A few months before the United States invaded Iraq, in 2003, Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary at the time, was asked on a radio show how long the war would take. “Five days or five weeks or five months,” he replied. “It certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that.” When George W. Bush departed the White House more than five years later, there were nearly 136,000 US soldiers stationed in the country.
The number of troops has fallen since then, but Bush’s successors have failed to withdraw the United States from the region. Barack Obama campaigned on ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, only to send hundreds of troops into Syria. For years Donald Trump described America’s efforts in Afghanistan as “a waste” and said that soldiers were being led “to slaughter,” but in 2017 he announced that he would deploy as many as 4,000 more troops to the country. “Decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk of the Oval Office,” he explained. Every president, it seems, eventually learns to embrace our perpetual war.
With the Trump Administration’s attacks on affordable health care, immigration, environmental regulation, and civil rights now in full swing, criticism of America’s military engagements has all but disappeared from the national conversation. Why hasn’t the United States been able—or willing—to end these conflicts? Who has benefited from them? Is victory still possible—and, if so, is it anywhere in sight?
In March, Harper’s Magazine convened a panel of former soldiers at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. The participants, almost all of whom saw combat in Iraq or Afghanistan, were asked to reflect on the country’s involvement in the Middle East. This Forum is based on that panel, which was held before an audience of cadets and officers, and on a private discussion that followed.
Andrew J. Bacevich fought in the Vietnam War from 1970 to 1971. He is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (Random House).
Gregory Daddis retired as an Army colonel after serving in Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. He is currently an associate professor at Chapman University and the director of the school’s Program in War and Society. His latest book is Withdrawal: Reassessing America’s Final Years in Vietnam (Oxford University Press).
Jason Dempsey served as an infantry officer in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a senior adviser to the Columbia University Center for Veteran Transition and Integration. He is the author of Our Army: Soldiers, Politics, and Civil-Military Relations (Princeton University Press).
Buddhika Jayamaha served in Iraq as a fire team leader and direct-fire rifleman in the 82nd Airborne Division from 2004 to 2009. Under the pseudonym J. B. Walker, he is the primary author of Nightcap at Dawn: American Soldiers’ Counterinsurgency in Iraq (Skyhorse Publishing).
Sarah Kreps served in the Air Force as a foreign area officer for European and sub-Saharan African affairs from 1999 to 2003. She is an associate professor at Cornell University, an adjunct scholar at West Point’s Modern War Institute, and the author of several books, including Drones: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press).
Danny Sjursen has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He is the author of Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge (ForeEdge).
PART ONE: “IF ONLY AFGHANISTAN WERE A DIFFERENT COUNTRY”
andrew j. bacevich: We’re meeting here at West Point more than sixteen years after US forces entered Afghanistan and almost fifteen years after invading Iraq. I think it’s fair to say that these wars and our military experiences elsewhere since 9/11 have not gone as expected. Even though we have the world’s best-trained and best-equipped military—as each of you knows from your own service—we seem unable to achieve conclusive success. Organizations that engage in terrorism continue to proliferate, especially in Africa, and we’ve failed to establish a stable democracy in either Afghanistan or Iraq. Our conflicts just drag on. So let me ask you: Why don’t we win?
buddhika Jayamaha: Another way to put your question is: We always win individual firefights. Why can’t we manage to put those tactical victories into a coherent political formula?
gregory Daddis: We actually don’t always win tactically. That’s the false narrative that comes out of Vietnam, that we won tactically but the damn politicians—or the antiwar movement, or the media, or Jane Fonda—lost the war for us.
Jayamaha: I am citing an empirical fact about direct-fire engagements. I would estimate that we win 90 percent of the time. In my personal experience as a rifleman, we won every single time.
Bacevich: When you say we won, you’re saying we killed more of them than they killed of us. They withdrew from the battlefield and we stayed.
Jayamaha: Exactly. But my point is that it would matter only if we rolled these victories into a broader strategy. In terms of being on the ground and taking control of, say, Baghdad during the surge, our plan did work. But then you go up to the policy level and we fail.
