Taken together, the title and subtitle of Daniel Bolger’s Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars suggest it’s either another contribution to an increasingly crowded genre—a memoir from an American soldier who has served his country on the forlorn battlefields of our current wars in the greater Middle East—or a strategic analysis of those wars. In fact, Why We Lost turns out to be much more of a conventional narrative history than a personal account or a strategic study. While drawing on his experiences in the field—the author served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan—he relies heavily on primary and secondary sources in framing and fleshing out this story. General Bolger, it turns out, is not just a soldier, but a professional historian, with a Ph.D. in that subject from the illustrious University of Chicago. He has taught at West Point.
This is a serious book about a vexed and divisive subject. The author dutifully surveys the origin and context of these two grueling, protracted struggles, at home and abroad, and goes on to explore in some detail the evolution of U.S. military culture, and civil-military relations, since the Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991. He provides balanced thumbnail biographies of the major players on both sides of the conflict, and well-observed sketches of ordinary soldiers, sailors, and Marines doing quite extraordinary things.
Much of the narrative is focused on evoking the particular sights, sounds and ambiguities of ground combat in both conventional and counterinsurgency operations. Bolger’s reconstructions of small unit clashes often contain comments and reflection from the participants, and are generally harrowing, vivid, and intense.
He also writes with insight and authority about how commanders from battalion and brigade level upward attempt to solve tricky political and tactical problems they encounter in varied environments against myriad adversaries over more than a decade of fighting. The text is liberally sprinkled with striking metaphors and evocative analogies to episodes in military history, ranging from Somalia and Vietnam, to the ancient Romans and Greeks. Mindful that most of his audience consists of civilians, General Bolger clearly explains modern military terminology, tactics, and how the pieces of both modern armies and insurgency networks fit together.
The basic trajectories of events in the two American campaigns chronicled in Why We Lost are strikingly similar, and equally disconcerting. First in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, U.S.-led coalitions light on numbers but heavy on advanced technology and lethality crush the enemy regimes in a matter of a few months. In displays of astonishing naiveté, “major combat” is blithely declared at an end by the Bush administration. In fact, the wars have just begun. Nasty and protracted insurgencies break out, spearheaded by a jumble of jihadist extremists, warlords, and sectarian militias. Caught off guard and unprepared, the Americans and their coalition partners struggle to cobble together massive aid and re-construction programs, establish stable governments with dependable clients, and train indigenous armies and security forces to carry on the fight for the long haul.
Yet, as was the case in America’s most disastrous counterinsurgency war, Vietnam, the nation-building programs in both Afghanistan and Iraq have foundered, and for many of the same litany of reasons they failed in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, the Americans and their allies continue to win virtually all of the combat engagements, but cannot break the will of their adversaries, or cut off their access to sanctuaries and a never-ending supply of new recruits. The Brits describe military counterinsurgency operations in these wars as “mowing the lawn.” It always grows back, and must be mowed again and again.
Allies seem to work at cross purposes, and in the shaky new governments, corruption and dysfunction reign. By 2006, a bipartisan U.S. Task Force on Iraq determines that the situation there is “grave and deteriorating.” Meanwhile, the Taliban resurfaces in force in Afghanistan. Soon it controls an even greater percentage of the Afghan populace than it had before the Americans first arrived.
U.S. troop surges in both countries follow, and the incidence of insurgent-sponsored attacks subside, but gains prove evanescent. By 2011, in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well in the U.S., popular support for the war has eroded sharply, and the insurgents seem to have the upper hand.
Like an increasing number of serious students of these conflicts, General Bolger concludes that the United States has lost both wars. If by “lost” one means we have failed in our original objectives—ridding both nations of terrorist networks and establishing stable governments responsive to the needs of their people—it’s hard to quarrel with him. If anything, the forces of insurgency and extremism appear even stronger today than they were in early 2013, the point at which Bolger concludes his narrative.
