Americans Growing Weary Of Endless War

The public is growing tired of America's Longest War.

The Christian Science Monitor takes a look at the polls and finds that the American public is growing tired of a war in Afghanistan that has no real end in sight:

Until recently, the nine-year conflict in Afghanistan had become “the forgotten war” for many Americans – a complaint increasingly heard among US troops there.

But this week’s sacking of Gen. Stanley McChrystal as US commander puts Afghanistan – and especially how the fight against the Taliban is going – squarely back into public thought and concern.

Most Americans agree with Obama that McChrystal had to go, polls show. But they’re far less supportive of the conflict itself, weary of what’s become the longest war in US history.

A recent Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of likely voters finds that just 41 percent “now believe it is possible for the United States to win the nearly nine-year-old war in Afghanistan.” More to the point, a plurality of 48 percent now say ending the war in Afghanistan is a more important goal than winning it.

Meanwhile, 53 percent of those polled by Newsweek disapprove of how Obama is managing the war – a sharp reversal since February when 55 percent supported Obama on Afghanistan and just 27 percent did not. (Put another way, the percentage of Americans who disapprove of Obama’s Afghan policy has nearly doubled in four months.)

The same Newsweek poll finds that “46 percent of respondents think America is losing the war in Afghanistan (26 percent say the military is winning). A similar plurality think the US is losing the broader war on terrorism (43 percent vs. 29 percent)…”

Part of this has to do with the nature of a counterinsurgency (COIN) effort – a phrase and acronym which has been around at least since the early days of Vietnam. Even when it works, counterinsurgency can take years. And the two most recent major examples – France in Algeria and the United States in Vietnam – hardly worked. Hearts and minds must be won, not only in the war zone, but at home as well.

Ironically, though, Afghanistan seems to be less a part of the American daily consciousness than Vietnam was even though the media is far more prevalent today than it was in the 1960s. If we were seeing live reports from the battlefield every night to back up those casualty reports we see in the newspaper every couple of days, I would imagine that American opposition to the war would be even stronger, and louder.

None of this should be surprising, of course, if Vietnam taught us anything, it taught us that a military campaign based on counter-insurgency and long-term commitments is difficult, if not impossible, to sell to the American public. Party, this may be because civilians are still used to thinking of wars in terms of set-piece battles, campaigns, and the capturing of enemy soldiers. A war strategy that has as it’s base the winning of the hearts and minds of the population is completely alien compared to something like, say, the Battle of the Bulge, or even the First Persian Gulf War As I noted a few days ago, even the soldiers on the ground aren’t happy with the rules that COIN imposes on them, so it’s not really all that surprising that the general public wouldn’t be supportive either.

Finally, there’s the simple fact that America simply doesn’t have a history of long wars. With the exception of Vietnam, and of course Afghanistan, most of America’s wars have lasted no more than four to five years. The idea of the “permanent campaign” or the endless war is simply not something that American life is either familiar with.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, National Security, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Finally, there’s the simple fact that America simply doesn’t have a history of long wars.

    ? The Korean War is ongoing—an armistice is in place but no conclusion. We’ve got 37,000 troops in South Korea right now. We’ve had 50,000 troops there for most of the last 60 years.

    For the purposes of calculating casualties of the Viet Nam War, the period 1955 to 1975 is used, a long period of time by most reckonings.

    We still have, what, 5,000? troops in the Balkans more than a decade after NATO’s participation in hostilities there began.

    IMO the issues are scale and casualties and those are among the serious problems with COIN in Afghanistan. The nature of the strategy requires a visibility and activity level that ensures casualties and the size of the force that’s required is very large.

    Look at the U. S. casualties in Afghanistan. They’ve risen as the size of the force there has risen.

  2. Dave,

    You raise a fair point, but when it comes to those long-term commitments without actual combat, I think it sort of becomes an out-of-sight-out-of-mind thing for most Americans. Korea, for example, only makes the papers when Kim Jong Il does something crazy. If we’d spent the last 60 years exchanging fire across the DMZ and suffering casualties as a result, I would imagine that public opinion about Korean deployment might be different

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Several score Americans have been killed in live fire incidents in the DMZ since the armistice began, most in the late 1960’s. Or, said another way, fire is exchanged across the DMZ and we do suffer casualties.