Bacevich: Because we don’t have a coherent strategy.
danny Sjursen: We are really waging a war not against a state but against a tactic: terror. They used to call it the war on terror. It’s bound to be indecisive. You could argue that the original sin of the war is calling it a war—the minute you do that, everyone starts to run around and act like a warrior. And we’re surprised that it is counterproductive.
Jayamaha: There are also context-specific issues in Afghanistan and Iraq that keep us there. For example, we are staying in Afghanistan to avoid state failure: if we leave, the bottom will fall out. In Iraq, we thought we were done. What happened was, the political system that we set up didn’t hold in our absence, so we went back. And now staying put has no political cost.
Sjursen: It would be politically dangerous to leave.
Bacevich: For politicians, staying is the safer course. As long as they make a show of supporting the troops, they are able to evade accountability.
Sjursen: Whether you are a Republican politician or—especially, perhaps—a Democrat, you say, “We will let the president continue so he can keep us safe.” Congress has relinquished its constitutional power to declare war. In this situation, also, having an all-volunteer force creates a perfect storm. If this were a draftee army, if there were conscription in some way, I think it would be much harder to keep the forever war going. The reason why it has been seventeen years and there is still really no antiwar movement—like we saw during Vietnam—is because the fighting is done by such a small portion of Americans.
Jayamaha: I have students who, when I tell them we own a third of Syria, say, “Wait, what? We have soldiers in Syria?” We have like two thousand of them! I don’t think people even care.
jason Dempsey: Most Americans don’t know enough to care.
Bacevich: When four soldiers were killed in Niger, even Lindsey Graham, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said, “I didn’t know there was a thousand troops in Niger!”
Dempsey: Americans are beset by an attitude of respectful indifference. The approval rating of the US military is astronomical—really, no institution merits a 70 percent approval rating, especially not one that struggles to wrap up conflicts over seventeen years. How do we explain this? Some of it is just ignorance. The American public today has no idea how the military operates, how the defense budget is spent, what portion of our budget is actually devoted to foreign aid. They just know that they should respect the military. I submit that a good portion of public approval of the military can be explained by, basically, “I’m not being asked to do any of this. So who am I to criticize?”
sarah kreps: That’s part of it. We also used to have war taxes. That’s a different way in which war came home for the American public. It put pressure on leaders to reevaluate how wars were going. The last war that the United States unequivocally won was the Second World War. That is a very clear inflection point. One of the things that changed after that was the introduction of nuclear weapons. They made this doctrine of “go all in or don’t go at all” really untenable, because going “all in” now means ten million people die. No one is willing to do that. So we end up doing these half measures that lead to stalemate.
Bacevich: Can I press you a little bit on your point about nuclear weapons? Maximum US troop strength in Iraq at the time of the 2007—08 surge was about 160,000. Maximum troop strength in Afghanistan during the Barack Obama surge in 2010—11 was 100,000. If you look at those numbers in comparison with other American wars, they are nothing. I don’t know that a ground force of 500,000 could have pacified Iraq, but it might have had a better chance than a force of 160,000. I don’t think the reason we were willing to send half a million troops to Vietnam and only 100,000 to Afghanistan has anything to do with nuclear weapons.
Kreps: Nuclear weapons pushed both Vietnam and Afghanistan to the periphery because we didn’t want to come up against countries like Russia or China. So we keep the scale of our conflicts just small enough that they don’t prompt a retaliatory response from a major power, and end up in this practice of fighting asymmetric conflicts in which the other side wants to win more than we do.
Dempsey: The military is waging these wars doing just what it likes to do: targeting and direct-fire engagements. We put the patina of counterinsurgency on our strategy, but counterinsurgency is about working with and through local forces to find solutions for that country. That takes individuals who are committed to the fight long enough to understand the nuances of local politics and culture—something the US military simply will not support. We will continue to be a tactical force that prioritizes conventional war-fighting skills, sending conventional war-fighting units into battle in seven-, nine-, and twelve-month increments. If you think you can do counterinsurgency in nine-month increments, we can’t even have a conversation. By our own metrics of success, we say, “We did great!” What we’ve said for sixteen years in Afghanistan is, “Look, we punched those guys in the face. We pushed them off the battlefield. We created space.” That’s the go-to excuse. We drove out the enemy to “create space,” and now by some miracle the Afghan government is going to fix itself.
