“Another such victory and we are undone.”
The quote is widely credited to Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, more than two millennia ago. It’s where the idea of a “Pyrrhic victory” comes from, in which the cost exceeds the outcome. And it’s how world powers like the United States manage to win every battle while losing the war.
As one grows older it’s impossible not to notice how history seems to run in cycles. Give it a couple of generations and people are tempted to repeat mistakes.
When I was a young man it was Vietnam. Personally, I was too young to be swept up in the early years of conflict during the 1960s and in college with a deferment during the drawdown years of the 1970s. Like many, as the grind of war dragged on I shifted from first believing the government surely knew what it was doing to finally concluding America’s leaders not only were on the wrong track, they were aware of that fact for years before stopping the carnage.
For the troops on the ground, air and sea of the Vietnam war that didn’t matter. They were sent there by America and they performed the mission with honor, skill and bravery. American forces won the battles. They could not be beaten or driven from the field. The mistakes were made in Washington by political leaders who couldn’t—or, perhaps, wouldn’t—see the obvious, that even the world’s strongest military was badly miscast in a role standing between warring sides in a foreign civil conflagration.
And now Afghanistan.
The geography is different.
The point is the same.
When terrorists knocked down the Twin Towers, attacked the Pentagon and downed a commercial aircraft over Pennsylvania, a blood price had to be exacted. Call it justice or call it vengeance, the mission was inevitable. Those responsible had to be held accountable. Which meant, to most Americans, the villains had to die.
Pacifism was hard to find in post-9-11 America. If terrorist attacks on U.S. soil that claimed thousands of lives did not demand unleashing the full might of the American military machine, nothing ever would. When then-President George W. Bush said, “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” American heads nodded in agreement. When Bush gave the ruling Taliban a choice in Afghanistan—turn over the terrorists, or else—he had almost universal backing at home. When the Taliban refused the American people supported the next step. Destroy Osama bin Laden and his gang of terrorists—and rout the Taliban.
America’s armed forces did all that.
Then came the mistakes.
America’s political leaders believed they could make Afghanistan the United States of the Middle East. They could remake Afghanistan in our image.
To make matters worse America’s political leaders looked around and decided, “Well, the army is here, so why not invade Iraq?”
Like in Vietnam, U.S. forces did everything asked of them. The enemy was no match.
The mistakes came from Washington, never from the guys wearing the uniforms and carrying the guns.
America’s political hubris failed to recognize that these conquered countries didn’t want to be us. Their people lived on soil that had soaked up the blood of conquerors throughout history. When the occupiers eventually tired and moved on, the countries reverted to their own ways. No amount of U.S. training, or expensive equipping, could prevail if their troops lacked the will to fight.
Yes, America could have kept troops in Afghanistan forever and propped up a weak, ineffective and wildly unpopular government. American sons and daughters could have continued to die until, eventually, their grandchildren would have been the ones asked to die.
President Trump started the process of getting out. President Biden continued it. To say the leaving is ugly and demoralizing hardly seems enough. This is yet another humiliating lesson in superpower limits.
The question is: Will the lesson stick, this time? Or will time dull the pain and, another generation or two down the road, the same mistakes will be repeated?
I want to make a couple of thoughts clear. There is no dishonor for America’s soldiers, sailors and marines. They did everything asked of them. They won the battles they were sent to fight. The politicians lost by their dumb insistence on making this about something besides what it was. After 9-11 justice demanded the military wipe the floor with the terrorists responsible for the attacks and any who harbored them. Justice did not demand nation-building. Not in Afghanistan. And surely not in Iraq.
Secondly, it was always going to end like this. Trump and Biden will take lumps for playing the “get out” card. In truth, they’re paying the political price for the idiotic mistakes and cowardice of others before them.
My fervent prayer is that today’s young people will be left with two thoughts in their heads going forward: (1) there are times when America must fight to punish an enemy, uphold justice and send a bloody message to any who mean us harm; and (2) the default position, when the fight is won, should be accept victory and go home.
William Barth is the former Editor of the Beloit Daily News. Write to him at email@example.com