    There is a threshold of casualties that Americans will, apparently, accept indefinitely.

  4. There is a threshold of casualties that Americans will, apparently, accept indefinitely.

    I think that gets close to the truth

  5. steve says:

    “If we were seeing live reports from the battlefield every night to back up those casualty reports we see in the newspaper every couple of days, I would imagine that American opposition to the war would be even stronger, and louder.”

    I doubt it, as they would be heavily censored, always making our guys look good and never showing dead Americans. Hell, it just looks like a video game and those dont hurt anyone. Besides, I think it was more the draft than nightly pictures that provoked protests.

    Steve

  6. Well, we can always surrender and end the war.

    On the other hand, perhaps the problem is that rather than seeing it as a real war with existential implications, we see it as more of a politicized police action, what with Guantanamo, trials in New York, a Rolling Stone foreign policy, etc. Or maybe war has just lost the cachet it used to have from overuse with the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs, and the War on Cancer, none of which seem to have much more success or any end in sight, although some progress has been made against cancer.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    Steve makes a good point. Most Americans have no skin in the game. They don’t pay much in the way of taxes, they don’t even know anybody who’s in the military in Afghanistan, and they don’t give a damn about Afghanistan one way or another.

    Reduce the level of casualties which IMO can be accomplished by abandoning counter-insurgency as a strategy and reducing the footprint and we’ll be able to prevent the Taliban from regaining control or Al-Qaeda from re-establishing itself in Afghanistan forever.

  8. Amy says:

    I think Dave and Steve hit it. And I question whether most Americans are truly “weary” of the war. Even with the latest news of Gen. McChrystal, most aren’t paying attention to it anymore, much less growing “weary.”

    Here’s a good piece about how “weary” Americans really are of war:

    “Has war become the permanent American Condition?”

    http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glen_greenwald/2010/05/24/wars

  9. @Charles:

    perhaps the problem is that rather than seeing it as a real war with existential implications, we see it as more of a politicized police action

    But, in fairness, this is not a war with existential implications. There is no way that the actual existence of the United States is threatened by the Taliban or a Talibanized Afghanistan.

    I would agree that a non-Talibanizes Afghanistan is better than a Talibanized one, but I have my doubts about it being worth the cost to prevent it. Regardless, even if we fail, we are not going to be directly threatened in terms of our existence.

    Soviet nuclear missiles were an existential threat. The Taliban are not.

    And even if we can totally eliminate the Taliban, there is no reason why al Qaeda or like groups can’t plan terror attacks and engage in training elsewhere. As such, if your argument is that this war is a war to end the terror threat, it isn’t.

    In what way do see this as a war against an existential threat?

  10. Nikolai says:

    What is the goal in Afghanistan? We’ve heard that it is to eliminate the Taliban, but that will never happen, as there are two Taliban who spring up for every one we kill, like cutting the head off a hydra. Supposedly the real goal to to enable the completion of the natural gas pipeline from the Caspian Sea all the way along the Pakistan border (where the Taliban are the strongest) then on to India. Personally, I don’t see this happening, and even if there is some way they get the pipeline completed, the Taliban will always be sabotaging it and the Pakistanis and Indians are enemies, so no help there, either. Then there’s the one trillion dollar mineral find that was recently in the news. We’ll never get out of there.

  11. Dave Schuler says:

    Steven:

    I hate to be placed in the position of making an argument that could be construed as taking a position that I don’t hold but I think “existential threat” needs to be considered a little more broadly than you seem to suggest.

    Japan did not pose an existential threat to the United States in 1941. Neither did Germany. We went to war anyway because of the threat that they did pose.

    Clearly, the North did not pose an existential threat to the South during the American Civil War: the South continued to exist. You could travel there and there were still people there. But its way of life had been overthrown.

  12. Dave,

    I did pick the most extreme example.

    However, a Talibanized Afghanistan does not reach the same level of threat to the US as did Japan, Germany or the North to the South or vice versa.

    I would, by the way, define existential threat as encompassing the idea of an end to a way of life, not just nuclear annihilation. As such, the North did, in fact, present an existential threat to the antebellum south. Nazi Germany certainly presented an existential threat to Europe (whether it did to the US is a different discussion, but the loss of Europe would have been rather significant).

