Do you really think it’s not a war if Americans aren’t there?

As the kōan goes, “If a tree falls in the woods and no one’s around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

Here’s a tougher one to contemplate on this Veteran’s Day: If there’s a war and no Americans are participating in it, is there still a war?

Many Americans, based on rhetoric I’ve heard in recent years regarding Iraq and Afghanistan, would apparently answer, “no.”

Sorry. “Rhetoric” isn’t quite the word. It suggests overtly political speech. I’m talking about plain ol’ everyday newswriting at the moment.

From an AP story today about the president’s remarks on Veteran’s Day:

Obama used his remarks to remind the nation that thousands of service members are still at war in Afghanistan. The war is expected to formally conclude at the end of next year, though the U.S. may keep a small footprint in the country.

Soon, “the longest war in America’s history will end,” Obama declared.

The boldfaced emphasis is mine.

I think sometimes that my years on the editorial pages made me more sensitive, not less so, to creeping editorializing in news copy. I know it, and I recognize it when I see it. And I saw it there — the representation of a worldview rather than straight reporting.

In the president’s partial defense, he didn’t exactly say the first of those boldfaced statements, although he did say the second one, the one that was a direct quote (I mean, one would certainly hope so, AP):

Our work is more urgent than ever, because this chapter of war is coming to an end.  Soon, one of the first Marines to arrive in Afghanistan 12 years ago — Brigadier General Daniel Yoo — will lead his Camp Pendleton Marines as they become one of the last major groups of Marines to deploy in this war.  And over the coming months, more of our troops will come home.  This winter, our troop levels in Afghanistan will be down to 34,000.  And by this time next year, the transition to Afghan-led security will be nearly complete.  The longest war in American history will end.

He was right when he said “this chapter… is coming to an end.” That doesn’t overstate the case the way the AP version did.

And on the second statement, I suppose you can defend the president on a technicality, saying that it would then end as “our war” — but only in that sense. And such a statement still represents a rather startling indifference toward what happens after we’re gone. It suggests that after we’re no longer in a position to hear them, we don’t care how many trees fall.

17 thoughts on “Do you really think it’s not a war if Americans aren’t there?

  1. bud

    Dang Brad what a condescending piece of total nonsense. You pre-suppose that American involvement actually makes wars in other parts of the world that don’t really involve us better somehow. Absolutely not. Our involvement in places like Vietnam and Iraq made things far, far, far, far, far worse. People died because we had this arrogant misguided attitude that we could make things better. People with a sense of history understood that this was not so. But noooooooo. We charge in with guns blazing in a nation far, far away and create a much worse situation.

    And that’s one of the things I really like about Barack Obama. He knows we can’t really do much good in places like Syria by sending in the troops. But we can make a small difference by brokering limited restrictions on small things like chemical weapons. And now we seem on the verge of a major breakthrough with the Iranians. Sure they have internal problems to work out and it’s not feasible for their new moderate leaders to jump on our overtures. But the handwriting is on the wall. We will succeed in reducing the Iranian nuclear threat. And it’s because of diplomacy. Not because of some neocon militarisim. And I’m thankful every night that we don’t have the disaster of the Bush years to deal with any longer.

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    I wasn’t aware of saying that our presence makes things better, or worse. Although we can argue about that again if you like.

    What I said is our presence does not determine whether there is a war or not.

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    Robert Samuelson, to my surprise, sorta, kinda, committed this same error in his column about JFK:

    “He expanded the Vietnam War, and though some supporters argue he would have reversed that in a second term, presidents are judged on what they did, not what they might have done.”

    Now maybe sending those advisers in there DID in some measurable way “expand the war,” but I think that would be hard to prove. What he meant to say, I believe, was that JFK expanded U.S. involvement.

    Which leads to an interesting topic, which Samuelson touched on in that quote, that “some supporters argue he would have reversed that in a second term.”

    I spoke to Ted Sorensen about that when he came to see me on Barack Obama’s behalf in 2007. He maintained that Vietnam was not his old boss’s fault, and basically pitched that line about how had he lived, he would have disentangled us from that.

    Which I still doubt. And I doubt myself for doubting. I mean, he was there and I wasn’t. But it seems to me that a Ted Sorensen who had lived through more than 40 years in which it was required that a Democrat regard everything about our Vietnam experience as bad might — in all honesty — same something different from what a Ted Sorensen in 1963 might have said.

    I still believe that there was a pre-Vietnam sort of Democrat — embodied in FDR, Truman and JFK, and maybe stretching back to Wilson — who believed in a muscular U.S. involvement in world affairs. It was a natural outgrowth of liberal optimism, the same attitude that Samuelson refers to here, and then seems to refute:

    Camelot was that brief interlude when we thought we could impose our will. That is its magnetism. It was less an innocent time than a simplistic one. We thought we could engineer the future and discovered that the future wouldn’t cooperate. Our continuing seduction by the Kennedy narrative presumes that had he lived, the future would have been better. He would have grasped the folly of Vietnam, embraced the new youth culture and advanced civil rights. This subtext sustains the Kennedy fascination.

