If it was possible to assemble all American presidents who have ever presided over a war, it’s conceivable that none of them would acknowledge that, on his watch, America has ever lost a war.
We do know that Washington won the Revolutionary War, although technically that was prior to him becoming president. Madison would declare that America won the War of 1812, and with the help of future president Andrew Jackson he did. President James K. Polk would be correct in stating that the U.S. won the Mexican-American War, because the U.S. annexed considerable territory, but many Mexicans, Texans, and even New Mexicans say, to this day, that 170 years later the war is not over, and the Mexicans shall yet prevail.
What is rarely clear is whether America has lost a war – too many conflicts have ended in ambiguity. What is always clear is that no president wants to be regarded as the first to have lost a war. Just as history is often rewritten by the victors, or the persons who think that they were the victors, contemporary events follow the same pattern. No matter how doubtful it might that the U.S. won a war, the chief executive will call it a “victory with honor.”
President Barack Obama is currently facing that problem with Afghanistan. While brave American men and women are fighting against the Taliban and other adversaries of the U.S., the Americans cannot gain the popular support of the Afghani people. Inadvertent events consistently occur that undermine the good will that American is trying to generate. It might be accidental bombings of civilians in villages; it might be burning copies of the Koran, it might be a staff sergeant suffering from PTSD who guns down seventeen innocent civilians in a village. American leaders duly apologize and say that it will never happen again. However, it does.
The devastation brought to innocent Afghanis has resulted in increased opposition to the war by the American public. A recent New York Times / CBS News poll indicated that 69% of Americans think that the U.S. should not be involved in the war in Afghanistan, up from 53 % in November 2011.
President Obama has given indirect indications that the U.S. may exit Afghanistan sooner than previously pronounced. What he has not done is to say that the U.S. is not winning the war, and that the best alternative is to exit. His strategy is essentially the same as that of all previous American presidents who were in office during other wars.
Abraham Lincoln presided over the Union’s victory over the Confederacy, but with 600,000 soldiers killed and resentments about the conflict bitter to this day, it certainly was not a clear-cut victory.
During the administration of President William McKinley, the Spanish-American War was fought, although the question might be raised, For what?” The war was ignited by the “yellow journalism” of William Randolph Heart, and while the U.S. gained territory, it did so in a somewhat questionable way.
World War I under Woodrow Wilson was tragic, but also necessary. Only one member of Congress voted against the declaration of war. World War II was devastating on two fronts; again only one member of Congress voted against the Declaration. Journalist / writer Tom Brokaw called those who fought in and supported those in World War II “the greatest generation.”
The Korean War from 1950-53 was brutal and frustrating. It ended where it began; with North Korea and South Korea separated at the 38th parallel. The U.S. could have ramped up its forces, but China could have sent more reinforcements to help the North. It was generally deemed as wise to agree on an extended armistice. Many men and women fought in the conflict, but with the primary achievement being their bravery and fortitude; not a military victory with territory gained or an aggressive force defeated. All the same, Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, who were commanders in chief during the war, could not come to call the conflict a draw; they saw it is a successful American stand against communism.
The Vietnam War actually had its roots in World War II. as France tried to maintain its colonial power over most of Southeast Asia. As the United States tried to accomplish what the French failed to do, the conflict became one of trying once and for all to end communist aggression. Years of fighting settled little, and by 1975 the United States had decided (1) that the threat of communism was not as great as it has previously thought, and (2) even if it was, the U.S. had very little chance of achieving a clear victory over the amorphous entity known as the communist world.
One war that brought an element of peace and stability was the American involvement in Kosovo and other Balkan states. Under President Clinton, the U.S. used air power to essentially end ethnic conflict in a very troubled part of the world.
As we entered the 21st Century, the success of U.S. military engagement soured, but that did not keep presidents Bush and Obama from declaring victory, whether justified or not. Iraq was clearly a misbegotten war which caused enormous physical and emotional trauma to Iraqis and Americans. Saddam Hussein was removed from power, but conflict and brutality remain in one of the countries that once was called the ‘cradle of civilization.”
American incursion into Afghanistan following 911 made sense, as forces sought to track down Osama bin Laden and destroy al Qaeda. However, President Bush, under the influence of his neo-con friends, chose to focus more on Iraq, which had nothing to do with 911, rather than Afghanistan, which at that time was as close to a headquarters that bin Laden and al Qaeda had. He essentially forfeited both wars, and President Obama has extended the conflict in Afghanistan well beyond what would have been reasonable and at the expense of thousands of Afghani, Pakistani, American, and other NATO troops.
What remains constant through all the wars that America has fought is the unwillingness of either our Presidents and, in many cases, the populace to acknowledge failure. Like his 43 predecessors, President Obama does not want to be the first president to acknowledge that it was on his watch that the United States lost a war. However, there always is the strategy that has been considered more than once when the U.S. was in a similar position: Declare victory and leave. President Obama may be moving in that direction. He could do American GIs, the American people, and Afghani civilians a big boost by uttering those words now.