Following World War II, half of Europe fell under the iron grip of Stalin. Those nations remained captured for decades. Whole generations were lost to freedom. America spent untold wealth fighting the Cold War and risked global nuclear devastation. If 10 years after, America's newspapers had asked "Was WWII worth it?", most Americans would have shriveled their brow in confusion.
Perhaps the greatest generation was also a smarter generation. They knew there are no do-overs in national security. The worth of war can only be justly determined before the conflict is joined, not after. Asking if wars are worth it after the fact is the equivalent of Machiavellian morals in foreign policy—asserting that the "ends justify the means." In other words, if we don't like the outcome, it wasn't worth it.
Nations should go to war only for a just cause and when they believe the good they hope to achieve will be outweighed by the terrors of combat and the inevitable suffering of innocents.
In the case of Iraq, the U.S. had more than enough justification to take on Saddam Hussein. He was a vicious dictator who inflicted unprecedented violence on his nation and the cause of peace and freedom. He demonstrably violated the peace accords that had led to the cessation of hostilities during the first Gulf War. Further, he had led an active and successful disinformation campaign to convince his neighbors that he had active WMD programs, even as he publically denied the charge.
Yes, the war and the aftermath were unpredicted, and were longer and more complicated than first thought. So was the American Revolution, WWII and Korea. Yet it is only Vietnam and now the Iraq War that pop culture wants to call "bad" wars.
If there is a similarity to the two, and a difference with the others, they were both wars we won before we lost. In both cases, after trial and error, we achieved a decent result and then Washington, tired of war, walked away—not only squandering hard won gains, but leaving the U.S. in a poorer strategic position than when we started.
About James Jay Carafano Director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation
Peter Juul Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress
Jessica Stern Fellow at the FXB Center for Human Rights at the Harvard School of Public Health
Evan Moore Senior Policy Analyst for the Foreign Policy Initiative
Michael O'Hanlon Senior Fellow and Director of Research for the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution