Robert Higgs: War Weariness

Roundup: Historians' Take

War weariness is the prevailing public sentiment in the third stage of a major U.S. neo-imperialist war. In this prolonged stage, most people have grown tired of the war. They have surrendered their prior illusions about the glorious outcomes it was supposed to bring. They have come to understand that for them it is worse than pointless, that its costs have been real and its benefits a chimera, and that it seems likely to damage them further as it continues. Yet the war goes on and on, with no end in sight. We are now well into this stage of the war in Iraq.

I recall all too well the war weariness of the late 1960s and early 1970s. By 1968, most Americans had come to understand that no good outcome lay in store for them in Vietnam. The war was unwinnable in any meaningful sense. Yet its daily horrors ground on interminably: more bombing, more shelling, more close-contact combat in the jungles and rice paddies. Each year, thousands of young Americans were killed and wounded, many of them draftees sucked into the maelstrom as de facto military slaves, and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and other Asians were slaughtered. Each horrible day was followed by another horrible day, each horrible month by another horrible month, each horrible year by another horrible year until, weighted down by despair, one wondered whether the madness would ever end.

By major U.S. neo-imperialist wars, I mean, so far, those in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. Long before them, in the Philippines from 1899 to 1902, the American people had a foretaste of neo-imperialist wars to come, but the Philippine war never reached a great enough magnitude or affected the general public deeply enough to become a large factor in the public’s outlook on national affairs. Then as now, some people actually approved of the war from start to finish. In those days, racism was more flagrant and redder in tooth and claw than it is now, which helps to explain why so many Americans supported a totally inexcusable imperialist venture.

In Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, the U.S. experience was different. In each case, the war moved through four stages: I, upper-echelon plotting; II, outbreak and early combat; III, sustained combat and strategic stalemate; and IV, cessation of combat and workable resolution.

The stages may vary in length and form. Stage I, in which U.S. leaders and their official and unofficial advisers concoct their war plans, may go on for years, as it did for the Iraq war, or it may go on for only a short while, as it did for the Korean War, when diplomatic blunders and unanticipated events provoked the North Korean invasion and triggered U.S. engagement in the fighting. Stage II may occupy weeks or months, whereas Stage III always drags on for years. Stage IV may take different forms. The tense, heavily armed truce in Korea bore no resemblance to the hasty, unceremonious, and humiliating U.S. exodus from Vietnam, yet each outcome served the same purpose?to silence the guns.

Each stage elicits or corresponds to a particular public mood....

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