Three Surges, Two Antiwar Movements, and One War System

What do U.S. officials do when the war they are fighting, by their own assessment, seems headed for defeat? Answer: instead of looking to withdraw or otherwise accommodate themselves to the difficulties, they re-commit. War managers send more soldiers, try new weapons, and spend more money. They try to save the situation through a determined "surge."

The most recent example came last December when President Obama, after a protracted policy review premised on the judgment that the war in Afghanistan was going badly, announced before a national television audience and an auditorium of West Point cadets that he would be sending an additional 30,000 troops to the country, thereby bringing the total U.S. deployment to nearly 100,000. While not publicly labeled a surge, Obama’s decision can be compared to George Bush’s December 2006 decision—also taken after internal assessments found multiple failings in Operation Iraqi Freedom—to send an additional 30,000 troops, bringing that total to approximately 156,000 military.

Going back a generation to March 1968, we find President Lyndon Johnson, following the famous Tet Offensive that undercut claims of a "light at the end of the tunnel" in Vietnam, considering a request from General Westmoreland for an additional 206,000 soldiers. Even though the U.S. already had 550,000 troops in Vietnam, this new commitment certainly would have been among the largest of U.S. surges.

But the proposed deployment did not take place. Instead, Johnson announced a token increase in troops, a partial bombing halt over North Vietnam, and his decision to not seek a second term as president of the United States. In the months that followed, the partial bombing halt became total (temporarily) and a ceiling was placed on the number of troops in Vietnam. This was a surge denied.

These decisions are the most important mid-course corrections in U.S. wars in the post-World War II era. What can we learn from them?


Each war was crucial for multiple presidential administrations. The Obama administration inherited a series of military commitments that stretched back though Bush Jr., Clinton, Bush Sr., and, if we count the supply of war materiel and advisers, to Reagan as well. Military force was directly deployed in Iraq by Clinton and George H. W. Bush before George W. signed a single presidential order. LBJ may have escalated Vietnam, but only after military deployments from Kennedy, Eisenhower, and even Truman.

In public, Obama, Bush, and Johnson defended the necessity of each conflict. They also tended to be confident—Obama’s first year is a partial exception—about the war’s progress. But, according to their narratives, the military failures and political weaknesses exhibited by local allies forced a concerted policy review with a possible surge in response. These reviews contained realistic and sober battlefield assessments from field commanders, the circulation of key documents that undercut false optimism among decision-makers, and critical assessments drafted by leading officials in Washington. Together, they provided a clear indication that the war, if permitted to go along its existing trajectory, would soon become a debacle.

For example, last fall’s consideration of how to respond to a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan was structured by local military commander General Stanley McChrystal’s request for 40,000 additional troops. His rationale noted various problems with the U.S. and NATO position in the county, recognized that the Taliban ran shadow governments in many provinces, and that the insurgency seemed to have had little difficulty in recruiting fighters.


Obama convened a series of White House meetings that by all accounts included significant input from a large number of participants, sharp internal debate, and protracted participation by the president. The CIA provided maps that demonstrated the increased influence of the Taliban in many parts of the country. Relatively easy fixes, such as relying on an increased number of Afghan national military and augmenting the size and training of a national police force were dismissed. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, himself a former commander of troops in Afghanistan, was very critical of the effectiveness of the Kabul government. General Petraeus told Obama that he should consider parts of the U.S.-supported Karzai government like "a crime syndicate." The only answer from these meetings seemed to be more U.S. troops aided by as many additional NATO forces as possible.

