All exercises of military power, especially wars, are ultimately contests of will. Most wars end when one side gives up, some when both do. As a general rule, in wars between democracies and totalitarian or authoritarian regimes, popular support for the war in the former becomes a significant theatre for the overall contest of wills much earlier than in the latter. In some cases it can become as important, or even more decisive, than direct combat on the actual battlefield.
Wars are also by nature intrinsically dynamic.
Who is or might be winning at any particular time does not necessarily indicate who will win in the end.
If it did we should have given up after the Axis Powers had such a successful 1941 and early 1942.
Moreover there are really no good or bad wars in the sense that all wars result in regrettable casualties and grief.
In strategic (and moral) terms, however, there are wars of choice and wars of necessity.
Finally, in each war we learn few new lessons but instead re-learn a lot of old ones, often the hard way.
Forgetting such lessons has become endemic because several generations of Australians now have no personal or even extended-family experience of war.
This also contributes to the common tendency to invest current events in the course of a war with more significance than they really have in the long term.
The announcement that Australia is sending more troops to Afghanistan, and widespread recognition that the overall commitment is likely to be lengthy and costly, need to be viewed against this historical and philosophical background.
The Australian Defence Force is currently deployed on four major overseas operations: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the peacekeeping and nation-building tasks in East Timor and Solomon Islands.
Three of these are popular tasks in the sense they enjoy strong and reasoned bipartisan political support and are not controversial deployments among the Australian public generally.
The exception is our participation in the continuing counter-insurgency campaign in Iraq stemming from our earlier participation in the collective intervention to topple the Saddam Hussein regime in early 2003.
In this case, the continuing controversy over the earlier phase of the war continues to envelop the views of many Australians about the subsequent phase.
It is worth noting that all four overseas operations are endorsed by the United Nations and none are ‘illegal wars’ in international law (whatever earlier controversies there may have been about the original intervention in Iraq).
The news that we are reinforcing our commitment to Afghanistan has attracted little criticism.
Many Australians have at least some knowledge of the situation in that country.
While the democratically-elected Karzai Government might be struggling to satisfy popular demands for law and order and public services, it is undoubtedly a better option than the two likely alternatives: a return of Taliban medievalist theocracy or rule by unstable coalitions of brutal, (and even more) corrupt and incompetent local warlords.
Many Australians also recognise that it was from Taliban-controlled sanctuaries in Afghanistan that various Islamist terrorist groups built up their capabilities throughout the mid to late 1990s, before striking out at the ‘West’ with the type of large-scale terrorist attacks that have killed over 100 Australians and affected millions more.
While the war in Iraq is not lost, it is certainly unlikely to be won in terms of the US-led coalition’s original strategic goals.
Significant reinforcement of that theatre, to the extent our small defence force could mount and sustain it anyway, would be unlikely to affect the overall result.
The best we can do is continue to support the new Iraqi government and our US allies, as they grapple with an increasingly intractable political problem in Iraq and a wider strategic problem regionally.
The war in Afghanistan is also not yet won, but is certainly not lost.
What’s more it is not a war of choice that we can afford to lose but a war of necessity that must be won.
Significant strategic and moral issues are at stake.
This will require effort there for at least five years and probably longer, just as our counter-insurgency commitments to the Malayan Emergency and the Vietnam War lasted 12 and 10 years respectively.
Over such a timeframe our national efforts will fluctuate as the war is just as dynamic as previous ones.
It too will kill, wound and maim ADF personnel but hopefully not many.
It is a pity, therefore, that so much media coverage of our participation in Afghanistan (and Iraq) often views related events through the prism of their perceived — but usually marginal or non-existent — meaning for domestic political rivalries.
This is not helped by most Australian having little day-to-day contact with, or indeed much thought for, the men and women of the ADF fighting on their behalf.
Such indifference or ignorance concerning the real strategic drivers of the war — and of our commitment to it — risks us losing the ultimate contest of wills between civilised international society and barbarism that this war naturally entails.