What's a successful war?
Terrible. I know that its something the government must do, to fight a successful war. But what does that mean anyway?
No war is a true success. Especially this one.
True. We can't know until years, even decades, after a war whether it was a success or not. In the current Long War or Global War on Terror, we're only in the middle of the beginning. Way too early to know what will come of it, even accounting for the sped up digital information age.
At its essence, war is civilizational change. The war process, when viewed out of context, is a destructive process. When war is viewed in context, we can see that what we understand as historical success, or victory, is largely determined in the peace-building constructive process that flows from war. War only determines who has dominant control; it's up to the victor to grow peace and civilization from the rubble of the battle. Usually, the peace-building 'post-war' is longer, more complicated and difficult, wearisome and more expensive than the war itself. For example, we learn in school that the Civil War ended in 1865 with the formal surrender of the Confederacy. But think about it: how long and hard was the the short-term and long-term aftermath? The upheavals of Reconstruction, the loss of patience for Reconstruction that led to the compromise between North and South settling upon the Jim Crow South, and the wars, migrations and disruption of economy that eventually culminated in the Civil Rights movement a hundred!! years later. Some would say even today we're not finished with the post-war of the Civil War yet.
Today, the Vietnam War continues to have a profound effect on our society, how we view war, and has provided to our enemies an effective blueprint of our weaknesses. With WW2, we still have large contingents of troops in Europe and Asia providing post-war security and stability. In Korea, where I served in the 90s, the 1950-53 Korean War that utterly devastated an already war-torn country actually began 5 years after the post-WW2 transitional occupation began, and we still don't know the outcome for greater Korea, although we should all be justifiably proud of the social, economic, and political evolution that has taken place in South Korea during our stay there. (Since WW2, when we've been war victors, we've been pretty good post-war peace-builders, too.)
The interesting thing about the current Long War is the lack of simply distinct phases, in the sense of major combat separate from security and stabilization, and nation-building. In traditional war, like WW2, you can have distinct phases. In an insurgency war, the phases twist around each other. Our military is acting as a humanitarian aid agency, like the Peace Corps on steroids, in Iraq and Afghanistan, while simultaneously acting as a diplomatic force, police force, and war-fighting force. I don't know how the heck our soldiers are able to do it all, but they're doing it. Our military has progressed impressively considering that when 9/11 happened, we didn't know how to do a full-spectrum counter-insurgency - which explains why our enemy uses an insurgency strategy (d'uh!). But just as our enemy has evolved (and war is highly evolutionary), we have evolved, too, just in a slower, more cumbersome, disrupted (read: politicized) fashion. After years of stubbornly trying to avoid it (read: Rumsfeld), we finally have a true counter-insurgency leader, GEN Petraeus, leading a legitimate counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq. If we can succeed in Iraq, we'll finally have solid grounding for fighting and defeating the enemy's global insurgency strategy.
Before his assassination, JFK wanted us to become proficient at counter-insurgency, because he foresaw insurgency as the greatest threat to a liberal world order. The Vietnam War derailed JFK's vision and, as a result, our modern enemy holds the initiative. Hopefully, George Bush Jr and his successor, be s/he Democratic or Republican, will finally establish as institutional doctrine the counter-insurgency force that JFK tried to start last century.
Maybe because we all grew up learning about the glory of past generations' traditional wars, and learned revulsion for insurgency wars (eg, big part of Vietnam, Somalia, Rwanda), it's harder for many of us to understand and accept what's going on in our generation's war.
Here's a good web-resource for us to catch up: Small War Journals.