In 1953, while studying agriculture at the University of Maryland, I received a draft notice. Like thousands of young Americans, I was being drafted by the United States for service in the Korean war. Although I was not an American citizen at the time, the military planned to use my Chinese-language skills by having me interrogate captured Chinese soldiers detained in South Korea.
That war ended in June 1953, before I could fulfil such a function. It would be the last time American and Chinese soldiers met directly in combat, but it was far from the end of American military action in the post-WWII era.
Critics have frequently derided the US for being in a“constant state of war” since World War II. From a purely legal standpoint, this is not true. The US has not declared war on any country since 1942, when war was declared on Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania.
Yet this is perhaps a distinction without a difference; in the 30 years after World War II, the US would fight major wars in Korea (1950-53) and Vietnam (1955-75). Even when the US was not engaged in direct military conflict, the cold war cast a shadow over the post-war decades, as the prospect of nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union loomed.
The end of the cold war did not end US military conflict, as history would sadly demonstrate. While the Gulf War was wrapped up in a matter of months (August 1990-February 1991), the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would not conclude so simply. The Iraq war began in 2003 and ended abruptly in 2011.The Afghanistan war still rages, 18 years on. This month, The Washington Post released a multi-part bombshell report on the “Afghanistan Papers”, documents containing hundreds of interviews with named and unnamed former military and diplomatic personnel.
It confirms what has long been suspected – that successive personnel in the Bush and Obama administrations deliberately misled the American people about the lack of progress in Afghanistan and squandered hundreds of billions of tax dollars in the process.
How could the US have failed so dramatically in Afghanistan? The truth, perhaps, is that it failed to clearly articulate its mission in Afghanistan.
Then defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in a memo: “I have no visibility into who the bad guys are. We are woefully deficient in human intelligence.”
James Dobbins, the former US special envoy to Afghanistan, said: “We don’t invade poor countries to make them rich. We don’t invade authoritarian countries to make them democratic. We invade violent countries to make them peaceful and we clearly failed in Afghanistan.”
I would argue that the interminable Afghanistan war is not evidence that America has become hawkish and war-loving, but rather that it has repeatedly failed to recognise that peace and democracy cannot be forcibly constructed by soldiers without consideration of the complicated and unique history, culture and politics of the regions involved.
I do not mean to diminish the work of the hundreds of thousands of brave Americans who have fought in Afghanistan, but I think their sacrifices could have been prevented had more time and resources been allocated to strategic thinking, or had people versed in the history and culture of Afghanistan been included in the decision-making. Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general, said: “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan – we didn’t know what we were doing.”I remember learning in school about Chinese explorer Zhang Qian’s ill-fated mission during the Han dynasty in what is now Afghanistan . Anyone who has studied Afghanistan and the wars there would have been able to better inform US decision-making.
This is all the more tragic and ironic considering that a similar lack of historical understanding contributed to the US quagmire in Vietnam. Although Bush administration officials said Afghanistan would not become another Vietnam, they did nothing to prevent the same mistakes.While the Bush and Obama administrations continue to be criticised for failing to end the Afghanistan war, recent decisions by the Trump administration demonstrate that leaving Afghanistan is easier said than done.Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria was openly criticised by members of both parties, and even led to his defence secretary James Mattis resigning in protest. The outrage centred on Trump’s failure to consider the long-term impact of America’s sudden withdrawal and the betrayal of its Kurdish allies.
Further compounding this problem is the lack of military experience of recent US presidents. George W. Bush served in the Air National Guard, but never in combat. Barack Obama has no military experience. Yet both men were charged with developing war strategies for Iraq and Afghanistan.Trump infamously received multiple draft deferments – including one for bone spurs in his heels – sparing him from service in Vietnam. However, prior military experience has been a defining characteristic of many highly rated presidents, such as George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.As we enter a new decade, Western analysts increasingly speak about the inevitability of a US-China military conflict. Such a conflict would be a tragedy of unspeakable proportions. The numbers of casualties – civilian or military – would be unlike anything the world has seen since WWII. Despite the very real differences between the US and China, such a conflict would not be in either’s best interests.
It is for this reason that I continually advocate greater mutual understanding of America’s and China’s history, culture and thinking. It is my sincere hope that those shaping the future US-China relationship in both Washington and Beijing will be armed with the appropriate understanding of each other’s intentions and interests – and that the leaders in charge are willing to listen to them.