September 12, 2021
by Steve Stofka
The recent exit from Afghanistan after a twenty year war (2001-2021) reminds me of the twenty year war we fought in Vietnam (1955-1975). Neither war achieved our ends, demonstrating again that war is a series of miscalculations of the gains and costs. Our overwhelming fighting force can dominate short-term conflict like the Gulf War but it is not a winning strategy against poorly funded insurgent groups. To those who study the practice of war, this dichotomy prompts many pages of speculation as to the causes.
An answer that fits the facts is that a dominant force like the U.S. does not go to war to win, so it achieves its goal by not winning. The traditional end of war – a win – is to capture territory or access to resources within a region. In Vietnam and in Afghanistan, the U.S. had no such designs. Its goal was remove an existing regime and to prevent its return to power. The first is a military goal. The second is a political end. In both countries, we achieved the military goal of removal. In both countries, we learned that armed troops cannot achieve a long term political goal. Why didn’t we learn our lesson after Vietnam?
An answer that fits the facts is that our goal is to demonstrate our military power, not to learn lessons. In 1795, shortly after the final ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote Perpetual Peace, an essay arguing that a republican government, one with a separation of legislative and executive powers like the U.S., was the only hope of perpetual peace. Without a central authority over all the nations, the only constraint on leaders must come from within each nation.
Only those under a republican form of government understood the true costs of war. The citizens had to fight it, fund it and repair the country after the war was over. 200 years later, the development of technology has allowed most Americans to vote for war without fighting it. The U.S. spends over $536,000 per person in the armed forces, more than five times what China spends per active duty person (GFP, 2021). Because we are able to borrow from the rest of the world, we don’t have to fund our wars with our own taxes. Lastly, the wars are fought in another country so that we don’t have to repair the damages of war. The horrific attack on the World Trade Center twenty years ago was a visceral, deeply wounding reminder of the cost of war fought on the homeland.
Kant wrote that a treaty of peace could not solve the tendency of nations to find a justification for war because a treaty ended only one war. Since peace was not a natural feature of human societies, countries should try to construct a peace that ended all wars. He suggested a League of Peace and stressed that it be a federation of nations, not a nation of nations. The League of Nations formed after WW1 constructed only a treaty, not a peace. Intent on punishing Germany for the war, the Treaty of Versailles ensured the next war twenty years later. The United Nations and NATO were two attempts to form international organizations aimed at resolving issues without war. We have not had another world war since the mid-20th century but we have not constructed a durable peace either.
America has overcome Kant’s three safeguards against perpetual war. Writing at the end of the 18th century when nations fought to take something from someone else, Kant could not imagine our present circumstances. We fight wars to give something to other peoples, a chance for freedom and hope. That is our justification for the damage we do. But the end of war is to take what we want, not to give. We have built the most formidable fighting machine that has ever existed, but it is a tool of power, not peace. In memory of those who died that day 20 years ago, let’s invest in the tools of peace.
GFP. 2021. “2021 Military Strength Ranking.” Global Firepower – World Military Strength. https://www.globalfirepower.com/countries-listing.php (September 11, 2021). Note: dividing total military cost by active personnel: US $536K per person, Russia – $48K, China – $108K, India – $44K, Japan – $198K, S. Korea – $76K.
Kant, Immanuel. 1983. Perpetual Peace, and Other Essays: On Politics, History, and Morals. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
National Constitution Center (NCC). 2021. “On This Day: Congress Officially Creates the U.S. Army.” National Constitution Center – constitutioncenter.org. https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/on-this-day-congress-officially-creates-the-u-s-army (September 11, 2021).