The Fourth of July is generally a time for Americans to get together, watch fireworks, and celebrate our nation’s independence. But in the period since 1776, the United States has also repeatedly sought to help other nations achieve their own independence and liberty, sometimes through war. The recent 75th anniversary of D-Day reminded us that the United States played a key part in dismantling fascism, and over subsequent decades, helped transform nations such as Germany and Japan into free, stable democracies. The United States has certainly had some important feats over its 243-year lifespan that helped free others from oppression.
Yet the track record is far from perfect. And this has been particularly true thus far in the 21st century. During this recent era there’s been room for improvement, to put it charitably. As we sought to “liberate” others we often achieved short term battlefield successes. However over the long term, these conflicts provided little for Americans and others around the world to celebrate.
In my forthcoming book The Day After: Why America Wins the War but Loses the Peace (releases in September 2019 by Cornell University Press) I explore why the U.S. has had so much trouble. Early on, we successfully toppled foes like the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, and Qaddafi. However we dropped the ball when it came to preparing for what would come next, and this helped foster major impacts which continue to reverberate today. These impacts included lives lost, astonishing sums of money spent, damage to America’s international reputation, and attention diverted from other key priorities.
In today’s landscape there is widespread frustration with these wars, but little consensus as to what exactly went wrong. In fact, in some quarters there almost seems to be an openness to initiating new campaigns overseas, with stunningly little reflection on our earlier missteps.
Ultimately, the U.S. failed to develop a viable strategy in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya largely because we had a confused vision of what exactly we were trying to achieve in the first place. This helped foster confusion about what should come next. We were torn by conflicting motives, and we never invested the time and energy required to sort through the tensions at hand. To be sure, none of these places were remotely “easy.” But we probably could have attained somewhat better outcomes if we had sought to develop realistic, coherent plans for what would come next. When an overarching strategy is absent, it makes the odds of a quagmire rise dramatically.
For future Independence Days, if we are looking to generate more accomplishments to celebrate, we might do well to reflect on these experiences, uncomfortable as that might be. Doing so can shed light on problematic patterns we have not yet fully come to terms with. And it might give us much greater pause before plunging into the next war to “liberate” another foreign population.
Brendan Gallagher is a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel in the infantry with multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He holds a Ph.D. from Princeton in public and international affairs, and is currently a battalion commander. The views expressed are solely those of the author, and do not express the views of the U.S. Army or the U.S. Department of Defense.