    I do not believe that the Taliban, al Qaeda or whatever version of radicalized Islam one wishes to discuss threatens, in any real way, our way of life.

    Does this help clarify?

  13. Steven,

    What about a Talibanized Pakistan ?

    If not an existential threat to the United States, one could make the case that it would be a threat to stability in at least two parts of the world

  14. Doug,

    As I have harped on in some other posts, proper diagnosis of a policy problem is vital and hence my reaction to the term “existential threat” (just to set some context for where I am coming from).

    While I think that a Talibanized Pakistan would be problematic and undesirable for the US and yes not in US interests in the region, it still would not be an existential threat to the US. I am, at a minimum, simply arguing for proper classification of what we are doing.

    BTW, I am not arguing that existential threats are the only motivations for military action, just that defining all wars as such (as seems to be the views of many) is problematic.

    In terms of Pakistan, it is unlikely that it will ever be governed the way Afghanistan was under the Taliban, for a variety of reasons (not the least of which being large chunks of the Pak elite that do not want a Talibanized Pakistan, and with the power to resist such a situation). I would agree, however, that Pakistan is more important, ultimately, than Afghanistan. Of course, it is worth remembering that there have been, for decades, elements of the Pakistan government, most especially in the intelligence branch, that have been pro-Taliban (and helped the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 90s). If they were going to take over Pakistan, they had a pretty good chance in the 90s and did not do so (partially because of the aforementioned elite factions in Pakistan).

  15. Dave Schuler says:

    I do not believe that the Taliban, al Qaeda or whatever version of radicalized Islam one wishes to discuss threatens, in any real way, our way of life.

    The problem is that we definitely pose an existential threat to their way of life and, consequently, they have little choice but to oppose, harass, and attack us to the extent that they can. The attacks on September 11 imposed $1 trillion or thereabouts in immediate costs and another couple of trillion (mostly foolishly IMO) of other costs.

    Those costs aren’t illusory and anything we’d have done would have cost something. I think in the sense of raising our cost of doing business violent Islamism poses an existential threat to us.

  16. Dave,

    I am not suggesting that we cease all attempts to contain radical Islam or that we utterly ignore the issue of potential terrorist attacks. However, it is not entirely clear that the war in Afghanistan necessary accomplishes this task. Al Qaeda, as you know, is not limited to working with the Taliban or training in Afghanistan.

    I am not convinced, btw, that al Qaeda or like groups is capable of another 9/11. I also would argue, as you infer, that a lot of these problems are self-inflicted wounds.

  17. Dr. Taylor, I believe we are in a long war for our continued existence and will always be, that’s just life. Currently, our most obvious enemy is a strain of radical Islam that may have nuclear capabilities accessible to it within a few years, whether it be from Iran, Pakistan, or North Korea — or maybe even Russia, China or organized crime, who knows. Meanwhile Russia’s kleptocracy is not going to sit still and China’s demographic nightmares will become everyone’s problem soon enough, not to mention the occasional loose cannon like North Korea, Venezuela, and whatever bag of nut jobs want to claim the mantle from al Qaeda. I also expect a rise of totalitarianism and Marxism once again as the root causes of the current economic malaise are mistaken as failures of free markets, rather than uncontrolled and unsustainable government spending,

    On top of all this there is the problem of anything less than a victory being problematic, strong horse, weak horse and all that. If the US cannot be counted upon and the US’ actions cannot be understood and anticipated, the world becomes a more dangerous place. It has been noted many times that in historical terms the world has rarely known more peaceful times, if your primary metric is people being killed. Unfortunately, if we avoid conflict too long trying to make nice or be a better member of the international community and make too many mistakes along the way the conflagrations are likely to be much, much worse. But I digress.

  18. Dave Schuler says:

    However, it is not entirely clear that the war in Afghanistan necessary accomplishes this task.

    Which pretty well sums up my position back in 2001. While I think that it could well be argued some sort of reprisal was required, I thought invasion was imprudent.

    To my mind the question at hand is whether withdrawing from Afghanistan completely advances or retards what we actually have to do. I do not think that it advances it. It is possible that it might retard it. Hence my current position: we need to maintain a compact, lethal force in Afghanistan whose objective is counter-terrorism and denying the territory to the enemy.