Daddis: It allows the blame to be shifted to the local government: “We created the space, we did our job; it’s not our failure, it’s the failure of the locals.”
Dempsey: That’s one of the most fascinating things—the excuses you hear about why we are not successful in Afghanistan. You can boil every single one of them down to: “Our strategy in Afghanistan would be going perfectly if only Afghanistan were a different country.”
PART TWO: “YOU CAN BE THE MAYOR OF AN IRAQI TOWN!”
Jayamaha: We’re focusing on Afghanistan and Iraq, but there are a lot of places where we are at war but aren’t technically at war, such as the Sahel, from Mauritania to South Sudan. Our primary concern is making sure failing states don’t collapse, but that requires soldiers, which requires bases, which requires more soldiers to guard those bases. It just keeps growing. Now we have drone bases all across the region.
Bacevich: Does anyone think drone strikes are helping us win these wars?
Kreps: I don’t think it is a successful strategy, but I can see why it persists. US decision makers have incentives to carry out drone strikes—to do something—to get those tactical victories and keep the fighting out of the newspapers at home, to keep the phone calls out of senators’ offices. All these interests are aligned to perpetuate this policy, even if strategically it is a loser—and on questionable ethical grounds.
Dempsey: It’s telling that ethics is the only framework we use to criticize drone policy. We never ask, “What the hell do the people on the opposite side actually think about America, and what message does this send?” We live so much in our own bubble. We believe that what we are doing is right, that we are launching these drones with good intent. But they have consequences for innocent people. When civilians get killed, we say, “Okay, so the strike killed a wedding party. We’re sorry. That’s cool, right?” We have no idea what storm of second- and third-order effects that one mistake has had.
Kreps: It’s really difficult to suss out whether this or that wedding-party strike actually just created more terrorists.
Dempsey: Still, we have no one on the ground mitigating the effects of these strikes. We wonder why terrorist groups are popping up by the dozens across the Middle East and Africa. We somehow forget that there is a political component to force, not just an ethical one.
Jayamaha: Even when we do have people on the ground, the local information they receive gets us sucked into other people’s political fights. In Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh used our drone strikes to go after his own opponents. According to some reports, this may have happened in Somalia as well.
Bacevich: It appears that ever since the onset of the so-called forever wars, our knowledge of local conditions has been deficient.
Kreps: The United States has its tentacles everywhere. A couple of months ago a journalist at the Wall Street Journal called me wanting to talk about the Sahel, where the United States and France have deployed military assets to respond to increasing terrorist activity. I said, “I am not a Sahel expert.” He replied, “I can’t find anyone who is!” This guy is combing through all these experts and no one is a Sahel expert. A few years ago we needed Yemen experts. Now they’re sort of anachronistic. Today we need Sahel experts. It’s this vicious cycle.
Jayamaha: Before we engaged in Yemen, why would anyone have chosen to study it? I work with a lot of officers who would like to specialize in Africa, but they don’t—it would be a career killer.
Bacevich: Professional incentives reinforce our ignorance.
Daddis: I think it’s the military’s assignment cycle as well. I have a friend who served in Iraq three times over five years. Instead of sending him back to the same province so he could start on his second or third tour with at least some local knowledge, the military assigned him to a different place each time. We can’t even get this right inside one country.
Sjursen: I’m skeptical that more regional experts would have had much of an effect. While I agree 100 percent that there is a better way to do these forever wars, I’m not convinced expertise would matter. A real expert—an academic or someone outside the military—might advise us to stay out.
Kreps: Right. My friend in the State Department told me that in 2003 they were always building new latrines in Afghanistan because the Afghans were just throwing rocks down the toilets. They had never used these facilities before. It would have been helpful if we had spoken with some people who had knowledge of the region. They might have said, “Maybe you shouldn’t do nation building. Rethink this whole enterprise.”
