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Judging A War

In assessing which of its dozen major wars America should have fought, unintended consequences often outweigh the intended ones.

War is hell, but it can also be useful as hell. Even if that isn't always obvious at the time.

Ponder, for a moment, the War of 1812. When the fledgling United States of America repulsed the British -- again -- in 1815, the war "felt like a loss or a tie," according to Allan Millett, a military historian at the University of New Orleans. The torch had been put to the Capitol and the White House, and the Battle of Baltimore produced the lyrics of a National Anthem that generations of Americans would struggle to sing. The Americans hadn't won; the British had lost.


Only as the years passed did it become clear that the war had truly served the United States as a Second War of Independence. It forced Britain to respect its former colony's sovereignty; helped to nudge the Spanish out of Florida; persuaded the European colonial powers to accept the Louisiana Purchase and to stop aiding the Indians, thereby opening the way to Western expansion; and prepared the geopolitical groundwork for the Monroe Doctrine. Not for another 186 years, until September 11, 2001, would the continental United States suffer a foreign attack.

"In the long run," Millett judged, "it worked out."

Unintended consequences can also work in the other direction, of course. Consider the following zigzag of events. The humiliating American defeat in the Vietnam War may have encouraged the Soviet Union's adventurism, notably its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, four years after North Vietnamese troops seized control of South Vietnam. The Afghan mujahedeen eventually drove the Soviets out, with the covert support of the United States, as dramatized in the 2007 movie Charlie Wilson's War. The playboy member of Congress, a Texas Democrat, prevailed upon Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the U.S. Congress to cough up billions of dollars and untraceable weaponry.


But recall the movie's penultimate scene, when Wilson fails to persuade his fellow House appropriators to spend a pittance to rebuild Afghan schools, in hopes of reconstructing a land left broken by war and occupation. The resulting power vacuum allowed the Taliban to emerge as the mountainous nation's militantly Islamic rulers, offering sanctuary and succor to Al Qaeda as it prepared its terrorist attacks on New York City and Arlington, Va., on 9/11. Surely, the best and brightest who botched the Vietnam War hadn't given the slightest thought to backward Afghanistan or to the World Trade Center's twin towers, which were dedicated just six days after the last U.S. troops withdrew from Vietnam in 1973.

Sometimes, the desirability of a particular war will rise and fall over time. When Chou En-lai, the Chinese premier, was asked to assess the French Revolution fought nearly two centuries before, he famously replied: "It is too early to say." Consider the oscillating historical verdicts on the Mexican War. President Polk and Mexican dictator Santa Anna "were as combustible a combo as [Bush] 43 and Saddam," said Philip Zelikow, a historian at the University of Virginia who was a foreign-policy adviser for both Presidents Bush. When the war ended in 1848, it was counted as a clear-cut American success, assuring that Texas would remain part of the United States and adding territories that became the states of Arizona, California, and New Mexico. But after 1850, this territorial expansion reignited the political battles over slavery that the war's opponents (including a one-term member of Congress named Abraham Lincoln) had feared, thereby accelerating the descent into civil war. But that was then. Now, with the Civil War long past, it is hard to imagine the United States without the former chunks of Mexico. At least it was -- until Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, raised the possibility recently that his state might want to secede from the U.S.

With occasional exceptions, the minor wars that the United States has waged from time to time have worked out pretty much as hoped. From the Barbary pirates to Grenada to Bosnia and Kosovo, clear objectives and a sufficiency of military force led to success at a low cost. But in America's 12 major wars during its 233 years of independence, things have rarely played out as expected, in the aftermath of the conflicts if not during them.

Historians, probably wisely, are wary of balancing the costs and benefits of America's past wars and delivering a bottom-line judgment. But if pressed, they'll divide them into a few "good" wars, especially the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II; several muddled wars; and a real stinker, Vietnam, the only one that America has lost outright.


