One has to wonder whether politicians ever really read history or pay any attention to it if they do. Rather, they march toward the avoidable follies (with an apology to the late historian Barbara Tuchman) that have marred civilization since Troy.
The latest of these historic mistakes, of course, came with the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent misguided efforts to turn Afghanistan into something it never will be, a democracy, all in the benighted belief that the United States could accomplish what no other country has been able to achieve. Having watched the Soviet Union's rulers commit political suicide in the mountainous hardscrabble of a nation where tribal and religious culture make it impossible to alter the political landscape, America has done the same thing.
After a decade of slugging away against the forces of a ninth-century idealism, this country is no nearer its goal — whatever that may be — than it was when President George W. Bush foolishly diverted limited resources only inches away from routing the Taliban to open a second front in Iraq — which was no real threat to anyone. Now, with the combat troops finally out of Iraq, we have been asked by Afghanistan's president to withdraw back to the cities where the Russians once repaired before fleeing in distress.
We went to Afghanistan on legitimate business in the wake of 9/11 — to rid the world of Osama bin Laden. The Iraq invasion let him off the hook, until Navy Seals dispatched him last May in Pakistan. In between came years of disruptions to the Mideast by those who misguidedly believed our national security was at risk in Iraq.
What is at risk, it seems to me, is pride embedded in what we attempt to teach our children: that this nation never goes to war except to protect truth and justice and fair play. Did the terrorists need quelling? Of course they did, and they do. But Tuchman's definition of folly is overreaction that produces results counter to one's self-interests after repeated warning. There was a reason to be in Afghanistan originally, but it's increasingly obvious that there is none now — and that our self-interest probably lies in permitting the inevitable to happen without the loss of another American life or of overstressed combat troops who have been asked to fight too long snapping either at home or in the combat zone.
The nation's brave troops are too few — the Army has just over a half-million — to find themselves deployed again and again in a situation that is half-occupy, half-fight, with an unachievable end. Sgt. Robert Bales, the Army sniper accused of a murderous attack on sleeping villagers, including many women and children, had served 1,192 days in Iraq and Afghanistan and was on his fourth deployment. He had been denied promotion, and his appeal to be let out of the latest assignment had been denied. He and his wife, who have two young children, were forced to put up the family home for sale.
In Iraq, he had received a head wound.
Was Bales psychologically fit for duty? The question might never be settled, but the results of this pressure are hard to deny. He has been called a good soldier and, obviously, thousands of his fellow combatants haven't inexplicably committed murder. But check the military suicide and family violence rates if you doubt the impact of this prolonged nightmare. Every person under similar circumstances reacts differently.
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What should the military and its civilian leaders learn from this episode that they couldn't have learned from Vietnam or by listening to generals — and there were several prominent ones — who warned that the nation could hardly sustain occupying Iraq and Afghanistan with so few troops? To be trite, the proof of these warnings is in the pudding. There is no draft to support such adventurism. If there had been, we would have left this miserable scene much sooner.
History is an excellent guidepost if it is followed — ask the Russians or the British or the Trojans.
Email Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at firstname.lastname@example.org.