A lesson from Afghanistan: Low casualty rates are not enough to justify war

America’s history teaches us that success on the battlefield is linked to a clear purpose that all her citizens understand. When strategic objectives are clear and supported, armed conflict can be sustained even in the face of mass casualties and the dramatic upheaval of our way of life.

In the middle of the last century, for example, we mobilized millions to defend Europe against the Nazi threat during World War II.

Other wars ended when our purpose became muddy and public support collapsed. In Vietnam, for example, millions served and more than 58,000 perished, until America decided it was better to preserve American lives than to risk them when objectives weren’t clear.

The lesson is simple: Clear purpose creates a united America, and a united America wins wars.

Our presence in Afghanistan has lacked this clear purpose for many years. Unfortunately, this fact went unnoticed by many because of a strange new truth about how America fights wars — we don’t use nearly the same number of troops as we did in years past.

This is good news on the surface — we are far from the deployment levels of World War II or even Korea and Vietnam, and that means we are risking fewer lives.

But reduced troop deployment means we are more detached from these wars than ever before, which is precisely what has made them endless. With so few in the field, most probably don’t have a son or daughter in Afghanistan, and probably don’t know someone down the street nervously watching the news for signs of violent battle in the desert that may have taken American lives.

We are not watching as closely anymore, so public opposition may not emerge as quickly in the case of Afghanistan and may not emerge at all.

Think about it: When a U.S. senator asks the Senate to vote on specific war-making authority for a new region of the world, the Senate ignores him and there is no public outcry. We increasingly pay the financial cost of war through borrowing, so no one feels the tax pinch of maintaining troops, equipment and supplies on the front lines.

This change puts those who profit from war and their policymaker allies fully in charge, which frees them up to justify endless war. Worse, they have turned what we used to call war into a permanent government program that is divorced from the military’s traditional goal, something we used to call “victory.”

The lack of public attention, however, does not mean we are fighting a just war in Afghanistan. It simply means that we are not close enough to the war to worry about whether this is still our fight.

This is tragic for the men and women we represent at the Association of the United States Navy, and other veterans’ groups. Yes, we have fewer people overseas. But a war is not justified because fewer soldiers are at risk, or because fewer people have a stake in it.

America is a beautiful country, one whose citizens routinely volunteer to lay down their lives to defend our way of life. Many have been injured or killed for this noble purpose, and these sacrifices are difficult enough to accept when the cause is just.

But we should never risk harm to these patriots when the cause is less clear, or because less of them are in danger. We should instead judge our military actions as we ever have — by setting a clear, achievable goal for our military, giving them the support they need to meet that goal, and letting them return to enjoy the benefits of life in America once that goal is met.

Former President Trump and President Biden have each judged the situation well — our achievable goals have long been met, and we need to return our troops home as swiftly as possible.

• Jason Beardsley (@JasonRBeardsley) is executive director of the Association of the United States Navy.

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