The End of Endless War?

Mar 19, 2013 | Updated May 19, 2013

by Lt. Gen. Robert G. Gard, Jr. and Usha Sahay

Ten years ago today, America invaded Iraq primarily to counter a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) threat that did not exist. The invasion launched a war that lasted nearly nine years, took well over 4,000 American lives, saw tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians killed, and cost over $800 billion dollars, not counting additional billions to help the wounded and injured.

The Iraq war has come to symbolize an era of American overreach and, to some, even hubris. Now, with the war in Afghanistan drawing to a close, are Americans finally ready to stop fighting long, costly wars?

Public attitudes about military intervention are shifting: In 2012, a Pew survey showed that 83% of respondents agreed that "we should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems here at home" -- the highest percentage in nearly two decades. And the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found growing public skepticism about the use of military force to achieve American foreign policy objectives.

A similar shift is happening in the upper ranks of government. John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, Obama's new secretary of state and secretary of defense, are both known to be deeply skeptical of military intervention. According to the New York Times, President Obama made these nominations in order to "bring to his administration two veterans with the same sensibility about the futilities of war."

Both Kerry and Hagel became wary of war through their time fighting in Vietnam -- and they were far from the only ones. In fact, the post-Vietnam era was the last time that Americans felt widespread disillusionment about the use of military power. Ronald Reagan called this disillusionment the "Vietnam Syndrome," and chastised his fellow Americans for losing faith in their country's greatness.

But Vietnam Syndrome didn't stop America from using military power -- it simply shifted the focus away from costly counter-insurgency campaigns toward rapid, decisive demonstrations of American strength. Under Reagan, the U.S. launched airstrikes against Libya and a ground war against Granada that lasted only two days. In 1991, when U.S. forces ejected Saddam Hussein's army from Kuwait in the Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush exclaimed, "By God, we've licked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all!"

We seemed to be embracing a new model of warfare, one concentrated on overwhelming strength and firepower. This model generally eschewed the quagmires of fighting insurgencies in countries whose cultures we did not understand and whose languages we did not speak.

Then the tragic 9/11 attacks occurred. President George W. Bush returned to a policy of overseas intervention, and for a time, American attitudes changed.

At first, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq seemed to resemble the quick and decisive victories of years past -- it took relatively little time to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Who can forget the image of President Bush proudly proclaiming "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq in May 2003?

But, of course, neither conflict would be resolved as quickly or easily as anticipated. Iraq's high costs and poor management led political science professor John Mueller to predict the onset of "Iraq syndrome." Mueller was right: as the war dragged on even after the revelation of false WMD intelligence, Americans began to question whether large-scale military occupations were a feasible way to conduct foreign policy.

By 2008, a budget crisis was added to the list of problems. Presidential candidate Barack Obama promised a war-weary public that he would end the war in Iraq and focus resources on the neglected situation in Afghanistan.

Even Obama did not realize just how strongly the public had turned against war. He had banked on Afghanistan being the "good" war, yet he soon came under fire for expanding the conflict by sending additional troops.

Since then, the president has been more wary. He has allowed European nations to take the lead in Libya, and has been similarly cautious on Syria. This suggests a return to a 'light footprint,' low-casualty approach to warfare, which is reinforced by Obama's controversial embrace of drone strikes. His administration has been criticized for opacity about a policy of targeted killing from the air. Still, as a matter of strategy, drone warfare has been hailed as a technologically advanced and less harmful replacement for conventional army combat.

"The United States is finished," concluded military scholar Andrew Bacevich in February 2012, "with the business of sending large land armies to invade and occupy countries on the Eurasian mainland."

Is Bacevich right? Has warfare on the model of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan gone the way of 'horses and bayonets?' Only time will tell: after all, similar statements were made in the 1970s, yet the lessons of Vietnam gradually dimmed, resulting in the invasion of Iraq.

It is clear that the past decade has taken a heavy toll on U.S. public attitudes about the efficacy and morality of war. Americans of both parties no longer want to send soldiers into harm's way unless absolutely necessary. Now, with their leaders finally starting to listen, there's reason to hope that this truly is the end of an era.