Published September 11, 2009
KENT, Ohio -- The demonstrations, the troops, the fresh anger are all long gone. Where anti-war protests raged, today a granite plaza invites peaceful reflection. On the spots where four young people fell in a spray of National Guard bullets, lanterns stand in remembrance.
It is four decades after the Kent State shootings. And a U.S. president is, once again, escalating involvement in a long, distant war that his citizens are doubting -- a war that, like Vietnam, couldn't seem farther away from the campus of Kent State University.
Just about everybody who passes the memorial here at Kent State offers a conflicted view about the expansion of the nation's involvement in Afghanistan.
"It's been so long, you forget why we're there," says Mike Meszes of Elyria, Ohio, standing in the parking lot where Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheur and William Schroeder were shot dead in May 1970.
Here and elsewhere, people once again are confused about the mission and wary as the president dispatches more troops and considers an even bigger military commitment.
"Americans aren't conscious of Afghanistan," says historian Stanley Kutler, editor of The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War.
"You couldn't help but be conscious of Vietnam because of the draft," he said. But in Afghanistan, "The alleged reasons for going there have completely left the public consciousness."
Obama understands the fading memory and seeks to bring it back.
"I remind everybody, the United States of America did not choose to fight a war in Afghanistan," he said. "Nearly 3,000 of our people were killed on September 11, 2001, for doing nothing more than going about their daily lives."
And he warns: "The world cannot afford the price that will come due if Afghanistan slides back into chaos or Al Qaeda operates unchecked."
Recent national polls indicate slipping support for the war in Afghanistan. The latest AP-GfK survey finds that less than half -- 46 percent -- now approve of Obama's handling of Afghanistan, a 9 percentage-point drop since July. Interviews with more than three dozen people nationwide uncovered reasons for the slide -- deep uncertainty and confusion about the prolonged fight to root out terrorists in Afghanistan and its neighbors.
Eight years after Al Qaeda attacked Americans at home and the United States invaded Afghanistan in response, liberals, conservatives and moderates alike say they don't know what American forces are fighting for. They doubt that the U.S. will be successful and question what winning even means. Many also no longer seem to view the war through the prism of Sept. 11, 2001; few mention the attacks but many -- rightly or wrongly -- draw parallels to Vietnam.
The two wars are very different. Afghanistan resulted from an attack on the United States; Vietnam didn't. The draft has been replaced by voluntary military service, meaning far fewer Americans are directly affected; the government drafted people to Vietnam by lottery, making the war central to the lives of most young Americans.
Today, nearly 750 U.S. military members have died in the eight-year Afghanistan conflict, which some call "the forgotten war" in the years since the Iraq invasion. Vietnam, which lasted twice as long and divided the country profoundly, claimed more than 58,000 American lives.
Nevertheless, now as then, the U.S. is engaged in unconventional warfare against fighters motivated by ideology and, in Afghanistan's case, by religion, not simply power sought by America's more traditional foes.
Now as then, American leaders claim that failure in one country will destabilize an entire region.
And, now as then, understanding about the war is fading as conflict drags on.
"This country as a whole is tired of war," says Meg Soper, 42, a volunteer firefighter from Plain City, N.Y., who says the president she voted for is failing to communicate about Afghanistan.
Although she had relatives who escaped the World Trade Center during the attacks and friends who have fought in Afghanistan, she says: "I'm not sure why exactly we are over there."
Dan Moschetta, 22, a recent college graduate from Washington, Pa., was a teenager when the attacks happened. He's more explicit, calling Afghanistan "the Vietnam of today." He's fed up with spending untold sums on a war that "just seems senseless."
"I just don't think we need to be there anymore," he says.
Such unease presents stark challenges to Obama, who has ordered 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan since taking office and is considering sending still more. He must sell his retooled strategy to a war-weary public or risk waging war without the public's support. Doing so can take a toll on a president's popularity and legacy -- as Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush learned.
Obama's task won't be easy, given that the Afghanistan war no longer evokes what it once did -- the universal fear of terrorists striking again and the overwhelming support of a country seeking retaliation. Now, doubts about an uncertain future meld with memories of an uncomfortable past.
"I don't think we can win this war, just like we couldn't win Vietnam," says Wanda Williams, 61, of Neptune Beach, Fla.
Time passes, and when people don't see or feel something, war included, it tends to fade from their minds. That's exacerbated by what many perceive as a lack of measurable improvement in Afghanistan -- and an inability by its leaders to consolidate authority and prevent chaos and bloodshed.
Usama bin Laden hasn't been caught, the Taliban is resurging and violence has spiraled. Last month was the deadliest for U.S. forces in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion. All of that can signal stalemate to Americans who have come to expect quick results in all aspects of life.
"It's just a losing war," says Harriet Miller, 46, of Grenada Hills, Calif. "We're not making any progress, and it's been eight years. That's pretty bad."
The war has not commanded TV screens like the visceral images from Vietnam did. And the antiwar movement that has been part of the American fabric since well before Kent State has gone largely silent as the new president it supported, a Democrat, expands U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.
Obama is consumed with reversing a recession while promoting his health care reform plan. He doesn't mention Afghanistan nearly as often as his predecessor, who talked almost daily about terrorist threats. And the public is focused far more on pocketbook issues.
Says Tim Brown, 50, of Steubenville, Ohio: "I just don't get it. What are we running over there for when people over here are living homeless and losing jobs? He hasn't told us that."
Unease about the future. Wariness about the past. Formidable forces, and both hang over Obama as he decides on the next steps in a murky, distant war -- and sniffs around for answers that may never be as clear and definitive as an increasingly skeptical public demands.