“This time, they think they have it right.”
So declared an Associated Press story reporting an upbeat assessment by this country’s top military officer at the end of a five-day visit to Afghanistan earlier this spring. Marine General Joseph Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was heading home from the war zone, the AP reporter wrote, “with a palpable sense of optimism” about the U.S.-supported war against Taliban and Islamic State fighters there.
Light at the end of the tunnel, perhaps?
The story didn’t say whether any of the reporters listening to General Dunford asked why it had taken more than 16 years for the world’s leading military power to come up with the “fundamentally different approach” that the general believes has put U.S. and Afghan forces on the path to success. (None of the changes he mentioned really sounded fundamental, either.) Still, it’s a question worth asking: If Americans are right in ceaselessly telling themselves that theirs is the most powerful country the world has ever seen and that their military is the “greatest fighting force ever,” as President Trump calls it, should it have been this hard and taken this long to find a way — if they really have — to defeat enemies whose war-making resources are a tiny fraction of ours?
As has happened often during our current conflicts, that piece of news from Afghanistan got me thinking about an earlier war that I witnessed first-hand as a correspondent for the Baltimore Sun during its final three years.
In Vietnam, as in subsequent American wars, the United States and its local allies had staggering advantages in all the conventional measures of military strength, yet failed to win. It makes me wonder: If U.S. political and military leaders and the American public remembered Vietnam more honestly, if painful truths hadn’t been cloaked in comforting mythologies, might this country have responded more intelligently and effectively to the violent challenges we’ve faced in the current century?