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Wars ending badly
Afghanistan in perspective
“There never was a good war or a bad peace,” said Benjamin Franklin. He was speaking comparatively, expressing relief that the Revolutionary War was finally over, and defending a peace treaty that delivered less than some Americans had expected.
On what lay between war and peace—on the transition from the former to the latter—Franklin had less to say. But his observation and experience of the ending of the Revolutionary War might well have prompted a remark that wars end messily, especially wars that pit one part of a country’s population against another part, as most wars do.
The Revolutionary War pitted Americans against Americans even more bitterly than Americans against British. At the beginning of the conflict Loyalists were nearly as numerous as Patriots, and fighting between the two groups split states, cities and towns, and families—including Franklin’s own family. The Patriots eventually won, but the bitterness persisted, and the Loyalists feared for their lives and property in the approaching peace.
A great many didn’t wait for the hammer to fall. Scores of thousands—perhaps 100,000—fled with the British or on their own to Britain, Canada, the West Indies and continental Europe. The refugees included former slaves who had taken up Britain’s offer of freedom in exchange for service in the British army; many of these went to Canada, with some finding their way to Sierra Leone. The refugees also included Indians who had fought on Britain’s side; most of the Indian refugees went to Canada, to live among Indians there.
The end of the Civil War was even messier. Refugee flows were small in comparison to the numbers involved in the fighting, but the destruction of property value was far greater than at the end of the Revolutionary War. The Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment annihilated the most valuable capital asset, after land, in the South: the property value in slaves. Many planters, the leading men in the South, were impoverished, and the whole planter-based economy, sustained by credit secured by slaves as collateral, collapsed.
Of course, the labor value of the former slaves didn’t disappear. It was transferred from the erstwhile masters to the freedmen themselves. This in itself constituted a revolution in Southern affairs, and was violently resisted by whites in the guerrilla fighting that began not long after Appomattox and lasted for decades.
At first, the federal government—which was to say, the winning side in the Civil
War—kept the guerrillas at bay. Congress imposed military rule on the South and in the early 1870s forcibly dispersed the Ku Klux Klan. But Northerners eventually wearied of defending Southern blacks, and the losers in the war—white Southerners—regained control.
America’s next great war, World War I, ended in a mess that surpassed anything seen before. The war displaced tens of millions, and the breakup of the German, Austrian and Ottoman empires afterward caused a jumbling and re-sorting of their constituent populations that, arguably, hasn’t ended even today. The treaty imposed on Germany by the victors saddled that country with an economic burden so onerous that it shocked even many of the winners and prompted predictions that Germany would break out of the treaty regime at first opportunity.
Which was what happened during the 1930s, and produced World War II. This war ended in the devastation of Germany and Japan, leaving little there to destroy had the victors been of such mind. In fact the Soviet Union was of such mind, and it proceeded to dismantle whole factories in its zone of German occupation and ship them back to Russia. A different kind of booty became a bone of contention between the Soviet Union and the United States, as each tracked down German scientists who were enticed or coerced to aid Russia and America in the development of new weapons for potential use in the emerging Cold War.
World War II displaced scores of millions of people, who required years or decades to find new homes or their way back to their old homes. The most striking—and enduringly contentious—relocation led to the creation of Israel in territory already occupied by Arabs. War broke out immediately, and others followed. Violence on a larger scale accompanied the war-triggered partition of British India into independent India and Pakistan; amid the partition a million people died and ten million were made refugees.
Only the oldest Americans today remember the ending of World War II, but many remember the final moments of the American war in Vietnam. And what they remember most are the images of South Vietnamese frantically trying to escape Saigon on the last helicopters out, and of the “boat people” who took to the sea in questionable watercraft to escape the vengeance of the victorious North Vietnamese. The boat people were the much larger group, numbering several hundred thousand, and they suffered an appalling death toll, as high as two hundred thousand lost at sea.
America’s twenty-year war in Afghanistan is ending messily. It could hardly have ended otherwise. Many Afghans on the losing side credibly fear for their lives and will get out if they can. The Taliban don’t seem the type to let bygones be bygones. They won’t trust their enemies to suddenly become their friends. Moreover, they fought for a reason: to impose their vision of Islam on their country. And they won.
People have lost their lives in the effort to escape Afghanistan. Each such death is a tragedy to those involved. Maybe things will get much worse. But as of August 25, confirmable deaths are comparatively few. The number of refugees evacuated so far is around 80,000. Perhaps two or three hundred thousand more would like to leave.
Americans are arguing over what their government could or should have done—and be doing—to mitigate the suffering in Afghanistan. The arguing is understandable, particularly since the United States started the war. Yet as they argue, they might recall that their own forebears were harder on the Loyalists after the Revolutionary War than the Taliban have been—so far, crucially—on the Afghans who opposed them. If the Afghan refugee projections prove correct, the total, adjusted for population, will be less than half the number of Loyalist refugees in the 1780s.
Americans can be dismayed at the mess in Afghanistan, but they shouldn’t be surprised. Wars end badly. That’s what they do. Which is another reason to be very careful about starting them.