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The Vietnam veteran had never talked about it, but three weeks ago in a "StoryCorps" National Public Radio interview with his wife, the story finally emerged.

"I have one really horrible memory," he said. "It was one of those times when the s*** hits the fan. One of the guys yells at me, 'Behind you!'" He spun, saw the enemy soldier, and killed him.

"And it was after he was going down that it hit my consciousness that he had his hands up and wanted to surrender." Standard practice calls for examination of the corpse, but he "Didn't go look. You know, when you look at the pockets and you pull out a little diary and you open it up and it's got a picture of a woman and a baby. I couldn't do it."

His wife noted that he seemed to return home "perfectly normal."

But he wasn't normal. "I can close my eyes," he said, "and see that guy collapsing with his hands up. And I think about that kid often."

War is, indeed, hell.

How many such memories have America's wars wrought? Do we commit our young men and women with too much passion and too little thought?

Following 9/11, most Americans, myself included, supported the invasion of Afghanistan to destroy Al Qaeda and reform its Taliban-dominated government. But we took our eye off that ball in 2003 when we charged into Iraq on the "public relations error" (as Defense Secretary Rumsfeld phrased it) that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Our invasion of Iraq rid the world of Saddam while creating Al-Qaeda In Iraq, Islamic State, broken government in Baghdad, religious strife, daily bombings, enhanced Iranian influence, and half a million civilian and military deaths including 4,424 Americans so far.

The war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, Al Qaeda and the Taliban, continue.

Recall philosopher-poet George Santayana's admonition: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." There is a history behind 9/11, recounted briefly below. For more details, read military historian Andrew Bacevich's beautiful account in his latest book, "America's War for the Greater Middle East."

In 1979, revolutionaries succeeded in removing Iran's ruler Shah ("King") Pahlavi, whom the U.S. had supported to maintain access to oil. The Shah was replaced by an Islamic republic under Ayatollah ("Shiite Islamic religious ruler") Khomeini, putting Iran and America permanently at odds.

Also in 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. We reacted by providing support to the mujahedin resistance. This defeated the Soviets while training and launching Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

In 1982, 800 Marine "peacemakers" became involved in a civil war in Lebanon. A suicide car bomb at the Marine barracks in Beirut killed 241 and introduced a new terror group: Hezbollah.

in 1980, Iraq's Saddam Hussein attacked Iran in a land grab, initiating eight years of war. America, still hostile to Iran, sided with Iraq and built Saddam's military might despite his gas warfare against enemy soldiers and his own people. We sunk several Iranian ships in one naval encounter, and suffered 37 deaths in another. In an identification error, we shot down an Iranian civilian jet, killing its 290 passengers.

But Saddam reached too far when he occupied Kuwait in 1990 due to a squabble over oil, and our president decided he had to be defeated. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops assembled in Saudi Arabia for an attack on Saddam's forces. The young Osama Bin Laden, fresh from a successful war against infidels in Afghanistan, objected, threatening revenge against Saudi Arabia and America. Our war against Saddam was victorious after only 40 days but it left Saddam in power and his elite Republican Guard intact.

Throughout the 1990s, Americans policed a no-fly zone in Iraq and fought in conflicts in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Afghanistan and Yemen.

In 1993, Islamic terrorists detonated a car bomb in the basement of New York's World Trade Center, killing six and injuring more than a thousand. Intended to bring down both towers, this operation was America's first brush with Al Qaeda.

Returning to 9/11, it took only a few months to achieve "victory" in Afghanistan in 2001. But Al Qaeda and the Taliban were merely dispersed into Pakistan, not defeated. What appeared to be an easy victory was only the beginning of America's longest war, a war we are now losing as Afghan civilians become discouraged and the Taliban insurgency spreads once again across the country.

Commentary on 11/29/2016

Print Headline: The fog of America's wars

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