Revision — From the September 2014 issue

Why We Lost in Iraq and Afghanistan

A general’s account of the military’s mistakes

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What went right in this war involved the men and women who fought it. At the tactical level — the realm of vicious firefights and night raids — the courage, discipline, and lethality of our Americans in uniform stand with anything accomplished in the Civil War, both world wars, Korea, or Vietnam.

What went wrong squandered the bravery, sweat, and blood of these fine Americans. Our primary failing in the war involved generals. We should have known better. In military schools like West Point, Fort Leavenworth, Quantico, and Carlisle Barracks, soldiers study the great minds who have tried to win wars across the ages. Along with Thucydides, Julius Caesar, and Carl von Clausewitz, the instructors introduce the ancient wisdom of Sun Tzu, the Chinese general and theorist who penned his poetic, elliptical, sometimes cryptic Art of War twenty-two centuries ago. Master Sun put it simply: “Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.” We failed on both counts. I know I certainly did. As generals, we did not know our enemy — never pinned him down, never focused our efforts, and got all too good at making new opponents faster than we could handle the old ones.

We then added to our troubles by misusing the U.S. Armed Forces, which are designed, manned, and equipped for short, decisive, conventional conflict. Instead, confident of our tremendously able, disciplined troops, and buoyed by dazzling early victories, we backed into not one but two long, indecisive counterinsurgent struggles to which our forces were ill-suited. Time after time, as I and my fellow generals saw that our strategies weren’t working, we failed to reconsider our basic assumptions. We failed to question our flawed understanding of our foe or ourselves. We simply asked for more time. Given enough months, then years, then decades — always just a few more, please — we trusted our great men and women to succeed. In the end, all the courage and skill in the world could not overcome ignorance and arrogance. As a general, I got it wrong. And I did so in company with my peers.

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, a retired lieutenant general, commanded troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan. His book Why We Lost will be published in November by Eamon Dolan Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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