  19. @Charles: you seem to be saying, ultimately, that life is difficult and full of challenges. That is true, but does not turn the war in Afghanistan into one predicated on an existential threat to the US (which is what your original comment stated and that launched the above interchange).

    @Dave: I am persuadable that we have no choice but to stay (the best of a lot of bad options and all of that). Indeed, I am persuadable that you position is basically the only option we have. There is, however, no “victory” to be had (and I think we agree there) and I still maintain that we are not in “existential threat” territory.”

  20. steve says:

    ” The attacks on September 11 imposed $1 trillion or thereabouts in immediate costs and another couple of trillion (mostly foolishly IMO) of other costs.

    Those costs aren’t illusory and anything we’d have done would have cost something. I think in the sense of raising our cost of doing business violent Islamism poses an existential threat to us.”

    This is a key point. It is our response to attacks or perceived threat which really can be existential. I think that going to Afghanistan, with modest goals, made sense. Iraq gives us a horrible ROI and had little to do with AQ.

    Our problem is not only with our tactics, COIN vs CT, but there is a lack of overall big picture strategy. What are our goals for the entire area? How do our finances affect our goals? Should Saudi Arabia be a primary ally? India or Pakistan? If we kick AQ out of Pakistan, where do they go next?

    “Unfortunately, if we avoid conflict too long trying to make nice or be a better member of the international community and make too many mistakes along the way the conflagrations are likely to be much, much worse”

    We are a very warlike country. War is popular. What was the longest period of time we went without a military intervention in the 20th century? By some accounts, OBL counted on that when he planned 9/11. If current plans do not work, we should go to a cheaper CT approach. It wont anyone else more or less likely to challenge us in a set piece war.

    Steve

  21. Dr. Taylor, my apologies for not being clear. Afhganistan is merely a front in a much larger war. For many reasons, I don’t think Afghanistan has the history, culture or infrastructure to be eased into the 20th century (definitely not the 21st) anytime soon, so we will likely fail with our nation building. I do find it curious though that we have to be oh so sensitive to face saving cultures, and yet face saving seems to be of no importance to us. How do those face saving cultures view us under these conditions?

  22. Trumwill says:

    I think I fall mostly with Dave Schuler on this.

    While it’s true that Al-Qaeda doesn’t need Afghanistan in particular, I don’t believe we can allow them to have what they had prior to 9/11, which is a place where they can launch their activities unimpeded. That’s likely to require continued activities in that country. While morally dubious in the grand scheme of things, forcing them to focus their efforts on taking back or causing trouble in foreign countries is better for us than letting them set up camp and plan another 9/11. I personally believe that bin Laden has been dead for at least half a decade now, but keeping the bin Ladens in hiding and on the run is to our benefit as the more energy that have to expend on that, the harder it is to launch another attack.

    I mostly agree with Steven that al-Qaeda is not capable of another 9/11. I think a part of that, though, is that they’re too distracted to. I also would have said the same thing prior to 9/11, which goes to show that we really don’t know what they are capable of until they do it. I think that given the resources they have and the time and freedom to plot appropriately, they could probably do a lot of things. Perhaps as much as anything else, I think we have benefited from their general lack of imagination. I hope that continues, though I don’t want to count on it.

  23. wr says:

    Charles Austin — The reason we have to be “sensitive” in Afghanistan is because the government is trying to wage a counter-insurgency, which is a war fought on two fronts — they need to defeat the enemy while convincing the non-combatants that we are on their side. If we succeed in the former but in so doing fail in the latter, then the non-combatants become combatants and the war never ends.

    The other option in fighting this war is simply to move in as invaders and kill anything that sticks its head up. While this is how occupations work — ask the Nazis or the Soviets about that — I don’t think America has the stomach for it. I know I don’t. But even if we did, the Russians tried that in Afghanistan and it didn’t work.

    So our options are to be “sensitive” or to get out. I realize that many “conservatives” hate the notion that America ever has to stop and think about what other people want or how they see us, but here it’s a necessity. And if you’re concerned that this makes it hard for the troops, well, so what? They don’t get to choose what war they fight in.

    You’ve got a third alternative to the ones above? Let us all know.

  24. I’ve got a lot of alternatives to the false dichotomies you offered me, but lack the time to respond now. And I think you missed my point, though again I lack time now to explain. Sorry.