The Korea War, often referred to as ‘The Forgotten War’, was sandwiched between two epic conflicts: WWII and Vietnam. Hostilities did not end in victory for either side. Hostilities and interest, for the most part, ended with an agreed cease-fire, a negotiated truce with neither side claiming victory nor admitting defeat. Fought under the auspices of the United Nations, the ‘police action’ was not viewed as strategically significant as neither camp, the UN led by US forces or the North Koreans allied with China & Russia, won any immediate and substantive changes on the Korean peninsula. Perhaps, for Americans, the conflict was also easier to forget because it was fought exclusively in a distant piece of Asian land, about which, most citizens knew very little. The impact of this war on the US civilian population was not nearly as intense as it had been during WWII. The post-WWII economic boom was ramping up and the limited scope of the Korean conflict began to feed the developing military-industrial complex without inconveniencing the American consumer.
Is the Afghanistan conflict going to be the new ‘Forgotten War’, replacing Korea? Is it possible that Afghanistan is not so much a war as it is a highly visible milestone battle in the more nebulous “War on Terror”? The last time the United States Congress officially declared war was in December of 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Since that time, the US has engaged in multiple campaigns without a formal congressional declaration of war, opting instead for joint congressional resolutions or UN Security Council resolutions. That there is no official congressional declaration does not make these combat intensive ventures any less of a war.
What is it that would allow us to “forget” the war in Afghanistan much as we have forgotten the Korean War? Part of it is the natural passage of time. The Afghan war started over ten years ago. After a decade-plus of front-line live combat footage, exploding IEDs and stories about successfully rehabilitating severely wounded soldiers, the public may have reached the point of media saturation. One of the most fundamental components of prosecuting any war is to maintain if not enthusiasm for, at least an interest in, the conflict by the public. However, as our 24-hour-news-cycle has evolved to the point where we no longer have to wait for the evening TV news or tomorrow’s newspaper for updates from the front, the glut of information being consumed by the public almost guarantees reaching the point of saturation much sooner than was the case during previous wars. We are reminded that Afghanistan is still a dangerous place to be whenever we get the occasional report of a casualty from an IED or from a ‘green on blue’ attack. The daily combat video footage of firefights and bombing runs has been replaced by shots of serpentine unemployment lines, neighborhoods of vacant houses and political campaign ads. As home front interest naturally wanes and other first-world problems start to compete for the national discussion, it is easy to see why Afghanistan is relegated to the back burner.
In previous wars, we saw divisions of men and machinery push forward and occupy territory to close the net around a retreating enemy. However, not unlike down at the factory, the military has made efficiency improvements since those days. As factories have turned to technology and automation to increase productivity and reduce cost (mainly in the form of human labor), so too has the military. In WWII, there was a sense of shared sacrifice, the idea that “we’re all in this together” for several reasons. The most obvious reason for this sentiment is the number of men and women who worked in the war effort, either by direct military enlistment or by working in a ‘war effort’ manufacturing capacity. Another reason for the sense of shared sacrifice was the rationing of material in the U.S. Rationing had a two-fold purpose, both important to the war effort. First, a reallocation of resources for the military, as winning the war was paramount, and secondly, it had the psychological effect of getting the public to ‘buy into the war’. We were reminded, on a daily basis, of the small sacrifice we were making compared to the much larger sacrifice being made by those few at the pointy end of the spear.
However, the Korean War, coming so soon after WWII, changed this. Although the military did draft for active duty, there was no significant shift from consumer/civilian manufacturing to military efforts, and the days of rationing for the war effort had ended. This major shift in war fighting on the home front signaled the arrival of what would years later be referred to as the Military-Industrial Complex. The Military-Industrial Complex compartmentalized the war. It helped to remove the war from the forefront of American consciousness. As there was no longer a need for household sacrifice to prosecute the war, some of the sense of ‘shared sacrifice’ was lost. The Military-Industrial Complex would now supply US forces with the best equipment, rations, and training that money could buy, with little or no noticeable impact to the American consumer. The public’s sacrifice and contribution towards the war effort would now consist of tax revenue, which is far removed from a tactile sacrifice of foregoing gasoline, tires, or sugar.
Unlike previous wars, the Korean War did not come to a conclusion with documents of surrender. Fighting stopped on July 27, 1953 with the signing of a cease-fire agreement, which is still in effect today. Technically, the war did not end, but outright combat has been on hold for nearly sixty years. As there is only a cease-fire in effect, there is no real winner and loser, in the traditional sense.
Afghanistan, it would appear, is on the same path. The U.S. is – though currently on hold for the election cycle – engaging the Taliban in peace talks, to include a possible prisoner exchange. The Taliban, however, views the Kabul / US backed government – the core of US involvement – as illegitimate. This is very similar to the posturing of the combatants in the Korean conflict. There is no indication that the war in Afghanistan is going to result in a ‘win’ – with one victor and a defeated enemy. It will most likely end, not unlike Korea, in a negotiated end to outright hostilities, with the Taliban playing a major role in post-war Afghanistan government and social structure. The ‘win’ in Afghanistan would be a tally of political objectives obtained and a laundry list of conditions that we have to live with, not all of them to our American taste. Taliban influence will likely not be removed from Afghanistan; much like the communist government was not removed from North Korea after signing the cease-fire agreement.
Given the parallels between the Korean Conflict and the war in Afghanistan, years from now we may have multiple ‘forgotten’ wars. We have a professional volunteer army that can manage headcount by raising and lowering enlistment standards at will. Reserve and National Guard troops can be tapped to augment active duty needs. In a do-more-with-less environment, technology, training and tactics along with a healthy military-industrial complex – managed by efficiency experts who work with budgets and timetables to ensure that the war is won on time, under budget with minimal US casualties – have all but ensured the end of ‘shared sacrifice’ when it comes to US military operations. There will always be a need for kicking in doors, lobbing grenades, and laying down suppressive fire, but again, it will fall to an ever-shrinking minority of the population to take on this type of heavy lifting. We can fly aircraft into the combat zone with the pilot being continents away. We can level mountains from offshore, far from any threat of enemy retaliation. As combat looks more and more like a video game – to those of us watching from the living room – and wins become negotiated cease-fires where we accept corrupt or repressive regimes as long as anti-American interests remain managed, do we tacitly agree to forget wars that did not accomplish as much as the brochures originally advertised?