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How Do Long Wars Become So Long?

This is the summer we began calling Afghanistan “America’s longest war.” The new label has produced a dissent or two, since it assumes that the Vietnam war didn’t even start until Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964 (at which point American soldiers had been dying in Vietnam for at least three years). But the “longest war” designation isn’t intended to resolve nitpicky historical arguments. Its real point is to get both wars—Afghanistan and Vietnam alike—firmly categorized in our minds as long, hard, unwinnable slogs. Once people start thinking of the current war as being—like its predecessor—a near-decade of expensive effort going absolutely nowhere, aren’t they going to want the boys to come home?

Now it’s conceivable that our Afghanistan debate will play out this way, but I doubt it. And the reason isn’t that Afghanistan and Vietnam are different. There are in fact plenty of striking similarities between the two wars. But to see where we’re headed in Afghanistan we need a more accurate version of how the earlier war was fought—and how support for it dried up.

The crucial common feature of our wars in both Afghanistan and Vietnam is that the serious fighting began only after a long period of not trying very hard at all. Both George Bush and Lyndon Johnson were focused on other things. (Bush’s other pre-occupation was, of course,

Iraq; for LBJ, it was the chance to run as the peace candidate in 1964and to get the Great Society up and running in 1965.) As long as casualties were low, neither war was much of a challenge to popular patience. In our first six years in Afghanistan, the average number of American soldiers killed in action was just under 60 a year. In Vietnam, from 1961 to 1964, it was 67.

In each case the initial failure to take the war effort seriously also shaped the way policymakers viewed their chances when they finally decided to fight in earnest. Several years of poor results weren’t treated as a legitimate reason to doubt that we could do better if we really tried. America simply hadn’t given the problem its best shot. We all remember what candidate Obama said about Afghanistan: The United States was doing badly because the Bush administration “took its eye off the ball.”

General Maxwell Taylor, who was ambassador to Saigon in 1965, said something similar in explaining why the Johnson administration didn’t consider withdrawing before it got in too deep. Why should it have? “We had not exhausted our alternatives.” The United States, Taylor insisted, still had “vast resources” to bring to bear—and new strategies to try—“before we thought of quitting.”

A long period of half-hearted effort can mean, of course, that by the time a president decides to get serious our soldiers already have their backs to the wall. Turning things around becomes a huge undertaking, and the generals keep asking for more. Obama surely had no thought when he took office that he’d soon triple the number of American troops in Afghanistan. In July 1965, Johnson also agreed to triple the size of the U.S. force in Vietnam quickly—within five months—and eventually he tripled it again. To some of his advisers, the military’s constantly escalating demands showed the strategy wasn’t working. But LBJ was unfazed by the constant increases, at least at first. Claiming to quote Lincoln, he explained that “you can’t fertilize a field by farting through the fence.”

Johnson did not, however, think that just because he and his generals had embraced a new strategy they could count on endless popular patience. When he looked at the military plans put before him in the summer of 1965, his electorally-minded question was, “Are we starting something that in two or three years we simply can’t finish?” This was a pretty short deadline for America’s longest war, but Johnson’s time frame turned out to be prophetic. Less than two years later, he was in fact no longer willing to keep granting requests for extra troops.

And a year after that, the American people were no longer willing to do so either. In March 1968 Dean Acheson summed up the problem when the “Wise Men” of the Eastern establishment sat down with LBJ. The United States, he argued, “could no longer do the job we set out to do in the time we have left.”

At the center of our “longest wars,” then, there seems to be a short one that really counts. It begins when a president and his advisers decide that the effort expended to date has been completely inadequate. They believe they have to take something that feels like their best shot, and until they’ve done so, almost no one wants to pull out. But once they have, almost no one wants to stay in.

In Vietnam the change happened quickly. (According to Gallup, public support for getting out of the war increased from 28 percent to 49 percent between February and June 1968–just four months.) Policymakers—and the public—knew that time was up. What we need to know about the war in Afghanistan is not when America’s longest war will end, but when the short one will. Obama, like Johnson before him, re-set the clock to zero last fall. Whatever one thinks of his prospects, that means that all this summer’s overheated rhetoric from critics of the war—about a long decade of wasted effort, and so forth—is basically beside the point.

Obama seems to understand this. His August 2 speech was a preview of the end of combat operations in Iraq (a long war that went badly, you might say, but a short one that went well), and in it he also looked ahead in Afghanistan. There, he said, the important thing is “that the

American people know that we are making progress and we’re focused on goals that are clear and achievable.” Translation: They’re waiting to see what happens when America takes its best shot.

Stephen Sestanovich is Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of International Diplomacy at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union from 1997 to 2001.