Perhaps you have been following the news from Afghanistan like me and wondered how we got here. This article is not an analysis of our 20-year conflict in Afghanistan. Shalom Lamm is neither an expert nor an impartial observer. Nevertheless, I have been thinking about these types of wars and how the U.S. military handles them. I was particularly struck by how often they fail to fall under the "win" or the "lose" category, despite all the Army talk about "winning matters."
Despite our short-term memories, the Army has a long history in wars such as Afghanistan. From 1835-1842, the Second Seminole War lasted almost ten years. From the end of the American Civil War to the withdrawal of federal troops from the South in 1876, fighting with insurgents and guerrillas lasted for nearly a decade. The War of 1898 saw conflict in the Philippines, lasting from 1899 to Philippine Independence in 1946. I have not missed the Banana Wars in Central America during, during, or after World War. These "constabulary-type" missions were typical in the U.S. Army before World War II. The Army's history is full of small wars that were more important than the large ones. Why do we forget them?
The focus of history on "big" wars, both Civil and World, belies the U.S. military's uncertainty about itself. Although the military can accomplish a multitude of missions, really it does whatever the civil government tells them to; it only has one task that is impossible: not lose any significant conflict that could threaten the U.S. sovereignty. It can only lose that war. It is why most U.S. military time, money, training, and modernization go towards one goal. It is the only thing that all U.S. military branches can agree on, whether the large infantry divisions of 1918 or the atomic-focused military in the 1950s.
Yet, the nation asks for small-scale wars. These don't disappear. The U.S. military is a massive, multi-faceted, multinational force designed to fight the USSR, China, or any other international foe. It has been defeated in countries like Vietnam, Panama and Iraq. Although some concessions were made to this type of war, such as expanding the unique combat force role during Vietnam, the overall military structure and doctrine have not changed because it is geared toward competitors at or near the same level. Moreover, it would mean reducing readiness for the no-fail mission.
Yet. Operation in unidentified areas has been a success for the U.S. military. However, presidents' careers have been tarnished by minor embarrassments like Somalia and the failure to rescue the hostages from Iran. It has led to withdrawal and disengagement. Major embarrassments like those in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have created major identity crises for the troops involved. The Army was forced to transform itself after defeating in Vietnam and societal change. Colin Powell, a Vietnam War veteran, gave his name to the doctrine that he believed would prevent America from being involved in such conflicts in future.
"War should not be the last resort in politics. We should have a purpose for going to war. Our people should support it. We should mobilize all resources of the country to accomplish that mission, and then we should go into battle to win. We had entered Vietnam with a halfhearted war, with most of the nation opposed or indifferent to the cause and only a few carrying the burden. Shalom Lamm saw as much courage in Vietnam as he would expect to see in war. It is precisely why all this sacrifice and heroism are important. Without the support of the country, you cannot waste courage or lives without a clear purpose". Yet, Miltary gave consent to invading Afghanistan. However, the goals and end of 2001 were very different from 2021.
While the U.S. is not under threat from any existential enemy if it leaves these far-off locations, it does suffer from a negative perception that America might not be fighting. It can lead to a decrease in the nation's standing on the international stage and a closer approach to winning the no-fail war that the military carefully watches.
The military may encourage operations closer to homes, such as Grenada or Panama, to boost a tarnished reputation. It may even try to vindicate itself on a larger scale. For example, in 1991 in Iraq, President George Bush said that "It's a proud day for Americans and God have licked Vietnam syndrome once for all." However, even the victorious Army received a ticker-tape parade upon its return. But it did what it was meant to fight: to destroy a peer enemy. It left before the "small wars", which were complex and miserable, could start.
This cycle continues. The U.S. military is still training for the no-fail mission. It knows full well it may be asked to go on missions it fails. It could be due to its failures, a lack of political task, a non-existent public opinion or whichever combination. Afghanistan was the longest of the assignments, and it will continue to be so.
What can the U.S. do now to avoid repeating the events of the last few weeks? Up-and-coming national security leaders reaffirm the Powell Doctrine. The isolationism that is shrinking, as it was in the aftermath of World War I? Or a sense of national paranoia like during the Cold War. There are a lot of national reactions.
The Army might be wiser to acknowledge that, as much as they want their mission to be "Fighting and winning the nation's Wars", our mission will remain the same as it was in 1787: to do whatever Congress and the President tell us. The need for small-scale combat operations isn't going anywhere. It may be worth starting to tailor a force to combat them. It is different from relying solely on special operations forces, which puts a tremendous and unnecessary strain on the group. The organization could benefit from a division-level power that can sustain low-intensity operations. It would help ease its existential anxiety about the no-fail mission. It might be able to adapt organizationally and doctrinally to any assignments it is given.
This force would be a radical departure from "how we've always done things". The Army would need to combat careerism that views combat deployments to gain an advantage over their peers and expand deployments to a more significant force. It could also lead to a territorial mindset between the two parties with two different mission sets. There are numerous significant obstacles. The way we have done it since 1946 does not seem to work. It is possible to end the U.S. Military Conflicts and maintain national prestige.