We’re Forgetting Every Lesson From Iraq and Afghanistan

As a former war correspondent, I’ve seen what our constant marching to war has cost us. But now with Iran, Americans have tossed those lessons aside.

Courtesy of David Axe

Peace Day had just started when the car bomb exploded right outside and blew in all the windows in the government building I was standing in. It was late January 2005 in Baqubah, a city in north-central Iraq. I was a 27-year-old reporter on my first assignment to a war zone.

The U.S. Army had offered amnesty to Baqubah’s insurgents. Turn in your weapons, walk away, no questions asked. “Peace Day,” the Army called it. So of course, the insurgents blew it up. At least one man died—the bomber, presumably. Wet hunks of him were everywhere.

Peace Day was an education for me. My first lesson in the utter absurdity, stupidity and sheer horror of America’s second post-9/11 war. Thirteen years later, I can still perfectly recall the heart-quivering concussion of the bomb blast. The random, unaimed gunfire of panicking Iraqi cops and soldiers. The smell of exploded cars and charred flesh. That technicolor swirl of blood, bile, and oil.

I’ve never forgotten Iraq. But America apparently has forgotten. In 2003 we ignored our allies’ warnings, shrugged off a working inspection regime, and went to war on the basis of anger and lies. With President Donald Trump’s rejection of the Iran nuclear deal, we’re repeating that tragic past.

I remember what happens next. Do you?

Two years later I was on assignment in Afghanistan. Iraq had turned into a quagmire and President George W. Bush’s “surge” was just getting started, so Afghanistan was a low priority. What U.S. and NATO forces in the latter country lacked in manpower, they made up for in raw, indiscriminate firepower.

The Taliban swept into the town of Tarin Kowt in the country’s rugged south. A suicide bomber attacked a Dutch convoy, killing one soldier and blowing apart a bunch of Afghan kids. They died screaming like pigs at a slaughterhouse.

Lacking large numbers of infantry, the Dutch fought back with artillery, helicopters, and warplanes. I watched a giant, 155-millimeter cannon fire into the town of Chora. Scores of civilians died. Some murdered by the Taliban. Others killed by their own defenders’ errant barrages.

Do you think the U.S. military today has the capacity to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, ISIS in Syria, and al Qaeda’s spinoffs all over the world plus deter Russia in Europe and China in the Western Pacific, and go to war with Iran over its nuclear program?

Maybe it does. But can it wage all those wars without resorting to overwhelming, undiscerning force? Imagine how many innocent civilians would die. Remember, please, how many civilians have already died in our wars.

Forget the dead at your peril, because everyone has friends and family. In the post-apocalyptic capital of Somalia a few months after Tarin Kowt, I witnessed U.S.-backed Ethiopian occupiers, government soldiers, UN peacekeepers, neighborhood warlords, Al Shabab militants, and al Qaeda terrorists fighting a bewildering, four-way war.

Escalating U.S. drone strikes, air raids, and commando operations only added to the confusion and trauma. Between 2001 and 2016, no fewer than 41 U.S. attacks in Somalia killed as many as 418 people, including an estimated 59 innocent bystanders. “You Americans,” one Somali professor scolded when I met him in Mogadishu. “You’ll destroy an entire city to get three people.”

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The American war in Somalia had direct consequences in the United States. Somali-American youths, many of them children of refugees who had fled Somalia’s brutal civil war in the early 1990s, grew to resent the United States. “I love this country,” a young Somali-American named Abokar told me. “But I love my homeland more.”

Scores of Somali-Americans radicalized and joined terror groups including al Qaeda, Al Shabab, and ISIS. In October 2008, 26-year-old Shirwa Ahmed of Minneapolis detonated a truck full of explosives outside a government building in Bosaso, Somalia, killing himself and several bystanders. He was the first American suicide bomber.

War begets terror, every time. Don’t forget.

Barack Obama campaigned on ending America’s wars and breaking this awful cycle. But the wars we started after 9/11 have proved impossible to stop. Enemies evolve and cross borders. Every terrorist, insurgent, or innocent civilian we kill just ends up radicalizing several more. We wreck a country and, in its fertile soil of blood and chaos, sow the seeds of the next conflict.

Thus I found myself in central Afghanistan a couple of years after Tarin Kowt and Mogadishu. Obama was overseeing a surge of his own, adding tens of thousands of troops to Afghanistan in a desperate bid to bring the war to some kind of acceptable conclusion.

It didn’t work. Maybe we didn't really want it to work.

A bomb knocked out the U.S. Army truck in front of mine in a convoy threading a narrow rural road. After a brief and bloody firefight that scattered pieces of insurgents across a treeline, we were stuck for hours waiting for a wrecker to recover the damaged vehicle.

My terror turned to boredom then irritation. Only much later did I realize that, of the three emotions, irritation was the most dangerous. At a certain point, I actually hoped we’d get attacked again. That, at least, would have been interesting, you see. It didn’t really matter to me then that people might die.

I was an American, four years into what felt like a lifetime of war. I was more comfortable in combat than I was at peace.

I got bombed again in Logar two years later. This time, the explosives detonated directly under the U.S. Army truck I was riding in. No one died, but several soldiers were badly injured.

I was lucky. I’d sat in the rearmost seat, farthest from where the bomb struck. So I was merely a spectator at a slow-motion flying carnival of twisted metal and smashed bodies.

Physically, I was unhurt. But I can close my eyes right now, think Logar, and blow up all over again. Spend enough time at war and it will touch you, too.

Two years after exploding in Afghanistan, I found myself in northern Syria dodging potshots from Turkish border guards and barrel bombs from regime helicopter while carefully avoiding ISIS checkpoints. The war America started in Iraq had birthed a terror group. That group wandered into Syria, grew up, and fought a civil war there before returning to Iraq in 2014.

Obama had pulled most U.S. troops from Iraq just a few years prior. When ISIS invaded, he sent them back to Iraq, and then into Syria.

Now it’s 2018 and we as a country seem eager to add yet another stupid, impossible-to-win war to the ones we’re still fighting from 15 years ago. Have we really forgotten the lies, anger, and chest-thumping unilateralism that brought us a generation of costly conflict? Do any of us truly believe that battling Iran will end well for anyone... or end at all?

After Syria, I quit war correspondence for good. It’s the hardest and bravest thing I’ve ever done. Like my country, I’d become addicted to war.

Please, I’m begging you—if you can’t remember war like I do, then at least remember something we’ve all experienced, even if it was a long time ago. Remember peace.