American Ignorance and Afghanistan

As President Barack Obama and his team deliberate about the best way forward in Afghanistan, they are compelled to incorporate a variety of voices on the subject. Military leaders advocate for an increase in troops -- 40,000 strong -- to continue the work that was started there nearly eight years ago. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, argues, "The situation in Afghanistan is serious, but success is achievable and demands a revised implementation strategy, commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort." Peace activists argue passionately for the opposite, citing the variety of costs -- economic, ethical, in human lives. Jodie Evans, co-founder of Code Pink, writes, "It will take the women of the world to rise up and say militarism is not working."

But these are the ideological extremes. What do average U.S. citizens think about the Afghan War? Well, they're fairly split -- and also fairly confused. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted this fall, 51 percent of American adults say the war is not worth fighting. But what makes a war worth fighting? Is it a calculation of economic cost and casualties versus the relative safety gained? Can it be measured in five years or 10, or is it the sort of evaluation that takes a generation to determine?

The untold story of these opinion polls is that most Americans don't know enough about what is going on in Afghanistan to articulate an educated opinion on the subject. Americans may have a gut reaction to war -- the financial cost, the human cost, the political cost -- but too few of us actually comprehend the complexity of national security and international intervention in the modern age. And what's more, those who are supposed to be educating us -- our schools, our media, our military and political leaders -- are falling down on the job.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and others have turned their attention to addressing the lack of civic understanding in this country. According to O'Connor's civic-education project, Our Courts, only a little more than one-third of Americans can name the three branches of government. Similarly, it's time to get real about how little the average American understands about global terrorism and the nature of contemporary war -- asymmetrical, dominated by nation-building, and influenced by access to information like never before. Most Americans still have a Vietnam-era understanding of what war sounds, feels, and looks like.

There is sophisticated analysis of global violence to be found in major newspapers, in books like Fiasco, certainly in foreign-policy journals, but most Americans aren't reading these publications. Most Americans get their news from cable news shows that are built -- not on nuance or accuracy -- but on spin, shock, and hyperbole. The chosen news source of the youngest generations are Web sites that mix headlines about the latest casualties in Afghanistan in with home videos of cats falling off of kitchen tables. These news sources are generally devoid of a larger analysis of why violence is erupting, what methods the U.S. military and coalition forces are using to counter it, and what the long-term prospects for peace really are.

It is still Hollywood war films that dominate the public imagination. These stories are pumped full of heroics and drama, good versus evil, definitive gun battles. Real, of-the-moment war -- lots of waiting around, punctuated by moments of crisis, clumsy attempts at communicating across cultural and language barriers, so much boredom -- doesn't translate into blockbuster action plots.

In part, this is a problem of language. Military culture is still rife with sports metaphors. Even at the Command & General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, the "intellectual center of the army" where soldiers are trained in combat studies, leadership, and strategic communications, the hallways and classrooms echo with outdated phrases like "winning the war" and "defeating the enemy." Military leaders use this empty, hyped language with the media, which then publish stories containing this spuriously simple framing, only serving to further the public's misunderstanding of what is at stake and what courses of action might keep us safe.

According to the same Post-ABC poll, 42 percent of Americans say the United States is winning in Afghanistan, while 36 percent say we're losing. The public's interpretation is split because their comprehension is largely inadequate. Winning and losing are irrelevant words in the contemporary conversation about national security and global violence.

When I asked a group of highly decorated Army generals about the lack of accurate language, Col. Stefan J. Banach, director of the U.S. Army's School of Advanced Military Studies, explained, "We have to understand the nature of the war before we can talk about winning or losing."

But I would argue we shouldn't be talking about winning or losing at all. I understand that a war must be packaged and spun for the American public just like anything else in this information age, but if we keep training the public to think in black and white terms about a very gray war, we disrespect the troops who are putting their lives on the line and the Afghan people who deserve an ethical strategy moving forward.

We are facing a diffuse threat, fueled by poverty and propaganda. That threat can only be reduced through a combination of complex strategies implemented over a period of years, maybe decades. The average American doesn't have to be expert enough to understand the nuances of those strategies, but she must understand the basic nature of the threat we are facing and be willing to empower her representative to take a long-range view of re-establishing our global reputation, reducing poverty and the power of violent extremist groups, and keeping Americans safe.

In Sunday's New York Times, war correspondent Peter Baker wrote, "The terms were binary -- Taliban or not Taliban -- in a country that was kaleidoscopic." Likewise, we have been bandying about sporting words like "win" and "lose" when what we are facing is less like a game than it is an ongoing, global project with the most profound of moral and mortal implications.