    Why on Earth would that belief that we could “impose our will” or “engineer the future” be limited to domestic policy? I maintain that it would not be, and was not. I don’t think members of JFK’s generation — particularly those with his energetic approach to issues — could fathom that the nation that whipped the Nazis and the Japanese (with a lot of help, of course) couldn’t determine the future of Vietnam. The only way he would have “grasped the folly of Vietnam,” as two generations of Democrats since then would put it, would have been if he himself became disillusioned and pessimistic, if he had ceased to be that person who charmed and inspired college students like Samuelson.

    I don’t pretend to be an expert on the era. My early lifetime — before I was an avid consumer of news, and after the period that my history books covered in school — is a bit hazy. But from what I do know, I really doubt that JFK would have pulled us out of Vietnam, or even come to regard it as a “mistake.” He may not have escalated involvement as much as Johnson did, but I don’t even know that.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      All of this, of course, is related to why, in talking about how alienated I feel from the political parties today, I sometimes say I could have been a Democrat during the Kennedy administration, but not today.

      For that matter, I could have been a Republican during the Eisenhower administration. Both parties seem to me far more inviting, and far less objectionable, back then.

      I’d also sort of put Nixon in that category of relatively pragmatic leaders, someone who predates the ideological nonsense of today — despite the off-putting campaigns he ran in 1968 and 1972.

      I greatly preferred Nixon to JFK in the 1960 election. Of course, I was only 7, and my reasoning was childish. But childish though it was, I wasn’t entirely wrong. I reacted negatively to Kennedy’s tough talk about the Soviets during at least one of the debates. I realized later he was probably just trying to overcome his own lack of experience in going up against a two-term vice president, to show that he, too, was the kind of guy who could stand up to Khrushchev. But at the time, he sounded like a guy who would send my Daddy, a career Naval officer, to war. And I didn’t want that.

      I was so upset that Kennedy won the election that while my mother was watching his inauguration on TV, I hid behind a chair in protest. (She told me to get over it and stop being petulant.)

      In the end, I was right to worry, as my Dad would spend a year in the mangrove swamps of the Rung Sat Special Zone (a.k.a., the Forest of Assassins) in 1967-68 — meaning he was there, in an area filled with VC, during the Tet Offensive.

      1. bud

        Yeah the GOP was quite reasonable during the McCarthy hearings. I think you romanticize about the utopian past too much to actually evaluate how things really were.

  4. Karen Pearson

    I don’t think it would be reasonable to give the length of any war as any other than the amount of time the major players were involved in it. Otherwise, I can argue that humankind has existed in a state of perpetual war since we gained enough population to regularly compete for anything . Land, food, resources, slaves, bragging rights–you name it, we’ll fight over it. In order to have “wars” (plural) you have to divvy up the fighting someway or another, and we have named them mostly by main participants, as in War of the Roses, French Indian war, Spanish American war, Napoleonic wars, the Vietnam war. You can almost certainly name more than I can. In addition, I suspect that different nations name wars differently, from their point of view. For example, I imagine the Afghani’s think of Russian war, and an American war, while Russia and the US would each think of these as the “war in Afghanistan.” We think of the war between Russia and Afghanistan in terms of their involvement with each other, even though we assisted the Afghanis at that time. All in all, I suspect that no one thinks of a war except insofar as it is perceived as threat to his own country.

  5. Brad Warthen Post author

    Well, we would never say that World War II started on Dec. 7, 1941. It started on Sept. 1, 1939. We just weren’t in it for a long while…

    Of course, Japan was at war with China in 1937. For that matter, Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935. But we generally say the WORLD war started in 1939…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      And I have to object rather strenuously to the idea that “no one thinks of a war except insofar as it is perceived as threat to his own country.” I submit that anyone who writes or speaks about world affairs will often refer to wars in which his or her own country is in no way involved.

      True, Americans are particularly uninterested in the rest of the world, which is deeply unfortunate. I find I need to check British publications even to know what is happening in the Western Hemisphere (and American media are simply providing the news that Americans demand).

    1. Mark Stewart


      I read it. I am not sure “thought-provoking” is the best phrase. Talk about stereotyping!

      Clearly post-war violence is a very large and a very serious problem that the military and the country as a whole needs to confront and ameliorate, as much as that’s possible. However, the nonsensical slantings of the Salon story completely detract from that reality.

        1. Kathryn Fenner

          But the issues of a permanent warrior class, drawn from those with few options, insulated from the mass of Americans?
          War is hell, not fodder for movies. Real damage is done to soldiers and their families. The suicide rate exceeds the casualty rate by a huge measure. We should not fight wars by proxy, on the backs of the poor.

  6. Karen Pearson

    We date the World Wars from the time the western European countries got involved. Of course, we think of wars that we have no part of, but we don’t think of them personally. If they don’t involve us we tend to let others choose the name, although we tend to use the name the side we favor prefers. But you are right. Most people don’t think of them at all. I doubt if most people are even aware of the wars in the Congo or in Sudan.

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