Which brings us, of course, to the two wars that the United States is fighting now. There are reasons for hope and reasons for skepticism about the likely outcome of both. The war in Afghanistan, which President Obama has escalated, threatens to become the first war of necessity that the United States loses, especially if the nation next door, nuclear-armed Pakistan, devolves into chaos. In Iraq, the prospect of a reasonably stable, tolerably democratic regime has grown. But even in the unlikelier event that Iraq becomes a beacon of democracy for a mostly despotic Middle East, because of the high costs -- including the encouragement of a nuclear-armed Iran and an ebb in American influence -- some foreign-policy experts doubt that history will ever judge the Iraq war as worth the fight.

Apples And Oranges

How to judge a war? Let us count the ways.

Thucydides, the historian of ancient Greece who chronicled the Peloponnesian War, categorized wars by the aggressor's motivation for starting them -- namely, fear, honor, and interests. In judging the importance of the national interest, "most people put it first, and they're mostly wrong," said Donald Kagan, a professor of classics and history at Yale University. "It's way down the list." Alarm at foreigners' intentions and, especially, feelings of dishonor are more often the main reasons that nations go to war, he says.

Another way of judging the usefulness of a war is by assessing the need for it. In War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars, published in May, Richard Haass distinguishes between a necessary Persian Gulf war, in 1991, when he served on the staff of President George H.W. Bush's National Security Council, and an unnecessary invasion of Iraq begun in 2003, while he directed the State Department's policy planning. A war of necessity, in his thinking, is one that involves a vital national interest and in which military force is the only option that might succeed -- judgments that entail "elements of subjectivity," Haass, who is now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, noted in an interview. Rare, after all, is the war that its proponents don't try to sell to the public as essential, even when it isn't. Zelikow, who served as the executive director of the bipartisan commission that examined 9/11, is skeptical of the distinction. "It takes a post facto argument and makes it sound like objective history," he said. "The only war we did not choose is the one that was brought to New York City on 9/11."

Maybe the purest way of judging a war is to contemplate whether it is just or unjust to fight, an exercise most usefully pursued before the shooting starts. Michael Walzer, a political philosopher and professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., is the author of Just and Unjust Wars, published in 1977 in the wake of Vietnam. The factors in figuring a war's justice are a mix of morality and fact, taking into account whether a nation was attacked or is (credibly) about to be attacked; its efforts to find peaceful solutions; the international or legal legitimacy of its military response; its likelihood of success; and, once a war has begun, the conduct of the fighting.

But these judgments, too, are "different," Walzer acknowledged in an interview, from the practical considerations -- measured in lives, treasure, territory, security, and power -- that determine whether a nation benefits, on balance, from starting or entering a war. Indeed, neither the justice nor the necessity of a war bears more than an incidental correlation to whether, in hindsight, it was worth fighting. Walzer regards the Mexican War, for instance, as an "unjust war that worked out well," for the United States at least. In Haass's mind, the American Revolution probably ought to be counted as a war of choice, though a "warranted" one that should have been fought. Even a war of choice can be worth fighting -- it's just that "the standards are higher," he said -- if its benefits sufficiently exceed its costs, measured both in the short and longer term.

"The annexation of the Philippines created a 'hostage' that the Japanese could attack at will. Long-term, it was a political and strategic disaster.''
-- Allan Millett, on the Spanish-American War

"Each had benefits," said Mackubin Owens, a professor of strategy and force planning at the U.S. Naval War College, referring to the major wars that the United States has fought. The problem for decision makers, of course, is that neither costs nor benefits can be known with any certainty -- or even good guesswork -- in advance. A war's consequences, more often than not, are unfathomable. Even afterward, as any fair-minded historian will attest, it is no easy task to judge. Start with the impossibility of placing a value on the lives lost and disrupted; take into account the improbability of divining the future; and imagine the necessarily speculative character of the counterfactuals -- what would have happened had the war not broken out. This is far beyond the reach of any mathematical or actuarial formulation.

