We Have the War We Deserve
When I teach military officers, I lay all of the blame for the conduct of the Global War on Terrorism at their feet. They do not like this. We often agree that we didn’t win in Iraq or Afghanistan, but when I ask why, the answer usually includes accusations of blame leveled against politicians, the White House, the Pentagon, or the US Department of State. I tell them, that they are responsible for everything.
I also take my share of the blame. The failures in Iraq and Afghanistan are my fault. I trained and taught many officers who have led from the platoon to the battalion level, over the last 20 years, in either Afghanistan or Iraq. I spent more than a year in Iraq and more than eight and a half years in the Middle East. It is my fault.
I also tell the officers that they are right in that there is blame enough to go around. Everyone that they list is also to blame, but because I am not talking to those audiences, my focus is on the audience to whom I am speaking. I quote a line from one of my favorite movies – Miracle (2004) – “You worry about your own game. Plenty there to keep you busy.”
I am writing this post in a state of disgusted anger and frustration. The events of the weekend of 14 and 15 August 2021 in Afghanistan have been the reason for anger at the waste and failure and disgust at the mismanagement and misrepresentation of the facts on the ground. In part, this post is part of my personal emotional therapy. Thank you for indulging me.
On Friday, 13 August 2021, my wife and I interviewed an Afghan military officer as part of a reference book we are writing/editing on the war in Afghanistan. This officer is an ethnic Tajik and he gave tremendous insight into the challenges associated with present Afghanistan. In our discussion, I asked him about his family and their safety as they reside in Kabul. He said that he was not concerned as Kabul was secure. That was 24-36 hours before news of the resignation and flight of the Afghan president and images of Taliban commanders walking into the presidential palace and Afghan civilians clinging helplessly onto the outside of U.S. Air Force cargo aircraft as they taxied and took off from the airport outside Kabul.
Throughout the images and news of this sad weekend I thought of the line from Jean-Paul Sartre, in his book Being and Nothingness (page 555): “we have the war we deserve.” The depressing and disgusting images and news reports combined with a set of statements make true this assertion.
Both of these senior U.S. government leaders express either ignorance or a lack of truth telling or some combination regarding Afghanistan that bring to mind the words of John Sopko (the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction or SIGAR) from a 28 July 2021 Defense Writers Group as he explained his summary of the U.S. struggles in Afghanistan: hubris and mendacity. If by hubris one means ignorant arrogance then I am 100% behind the use of that word.
Sartre’s point of having the war we deserve has been painfully demonstrated by the Global War on Terrorism. Meaning that the choices made by the United States government, by those responsible for directing action, for committing resources, and for establishing strategy have resulted in exactly the sort of mess that anyone could have predicted knowing the lack of skills, abilities, and knowledge on the part of those responsible. Indifference to the environment, to the suffering, and to the conduct of the war has led to this foolish expression of will. We have wasted tens of thousands of lives (not just those killed, but those wounded and debilitated by mental and physical injury) and trillions of dollars in a form of spasmodic expression of ignorant savagery. Such behavior deserves inconclusive, wasteful, and ignominious defeat. We have had the war that we deserved.
I want to do that which I deny my students. I want to blame someone for what happened in Afghanistan. The problem is that everyone is at fault. I mean everyone. I divide everyone into four categories in order of deserved blame:
One of my colleagues has stated that the problem in Afghanistan is that not enough American people died there. By that he means that not enough people died to generate the attention necessary for citizens to demand accountability. This is sadly true. While we had military personnel in Afghanistan for nearly twenty years, the American populace probably only paid attention to the war for less than one year spread out over that twenty years in the form of a few weeks here and a few days there. We cared about special forces riding with Northern Alliance fighters on horses, we cared about the toppling of the Taliban, the fighting around Tora Bora, the friendly fire that killed former NFL player and US Army Ranger Pat Tillman, we cared about the story of Marcus Luttrell especially when the movie Lone Survivor was released in theaters, we cared about the killing of Osama bin Laden, and we cared about the collapse of the Afghan national government in July and early August of 2021. That was it. Thus, we deserve the war we have.
Remember, that I blame myself. I advised generals, I briefed political appointees, I spoke with and wrote to media, and I am a citizen. This is my fault.