Dempsey: When I got over to Afghanistan, we wanted to build a bunch of outposts but didn’t trust the local politicians or even our partner military forces with money. So we contracted the work out to companies in Kabul. Two or three years later, I visited one of these newly constructed outposts. It was in the wrong spot. Its kitchen was built with propane stoves; everyone in Afghanistan cooks with wood. Was the whole country just supposed to start cooking a different way? And who thinks transporting propane to remote outposts in Afghanistan is a good idea?
Bacevich: We make these mistakes without appreciating the consequences.
Dempsey: It is utterly absurd. It ties in with the idea that the military can do no wrong. The analogy I’ve been using lately is: Let’s say you’re a Marriott executive. And you want to build a hotel from scratch in Mongolia, where there has never been one before. You say, “How are we going to do it? Well, the guy who manages the hotel in Newburgh, New York, is pretty good. Let’s send him.” And then you tell the guy, “You’ve got nine months. Here’s a checkbook.” It’s an absurd proposition. But stick someone in a uniform, and we’re like, “You can be the mayor of an Iraqi town!” Now, if you took a West Point cadet and marched him over to Cornwall, New York, and told the townspeople, “Give him your books for a year because he’s going to manage your town,” you’d get laughed off the street. But we believe that if it is an officer doing it in Iraq or Afghanistan, then it must be okay. He’s just solving brown people’s problems.
Bacevich: But it’s not that we have a white man’s army—one in which only white men go off to these places. We have an army that is sensitive to issues of race and ethnicity in its own ranks.
Dempsey: Most senior officers do believe they are color-blind. But it’s easy to be color-blind when you are sitting around a table and everybody is a white, Christian male of your age. “Hey, Bill, are you racist?” “No, I’m not racist.” “Hey, Bob, are you racist?” “No.” “Okay, we’re going great! This is awesome!” That’s the convo in the senior ranks. It’s not ill will, just human nature, which makes it even harder to fix.
Sjursen: Let’s also not forget that the combat-arms division of the military is much whiter and much more male than the support branches. Most people interacting with Iraqis or Afghans or—jeez—now Syrians are white, Christian, and male.
Dempsey: Right. I’d trace it back to American exceptionalism, the idea that we can land in a country and say, “Hey, have you heard of us? Because we’re awesome. You must have already heard of us. So let’s create something that looks like us.” We never consider that there are a lot of Afghans who don’t want to move to America, who think that they are pretty awesome. We have bought into our own propaganda so deeply that we have no idea that other people might not even have been exposed to it.
Bacevich: You are saying American exceptionalism has a racial element, right? That even though the instrument of exceptionalism—the military—is integrated pretty successfully, our expectations of who we are and what we can achieve hark back to a white, Christian, male image. But it’s not explicit.
Daddis: I think it is explicit when you take a look at the theories underpinning American exceptionalism—like modernization theory from the Fifties and Sixties. We still believe that there is a formula and there is an end state and we are the end state. General Stanley McChrystal used to say in Afghanistan, “We’ve got a government in a box.” That is military orientalism—the idea that rational, culturally advanced Americans can impose their ways on the savage other in a foreign land. It’s a theoretical assumption based on racism.
Bacevich: That conviction is hardwired into many Americans—that we are the chosen people and that we came into existence in order to fulfill some kind of providential purpose. And it doesn’t seem to be going well in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Dempsey: Sadly, being played for suckers in other people’s wars might just be the purest expression of American exceptionalism.
Bacevich: To acknowledge that is to commit what, in the context of our civil religion, is a mortal sin.