Worse, weighing the costs and benefits of a war is an exercise in comparing apples and oranges. Consider the war in Korea, which lasted from 1950 to '53. The U.S.-led combat to repel Communist North Korea's invasion of anti-communist (though autocratic) South Korea proved popular with the American public at first. But that support soured, especially when an armistice settled on virtually the same boundary between the two Koreas that existed when the war began, at the cost of 36,574 American lives. Nonetheless, as the Cold War went on, it became clear that in this first test of resolve after World War II, the U.S. willingness to stand up to Communist aggressiveness cooled Soviet strongman Joseph Stalin's geopolitical ambitions and kept South Korea -- and Japan -- allied with the West. "I thought it was a just war at the time," Walzer recounted, and "I think it probably helped in the eventual victory over communism."

Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University, agrees -- up to a point. "The initial U.S. response to Korea was a war that we needed to fight," he said. But a crucial mistake was made in conducting it: President Truman's decision to acquiesce in Gen. Douglas MacArthur's desire to invade the North drew Communist China into the war and ultimately produced a stalemate. The consequences, Bacevich said, went beyond the estimated 30,000 additional American deaths to include two decades of enmity between the United States and China -- until President Nixon opened the door in 1972 -- and a failure to exploit the Sino-Soviet schism in a manner that might have weakened the Soviet Union and bolstered the West. "It sent us down a path," he pointed out, "that cast the decision to go in in a different light." Bacevich cautioned against trying to arrive at "concise judgments" about the desirability of the Korean -- or any -- War.

The 'Good' Wars

The nation's first war, for its independence, was probably its most essential -- and successful. King George III had committed "a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations," as Thomas Jefferson detailed in the Declaration of Independence, even as the Founding Draftsman glossed over perhaps the most threatening of the British monarchy's tyrannical acts. Yale's Kagan cited Britain's efforts, from 1763 on, to impose taxes and restrictions that suppressed the commercial ambitions of an entrepreneurial people. Hence the impulse for independence.

Still, only a third of the colonists, historians estimate, supported a rebellion against their British masters; a third remained loyal to the Crown and the rest were ambivalent or indifferent. Many of the Tories paid a price for their loyalty, Bacevich noted, in having to knuckle under or flee. The continent's aboriginal inhabitants likewise did not fare well. Conceivably, the colonists might have acted like their neighbors to the north -- Canada waited until 1867 to obtain self-government from Britain without shedding blood -- although it is daunting to find anyone who would make that case today.

The Civil War, pitting brother against brother, produced a more vehement diversity of opinion, at the time and ever since. The war was probably unavoidable, most historians say, given the conflicts between the North and the South in their economies -- with or without slavery -- and their cultures. Had the conflict not broken out in 1861, they suppose, it would have happened later. And by the time the Civil War ended, it accomplished more than its participants had imagined. Early on, President Lincoln declared that he was willing to keep slavery or to end it, in whole or in part, as long as the Union was preserved; the Emancipation Proclamation referred to abolition in the rebellious states as a matter of "military necessity."

Had the South successfully seceded, historians debate whether slavery would have faded out on its own as the soil in the cotton fields was depleted, or, rather, would have spread to states farther west and into Latin America. A popular theme in counterfactual histories posits that the Confederacy and the Union would have reunited eventually. In any event, slavery would presumably have ended sometime (Brazil became the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish it, in 1888), although maybe not quickly enough for a slow-changing electorate to choose an African-American president in 2008. But was an earlier end of slavery "worth 600,000 deaths? It's hard to say," concluded Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "There wasn't a lot of whooping for joy in 1865. Wars look better when the human costs have faded into history."

The classic "good" war, fought by the Greatest Generation, was good ol' Double-U-Double-U-Two. The United States had to be dragged into the Second World War -- until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor -- over the isolationists' objections that the fighting in Europe and Asia was, for a nation protected by oceans, a war of choice. Before it ended, the human costs were staggering, estimated at more than 72 million deaths worldwide, including 405,399 Americans. But the benefits, historians say, were mightier still: the defeat of Hitler's Germany, with its ambitions to control Europe and beyond, and the end of Japan's brutal imperialism across the Far East.

