For Americans, Afghan War Is Like the Vietcong Attacked Pearl Harbor

Confused by the Afghan war? Michael Steele, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, certainly is. "That's the one thing you don't do ... engage in a land war in Afghanistan," he said. Facing calls for his resignation from fellow Republicans, Steele later backtracked: "Winning a war in Afghanistan is a difficult task. We must also remember that after the tragedy of September 11, 2001, it is also a necessary one."

But it's not just Steele who is unsure what to make of the war in south-central Asia. Americans are increasingly perplexed and divided by the mission. One reason is the contradictory mix of analogies at play as we try to understand it.

The campaign began with 9/11, a massive Pearl Harbor-style attack that killed thousands of Americans. This is exactly the kind of event that rallies the U.S. public to fight. As Bush said in 2001: "What happened at Pearl Harbor was the start of a long and terrible war for America. Yet, out of that surprise attack grew a steadfast resolve that made America freedom's defender. And that mission -- our great calling -- continues to this hour, as the brave men and women of our military fight the forces of terror in Afghanistan and around the world."

What followed 9/11, however, was not a glorious crusade like World War II. It was a messy counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan that seemingly resembles Vietnam -- just the kind of war that Americans hate waging.

In other words, the origins of the Afghan War gave Americans an appetite for combat, but the campaign that resulted left Americans with no stomach for the fight.

It's as if the Vietcong attacked Pearl Harbor, and we trooped off to battle guerrillas in Indochina.

Unsurprisingly, we're having trouble digesting the news from Afghanistan. Pro-war Americans naturally focus on how the conflict started, with a surprise attack against the United States. Popular conservative blogger Erick Erickson called for Michael Steele to resign: "The war in Afghanistan is not a war of Barack Obama's choosing. It is a war of Al Qaeda and the Taliban's choosing. We responded." Just like after Pearl Harbor, we should stay the course.

By contrast, anti-war Americans highlight what the campaign has become: an apparently endless quagmire. Ron Paul was one of the few Republicans to defend Steele. "The American people are sick and tired of spending hundreds of billions of dollars a year, draining our economy and straining our military." For many, the war seems increasingly akin to Vietnam. In early 2009, a Newsweek cover read: "Obama's Vietnam." By October 2009, 52 percent of Americans thought that the conflict in Afghanistan "has turned into a situation like the United States faced in the Vietnam War." The lesson is clear: we need to extricate ourselves before we get further bogged down.

And then there are those in the middle, who see both Pearl Harbor and Vietnam in Afghanistan -- and are left profoundly uncertain about what to do. They can't bring themselves to reject a war that began with the death of thousands of Americans. But neither can they embrace a counterinsurgency struggle with no end in sight.

Eventually, Vietnam may well trump Pearl Harbor. The galvanizing origins of the Afghan War are receding in the American mind, while the depressing current reality looms ever larger, eroding public support.

At the same time, neither analogy really holds up. In 1941, a great power attacked the United States, while on 9/11 a small band of terrorists succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. And Afghanistan is a far cry from Vietnam. For a start, U.S. casualties in Vietnam were over fifty times as high. To put that in perspective, comparing Afghanistan and Vietnam is like comparing a two-story house with the 102-story Empire State Building. 

The attacks on 9/11 were not as threatening as Pearl Harbor. And the Afghan War is not going as badly as Vietnam. The two analogies jostle and compete in the American mind, and neither of them is fully convincing. No wonder people are so confused.