PART THREE: “IT’S NOT A JOB—IT’S A DRUG”
Bacevich: Our conversation brings to mind The Soldier and the State, a book by the political scientist Samuel Huntington that has been popular here since the Fifties. He concludes with this remarkable reflection comparing West Point and Highland Falls, the nearby town. When I was a cadet here long ago, we couldn’t even go to Highland Falls. But we knew it was an unlovely little place. Huntington’s point was that the contrast between West Point and Highland Falls said something very important about America. Highland Falls was commercial—the people there wanted to make money—but when you passed through West Point’s Thayer Gate, you encountered people who were inspired by duty, honor, and country. West Point was sacred, Highland Falls profane. And he emphasized the gap, from his point of view, between those two worlds that existed right next to each other. When I was a cadet, I found the comparison utterly compelling. Now that I am older, I think it is probably one of the most dangerous notions ever proposed by a serious scholar.
Sjursen: Yeah, when the military starts to enjoy the adulation and expect it, I’m not certain that’s healthy.
Dempsey: Demanding a discount at Applebee’s is not service.
Daddis: We have moved from having respect for the military to being unable to criticize it. Think of some of the political debate revolving around John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, over the past few months. Back in late 2017, Kelly publicly disparaged a Florida congresswoman and wrongly accused her of taking credit for funding an FBI building. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the press secretary, said it was “highly inappropriate” for reporters to criticize a four-star general. That’s not a good place for our democracy to be. Just because Kelly served admirably in the Marines for forty years, that doesn’t set him on a plateau where we can no longer criticize him. It is dangerous to establish a hierarchy in which generals are above critique.
Dempsey: Remember how our senior leaders talked about the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? You had a whole cohort of officers—reportedly including Kelly—who were convinced that the repeal was going to ruin the military.
Daddis: If you are a senior military officer and you disagree with anything—policy, personnel, strategy—the trump card is to say that this will undermine cohesion and the ability to accomplish the mission.
Dempsey: When the topic of women serving in combat positions came up, you had Colin Powell and a bunch of Vietnam-era leaders who all said, “Hey, when I was in combat, this wouldn’t fly.” Everybody else said, “Oh, shit! I’d better listen to the generals.” Then these two wars broke out. We had all these individual experiments. Infantry units like mine in Afghanistan, in Kunar province, would have women integrated throughout. We did that a thousand times, and we built bathrooms and barracks for multiple genders. We figured it out. What we actually had was widespread bottom-up adaptation. Really, before the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the integration of women, the military was a social experiment that catered to the sexual hang-ups of sixty-five-year-old males.
Kreps: I think that a lot of these bottom-up experiments had to take place. Look at Obama’s evolution on gay marriage. In 2008 he had a fairly conservative position. And then over a few years, as society changed and he saw that actually, this works pretty well, he became more receptive to it.
Daddis: As society continues to evolve, so does the idea of the soldier. I remember here at West Point when we were going through the debate over the integration of women into combat forces, most cadets just shrugged their shoulders. There was one cadet whose biggest concern was not whether he would be serving with women but whether he could still be called an infantryman—his father and grandfather had gone to West Point, and he wanted to be called, like them, an infantryman.
Bacevich: Ah, to be eighteen!
Daddis: Yeah, he didn’t care about cohesion or effectiveness.
Dempsey: Cleaning latrines with toothbrushes has been used as a hazing and team-building exercise in basic training. I once heard a senior military officer lament that this exercise wouldn’t be allowed if women were integrated. As if there were no other team-building exercises they could do. The point is we had all these officers who were categorically wrong about the force they were leading, and yet we still listen to them. We still take their word for it.
Daddis: What civilian policymaker is going to look a general in the eye and say, “General, I disagree”? That’s a hard thing to do.
Kreps: I think it is about more than just talking to the generals. I think there is something less nefarious—or more nefarious—going on.
Bacevich: I’m for more nefarious!
Kreps: I can tell. There is a bigger narrative. You have people like Obama, who campaign on getting out of Iraq, getting out of Afghanistan. But what does he do when he gets into office? He says, “Well, actually, no.” The American experience is one of not giving up, so you don’t want to be the guy who withdrew from the war. As long as these leaders are responsive to a public that doesn’t want to see us losing, we’ll just continue muddling on.