Nonetheless, World War II can be blamed for an unintended consequence -- and it was a biggie. The defeat of Nazi Germany left a power vacuum, especially in Eastern Europe, that for nearly a half-century allowed the Soviet Union to have its way. A strong Germany, BU's Bacevich said, would have restrained Soviet aggression, but America's entry ensured Germany's defeat. The United States was drawn into the Cold War, featuring an Iron Curtain, a nuclear arms race, the Berlin airlift, hot wars in Korea and Vietnam, the Cuban missile crisis, and decades of living on the brink of World War III. So which would have better served U.S. interests after World War II: victory by a hegemonic Stalin, or by a genocidal Hitler? Pick your poison.

Wars Of Confusion

Something else troubles historians in recounting World War II: It might have been avoided. Winston Churchill, Britain's wartime prime minister and a historian in his own right, described it as a necessary war that shouldn't have been fought.

But it was, and historians blame the sloppy diplomacy that marked the end of World War I. The United States, had it accepted the Treaty of Versailles, would have joined with Britain and France in policing the European peace, presumably to block Hitler from remilitarizing the Rhineland in 1936. That would have prompted the German generals to fire him as chancellor, Kagan said, and "Hitler would never have risen to power." An intransigent President Wilson, unwilling to accept Senate skeptics' reservations about the treaty, is usually accorded the bulk of the blame.

For historians with a taste for slapstick, World War I is the classic case of diplomatic bungling that leads to an unnecessary war. In Lenin's view, both sides were engaged in an imperialist war, trying to carve up spheres of influence. For the European powers, the war proved pointlessly destructive.

But not necessarily for the United States. "The U.S. might have limited the damage of World War I if it had credibly prepared to intervene in 1916 and used that threat to mediate negotiations that leaders on both sides wanted," according to Zelikow. It didn't. But by entering the war in 1917, almost three years after it started in Europe, American troops ended the military stalemate, defeating Kaiser Wilhelm's aggressiveness and bringing the conflict to a triumphal conclusion.

Historians disagree over what might have happened had Germany prevailed. Years later, a German historian found archival evidence that the kaiser's ambitions for a "Greater Germany" extended into Russia and France. The power of a militarily mighty, scientifically advanced, boldly affluent Germany might have blocked -- or at least complicated -- the emergence of America as a world power. But Walter McDougall, a professor of history and international relations at the University of Pennsylvania, contends that it also would have meant "no Bolshevism, no Holocaust, perhaps no World War II, atomic weapons, or Cold War."

As it happened, WWI fell laughably short of Wilson's idealistic hopes for a war that would end all wars and would make the world safe for democracy. Yet America benefited greatly. Its 19 months at war "gave the U.S. more diplomatic leverage than it probably deserved," military historian Millett said. The war's devastation in Europe held an extra benefit for the United States: It ensured an economic superiority over Germany and Britain, the strongmen of the prewar world, that America has never relinquished.

America's emergence onto the international scene had begun during its previous war. As with World War I, the Spanish-American War of 1898 has given historians fits. Driven by domestic politics in the United States as well as in Spain, it was set off by the typically American blur between idealism and naked self-interest. The Spanish brutalities in Cuba spurred William Randolph Hearst to sell his newspapers by inspiring American intervention in a situation on its doorstep. On a Friday afternoon, after his boss had knocked off for the weekend, the imperialist-minded assistant Navy secretary -- Theodore Roosevelt, by name -- ordered some battleships moved closer to the Philippines. The result was a quick and relatively bloodless conflict that was "clearly a war of expansion," said Edward (Mac) Coffman, a retired military historian at the University of Wisconsin. It freed Cuba from Spanish rule and, according to Owens at the Naval War College, "basically made it clear that we're the dominant power in the Western Hemisphere. Now we had a seagoing Navy capable of projecting power and an ability to defend the Monroe Doctrine."

The war against Spain probably benefited, on balance, the inhabitants of Puerto Rico and Hawaii by bringing them under U.S. control. But some historians discern a downside in America's trophy of the war. "The annexation of the Philippines created a 'hostage' that the Japanese could attack at will," Millett said. "Long-term, it was a political and strategic disaster," one that put the United States "crosswise" with Japan, fueling an antipathy that exploded on December 7, 1941. The Bataan Death March, in 1942, was another unintended consequence.

Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University, posits a longer-term cost of the Spanish-American War. It was a turning point for the United States, he said, in establishing an "expansionist model" for wielding its influence overseas. He sees in it the roots of another, sadder war seven decades later in Vietnam.

The Ugliest War

The widely ridiculed "domino effect," so often invoked by Lyndon Johnson in making his case for the Vietnam War, wasn't in itself a stupid idea. "A number of dominoes fell," Graham Allison, a professor of government at Harvard University and former Pentagon adviser, pointed out. Communism's advance in Vietnam ushered in a Communist regime in Laos (which remains in power, as it does in Vietnam) and another, far more virulent version in Cambodia.

Yeah, so? Even if the United States had won in Vietnam, historians say, the benefits wouldn't have been worth the costs. A pro-Western regime in South Vietnam wouldn't have mattered. Thailand and Indonesia would be just about the same. "I lost 58,000 colleagues," said Owens, a Marine veteran of Vietnam who was wounded twice. Tallying up the economic costs and the turmoil in the streets at home, he now concludes that the war probably wasn't worth fighting. ("Though who could say that [the turmoil] wouldn't have happened anyway?") Internationally, the defeat in Vietnam contributed to the image of the United States, which had never lost a war, as a paper tiger.

The miscalculations made in conducting the war are legendary, starting with the "ludicrous" assumption (as Allison put it) among U.S. decision makers that North Vietnam was acting as an agent for China, its enemy of many centuries' standing. A tour of the Hanoi Hilton that showcases John McCain's Navy uniform at the end begins with a guillotine dating from the 19th-century days of French colonial rule. The Americans who decided on the war failed to understand the enemy, a mistake they would make again in Iraq.

"The threat was not real, the death toll was so big, and it affected the U.S. role in the world," Princeton's Zelizer said. "A pretty big catastrophe."

Who was to blame? President Eisenhower comes in for the greatest share from historians. By backing the French as they were being driven out of Vietnam and committing Washington to support a corrupt and unpopular government in Saigon, Yale's Kagan said, Eisenhower made it politically dangerous for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to back away from Vietnam without seeming soft on communism. In private (though taped) conversations with Sen. Richard Russell, D-Ga., who was a friend, Johnson sounded far more ambivalent about a war that ultimately ruined his presidency and drove him from the White House.

Two Iraq Wars

After the moral morass of Vietnam came the clarity of the Persian Gulf War. When Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait in 1990 and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher prevailed on Bush 41 not to go "wobbly," the carefully planned and well-executed war fulfilled Bush's vow: "This will not stand." Kuwait regained its freedom, and Saddam Hussein's forces were forced back across the border into Iraq. With only 382 Americans killed, the United States accomplished a lot at a relatively low cost.

"It would have been a disaster if Saddam Hussein had kept Kuwait," because it would have furthered his progress toward development of a nuclear bomb and destabilized the Middle East, according to Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations. For the United States, something even more vital was at stake. "It was about oil," said Harvard's Allison, citing the fear that the Iraqi dictator would march his troops beyond Kuwait and into Saudi Arabia, in hopes of manipulating the world's -- and America's -- oil supply. The invasion did not stand. Threat undone.

"There wasn't a lot of whooping for joy in 1865. Wars look better when the human costs have faded into history."
-- Max Boot

Yet Bush's famed prudence, reflected in his decision not to chase the Iraqi army back to Baghdad or to oust Saddam from power, took on a different cast during his son's presidency a dozen years later. With a half-million U.S. troops already on the scene, the elder Bush might have had an easier time changing the Baghdad regime than George W. Bush did. The unfinished business of the first Iraq war led, as events (and perhaps a father-and-son psychodrama) unfolded, to the second, harder war.

