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A Democracy Cannot Fight a Seven Years War

As the years of war tick by, I fear we risk worsening an already troubling schism between the small volunteer force that fights our wars and the democratic electorate that votes to engage in them.
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Our nation's longest war continues in Afghanistan. Those of us who served there measure the conflict against the yardstick of our lives. When I served as a Platoon Leader in the Korengal and Pech valleys in 2005 and 2006, the war had already gone on longer than World War II. Since that time, I've married and started a legal career. Yet through all the changes in my life, the war in Afghanistan has remained constant -- a deadly metronome clicking steadily through my twenties and now into my thirties. Lieutenants who were in junior high when I was in college are leading the platoons now, but the valleys and the villages are the same.

There is nothing easy or simple about the choices we face in Afghanistan, and claims to strategic certainty are best greeted with healthy skepticism. In war, difficult strategic choices require us to balance competing risks and uncertainties. Decisions about whether to increase troop numbers or withdraw, to attempt counterinsurgency or a more minimal strategy, to authorize drone strikes or to refrain, ultimately come down to difficult judgments about relative risk in the absence of information.

The risks in Afghanistan are many no matter what strategic choices we make, both at home and abroad. The risk that Afghanistan will again serve as a safe haven for terrorists. The risk that a nuclear-armed Pakistan will slide into dangerous instability and radicalism. The risk that our reliance on Hamid Karzai's spectacularly unreliable regime will lead us to defeat. The risk that we are expending blood and treasure we can ill afford, in a struggle unlikely to end with a ticker-tape parade. Certainly not least, there is the daily and deeply personal risk we ask our servicemen and women to take every day they spend in the combat zone. Each of these often opposing risks weighs in our continuing national debate about the war, and rightly so.

As this Byzantine debate continues, however, we must consider the insidious and mounting risk posed by the war's duration itself. General George C. Marshall, one of the chief architects of both our victory in World War II and the peace that followed, famously said that "a democracy cannot fight a Seven Years War." Nearly nine years into the war in Afghanistan, we would do well to consider an old soldier's warning.

As the years of war tick by, I fear we risk worsening an already troubling schism between the small volunteer force that fights our wars and the democratic electorate that votes to engage in them. The Founding Fathers believed that a democracy was likely to make wise decisions about war and peace because its citizens would both vote for war and fight it. In America today, however, less than one percent of those eligible to serve are doing the killing and the dying, often year after year, while most of us simply go on with our lives. We ought to think carefully about the consequences for our democracy, and for our military, before we opt to continue with this arrangement much longer.

Meanwhile, a new generation of young Afghans is coming of age. The war is the context of their childhoods and the challenge of their adolescence. On 9/11, today's fifteen-year-old Afghan teenager was about six. The conflict has finally gone on long enough that many of the Taliban's potential recruits have no meaningful memory of how or why the conflict began in the first place, of the horrible atrocity that compelled our army to enter their world. They have simply grown up with the fact that we are there, and that regardless of what good we have done and tried to do, many of their fathers wish for us to leave.

Others, of course, wish for us to stay. Yet, Afghanistan's emerging war generation, just entering its prime fighting years, will present us with new challenges should we remain much longer. At the very least, the war generation is likely to be difficult to convince that our presence in their country is anything but an attempt at permanent occupation. As Taliban recruiters are sure to remind them, we've been there for over half their lives already.

There are compelling arguments on both sides of the Afghanistan debate, and real risks associated with both escalation and withdrawal. But as we weigh our options and gauge our progress in the year ahead, the prospect of a decade-long American war should give us pause.

Michael Breen is a former Army captain who served with the infantry in Iraq and led paratroopers in Afghanistan. Currently a student at Yale Law School, Mike is a Truman National Security Fellow and one of the leaders of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project.

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