The last American troops have left Iraq. In his comments regarding this event, President Obama did not use any of these words: victory, mission accomplished, win, won, triumph, success, complete, or any other such words. Quite the contrary: A few months ago, Obama said he was uncomfortable with the notion of “victory” in Iraq. So our soldiers just left one day, and we now have another un-won war.
This is a real problem. There are consequences to un-won wars, just as there are consequences when we win.
Let’s look at real examples from United States history that show the consequences of wars that were won and those that were not.
The last war that America won decisively was World War II (WWII). Both Germany and Japan surrendered unconditionally.
For Japan, this happened only after the Japanese Navy was completely destroyed and the American’s were totally defeating the Japanese on Pacific island after island in ferocious, all-out, scorched earth, bloody fighting on their way to an assault on the Japanese mainland (which it was estimated would have resulted in hundreds of thousand of casualties on both side). The nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki eliminated the need for that mainland invasion, but only after the Japanese emperor stepped in and overruled the Japanese military, which wanted to fight on.
In Europe, it was a ground and air war. We all know about D-Day, the longest day, which Eisenhower agonizingly delayed for three days due to weather, and then gave the go-ahead even though the weather was still marginal at best because he couldn’t keep all of those masses of ships and troops waiting offshore any longer. It was the largest amphibious assault in history. After the success of D-Day, it was on to Berlin. On the way, there was the Battle of the Bulge, the last major land battle in Europe, which came close to being a disaster for the Allies, but we held on. The German Air Force (the much vaunted Luftwaffe) had been eliminated, and we were relentlessly pounding military and industrial sites from the air with impunity. The Red Army was closing in from the East. Finally, Hitler realized it was over and committed suicide (with his mistress, Eva Braun). After the war, Germany was a pile of rubble.
It was total victory for the U.S. and it’s allies, and total defeat for Germany and Japan. What have been the long-term consequences of this war that we won decisively? Today, Germany is Europe’s strongest economy, Japan is a major world economy, they have high standards of living, their people are well off, they are modern not third world countries, and both are our good friends. On a personal note, I worked for a company that did forty percent of its business in Japan, and I traveled there many times.
Let’s look at another example of the consequences of a war that was decisively won, the Civil War. I am a Civil War history buff; I must have read two dozen books about the Civil War, the events that lead up to it, and its aftermath. The devastation of this war is incomprehensible to people today. Generals routinely lost a quarter or a third of their army, and lived to fight another day. Lincoln knew that he couldn’t just win battles, but that he had to destroy the rebel army in totality. Lee knew that his only chance for victory was to score some big win on northern territory early on that would be psychologically devastating, hence Antietam and Gettysburg. Toward the end, General Sheridan saw the Shenandoah Valley as the breadbasket of the Confederacy by which the Confederate Army was fed. He laid waste to it, saying that he wanted a crow flying from end to end to find not one kernel of grain, and he pretty much succeeded. The only reason Lee and Jackson didn’t do similar things was because they never got the chance.
In the end, the number of casualties was appalling: over six hundred thousand killed and over one million killed, wounded, or missing in action, at a time when the total population of the country was thirty-one million. It took a hundred years for the economy in the southern states to fully recover.
The Union won decisively, and what have the long-term consequences been? The United States of America that we see today.
Now what about the consequences of wars that we got into but didn’t win?
We’ll start with Korea. We did not win that war, by any account. It was a negotiated truce. North Korea was left intact, and it has been a nightmare for the North Koreans and the world ever since. The North Korean people live under an extremely oppressive regime and are virtually starving to death while the country’s ruling dictator and his select few live in immense luxury. Consider one little factoid: The recently deceased Kim the elder apparently liked good brandy, and reportedly spent $850,00 on it in one year, while his people starved. And then there is that matter of the nuclear weapons that North Korea may have. What will happen if this unstable, rogue country ever gets them for sure and the means to deliver them? This is all the result of a war that America got into but didn’t win.
How about Vietnam? Fifty-seven thousand Americans died in that war plus many thousands more that were wounded or missing in action. We didn’t win that one either; as with Iraq, we just left one day. The consequences: The North Vietnam communist regime took aver South Vietnam, the very thing we were fighting to prevent. Our soldiers died in vain.
Consider Iran. In 1979, Iran disregarded all international norms and occupied the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking a number of the embassy’s staff, U.S. citizens, prisoner. This was an act of war, because centuries-old international law grants diplomats immunity from arrest and regards an embassy to be that country’s sovereign territory. Respect for those principles is considered by all countries to be the most basic tenet of international relations. If an embassy is taken over or otherwise violated, it is equivalent to a similar act on that country’s homeland. Fifty-two Americans were held hostage by Iran after the embassy take-over for 444 days (a few others were released earlier). In the face of this clear act of war, President Carter dithered. After several months, he authorized a military rescue mission that failed miserably. The hostages were held for several more months before finally being released after Reagan was elected President.
The consequence of our failure to recognize Iran’s actions for what they were, an act of war, and to deal with Iran accordingly is that we are still to this day being threatened by Iran’s dangerous behavior. We know the Iranians were supporting terrorists in Iraq, leading to the deaths of American soldiers. Iran has said it wants to wipe one of our strategic allies, Israel, off the map. Iran is trying to go nuclear. Recently, Iran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which passes a large portion of the worlds oil.
And how about those soldiers that left Iraq recently? The only reason they were there in the first place is because we didn’t win the first Gulf War with Iraq in 1991. In that one, we pushed Iraqi forces out of Kuwait (which they had invaded), declared victory, and left the Saddam Hussein regime in power in Iraq. The rest is history.
There is an unmistakable lesson to be learned from these wars that were won or not. Since the United States is a major world power, there are significant consequences to the outcome of any armed conflict that we undertake. Winning brings good things; losing or just giving up brings more problems that only get worse as the years go by.