Three years and nine months: That's how long it took the United States and its allies to defeat the combined forces of Japan, Germany and Italy. That defeat was total and without doubt. Entire nations were laid waste. Military and civilian leaders were killed or brought to trial. Allied forces occupied the defeated countries and replaced the native leadership.
Ten years and counting: That's how long the Afghanistan war has raged. Eight years and counting: That's how long U.S. troops have been dying in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.
What changed in 60 years to make our 21st century wars interminable, despite the enemy being a weak shadow of the power of Japan, Germany and Italy? The United States is fighting differently in Iraq and Afghanistan than it did in the 1940s. It's a different kind of war, an insurgency, and insurgencies are harder to suppress than massive armies and navies. It's a strategy that requires dividing the population between combatants and civilians — a distinction only perfunctorily attempted in World War II. In Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers and Marines are not just "killing the bad guys," they are trying to build governmental and cultural institutions that will lead to democratic reforms and self-rule.
Imagine what World War II would have been like if the Allies had fought Japan, Germany and Italy the way they have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. GIs would have worked with the Japanese population to engender democratic institutions. American money would have poured into Germany to support political parties to oppose the National Socialists. Italian-speaking Americans would have slipped into Italy to gather intelligence and to build political opposition to Mussolini's Fascists. There would have been no firebombing of Cologne, no Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
And the grandsons of those "Greatest Generation" soldiers would still be fighting and dying in Europe and the Pacific.
This comparison is not meant to suggest that the United States should lay waste to Iraq the way it did to the Ruhr Valley or that it unleash nuclear devastation in Afghanistan as it did in Japan. My suggestion is that military forces are not designed for "nation building," and wars are not meant to alter institutions or to initiate grassroots democracy. War is meant to demolish institutions, destroy power and subjugate a population. Attempting to use military power to transition a Medieval tribal culture into a 21st century liberal democracy is like trying to use a howitzer to drive a nail.
After a decade of war and the loss of thousands of lives, Iraq is still a corrupt, totalitarian, brutal, sectarian, divided country little changed since the first millennium, and Afghanistan is still a corrupt, totalitarian, brutal, class-based, misogynist culture that wants nothing to do with the 18th century, much less the 21st.
Nation building, counter-insurgency and all the other tactics are failures.