Saigon fell 40 years ago this week. The defeat of the United States seemed at the time to be a world-changing event, which demonstrated that even the planet’s foremost power could not prevail if resolutely opposed. But it was the second time the mistake had been made: 20 or so years before, schoolteachers in French provincial towns had wept in front of their pupils as the impossible, the unbelievable news came in that the army had been vanquished in Dien Bien Phu.
Yet France went on to repeat its errors in Algeria. The United States could not imagine it would meet the same fate as its predecessor in Vietnam, but did. The Soviet Union, ignoring both the French and the US experience, blundered into a quagmire of its own in Afghanistan, which the US then inherited. Today, American forces are in Afghanistan, even though President Barack Obama months ago declared that the US had ended combat there. The Americans are deploying drones and special forces rather than large units, but this is still war. Is it a “good” war or a “bad” war? Ask President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, and he will say he needs it until his plans for reform and renewal bear fruit. It is not a bad answer but it is a debatable one as well.
The record suggests that most wars do not “end”. Perhaps Vietnam eventually did, although there was a long aftermath of hostility between Washington and Hanoi. But other conflicts seem to lead on to new ones. Even the one supposedly indisputable victory of western forces in the second half of the 20th century, the Kuwait war in 1991, was not that, for it led to a series of conflicts which, in the shape of the campaign against (Isis), is still going on today. There are chains of consequences here that we ignore at our peril. How to break them is a truly critical question.
The costs for the western powers who have tried to order the world by force were high, but even the victors have had cause to repine. “The future lied to us, there in the past,” the Vietnamese novelist Bao Ninh wrote, reflecting on a war that he had fought not merely to throw out the Americans but also to create a fair society, one which Vietnam is still far from achieving. Some thought, back in the war days, that a western–ordered oppressive world was going to be replaced by a far better one in which strong socialist states would set the pace. That did not turn out to be the case. The new socialist states even had wars with each other.
wrote Pete Seeger. Until quite recently, the heartening thing was that we did seem to be learning. The cold war ended. There were, suddenly, . Fewer people were killed. United Nations peacekeepers went out to more countries. It was still terrible but it was less terrible. A time of civility, optimists thought, might be on the horizon and, for all the mistakes and imperfections, the liberal interventionism of the 1990s was a product of that optimism. A new attempt at collective security could contain outbreaks of atavistic nationalism like those in former Yugoslavia.
Then Iraq discredited big western interventions. Good, many would say. Yet what has now emerged is even more worrying than in the era of Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic. On the one hand there are wars of extreme viciousness such as those waged by Isis, al-Qaida, and al-Shabaab, all of them with the potential to reach Europe and America at any time. On the other there is the shadow war that Russia is waging in Ukraine, a war both more difficult to counter or to settle by diplomacy since it is so insidiously below the radar.
The military strength of western countries, Britain very much included, is in decline. The slashing of defence budgets has gone too far, but that does not mean that the principal response to these new developments in war should always be military. We need to react more intelligently. The principal response should be to pay attention to underlying causes, to global warming, over-population, failures of governance, resource shortages and to extremes of inequality. We supposedly do, and yet we don’t. Any observer of Britain’s election campaign, for instance, would imagine that we are still a secure nation sitting in a secure world. Wars are symptoms of the fact that we are not.