Two years earlier, with reference to Iraq, Bush was forced in the review process to finally acknowledge the limitations of the existing strategy. While not formally part of the review, the Iraq Study Group had concluded that, "The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating." In 2006 the alarm bells were ringing even more loudly. In an assessment highlighted by Thomas Ricks in his 2009 book The Gamble, Colonel Peter Devlin, the senior Marine intelligence officer in Iraq, offered the following judgment of one key province: "The social and political situation has deteriorated to the point that [the U.S. and Iraqi military] are no longer capable of militarily defeating the insurgency in al-Anbar. Underlying this decline in stability is the near collapse of social order." An October assessment of Baghdad from military spokesperson General Caldwell found insurgents "punching back hard." Sweeps were conducted, but "we’re constantly going back in and doing clearing operations again." Some felt that coalition forces were on the verge of losing Baghdad.

As in Afghanistan, allied local government forces seemed inadequate to the American leadership. A member of the National Security Council found that, "We didn’t have enough reliable Iraqi units" and often, "they didn’t show." Few military leaders had faith in the ability of the national Iraqi army or in the leadership of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. A ferocious series of street bombings had produced enormous casualties and neither the Baghdad government nor the U.S. military seemed able to stop or even control the scale of the carnage.

In Vietnam, Johnson’s initial post-Tet inclination was to support Westmoreland’s request for more than 200,000 soldiers. But Clark Clifford, the president’s new Secretary of Defense, was determined to find a way to halt the steady escalation of the war. Clifford convened an "A to Z" review that punctured years of military happy talk. Under the departing Robert McNamara, the Office of the Secretary of Defense had become skeptical of the possibility of progress in Vietnam. The Pentagon Papers demonstrate how, relying heavily on quantitative measures, these advisers concluded that, despite "a massive influx of 500,000 troops, 1.2 million tons of bombs a year…200,000 enemy KIA in three years, 20,000 US KIA, etc., our control of the countryside and the defense of the urban areas is now essentially at pre-August 1965 levels [roughly the date that the U.S. assumed main responsibility for the ground war]. We have achieved stalemate," the internal study concluded, "at a high commitment. A new strategy must be sought." A CIA paper argued that the Vietnamese revolutionaries thought they were operating from a position of strength and, therefore, were immune to military pressures.

Besides being new, reasonably accurate, and pessimistic, an additional continuity among the three policy reviews concerned the process itself. In Afghanistan, a special task force bypassed the Pentagon and National Security Council and held more than ten meetings inside the White House. Besides chairing these meetings, Obama consulted with many others, including the former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

In 1968, ground troops in Johnson’s war were almost entirely restricted to operations within South Vietnam. There are indications that the additional 206,000 troops would have been part of a change in strategy that would have expanded ground combat in Cambodia, Laos, and possibly parts of North Vietnam. The war would have escalated in a significant manner. Clifford and the "Wise Men" scuttled this option, but it also left them with no plausible method of seeking victory.

In Vietnam, new Secretary of Defense Clifford carried out the "A to Z" review inside the Pentagon with critics from former Secretary of Defense McNamara’s staff playing a leading role. Other agencies also contributed, including former hawks from the CIA, now critical of the war. Clifford also included a Senior Advisory Group on Vietnam, the so-called "Wise Men"—more than a dozen former government officials and current business executives, including Dean Acheson, Arthur Dean, George Ball, and Henry Cabot Lodge. The "Wise Men" had endorsed the conduct of the war several months before, but were now strongly opposed to the Westmoreland troop request.

The prevailing pattern is that, faced with severe military difficulties, internal policy reviews found a way "to not lose" Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam. But they did not find a way "to win." In Vietnam, in the years ahead, tens of thousands of Americans and more than a million Vietnamese would die in a war that officials found unwinnable in 1968. In Iraq and Afghanistan, astute military strategists recognize that it is impossible for the U.S. to "kill its way out of this kind of war" and that "body counts," the traditional metric for wars of attrition, are outmoded ways of measuring success. Yet the real life body count continues.

Antiwar Sentiment and Antiwar Opposition

Each review provided a sober assessment, but failed to generate a strategy that promised victory. Yet, in two cases more troops were added and, in the third, a troop ceiling was established. What accounts for the difference?