Bacevich: What about the soldiers fighting these wars? The opinions at this table seem to suggest that the wars are futile. But the widespread disintegration of discipline and morale that affected US forces in Vietnam—which I very much recall from my own time there—seems not to have happened in the post-9/11 wars.
Jayamaha: Being a soldier is now a profession. My platoon sergeant, getting ready for his eighth deployment to Afghanistan, might have said, “Yeah, it is bullshit,” but he was excited to go.
Bacevich: In other words, “This is just what we do.”
Jayamaha: Strip everything out of it. Think of it as a job you are committed to.
Daddis: It’s not a job—it’s a drug. We’ve addicted our soldiers to war, and to the cycle of war. The costs of being addicted—damaging soldiers’ psyches, tearing families apart, creating an unhealthy relationship between soldiers and the adrenaline rush of combat—are hidden until later. I think there is also a class component to the all-volunteer force that we shouldn’t underrate. This is another way that adulation for the military plays a part in the enduring war. Young soldiers have an opportunity for social recognition that might be out of their reach anywhere else in American society. For a young man or woman of a certain class, this is an opportunity for something that is visceral: they matter in society, they are recognized, they have worth.
Sjursen: The military is also a welfare state; it is the most socialist institution we have. It provides a certain degree of economic stability. I worry that we have a military caste that is growing—that it’s become a family business.
Jayamaha: For 80 percent of those who serve, it is a family tradition.
Kreps: Think of the past thirty years—real wages in the US economy have stagnated. Here you have an opportunity to get a raise of 2 or 3 percent a year, and decent health care as well.
Daddis: Add in the GI Bill, which you can pass on to your kids.
Dempsey: Society says that you join the Army and you’re set for life and you’re a hero forever. But that is a terrible oversimplification. In 2009, when we were leaving Afghanistan, we did some pretty good proactive soldier assessments, trying to preempt all the issues we were going to have when we got back. One of our primary concerns as leaders was that it wasn’t necessarily about the soldiers who had experienced trauma during the deployment. It was about those who had issues before the deployment but thought that somehow service in combat was going to solve family, financial, and personal issues that they brought with them.
Bacevich: When they get home, their problems are waiting for them.
PART FOUR: “HE’S GOT THAT RETIREMENT COURAGE”
Bacevich: There are many thousands of our fellow citizens who come home and whose lives are permanently damaged from these wars that simply drag on and on and on. How is it that the senior military leaders at this juncture of the long war can dismiss the price being paid by the soldiers for whom they are responsible?
Dempsey: I don’t think any of them wake up in the morning and say, “I don’t care. I’m not trying to do the right thing.”
Bacevich: Okay, okay. But the alternative is that they get up in the morning and say, “It’s not up to me.”
Dempsey: There has been a lot written about John Nicholson’s command of US forces in Afghanistan, and about the sunk-cost mentality. He’s been there in one capacity or another since 2006. He’s lost soldiers there. Maybe at this point he doesn’t have the perspective to stop.
Bacevich: He’s lost so many of his soldiers that he can’t bear to acknowledge that this is a failed enterprise?
Dempsey: Right. He thinks, “If I were to walk away, what does that mean for the legacy of when I was in charge?” I have a great experiment that we could do right here at West Point with all the officer evaluation reports from the war. Pick a province—any province in Afghanistan. Then pull the reports from every single commander who was in charge of that province from 2007, 2008, 2009, and so on. Erase the personal identifying information and read them in chronological order. What do you think you are going to read?
Dempsey: Yeah, a story of success. Every guy walks into the war on a nine-month assignment. He’s trying to do some things with the Afghans, but he decides getting out and killing Taliban is maybe a little easier than training Afghan forces to fight for themselves. He conducts a great targeting effort for six to nine months and he sells it as progress. He says, “Yeah, those Afghans just weren’t willing to work with us yet, but as long as the next guy follows up with them, we are going to do great.” The bureaucracy has told every single one of the nine, ten, twelve guys in a row who owned Kunar or Wardak or Logar that they were all fantastic people doing a great job. There is a disconnect between how the bureaucracy evaluates itself and what our true goals are. But you’re never going to get anybody to dig into that, because that would call for some accountability from our senior officers.
