When Is a War Over?Roundup
Wars always hurry their participants, as the Roman poet Horace once wrote of the epics that recount them, “into the middle of things, as if they were already known.” Wars plunge us violently and deeply into other people’s histories, myths and legends. Perhaps few know this better than one of my West Point colleagues, a major who recently visited my class, full of future Army officers, to discuss his deployment to the Afghan province of Nuristan, high and remote in the Hindu Kush, where ancient legacies coexist with modern war.
The end of American combat operations in Afghanistan has finally come into view. According to the plan President Obama announced in May, the approximately 24,000 troops there now will be reduced to 9,800 by 2015, and troop withdrawals will be complete by the end of 2016. This slow fade to arguably the longest war in American history presents citizens and soldiers alike with an opportunity to consider, after 13 years at war, what it means to stop. This subject preoccupies me because I have been watching my former students shuttle back and forth to the war since it began.
This fall, I tried in my small way to seize the chance to explore the culture of long campaigns and to examine the particular difficulty of recognizing the end. The context is a course on world literature. My students, juniors and seniors at the Military Academy, are perhaps more keenly interested than most in the mythologies of long wars. As they contemplate their military careers, they also need to know what it means to serve in the wake of a war. Together we have been following Alexander the Great’s line of march. This long campaign effectively began at the same time as Alexander’s succession to the Macedonian throne of his father, Philip, in 336 B.C., when he crushed a Greek revolt, and ended only with his death 13 years later in 323 B.C., at age 32.
Our armchair travels along his path have taken us from ancient Greece to North Africa, across the Persian Empire (including modern-day Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan) and east to India. We have even been to China, which Alexander never actually reached. Such was the impact of the Macedonian’s conquest in Asia that Abolqasem Ferdowsi, the author of the 11th-century Persian epic “Shahnameh,” imagines Alexander at the Chinese emperor’s court.
As they read accounts of Alexander’s career by Ferdowsi, Arrian, Plutarch, the 20th-century travel writer Freya Stark and others, my students, conditioned to understand war as a series of 12-month rotations, have been forced to contemplate the mind-set of a soldier on a 10-year deployment. Alexander’s most loyal and experienced troops, the elite Macedonian Companions, never stopped campaigning; some had fought alongside Alexander’s father.
Knowing when — and how — to stop is a problem as old as war itself. Ascertaining the logical limits of a campaign presents not merely a strategic but a psychological challenge to its architects and its participants. The longer an expedition’s duration, the harder it becomes to know precisely what constitutes the end, as our wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate. But campaigners with a shifting purpose can derail even a comparatively short war. Disagreement over the conflict’s proper scope led to the breach between President Harry S. Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur over Korea. Truman fired the popular general, a decision for which he was initially vilified, to prevent a limited war from becoming a third world war...
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