Once You’re in a War, How Do You Get Out?

By Sandra I. Erwin
The United States passed a bleak milestone last year: The war in Afghanistan became the longest conflict in the nation’s history. Many Americans want to know when and how the war might end. The soldiers who are fighting there may want some answers, too.
In the absence of a crystal ball, the U.S. Army in 2009 asked a number of renowned historians to dig into their archives and elucidate the public on how the nation managed to bring previous major conflicts to a close.  The product is a book of essays, titled “Between War and Peace: How America Ends Its Wars,” scheduled to be released next week. It contains 15 essays penned by leading American historians and edited by Army Col. Matthew Moten, who is deputy chairman of the history department at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
“It is curious that that in all the hundreds of thousands of books on war and military history, the manner and results of war’s end have seldom been addressed in a rigorous and systematic fashion,” Moten writes in the book’s introduction.
Not surprisingly, one of history’s painful lessons is that wars don’t achieve what leaders originally intended. For most of its history, the United States has been successful in wars, says Moten. “But the endings of those conflicts have brought about unforeseen and unwanted consequences; the aftermath has seldom resembled the peaceful future the nation’s leaders had imagined and hoped for when they first decided for war.”
These historians’ accounts also are reminders that it is often difficult to pinpoint exactly when a war concludes or even who the victor is. Most don’t end decisively, as they do in the movies, with one general turning over his weapons to another.
The U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command commissioned the study in an effort to shed light on the complexities of war, says TRADOC Commander Gen. Martin Dempsey, in the book’s foreword.
Moten contends that the essays are not meant to serve as anti-war commentary or punditry. They examine 14 conflicts, beginning with the American Revolution and ending with the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the last major U.S. war that reached its conclusion. The Gulf War chapter, written by Andrew Bacevich, professor of international relations and history at Boston University, makes a case that a “disappointing” outcome of the conflict ultimately led to today’s wars. “However inadvertently, Operation Desert Storm advanced the Islamist cause,” Bacevich asserts. “As a consequence, the partial victory over Saddam in 1991 helped set the stage for what Americans in the wake of 9/11 chose to call their Global War on Terror” that continues to this day, with no end in sight.

Topics: Defense Department, War Planning

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