Bacevich: Is there any obligation for officers to dissent?
Sjursen: In theory, the obligation increases as you rise up through the ranks. That said, it’s not an accident that everyone on this panel was probably a major or topped out at colonel. Most of the people dissenting in the military are probably of middle rank. I haven’t seen any general willing to put his or her stars on the table and say, “The forever war isn’t working. I don’t think you’re giving us a winnable task.”
Bacevich: There have been generals—albeit in retirement—who have spoken critically. But their doing so ends up being a twenty-four-hour story: “Retired general so-and-so says that the Afghanistan war is unwinnable.” It is a page 15 story in the New York Times, and that’s it.
Dempsey: I remember an officer who saw a retired general speak out, and he said, “He’s got that retirement courage.” Well, goddamn! That’s better than none at all.
Jayamaha: I don’t agree. Active-duty generals should not be dissenting publicly. Protracted wars are a function of political failures. Answers to political failures do not come from politicizing the officer corps. The answers have to be determined by politics, in the relationship between elected lawmakers and the wider public. I believe there is room for dissent within the military, but I wonder: What does dissent mean if you are a four-star general? To whom do you dissent?
Bacevich: Take the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. When there is a proposal to send another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, he might say, “Mr. President, Mr. Secretary, this ain’t gonna work. Either we should send 300,000 or we should find our way out of there.” That is his appropriate role.
Dempsey: But look at the tenure of Richard Myers or Peter Pace as chairman. Both were utter disasters. In Myers’s case, it was not necessarily his fault—he thought he was going to modernize the military and make it look more like the Air Force, and suddenly he was fighting a ground war in Iraq. He was out of his league. Pace, however, had issues even being heard in the White House. He didn’t understand what his obligation was. We don’t train them for the job. They don’t know about all these informal levers of power that they must sometimes pull to be effective in Washington.
Daddis: There is an organizational-culture issue, too. We grow up in the military with this sense that dissent equals disrespect. We just had a senior leader here at West Point leave this room uncomfortable with the conversation we were having because it was in front of cadets. He was arguing that the military does what it is asked and that is what it is supposed to do—to be prepared for full-spectrum warfare.
1 Petraeus told Harper’s Magazine that he did not recall this conversation.
Kreps: One of the officers was rolling his eyes. It is so ingrained in them. After 9/11, I was in the perfect place in the sense that I was happy to be in uniform and serving the country. But then Iraq rolled around. By then I was a captain and so I voted with my feet. I moved over to the intelligence side, which seemed somehow more benign. A few years later I ran into David Petraeus, who was by then a four-star general. Somehow we started talking about the Iraq War, and I said, “Well, I was only a captain, so what could I do?”1 And then he said, “Yeah, I was only a two-star general. What could I do?”? As a captain you think the generals surely have a voice. But he felt that as a two-star general he didn’t have a voice.
PART FIVE: “BY GOLLY, WE CAN FIX THIS!”
Bacevich: Let’s say no one steps in to end these wars. How likely is it, then, that the United States will be able to achieve its original aims in Iraq and Afghanistan—that both nations will become stable countries aligned with the United States?
Sjursen: I’m 100 percent pessimistic. I just came from Fort Leavenworth, where they have a formula: ends equals ways plus means. But the ends we laid out are unachievable. It doesn’t matter how many ways or means you come up with. There is absolutely no chance of success as it was laid out by the Bush Administration. Or even in some of Obama’s rhetoric.
Bacevich: That’s depressing.
Sjursen: We should really be guarding our core national-security interests—of which there are very few in the Middle East and North Africa—and go for something more similar to counterterrorism, where we focus on policies and military tactics aimed at thwarting terrorist organizations. Our objective now should be to extricate ourselves from the region without causing more damage. You’re not going to have a lot of serving officers say that, because it has become the norm to just deploy and redeploy. This has been going on for seventeen years.
