I am not a soldier, nor have I ever been one. The closest I’ve come to war was listening to the stories of my Uncle John, a decorated veteran of World War II. Some of those stories, including one from a book written by a fellow soldier that mentions John by name, spoke of friendly fire incidents (John inadvertanly almost burned him to death with a flame-thrower when the two came on a house from different directions…and these guys were buddies) and civilians caught in the war zone, in this case France and Belgium in the summer of 1944. These were friendly countries controlled by our then enemy, Nazi Germany. In that war, in Europe alone, millions of civilians died…in carpet bombings, tank battles, artillery barrages, you name it. The Allied forces were probably responsible for most of those deaths, yet today Europeans still commemorate fallen Allied soldiers in cemeteries around their countries.
War is an imperfect way of settling any dispute, because war itself is grossly imperfect. Yet for millennia humanity has chosen war over reasoned discourse. Some wars are aggressive, some defensive, some economic, some frivolous (for me, religious and some ideological wars fall under this category), and a few are even the result of absolute boredom- things have just gotten too comfortable, so let’s find us an enemy. Yet some wars are also necessary. And in some wars, the reasons each side is fighting might be completely different.
For Japan in the 1930’s leading up to WWII, their reason for attacking China and Southeast Asia had more to do with economics than anything else. Sure, ideologically they believed they were superior to Chinese and Koreans, but what they needed were resources. They had no oil, no iron ore, none of the things a country needs to expand peacefully through trade, so they decided to just go take it from everyone else. They attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor to forestall reprisal for those actions. Of course, Roosevelt’s embargoes of scrap steel and such in reaction to Japan’s invasions actually made Japan’s problems more acute, a self perpetrating cycle. So for Japan, the war in the Pacific was primarily an economic one, for the US and it’s Allies, it was a defensive one. Ironically, the Allies were fighting to keep the possessions they had taken by force a century or more earlier for economic purposes themselves. What a world.
Still, no one today believes that World War II was a bad war; it needed to be fought. Which leads me to Afghanistan. Due to the later antics of the Bush/Cheney administration, the reasons we’re in Afghanistan have grown hazy. If not for Iraq, we probably wouldn’t still even need to be in Afghanistan. But in 2001, the Taliban who controlled that country harbored the man who was the spiritual leader of a small group of fanatics who attacked the United States and wouldn’t give him up. You could say on our part it was a war of vengeance (yet another reason), but since Osama bin Laden was promising more attacks, you can also regard it as a defensive war. And at one point we actually had won that war…the Taliban were routed, the Afghanis were for the most part happy to see us and the future looked bright. In a way, it was too easy; it just wasn’t enough war for Bush and he was on a roll, determined to change the balance of power in the whole region. And boy, did he ever.
So, distracted by Iraq, we let Afghanistan fall by the wayside. The Taliban came back and we did nothing to stop them. Suddenly, we were simultaneously fighting both a ‘good’ war and a ‘bad’ one and the two got so mixed up we couldn’t tell them apart. If we had only devoted a tenth of the resources from Iraq into building roads, schools and hospitals-infrastructure- in Afghanistan and left Iraq alone…or at least only supported the Kurds…if only we didn’t try to adhere to the unnatural borders drawn by the British when the Raj collapsed…ah, if only. What matters now is that we did it all wrong. The question is, do we try to fix it or just walk away?
I don’t think it’s either fair or reasonable to walk away. It’s one of the reasons I supported Barack Obama. I honestly believe that without the active hindrance of his political enemies here at home, we can help Afghanistan become a peaceful society. Perhaps I’m wrong. It’s possible our own country has become too divided by our own economic troubles and racial tensions too succeed at anything anymore.
But I know three things- if we were really committed to it, we could do it, and if we did it, it would be a good thing and third…innocent people will die in the process, because innocent people always die in the process. Innocent people will die if we walk away too, possibly a whole lot more. The Iraqi debacle made Iran far stronger than it ever would have been; leaving Afghanistan will make them (and our ally of convenience, Pakistan) stronger still. Soon there will be two nuclear armed countries in the region and within a decade there’ll be a far larger, far more devastating war. And once again, millions, not hundreds or even tens of thousands, of innocent civilians will die.