(San Antonio, TX) Any effort to understand the current political situation must take seriously the fact that we have been war since 2001. Although it’s problematic to assess wars as won or lost, that’s a hard framework to avoid; and in those terms, we’ve lost. Neither Afghanistan nor Iraq—let alone Libya or Syria—is in a state that any proponent of these wars would have remotely advocated before we invaded.
Nations typically respond poorly to the experience of losing wars. The post-9/11 conflicts have been somewhat unusual. Even though we failed in our objectives, the vast majority of the human price was borne by people who are remote from US voters in both space and culture—Iraqis and Afghans. We lost no territory and very few lives at home after 9/11. Meanwhile, a small proportion of US citizens have actually been deployed in those zones. Military personnel are far from representative of the US population. Instead, they are concentrated in certain communities and families. It’s easy for some of us to forget that we have been at war; impossible for those who have served in a war zone or have sent close relatives there.
I think that for many Americans, the experience of having fought and lost is very salient. For others, it’s hardly a thought. To be critical of George W. Bush for launching an unjust war (as I am) is very different from feeling the trauma of having personally served and suffered for no apparent reason. Across history, that type of experience has often produced very ugly political results.
Certainly, voters will blame leaders who were responsible for launching and then managing these conflicts. George W. Bush left office deeply unpopular. Hillary Clinton voted (with very few fellow Democrats) for the Iraq War and then, as Secretary of State, took partial responsibility for managing the conflicts (from Libya to Pakistan) when they weren’t going well. I think the political cost of that record has been under appreciated. It didn’t help that she prospered personally and sought even higher office while others paid for decisions that she had supported. Barack Obama got a partial pass because he—like Donald Trump—was out of office when the war began. However, one of several reasons that President Obama was a polarizing figure is that some Americans blamed him for losing the wars he had inherited, some thought he disappointingly continued the Bush policies, and others thought he managed these wars skillfully.
Trump lied that he opposed the war at first, but presumably many people believed him because they never saw the counter-evidence. More importantly, Trump acknowledged the experience of having lost wars and proposed a response: from now on, we will win, because we’ll spend much more money and ignore any moral and diplomatic constraints.
Veterans and people who live in communities with heavy military presence were far more likely to vote for Trump in November. Maybe I have missed it, but I don’t recall hearing a plausible message to those communities from politicians and movements that oppose these kinds of wars. I respect a genuinely pacifist (or anti-imperialist) stance, but it has a long way to go to capture majority support, and it faces valid questions as a policy position. (Should we really not intervene militarily against ISIS?) Any viable message must acknowledge the experience of trauma without patronizing those who have served. And it must recognize the desire for the nation to succeed without being bellicose.