The two military ventures showed that the political appeal of a war bears little relationship to its utility. "Iraq I passed the Senate by only five votes and was absolutely right," Zelikow said. "Iraq II passed the Senate by 50 votes and was iffy."

The younger Bush might have tried other, less costly ways to alter Iraqi behavior. An assassination or a coup could have sufficed to change the leadership. Or, Haass wrote, "the United States could well have accomplished a change in regime behavior and a change in regime threat without regime change." The costs of the six-year-long war have exceeded 4,300 American military deaths, a price tag of nearly $1 trillion or beyond -- and something less tangible but perhaps more consequential. "Iraq contributed to the emergence of a world in which power is more widely distributed than ever before," Haass maintained, "and U.S. ability to shape this world much diminished."

So, will the potential benefits of the second Iraq war ever be judged worth the price? On that, the jury is out. It could take 10 or 20 or 30 years, foreign-policy experts say, to determine whether the Iraqi government functions as a democracy that is able to bring stability, without a dictator's iron hand, to a nation of sectarian hatreds. Proponents say that the odds of a tolerably good outcome are about even.

But how good an outcome is still possible seems harder to gauge. The neoconservative enthusiasts for the Iraq war (along with the likes of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman) envisioned a shining democracy in a reborn nation that would inspire the undoing of Islamic autocracies across the Middle East. Haass believes that such a goal has become "unreachable." Whether anything less would produce enough benefits to make the war ultimately worth fighting will depend, at least in part, on the price. Haass said he sees no plausible scenario by which the direct and indirect costs of the war wouldn't outweigh its benefits. U.S. mistreatment of Iraqi insurgents at Abu Ghraib prison and the indefinite detention of accused enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay sullied America's good-guy image across the Muslim world (and elsewhere) and surely led to the recruitment of additional terrorists.

Potentially, the most perilous of these costs extend beyond Iraq's borders. The chaos of war and the rise to power of Iraq's Shiite majority have emboldened the imperial ambitions of Shiite-dominated Iran. Moises Naim, the editor of Foreign Policy, fears that the Iraq war has encouraged Iran to develop nuclear weaponry, which in turn could inspire Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and possibly Arab Gulf states to do the same. "Is a shining, democratic Iraq," he asked, "worth a neighborhood full of nuclear bombs?"

War(s) Of Necessity

Another cost of the Iraq war has been the distractions it has caused, not only in Iran and North Korea, which is pursuing a nuclear program of its own, but also Afghanistan. Barack Obama repeatedly leveled such a charge about the neglect of America's other ongoing war during his 2008 campaign. As president, he has announced the deployment of an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan, ousted his top general on the scene, and -- in next year's budget, for the first time -- has proposed to spend more Defense Department money in Afghanistan than in Iraq. Invading Afghanistan after 9/11 was widely considered necessary, not only to clean out Al Qaeda's camps but also to ensure a stable government that wouldn't give terrorists safe haven again.

"We had to do it, no matter what," Boot said. "Even if it doesn't work, no one will fault Bush [for invading], though maybe for how he fought it." Experts on all sides say that the war is "losable," as Kagan put it, but they're hopeful that it isn't too late to change tactics and win. This was evidently the Obama administration's motivation in recently replacing the cautious American commander in the field with an advocate of counterinsurgency.

Haass, for one, no longer regards the war in Afghanistan as essential to U.S. national security. As long as the American military continues to strike at terrorist-related targets, the United States could accept a "messy outcome" in Afghanistan, he said, one that allows the Taliban to make some political inroads in a civil war. Afghanistan has evolved from a war of necessity, Haass said, into "Mr. Obama's war of choice."

But there is plenty of reason to worry about the deteriorating situation just beyond Afghanistan's borders. In the muddled Afghan war, "what's at stake is Pakistan anyway," military historian Millett said. The nuclear-armed nation, with its shaky democratic government, is facing the Taliban on the doorstep of Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. Should Pakistan's government collapse or if any of its nuclear weapons fall into the wrong hands, the United States could well find itself in yet another war of necessity, one that would prove treacherous to lose.

This article appears in the June 13, 2009 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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