Absurd, or Worse

Are We Fooling Ourselves in Afghanistan?

The reductio ad absurdum, as dialecticians of all stripes will tell you, is a simple and elegant way to disprove a false proposition. Assume the proposition is true, then begin deriving conclusions from it; if one of them is obviously absurd, then the original proposition must be false.

I have spent the past forty-five years investigating the origins of wars, and time and again my research has led back to this concept. Nations often go to war based on seemingly logical (and popular) principles—yet the attempt to apply those principles leads only to disaster, leaving the warlike power worse off than it was when it began, even with respect to the specific goals for which the war was undertaken. The United States has been replaying this drama in Afghanistan. But before I explain why, let me review three earlier such cases.

 The first involves Athens. Two and a half millennia ago, shortly after the Peace of Nicias temporarily halted the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, a delegation of Athenian colonists from Egesta, in Sicily, came to Athens to ask for help against the leading power of that island, Syracuse. Thucydides tells us that the majority favored the expedition as another means of adding to the great Athenian Empire. Nicias himself, however, argued that the peace he had negotiated was already fragile enough, and that Athens had not yet restored its rule over its existing empire. He was overruled, and the Athenians sent a massive expedition—an...

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About the Author

David Kaiser is the author of American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War, and, most recently, The Road to Dallas: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy. He blogs at historyunfolding.com. He has been a professor at the Naval War College since 1990. The views expressed here are his own.