Each president suffered declining popularity due to the war. President Obama’s December 2009 decision came before his first full year in office. However, his initial approval ratings had begun to decline with a majority of the country showing displeasure with his Afghanistan policy. In the midst of his review, only 26 percent supported the idea of sending more troops. In December 2006, President Bush hit a new low with a remarkable 62 percent disapproving of his presidency. By early 1968, a majority of Americans opposed the Vietnam War and Johnson’s approval ratings moved to the negative. But the explanation for the different decisions lies in the impact of the large, active, and politically effective antiwar movement organized during the Vietnam War and the inability of the movements against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (intertwined, but not the same) to establish similar political traction.

By 1968, national demonstrations against the Vietnam War numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The previous October, tens of thousands crossed the Potomac from the Reflecting Pool and surrounded the Pentagon. Robert McNamara watched from his office window. The movement had already branched out from large campuses on the coasts and Midwestern centers such as Wisconsin and Michigan, to include many of the community colleges throughout the country. Labor unions, until then largely part of the Cold War consensus, began to split over the war and many professional associations took an explicit stance against the war. The family life of many war managers, including McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, also became more difficult as the next generation carried the argument of the movement into Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings. Opposition to the war also intersected with a civil rights movement that itself was becoming much more militant. Several state governors counseled against the Westmoreland request out of fear that troops would be required to maintain order at home. Within the U.S., March 1968 carried a crisis atmosphere that ran far deeper and carried far more weight than any poll numbers could communicate.

GI organizing formed another crucial part of the movement. Antiwar coffee houses were established outside many military bases and draft resistance was organized in many cities. By 1968, in Vietnam, troop performance had also become a particular concern. Several units could no longer be considered reliable. Desertions and the number going AWOL started to rise. "Fragging" incidents, in which soldiers attacked their own unpopular officers, and drug use also increased and would become still more prominent in 1969 and 1970. Indeed, these different types of antiwar resistance among the soldiers help explain why the Pentagon not only could not "surge," but actually had to begin to withdraw ground troops from Vietnam.

While its influence is often underestimated, the antiwar movement made its way into policy deliberations. Clifford’s "A to Z" review found Secretary of Treasury Henry Fowler not only discussing the economic implications of 206,000 troops, but also the domestic reaction that could be expected. The cost of the troops would require a tax increase, wage and price controls, and credit restrictions, measures that seem almost quaint by current standards of fiscal management. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Phil Goulding warned that there had been "no preparation of public opinion" for a large-scale mobilization and that meeting the large troop request would involve the "gravest domestic risks." Clifford aide Paul Warnke projected "increased defiance of the draft and growing unrest in the cities because of the belief that we are neglecting domestic problems, [which] runs great risks of provoking a domestic crisis of unprecedented proportions."

In contrast, the movement against the war in Iraq was largest at its inception, before the war actually began, but then declined in national and local visibility. There are many reasons for the different pattern of influence. In 1973, the military moved to an all-volunteer force so there was no draft. Also, the media now fails to cover most large national demonstrations and the emergence of the virtual world offers new forms of mobilization whose impact beyond raising money has yet to be demonstrated. We now live in a more private and individualized culture that has, at least until the Obama campaign, been insulated from the idealist rhetoric of the 1960s and the inspiration provided by the civil rights movement.

At the same time, "decline" does not mean that the peace movement has entirely disappeared. Antiwar activity helped give Democrats a congressional majority in 2006, secure the nomination of Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton, and win the election of Obama over John McCain. Thousands of activists continue to organize national and local events throughout the country. Yet the energy and political salience of the movement never matched the Vietnam era. The government policy reviews considering surges in Iraq and Afghanistan did not have to anticipate, as did Clifford’s "A to Z," that a domestic crisis might be provoked by adding more troops.

Military opposition was also significantly different. By 2006, the Iraq War had become quite unpopular among those in uniform. Many griped in private, particularly at the personal style of Rumsfeld and his immediate staff, but also at the failure to plan properly for the occupation of Iraq. An important group of retired officers took out newspaper advertisements and complained about the impact of the war on the strength of the armed forces. But these steps were far different from widespread GI resistance. Many soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are disgruntled by the war and have organized events reprising the Winter Soldier investigations, but the general tendency has been for soldiers to bear the often overwhelming personal costs of the war in private rather than to develop coordinated political action. A Mental Health Advisory Team found a significant decline in morale among combat soldiers in 2006, especially among those with multiple tours of duty. Rates of suicide and divorce were increasing and many disturbing reports of post-traumatic stress disorder circulated within the Veterans Administration and local newspapers. Drug prescriptions for pain relief were issued with increased regularity. Military recruiters have had a more difficult time making their quotas. To meet personnel needs, the Army waived many of the normal requirements such as a high school degree and a clean criminal record. In some ways, this record does constitute "resistance" but it is of a much different type than presented by military opposition by 1968. It is not clear that Bush’s advisers considered these personal costs to be a constraint on plans to add more troops.

The Vietnam antiwar movement played a major role in stopping the bombing of North Vietnam [but not the ferocious bombing of South Vietnam] and placing a ceiling on the number of ground troops. It stopped the surge. But the movement was unable to force the U.S. to withdraw from Vietnam. To explain we need to look at the influence of the war system itself.

The War System

The term "war system" is reminiscent of President Eisenhower’s famous warning about the military industrial complex and its configuration of special interests among defense contractors, Congress, and the military. A war system does not imply that defense policy is a conspiracy—indeed there are significant differences contained within. But the idea of a "system" suggests that there are institutional priorities and cultural commitments that impart an overall direction to the management of war and that these interests and practices transcend the choices that particular individuals make along the way. One of the most important mainstays of the U.S. war system is the reliance on real and threatened military force. The system creates the capacity to wage different types of war. Above all else, military force must be credible.

Like any system of power, the war system needs to be defended. In the three cases discussed here, the credibility of military force is under siege. Huge commitments have been made, troops deployed, dollars spent. But, all of a sudden, it doesn’t seem to be working. For all their internal debate, government officials share the cause of restoring the perceived efficacy of the military. Once committed, force cannot be seen to fail. A plausible course of action that incorporates the armed forces is needed. Withdrawal, or relying on nonviolent solutions, is rejected. Senator John Kerry’s criticism of Bush’s Iraq policy was considered "responsible" by the foreign policy and media establishment. So was Senator Hillary Clinton’s. That is because neither broke with the need for solutions acquired by military means. "I just want to say right now," Obama reportedly told his advisers at the very outset of his policy review, "I want to take off the table that we’re leaving Afghanistan."

War systems are hard to change. In Vietnam, despite the influence of an antiwar movement, Nixon was elected president and he and Henry Kissinger were able to fend off defeat for seven more years. The war was ended not by the Peace Treaty signed in January 1973, but because of the Watergate scandal that made it impossible for the U.S. to respond to the 1975 Spring Offensive that finally brought the North Vietnamese and NLF to power.

Politicians who are war critics have a problem: how to end a war without being blamed for losing it. Without broad-based popular support and organized antiwar opposition, even leaders privately critical of war fear that entrenched nationalists, political opportunists, and the media will hold them responsible if they advocate withdrawal. Those who are brave will support withholding funds or taking other strict measures, but more will vacillate.

Presidents are the ultimate guarantor of the war system. Absent political space created by an antiwar movement, no president can afford to break the war system. Instead, the attempted solution is found in reconfiguring military force. So they surge and rely on spin to claim positive results. And more people die.


Paul Joseph is director of the Peace and Justice Studies Program and past Chair of the Sociology Department and the National Peace Studies Association at Tufts University. Joseph is a political sociologist specializing in the influence of social movements and public opinion on foreign and defense policy. His books have explored the Vietnam War, nuclear policy, and the security debate after the end of the Cold War.