Why did we lose? In a somewhat meandering epilogue that raises as many questions as it answers, Bolger states unequivocally that the wise course of action would have been to cut off the heads of the snakes in both countries, and then extricate ourselves, pronto: “A sensible look at American military strengths in 2001 showed a clear alternative to grinding counterinsurgency campaigns. All that was needed were “short, decisive conventional conflicts waged for limited ends,” along the lines of the Persian Gulf War and the Kosovo operation in 1999. “Had that ended our efforts,” he says, we would have been fighting well within our means. Admiring war colleges would have studied the brilliant opening rounds as models of lightning war. But here success blinded us. Rightly impressed by the innovation and speed of the initial attacks … and thoroughly convinced of the quality of our volunteer troops, successive generals in command … signed on for more, a lot more, month after month, year after year. In so doing, we did not heed Sun Tzu’s caution. We did not understand our enemies.
Hmmm. But wasn’t this precisely the Bush administration’s initial scheme of maneuver, and didn’t it sow the seeds of national implosion in both nations? Our successful “lightning wars” created vast power vacuums, and with those vacuums—and insufficient “phase IV” planning, i.e., American military parlance for the transitional phase of a conflict—came general chaos, sectarian violence, and in Iraq, outright civil war. The very real possibility that things would go from bad to worse loomed large. To put it bluntly, pulling out of either war right after “conquest” wasn’t really a live option, given what was happening on the ground.
In this sense, Bolger’s alternate scenario doesn’t seem particularly compelling.
When he turns to the question of culpability for our defeat, Bolger’s answer strikes me as equally problematic. Who’s to blame? He blames himself. Himself, that is, along with several hundred other generals and admirals who have presided over the many campaigns and operations that comprise these two grueling struggles. They saw that the war wasn’t working, and yet they pressed on, serving tour after tour, failing to find the key to success.
Regrettably, evidence supporting this conclusion is sorely lacking in the book’s narrative. Nor does Bolger explain his mea culpa in any sort of extended analytical discussion at the end of the book. Curiously, he has next to nothing to say about the generals on the Joint Chiefs of Staff whose job it was advise the last two presidents on broad matters of strategy and planning. In the course of the story, he identifies any number of senior military officers, retired and active, who were skeptical of engaging in protracted war and said so, but then continued to serve, because they took orders, and it was their place to execute strategy, not formulate it.
Bolger does not locate a pattern of delusion, malign intention, or incompetence among these generals, or any others, that I could find. The author plainly loathes David Petraeus as a narcissistic careerist and media darling, and sees the surges in both wars as temporary palliatives at best, but Petraeus came to the fore well after the decisions to wage protracted war and engage in nation building had been made. He doesn’t exactly make Bolger’s case.
At the risk of engaging in a bit of armchair psychologizing, it seems to me that General Bolger has yet to fully work out in his own mind how and why things have gone so terribly wrong, which is entirely understandable, because neither campaign is truly over, despite the official White House proclamations, and whatever else these wars are, they are not simple failures. Indeed, Bolger seems to find himself at the end of this sad story struggling with the discomfiting truth of Pogo’s famous axiom: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Like so many of these wars’ early critics, like so many reflective veterans of the campaigns Bolger so ably chronicles, he knows that something has been dreadfully wrong with the American way of war for a very long time—perhaps from the very beginning—some failure of vision, of national will, of judgment.
But whatever went wrong, surely it’s not just the generals who are at fault. We have to take a broader view. Better to start with the arrogance, ignorance, and inattention to history—our own as well as the histories of the places we invaded—displayed by the wars’ chief architects in the Bush administration. In the fog and confusion of post 9/11 America, they seemed to forget the wisdom of former secretary of defense William Perry, who remarked back in 1995 that “we field an army, not a salvation army.”
And then there is the very troubling distance that has grown up between the (less than) 1 percent of the country that serves in the active military and the American people as a whole, a distance that goes far toward explaining the public’s disconcerting indifference to the lame prosecution of these conflicts, in which the sons and daughters of a few bear the sacrifices that should be borne, if they should be borne at all, by the many.