Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Starting and Ending Wars

Questions We Should Have Asked Before Invading Afghanistan;
There weren’t any good ways to leave Afghanistan, just the least-worst way. And we didn’t pick that one.

Nicholas Johnson
The Gazette, August 18, 2021, p. A6

[This is how it first appeared Aug. 17 online; hard copy headline: "Think About the Ending Before the Beginning"]

“If we’d thought a bit of the end of it,” Cole Porter laments in his lyrics to “Just One of Those Things.”

It’s a caution wisely applied in both love and war, as Rita Rudner illustrates in her standup: “Whenever I date a guy, I think, 'Is this the man I want my children to spend their weekends with?'”

Now think Afghanistan.
How will we know if we’re ever “successful”? What are our metrics?

Before, rather than after, going to war the best and brightest of our military have “thought a bit of the end of it.” They have a list of questions, set forth below. Among them are, “What will be our exit strategy?” and “After we leave will the people and their country be better off or worse off?” [Photo source:, public domain]

Among the other questions are: What’s the problem, or challenge? What’s our goal? Is it sufficiently important, clearly defined and understood? Why will military force contribute to, rather than impede, its accomplishment? What more effective non-military alternatives are there?

What are the benefits and costs, gains and losses, risks and rewards? What will it require in troops, materiel, lives and treasure? How long will it take? Are the American people and their Congress supportive? For how long?

Might we be perceived as just the latest invaders? Can we protect innocent civilians? Is the area governed as a country, or as regions ruled by war lords? Are we picking sides in a civil war? Are we sufficiently informed about the territory and people where we’ll be fighting? Do we know their language, culture, history, tribal, political, and social structure? Will we be the only ones identified by uniforms, unable to distinguish friend from foe? [Photo source:]

How will we know if we’re ever “successful”? What are our metrics?

As U.S. maritime administrator I had some responsibility for sealift to Vietnam and our MARAD representatives there. Before a trip to Saigon I was asked to report my assessment when I returned.

What was my conclusion, after matching the questions above to my observations in Vietnam? “You can’t play basketball on a football field.”

Or, as the computer in the 1983 movie “War Games” concludes, after comparing its countdown to “Global Thermonuclear War” with an unwinnable game of tic-tac-toe, there are times when “The only winning move is not to play.”

[See 1:42-1:46 (1:30-1:35 on original YouTube trailer) for computer's conclusion. The rest of what's provided here gives the context for that conclusion. This is a clip from a trailer for the film, available to the public on YouTube. If anyone connected to the film War Games objects to this use, promoting the film and thus encouraging people to watch the entire movie, give me a brief email to that effect and this will be taken down.]

But we no longer have the luxury of deciding whether to play the game. That was decided by others 20 years ago. As the pottery display sign warns, “break it, you own it.” We own Afghanistan.

Paul Simon sang, “There must be 50 ways to leave your lover.” There weren’t any good ways to leave Afghanistan, just the least-worst way. And we didn’t pick that one.

Now America agonizes, like the hospitalized antivaxxer whose refusal to be vaccinated has him infected with COVID, breathing through a ventilator. He’s changed his mind. He begs to be vaccinated, only to be told, “We’re sorry, but it’s too late now.”

If only “we’d thought a bit of the end of it” in 2001 – and 2021.
Nicholas Johnson, the author of Columns of Democracy, was U.S. maritime administrator during the Vietnam War.

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Lyrics to “Just One of Those Things.” Cole Porter. “It was just one of those things/Just one of those crazy flings . . . If we’d thought a bit/Of the end of it/When we started painting the town . . . It was great fun/But it was just one of those things.”

Rita Rudner quote. “Rita Rudner Quote,” citing source as: “As quoted in: Mademoiselle: The Magazine for the Smart Young Woman, Volume 92 (Condé Nast Publications, 1986), p. 174.”; also

War Games.

50 Ways to Leave Your Lover. Paul Simon, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” Genius,

Related (to prior versions of this column; still relevant but not necessary “sources” for this version. (a) When 911 was paid for and carried out by Saudis, why did we attack Afghanistan? (b) Yes, there were terrorists in Afghanistan. But there are well over 100 countries that could, and do, provide safe havens for terrorists. Why make Afghanistan our single major focus? (c) We shouldn't be keeping even 5000 or 10,000 troops in a foreign country. If true, then should we also bring the troops home from the other 150 (give or take) countries where we have even more troops -- Japan 54K, South Korea 26K, Germany 35K, Italy 12K, UK 9K?)

Saudis not Afghanis. Annika Kim Constantino, “U.S. reviews 9/11 documents for possible release after families tell Biden to skip memorial events,”CNBC, Aug. 9, 2021,

Terrorists in 134 countries. Global Terrorism Index, (last edited Aug. 10, 2021)

100,000 troops in Afghanistan in August 2010. “A timeline of U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan since 2001,” AP/Military Times, July 6, 2016,

Troop deployments.

“United States Military Deployments,” Wikipedia, (“The military of the United States is deployed in most countries around the world, with between 150,000 to 200,000 of its active-duty personnel stationed outside the United States and its territories.”)

“US Deployment Facts, How Many US Troops are Overseas?” VetFriends, (With more than 5000: Japan, Germany, South Korea, Kuwait, Italy, UK)

“Explained: The US military’s global footprint,” TRTWorld, March 15, 2021, (“Washington keeps troops numbered around 150,000 to 200,000 abroad across more than 150 countries, according to different sources.” citing DOD data June 30, 2021; Japan 54K, South Korea 26K, Germany 35K, Italy 12K, UK 9K)

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