As much as I am mad at these four groups for their individual and collective dereliction of duty, I am more disgusted at the current military, political, and media organizations and institutions that are failing to learn from what is happening. We are failing to try to know why the most powerful military force spent twenty years in a country to have that country’s military – that we built – apparently collapse in six weeks. I say apparently because the Afghan National Army has been fighting, bleeding, and dying with little support for months before the seemingly rapid disintegration of will that so many are pointing to. We are almost racistly blaming the Afghan people themselves for our ignorance, arrogance, and mendacity as I read or hear the phrase “graveyard of empires” expressed over and over again. As if to say it is the fault of the Afghan people that they couldn’t or wouldn’t conform to our demands, dance to our tune, or play the roles that we prescribed.
It was our ignorant arrogance that allowed us to roll in without studying the country. We continued to fight in Afghanistan without thinking that we needed to change our professional military education system to teach and train our leaders to understand the environment in which we were operating. Even in the last couple of years, we had our eyes on some magical Large Scale Combat Operation like some sports car that we hoped to buy while ignoring the rusted and broken down heap in our front yard. Maybe Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires because every empire has been hubristically ignorant enough to believe that it did not need to change to understand and work with Afghanistan rather than against it. Maybe every empire has believed that it could be mendacious with itself that success was happening or just around a corner or that the corner had just been turned.
Afghanistan should be teaching us. We need to humbly start from the beginning with everything. We need to change our professional military education, our political science and international relations curricula, and we need to change our economic development paradigms based on what we learn from Afghanistan. We are wrong when we think that money buys better governance. We are wrong when we act as if equipment and training equal capability. We are wrong when we ignore our own history and act as if the American Founding Fathers did not understand about governance and that their model isn’t worth seeking to pattern. We are wrong when we think that working from the top down builds a country. We need to start with an honest, rather than mendacious, appreciation of what happened and try to appreciate why it happened so that we can promise ourselves, our citizens, and our children that this will never happen again.
Lots of people know this and knew this. I have read and listened articles, blogs, texts, posts, podcasts, and comments from very smart and experienced people who have been saying this for years. We need to listen to these men and women and stop listening to those who have failed us for twenty years. Here is the litmus test for who to listen to or read: if they fail to take ownership for this failure then don’t listen to them. The group that we should avoid must include military leaders, political leaders, reporters, and common citizens so long as they cannot be honest about their culpability in the failure.
We need to hold accountable those who have failed. I include myself. I am studying, interviewing, writing, and teaching to try to understand this environment as it is, as it was, and I am trying to understand what it will become.
Until we do this the war that we deserve will never be a war that we want.
My recommendations for where to start to understand what happened:
Podcast: Generation Jihad by The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the Long War Journal.
I appreciate you writing this. Although you gave me less than stellar grades in class, your message resonates with people who have spent time overseas and I will always remember lessons you taught our group. Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria..... we (DOD) continue repeating the past and leaving behind the relationships we all built with the local populace. I pray for the Middle East and the rest of the world and hope they find a way to survive and succeed while we as an American society do the same.
Less than stellar? You were a joy to have as a student.
I am not a politician, a member of the media, or a veteran of any war, but I accept blame for our tragic failure. As we learned in grade school, if you give a man a fish - he will eat for one day; but if you teach him how to fish, he will eat for a lifetime. We cannot simply throw money at something and hope that fixes it. We must pay attention, ask questions, and learn what the issues are before we can hope to make anything “better”. I have spent most of my career in corporate America bringing people together to improve processes, to be more efficient and productive. It is not easy, but success is life-changing. I have faith that your students and readers will strive for change, improve the processes that determine how we address conflict, and … eventually, give us not the war we deserve but the peace that is every human’s right. Thank you.
Thank you for taking ownership and for your kind words. The more people who admit their responsibility the greater the chance that we can prevent any similar tragedies in the future.
Spot on! I agree 100% with your assessment!
Thank you for the praise.
Normally, I stay clear of articles and media reports concerning the Middle Eastern. As a veteran, it helps me stay balanced, and focused on today, and tomorrow. However, I was intrigued by your articles approach and its broad range of collective fault scope; including self.
Brian L. Steed
Thank you for the comment.
Nicely written. I was the Deputy Commander of CJOTF-AP in Iraq 2004-2006 (two tours). It was the culmination of my 19 years as an SF officer.
Brian L. Steed
I am sad to read of your frustrations, but I can empathize all too well. The US military often confuses action with progress and we don't want to criticize results as we often confuse them with sacrifices.
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Brian L. Steed is an applied historian,