Jayamaha: In Iraq, we did get out, and then we got sucked back in. Now we’ve defeated the Islamic State, but everyone is worried about what’s going to happen at the country’s next election, in our absence. There are about fifty militia groups in Iraq.
Bacevich: Are they all anti-government?
Jayamaha: No, no. They are part of the Iraqi security architecture. But they have their own interests, and they are aligned with political parties. Think about that. Every political party has its own armed force. How is that gonna work out? Now, at the moment there is a strange dynamic in Iraq. We are there and the Iranians are there. Iraqi politicians are in the middle, and they feel safe. But how is this going to evolve when we leave? During 2006 and 2007, many Iraqi Sunnis who had allied with Al Qaeda realized that we were better to work with than those nutjobs, and so they switched over to us. Then the Iranians came in, and got in the middle of domestic Iraqi Shia politics. Now there is an election coming, and there are some Sunnis and Shiites who cannot stand the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps officers lording it over them. They like to have us around and would like to use us as a hedge against the Iranians. But thus far, we have not made any credible public comment about whether we are staying or leaving. I have no idea whether we plan to get out. Or, if we stay in, what the objective is.
Daddis: When we discuss this question of whether we can eventually win, we have to be careful not to misuse history—particularly military history.
Bacevich: Says the historian.
Daddis: I had to. Look, we still find alluring this Great Man approach to history. I think that leads to a false sense of optimism about what the future holds. When we look back to Vietnam, we still find compelling this narrative that the wrong general with the wrong strategy—like William Westmoreland—was losing the war, and then a good general with a good strategy came in and won the war. We want to believe that an American who is culturally attuned, who has a better way, can come in and give us a path to victory. Because we are Americans and we are exceptional. I think that explains the popularity of Max Boot’s new book on Edward Lansdale, The Road Not Taken, in which he argues that had Lansdale’s views been embraced by political leaders in South Vietnam and by senior American military officers, things might have turned out quite differently.
Bacevich: The expectation of a savior general has a complement: the expectation of a savior in chief. It’s the idea that a civilian leader with foresight and an equally wise military leader can take all these problems and somehow solve them—that the management of war can be top-down. What I remember being taught about war is that it’s chaos. Fog and friction are omnipresent. It is utterly, totally disorganized. With so much happening at so many levels, the notion that war can somehow be harnessed or controlled is a pernicious falsehood.
Daddis: We Americans want to believe it is a management problem.
Bacevich: That’s right. “Give me a good president, give me a good general, and by golly, we can fix this!”
Jayamaha: Think of the situation in Iraq and Syria today. Your argument doesn’t really hold. Do you even know who the commanding general is for Operation Inherent Resolve?
Bacevich: You’re right. I don’t know. But my point is that expecting some smart general to fix things removes the responsibility from citizens to say, “We’re almost seventeen years into this war. What the hell are we doing?”
Dempsey: We’re so enamored by generals that the president can just say, “I’ve unleashed these guys—to do more bombing, to bring us victory.” But do you think Trump is going to hold the bag two years from now when we’ve made little progress? He’ll put it on the military. Then the military will say they were just following orders and made progress “militarily”—whatever that means.
Bacevich: It’s going to end up being Mattis’s war.
Dempsey: That’s how the narrative is going to work out.
Kreps: Eventually the narrative is going to morph into, “This isn’t really a war.” You probably know the military historian Peter Mansoor. His model for this is Korea. We’ve been in Korea for almost seventy years.
Bacevich: But Trump told the people whose votes he was soliciting that he would bring great change.
Sjursen: He is being pulled in all directions by his generals.
Kreps: I don’t see Trump in any of this.
Bacevich: He lacks the necessary attention span?
Dempsey: He’s almost irrelevant to the argument. He was probably faced with, “Do you want to be seen as a loser, or do you want to just keep bombing for a couple of years? And keep bragging about how great you are?”
Daddis: In this case, I wish Trump had embraced the populist platform on which he ran and more forcefully contested the framework around which this forever-war concept is built.
Jayamaha: Why would Trump want to take the initiative to get out of these wars? That has a cost. There is no cost when you don’t decide.