WASHINGTON -- In his State of the Union address, President Trump, who is admittedly not given to eloquent or self-reflective musings, voiced an odd phrase that seemed both rather strange and rather perceptive.
"Great nations," he said, "do not wage endless wars."
Now of course, there have been long wars across history, but even the infamous Hundred Years' War in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries was waged only by minor French and English claimants to the thrones. Truly powerful nations supposedly move swiftly to resolve wars. The way, in fact, we have not.
The strangest thing in our country today is that virtually no one talks about our seemingly eternal and too often unnecessary wars, which boast neither tactics nor strategy. Even stranger is that, so far, none of our eager candidates for the presidency has even mentioned them.
Since Vietnam, we have turned our faces innocently away from the fact that we have lost virtually every war we have engaged in after the Korean War (and that was only a tie). In fact, only now are such "secrets" beginning to seep out in public and press journals.
In a recent special issue of Smithsonian magazine, "America at War," the articles relate how, 17 long years after the attack on the Twin Towers, the U.S. now has American troops engaged in the global war on terrorism in 80 nations on six continents. Its map of the world looks like a chicken pox of circles of American power plopped here and there -- 800 bases from Djibouti to Kosovo to South Korea -- the purposes of which often elude common sense.
Smithsonian notes that the U.S. has spent $1.9 trillion fighting terrorism since 2001, which brings the cost for those conflicts alone to roughly one-tenth of the national debt of $21 trillion.
And of all these wars, I can count only our easy takeovers of Panama and Grenada as successes. Otherwise, from Afghanistan to Iraq to Somalia to Yemen to Syria, we are losing.
Take Afghanistan. The Taliban now controls 40 percent of the country, and we are negotiating with the Taliban because President Trump wants to get out. Our obvious eagerness encourages the Taliban and the Iranians. Moscow just hosted the opposition parties from formerly Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, thus trying to undercut the American-backed Afghan government. Sound good to you?
Then consider Iraq. Still overseeing a nation half-destroyed from our bombing and then from the ruinous destruction of ISIS, the Iraqi government is now enraged by President Trump's statements that we are there not to build Iraq, but to "monitor" Iran. We must really want the Iraqi government to cooperate with us, right?
Even further, Smithsonian reports, according to a new poll it conducted along with Stars and Stripes and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, "more than 80 percent of 1,031 service members and veterans surveyed agreed" that those occupations have "been going on too long." This figure is backed up by many indicators of substantial dissatisfaction among America's armed forces, a sentiment that's dangerous to any nation and which I, as a correspondent who spent time in Saigon, remember all too well in the aftermath of Vietnam.
Finally some comments are emerging comparing America's current wars to Vietnam. From writer Max Hastings, these sardonic words: "We've learned the lesson from Vietnam so well we can exactly repeat it." Many military officers voice the idea that in the Middle East, like Vietnam, we can't win, but we can't afford to lose.
The point is to realize we are draining our lifeblood, our resources, and our political and moral standing in the world with these "wars of choice" (or, as I call them, "theoretical wars"), while across the globe people yearn for an America that is a positive example and a wise steward of our history.
Perhaps we need to form a group of "wise men" in the Pentagon or some appropriate venue. But at the very least, our presidential candidates must show they are truly interested in serious issues and not in frivolous and juvenile name-calling and score-settling. We voters are going to have to insist they act like adults.
I guess I need to correct, or at least add to, President Trump's odd phrase: Yes, great nations DO engage in endless wars -- but they soon cease being great nations.