Afghanistan: America's Longest War

Three months after 9/11, every major Taliban city in Afghanistan had fallen -- first Mazar-i-Sharif, then Kabul, finally Kandahar. Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar were on the run. It looked as if the war was over, and the Americans and their Afghan allies had won.

Butch Ivie, then a school administrator in Winfield, Ala., remembers, "We thought we'd soon have it tied up in a neat little bag."

But bin Laden and Omar eluded capture. The Taliban regrouped. Today, Kandahar again is up for grabs. And soon, Afghanistan will pass Vietnam as America's longest war.

The Vietnam War's length can be measured in many ways. The formal beginning of U.S. involvement often is dated to Aug. 7, 1964, when Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, giving the president a virtual carte blanche to wage war. By the time the last U.S. ground combat troops were withdrawn in March 1973, the war had lasted 103 months.

U.S. forces attacked Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001. On June 7, the war will complete its 104th month. President Obama on Thursday reaffirmed his commitment to the war, saying "it is absolutely critical that we dismantle that network of extremists that are willing to attack us."

This longest war is far from America's bloodiest. It has drifted in and out of focus and, for much of its life, been obscured by another war, in Iraq.

How to gauge such a war's impact on the home front on this Memorial Day weekend?

USA TODAY visited two small communities: Bardstown, Ky., which became famous for its losses in Vietnam, and Winfield, hometown of the first American to die in combat in Afghanistan.

As the home of Mike Spann, a 32-year-old CIA paramilitary officer killed in northern Afghanistan on Nov. 25, 2001, Winfield understands just how long the United States has been at war and how illusory was the hope of a quick victory.

As a town whose Vietnam War memorials bear the names of 16 men, Bardstown also knows what war is like. But neither Bardstown nor surrounding Nelson County has lost anyone in Afghanistan or Iraq; here, the war is a distant drum.

Winfield (pop. 4,500) is a dry town whose voters this month upheld the ban on alcohol by five votes. Bardstown, twice as populous and much more prosperous, calls itself "The Bourbon Capital of the World." Both have National Guard units that served in Afghanistan or Iraq and pride themselves on always having answered the nation's call to arms.

People agree the war has gone on too long. But they differ on whether it's time to end it.

To understand, listen to two sons of Bardstown who fought side by side in a National Guard unit that lost five men in one battle in Vietnam.

Don Parrish, 68, says the goal was to catch bin Laden, "but we're trading a lot of lives ... Somehow we need to end this mission, if for no other reason than to stop the killing -- theirs and ours."

Tom Raisor, 66, says the mission can't end yet. He says that just as the Communists needed to be stopped in Vietnam, al-Qaeda must be stopped today or it will again use Afghanistan as "a breeding ground for terrorists" to hit the U.S. homeland.

In Bardstown and Winfield, people grapple with another, even more troubling question: What if Afghanistan is a lost cause? What if the lives of Mike Spann and about 1,000 other Americans were lost in vain?

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