Throughout American history, our wars have often been fueled by hatred and the desire for vengeance. The Germans in World War I, the Japanese in World War II, and Saddam Hussein more recently, have all been the targets of American wrath. The Taliban committed many of the same crimes as these historic enemies, but Americans don't feel the same yearning for revenge.
The rule is: We don't hate insurgents; wars against guerrillas are morally murky, and this saps our will to punish the enemy. To see how this dynamic works, we can think of other wars we've involved ourselves in as tales of retribution, wrath, or revenge.
In the fall of 1918, Edward Rickenbacker, America's World War I "Ace of Aces" with 26 kills, swept across the French sky, and saw below him the opening salvoes of the massive U.S. offensive in the Meuse-Argonne region. From his aerial vantage point, Rickenbacker viewed through the mist what seemed like ants swarming over molehills. Another witness thought the U.S. army was "a blanket of destruction ten miles deep, thirty miles long, gliding by inches, skulking by inches--hundreds of thousands of my fellow beings are dragging and tugging this vast carpet of destruction toward the enemy; thrusting its sharp and explosive edge into the enemy."
Finally, the United States could exact due punishment against a German foe that it saw as bloodthirsty and barbaric, the perpetrators of horrendous atrocities and brutal submarine warfare.
In March 1945, hundreds of American B-29 bombers set off from the Mariana Islands and flew toward Tokyo, where they ignited a deadly firestorm that killed 80,000 people. The stench of smoldering flesh was so overwhelming that U.S. aircrews wore oxygen masks to avoid vomiting. It was just vengeance for the crime of Pearl Harbor and the fanatical style of Japanese warfare. Time magazine called the firebombing of Tokyo "a dream come true," because we discovered that "properly kindled, Japanese cities will burn like autumn leaves."
U.S. bombing raids in the summer of 1945 deliberately spared Hiroshima, so that the Japanese could bear witness to the power of a single atomic bomb. The Americans had to save the city in order to destroy it. Photographer Yoshito Matsushige was in Hiroshima on the day of days. People jumped into a swimming pool when the explosion happened, but the heat evaporated the water, leaving their bodies at the bottom of the pool, "like boiled fish." When the war was over, 23 percent of Americans said they regretted that more atomic bombs had not been "quickly" dropped on Japan before they "had a chance to surrender."
In December 2003, a bedraggled Saddam Hussein was pulled out of a hole in a farmhouse near Tikrit, Iraq. "He was caught like a rat," said Major General Raymond Odierno. Saddam was a picture perfect villain, who invaded Kuwait, treated Kuwaitis with brutality, took Americans hostage, fired Scud missiles at Israel and Saudi Arabia, burned oil fields, and--as many Americans at the time believed--orchestrated 9/11. Now, he faced ultimate justice.
Given this history of vengeful war against hated adversaries, it's striking how little anger ordinary Americans feel toward the Taliban today. Public support for the campaign in Afghanistan is eroding. When hawks urge the United States to stay the course, they talk about protecting Pakistan's nuclear weapons, or avoiding a loss to America's reputation. No one describes the aim as punishing the Taliban.
Puzzlingly, where is the rage? Recall that the Taliban hosted the mass murderers of 9/11. They killed hundreds of American soldiers. They reportedly committed horrendous atrocities against Afghan civilians, such as burning families alive, spraying acid on the faces of girls going to school, beheading teachers, executing a 7-year old as a spy, and killing American medical aid workers.
The reason for the lack of hate is quite simple. Americans will fight to punish tyrants, like Saddam. They will fight to punish terrorists, like Al Qaeda. They will fight to punish entire nations, like the Japanese. But they won't fight to punish insurgents, like the Taliban.
Wrath is spurred by a black-and-white, good-versus-evil, view of a conflict. Wars against enemy countries, like the world wars, provide exactly the kind of clear ethical lines that promote retribution. It's our country against their country, and our heroic leader against their diabolical tyrant. Now it's time for payback.
But for most Americans, the urge to retaliate fades dramatically when we start battling insurgents. Suddenly, the moral lines become blurred and confusing, taking the wind out of the retributive sails. Civil wars seem to be driven by complex ancient hatreds, in which all groups are guilty of atrocities. The enemy is hard to identify and track down. Who are the good guys and the bad guys?
For sure, U.S. soldiers fighting guerrillas on the frontlines can be vengeful. During the Vietnam War, in 1968, one American private recalled that his unit went to the village of My Lai, "in a mood to get even." But back home in the United States, most people seemed to hate each other more than the Vietcong insurgents.
In 2001, vengeance for 9/11 inspired Americans to destroy al-Qaeda terrorists and overthrow the Taliban regime in Kabul. But as soon as the war switched to counter-insurgency, the campaign lost its sense of moral clarity, and wrath faded. With Osama bin Laden lying low, the Taliban seem less and less like terrorists, and more and more like Vietcong-style guerrillas.
The sapping of American hate and wrath is a good thing. If we were driven to exact revenge against the Taliban, it would only worsen the conflict. After all, an exit strategy may hinge on some kind of negotiated deal with the enemy. At the same time, the fading sense of retribution helps to explain why our will to fight in Afghanistan is running on empty.
Dominic Tierney is a professor of political science at Swarthmore College and a former contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is the author of The Right Way to Lose a War: America in an Age of Unwinnable Conflicts.