for driving up the costs (even though he was evidently never briefed by the Pentagon on what its price tag might be).
The American Legion focused on the fiscal irresponsibility of Trump's proposed march, but its postponement should have raised an even more significant question: What would "victory" in the war on terror even look like? What, in fact, constitutes an American military victory in the world today? Would it in any way resemble the end of the Civil War, or of the war to end all wars, or of the war that made that moniker obsolete? And here's another question: Is victory a necessary prerequisite for a military parade?
The easiest of those questions to resolve is the last one and the American Legion should already know the answer. Members of that veterans group played key roles in a mammoth "We Support Our Boys in Vietnam" parade in New York City in 1967 and in a 1973 parade in that same city honoring veterans of that war. Then, 10 years after the last U.S. troops snuck out of South Vietnam -- abandoning their allies and scrambling aboard helicopters as Saigon fell -- the Big Apple would host yet another parade honoring Vietnam veterans, reportedly the largest such celebration in the city's history. So, quite obviously, winning a war isn't a prerequisite for a winning parade.
And that's only one of many lessons the disastrous American War in Vietnam still offers us. More salient perhaps are those that highlight the limits of military might and destructive force on this planet or that focus on the ability of North Vietnam, a "little fourth-rate" country -- to quote Henry Kissinger, the national security advisor of that moment -- to best a superpower that had previously (with much assistance) defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan at the same time. The Vietnam War -- and Kissinger -- provide a useful lens through which to examine the remaining questions about victory and what it means today, but more on that later.
For the moment, just remember: 4,000,000,029,057, Vietnam War, Kissinger.
Peace in Our Time... or Some Time... or No Time
Now, let's take a moment to consider the ur-conflict of the war on terror, Afghanistan, where the U.S. began battling the Taliban in October 2001. America's victory there came with lightning speed. The next year, President George W. Bush announced that the group had been "defeated." In 2004, the commander-in-chief reported that the Taliban was "no longer in existence." Yet, somehow, they were. By 2011, General David Petraeus, then commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, claimed that his troops had "reversed the momentum of the Taliban." Two years later, then-commander General Joseph Dunford spoke of "the inevitability of our success" there.
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