Brief History: Military Pullouts

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Johan Spanner / The New York Times / Redux

These MRAP trucks are jus some of the thousands of vehicles due to be transported out of Iraq

On Aug. 2, President Obama reaffirmed his plan to end the American combat mission in Iraq by the end of the month and draw down the U.S. presence to a mere 50,000 troops, who will stay behind to "advise and assist" Iraqi security forces. Disengaging from a conflict as complex as the one in Iraq requires meticulous planning. It's more complicated than simply booking several thousand plane tickets home.

Originally, most wars were fought with the expectation that the loser would be conquered and possibly colonized. The Romans, for example, controlled much of modern-day Britain for more than 350 years--until 410, when, facing attacks elsewhere in the empire, they simply packed their bags and left. Of course, withdrawals commonly arrive on the heels of defeat. In 1812, Napoleon's 500-mile (800 km) retreat from Moscow to France resulted in the death of 80% of his army. His troops were forced to abandon their wagons and cannons, since there weren't any horses left alive to pull them. In less dramatic cases, matériel gets ditched simply because the cost to ship it home is too great. Some of the equipment used in the Pacific during World War II was abandoned by the U.S. only to be used again later during the Korean and Vietnam wars. And when the U.S. left Vietnam, $6.5 billion worth of military equipment stayed behind, according to a 1978 Pentagon estimate.

The nature of modern warfare often favors temporary invasions rather than permanent occupations. This month, the U.S. will haul much of its equipment along a 300-mile (480 km) highway to Kuwait before shipping it overseas. By the end of 2011, all U.S. troops are expected to be out of Iraq, and sometime that year, a limited drawdown of forces is due to commence in Afghanistan. These days, a war's end can often be as orchestrated as its beginning.