Besides stupidity and arrogance, the root cause of every modern war boils down to a failure of empathy. Afghanistan and Iraq are the poster children of pointless, fear-based wars in this era. It just happens that we own them both.
Last week, the Taliban shot down a Chinook helicopter leaving Helmand Province after a firefight in southern Afghanistan. Thirty Americans and eight Afghans were killed by what investigators suspect was an attack on the slow-moving copter by one shoulder-fired missile. It was the costliest day in Afghanistan for the American military since the war began.
It happened to a squad of elite American fighters, but that doesn't make it any more tragic than if it had been an Afghan village decimated by a Predator missile strike because military intelligence mistook a wedding party for an al-Qaida jamboree.
On a scale of deadly, absurdist folly, it is at least equal to the misery visited on Afghanistan by NATO forces in the name of freedom every day. The Taliban soldier who brought down that helicopter is no less a hero to his comrades than the members of SEAL Team 6 who took out Osama bin Laden a few months ago. The ironic thing about war is that the more savage it is, the more "heroes" it produces on both sides.
In the cold calculus of war, such moral equivalence is easy. We're justifiably sick to our stomachs over the loss of so many American lives. We forget that the men we're trying to kill are defending themselves and their "strange" way of life in their own country.
The "rightness" of our cause doesn't matter to young Taliban fighters who were children at the time of 9/11. All they've ever known is American occupation and death.
We're losing this war because the Taliban aren't as interested in writing history as we are. They know history is on their side, so they're indifferent about how they'll be portrayed in books written by others.
Meanwhile, our elected leaders invent new rationalizations every day to explain why we're still in Afghanistan. Every day we spend there is a testament to short-term thinking about our national honor.
Americans are finally beginning to object to the war in greater numbers, but not because of its inherent immorality. Ordinary Americans are increasingly appalled by Afghanistan's trillion-dollar drag on our economy.
But that kind of moral outrage has more in common with buyers' remorse about a gas guzzler sitting in the driveway than a genuine attack of morality over the human cost of the war for both sides.
Afghanistan is a particularly sad case because our civilian leaders defer to military leaders who have no idea how to win this war. They talk in terms of eventually training a fourth-world army to go against thousands of years of tribal behavior. It is impossible, yet we -- the world's most quixotic superpower -- insist that raising up an Afghan defense force in our image is a viable mission.
We instinctively know that most wars are costly and stupid. We also know that there has never been anything practical or moral about 99.9 percent of them.
Even the occasional "good war" only comes around once a millennium or so. Those who fought in World War II and had the time to reflect on what that conflict meant decades later hesitate to call it a "good war." They know enough about killing the enemy not to romanticize it the way their children and grandchildren have over the years. War on such a scale is nothing but a charnel house.
Still, America has been without a sense of national purpose when it comes to war ever since the Japanese and the Germans surrendered their imperial ambitions 66 years ago.
Because our wars are now fought primarily by the children of the working class, society isn't expected to sacrifice anything for the cause. We barely demand that the government provide a rationale for killing in our name.
The fact that most Americans can't find Afghanistan on a map is the biggest hint that it doesn't occupy a very big part of our national imagination.
All that most Americans ask is that the government win whatever damn war it sees fit to fight and not bother us with a military draft or requests for higher taxes to finance those wars; nor do we want any lectures about the culture of the people we're trying to kill. Oh, and keep those returning coffins and funerals off our television screens and front pages.
When we're at war, we're not in the mood to be empathetic, even when it comes to American soldiers.
Tony Norman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1631.