After Napoleon’s disastrous campaign in Russia, not more than a few months after his forces, the Grande Armée, were annihilated, the story goes that the Emperor declared peace over all of Europe one afternoon in his office with the visiting representative from the Congress of Vienna, Count Metternich, awkwardly standing as a witness.
As if it were that easy to just end all wars.
It seemed then that war in Europe was over for a while. But, of course, the Continent would see much more bloodshed along with the rest of the world. Treaty after treaty, agreement after agreement — the cycle of conflict never seems to end. So, when is a war over?
For Americans, and especially after heavy gunfire at American University in Kabul struck the news, that question remains close to home. The United States has emulated Napoleon, and thus the Middle East is our war-embroiled Europe. President Barack Obama in 2013 called for the withdrawal of more than 60,000 American troops from the War in Afghanistan, a conflict running more than 13 years by then. Yet, the United States seems to have a lot more trouble completely bringing a close to this conflict. Roughly 10,000 troops are still deployed in the war-torn state, with Americans still not sure of when the war will finally be “finished.”
The thoughts of an endless war are spiritually and emotionally draining. Alexander the Great’s conquest of Greek states, Persia and eventually parts of India is impressive. But his men had lost sight of the point of fighting after 10 years of campaigning and had enough of fighting. They were ready to mutiny. To many Americans, the similar sentiments of uncomfortable anxiety and frustration run high when there seems no end to a war. Afghanistan is overlapped by Iraq, and Iraq is overlapped by Afghanistan again. When is a war over?
Written about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, an excerpt from War and Peace frighteningly describes what type of opponents the U.S. faces in its quickly degenerating asymmetrical conflicts: “One of the most conspicuous and advantageous departures from the so-called rules of warfare is the independent action of men acting separately against men huddled together in a mass.” It explains why a U.S.-led effort to stabilize the Middle East has failed. President George W. Bush’s War on Terror has inspired more independent actions from men acting separately against a uniformed group of foreign soldiers than it has eradicated. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers who committed the 9/11 terrorist attacks assumed for many Americans a stereotype and gross generalization of Saudi Arabia just because they happened to be Saudis. This is also true for pretty much most states in the Middle East with an Islamic influence. This kind of negative opinion adds to the flames that destroy stable states and create failed states.
But the biggest issue with an intervention in the Middle East is that the type of enemy any outside power would engage is one where even if a battle or two were won, there would still be no clear sign of victory because the issue goes deeper than military victories and failures. When U.S. forces eradicate most of the physical elements of some terror group, it is quickly played as a decisive, irreversible move by news outlets. “Mission Accomplished” banners are hung and “U-S-A” is chanted at baseball games. Yet, asymmetrical warfare is no game of chess. There is no black or white. There is but a camouflaged enemy whose activities become ghostlike. The institution that was just bombed goes from being a concrete enemy to an abstract one. The ideological movement of the group lives on within the tunnels and caves they hide in, still with plans to destroy America in their hearts. The most naïve form of trying to close a war is when we try to slap “Mission Accomplished” to every project that must be kept positive for the sake of political price tags but have clearly failed.
American fear for citizens overseas — and maintaining the peace — runs high after Kabul. Even when all but a few of your enemies are not in your grasp, peace isn’t just something declared as did Napoleon. As much as Americans love fresh starts, war is one thing you just can’t do that with. Coenus stated to Alexander, “…if there is one thing above all others a successful man should know, it is when to stop.” The end of a war is tricky. But it begins with taming the greed in every man’s heart to conquer till he can conquer no more.