American Peril: We’ve Forgotten Afghanistan


Cameron Speltz

On Oct. 15, President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. military will maintain its current level of forces in Afghanistan, further delaying the winding down of what has now become by far America’s longest war.

The perpetual presence of American troops in the Middle East extends beyond Afghan borders. On Oct. 27, President Obama’s senior national security team put forward advice that, if followed, will result in the deployment of American forces close to the Iraqi and Syrian front lines, as reported by the Washington Post, and on Oct. 30, it was announced that U.S. special forces will be deployed in Syria.

The situation in the Middle East is concerning to a great deal of people, but America’s voice is growing ever more quiet on the matter.

In its infancy, the War in Afghanistan was a rallying point for an American public scarred by the devastating attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Once the trauma began to fade, however, displeasure with involvement abroad began to take the spotlight. The constant news coverage of IED strikes and suicide bombings left Americans with a general sense of frustration. In the arts, music like Green Day’s American Idiot, or films like The Hurt Locker or Restrepo reflected the shifting public opinion of the time. We were sick of war.

Now, however, such vocal anti-war expression is rare. Few are happy with the war, but likewise, few are paying attention.

Compare this phenomenon to the War in Vietnam. The anti-war movement of the 1960s and ’70s was a defining force in its time: it generated vast volumes of discussion and art that frequently boiled over into violent action. Vietnam ultimately altered the psyche of an entire generation of Americans, and this shift is blatantly reflected by the music, films, and literature of the time.

With that blemish weighing on America’s foreign policy decisions, the question becomes not just why we are still in Afghanistan, but how. How could a society so colored by our history of foreign occupation let a war outlast the horrors of the War in Vietnam?

To answer this, we need to look further back in history to an era that some historians deem “American Peril.” This era, which notably includes the Spanish-American War, was defined by Theodore Roosevelt’s mentality of “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” American naval forces easily crushed the Spaniards and invaded two key locations: Cuba and the Philippines.

Due to brutal anti-insurrectionist measures taken by the Spaniards, American occupation of these lands was easy to frame as a liberation effort. The American public was eager; they felt ties to the valiant revolutionaries struggling against their dictatorial oppressors.

Of course, by acquiring Spain’s territories, America benefited politically and economically as well. The U.S. protected her borders and simultaneously harvested the abundant resources that the tropical nations offered.

These two factors exemplify the openly imperialistic American foreign policy that characterized the era of American Peril. The United States invaded Cuba and the Philippines on noble pretenses, but it was no secret that America was reaping enormous benefits from its actions.

This is the connection between the eras of American Peril, Vietnam and Afghanistan. In each case, America’s motivation in conflicts had two sides: a moral side and an an economic or political one. In the cases of Cuba (not the Philippines) or Vietnam, the moral motivation eventually crumbled, and without the moral side, the economic or political benefit could not maintain our foreign occupation.

However, while we saw our moral motivation for the war in Afghanistan start to crumble in the mid 2000s, that process has come to a standstill. We seem to have accepted that our forces are there to stay, for the good of the region.

Theodore Roosevelt was a famously macho man of 19th century ideals. For most of his life, war was a playing field on which to seek your valor and glory. It was not until World War I, when his son was slain by a machine gunner, that Roosevelt’s attitude toward war was changed.

Let us only hope that it doesn’t take such a tragic wake up call today to shake our complacency toward conflict in Afghanistan and the Middle East. The material and political gains may not be worth it for much longer, if they ever were to begin with.