One of the frequent acts of hubris by war makers is to ignore the
consequences of war that will last a generation or more. Political
leaders rarely point to any outcome of a war unfolding apart from the
war's aims -- glorious victory, horrid enemy vanquished, few casualties,
peace and prosperity for all.
But war has a mind of its own, as
nearly every conflict of the past 70 years has taught us. The Second
World War deluded Americans into believing that we could manage enormous
conflicts and win them unequivocally. It was, however, a consequence of
the bloody First World War and exacted a colossal scale of carnage --
50 million dead and an equal number displaced. And that was "the good
Since then, we have had four major conflicts, and we see
every day the lasting consequences of carnage. In Korea, there is the
contemptible north. In Afghanistan, we are in effect waiting to turn the
keys over to the Taliban, as a longtime observer of the country,
Anna Badkhen, recently remarked to me. The toll of 100,000 or so
Afghans and the millions displaced and immiserated hardly registers even
on America's short-term memory.
Consider, then, two other
sizable wars: the U.S. wars in Vietnam and in Iraq. The Vietnam War
ended 40 years ago on April 30 as the Viet Cong overran Saigon. Vietnam
went through years of extreme hardship after the war, emerging to be a
dynamic country. But the war took an enormous toll. Not only were there
some three million killed and five million displaced, and the 10-20
years of deprivation following, but residual chemical warfare and
unexploded bombs that bedevil the country four decades after the war's
"From 1961-1971, the U.S. military sprayed 18 million
liters of chemicals, including 366 kilograms of dioxin," Pham Troung of
the Center for International Studies and Cooperation explained to me
recently in Hanoi. Dioxin, the lethal component of the defoliant Agent
Orange used by American forces, is one of the world's most toxic substances.
"It got into water supply and land sediment. Humans, animals, and
plants were contaminated. The local ecosystems were totally destroyed."