Why can’t America win wars? It’s been two-thirds of a century since we saw (as President Obama vividly put it) “Emperor Hirohito coming down and signing a surrender to MacArthur.” And, if that’s not quite how you remember it, forget the formal guest list, forget the long-form surrender certificate, and try to think of “winning” in a more basic sense.
The United States is currently fighting, to one degree or another, three wars. Iraq — the quagmire, the “bad” war, the invasion that launched a thousand Western anti-war demonstrations and official inquiries and anti-Bush plays and movies — is going least badly. For now. And making allowances for the fact that the principal geostrategic legacy of our genteel protectorate is that an avowed American enemy, Iran, was able vastly to increase its influence over the country on our dime.
Afghanistan? The “good war” is now “America’s longest war.” Our forces have been there longer than the Red Army was. The “hearts and minds” strategy is going so well that American troops are now being killed by the Afghans who know us best. Does being murdered by the soldiers and policemen you’ve spent years training even count as a “combat” death? Perhaps that’s why the U.S. media disdain to cover these killings: In April, at a meeting between Afghan border police and their U.S. trainers, an Afghan cop killed two American soldiers. Oh, well, wild country, once you get up near that Turkmen border. A few weeks later, back in Kabul, an Afghan military pilot killed eight American soldiers and a civilian contractor. On May 13, a NATO “mentoring team” sat down to lunch with Afghan police in Helmand when one of their protégés opened fire and killed two of them. “The actions of this individual do not reflect the overall actions of our Afghan partners,” said Maj. Gen. James B. Laster of the U.S. Marine Corps. “We remain committed to our partners and to our mission here.”
Libya? The good news is that we’ve vastly reduced the time it takes us to get quagmired. I believe the Libyan campaign is already in The Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest quagmire on record. In an inspired move, we’ve chosen to back the one Arab liberation movement incapable of knocking off the local strongman even when you lend them every NATO air force. But not to worry: President Obama, cooed an administration official to The New Yorker, is “leading from behind.” Indeed. What could be more impeccably multilateral than a coalition pantomime horse composed entirely of rear ends? Apparently it would be “illegal” to target Colonel Qaddafi, so our strategic objective is to kill him by accident. So far we’ve killed a son and a couple of grandkids. Maybe by the time you read this we’ll have added a maiden aunt or two to the trophy room. It’s not precisely clear why offing the old pock-skinned transvestite should be a priority of the U.S. right now, but let’s hope it happens soon, because otherwise there’ll be no way of telling when this “war” is “ended.”
According to partisan taste, one can blame the trio of current morasses on Bush or Obama, but in the bigger picture they’re part of a pattern of behavior that predates either man, stretching back through non-victories great and small — Somalia, Gulf War One, Vietnam, Korea. On the more conclusive side of the ledger, we have . . . well, lemme see: Grenada, 1983. And, given that that was a bit of post-colonial housekeeping Britain should have taken care of but declined to, one could argue that even that lone bright spot supports a broader narrative of Western enfeeblement. At any rate, America’s only unambiguous military triumph since 1945 is a small Caribbean island with Queen Elizabeth II as head of state. For 43 percent of global military expenditure, that’s not much bang for the buck.