A General's Expose: War Is Not Worth It
November 24, 2014
Jim Hightower / Other Words & Daniel P. Bolger / The New York Times
Commentary: "As a senior commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, I lost 80 soldiers. Despite their sacrifices, and those of thousands more, all we have to show for it are two failed wars. This fact eats at me every day, and Veterans Day is tougher than most.... If insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, I think we're there."
The First Casualty of War
A truth-telling general admits that Washington got it wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan
Jim Hightower / Other Words
(November 19, 2014 ) -- Reflecting on World War I, California Senator Hiram Johnson famously said: "The first casualty when war comes is truth."
Actually, in America's recent wars, officials have slaughtered the truth even before the fighting. The Bush-Cheney regime hustled America into its Iraq escapade, for example, by snuffing out the truth about that country's weapons of mass destruction.
Just as immoral are the dishonest post-war claims of success. Officials always insist that their military adventure was worth all the lost lives and treasure, thus validating themselves and legitimizing the idea of going to war again and again.
Officialdom's routine mugging of the truth makes a recent bit of honesty from a three-star general seem all the more astonishing -- and gutsy.
General Daniel Bolger, a former senior commander of our forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan, dropped a bombshell in a recent New York Times op-ed. We sacrificed thousands of US soldiers, he said bluntly, and "all we have to show for it are two failed wars." [See Gen. Bolger's full essay below -- EAW.]
Recently retired, Bolger certainly isn't criticizing the troops. Instead, he's taking aim at the political leaders and the brass -- including himself -- who deploy them.
"I got it wrong," he writes. "Like my peers, I argued to stay the course." As a result, "we backed ourselves into a long-term counterinsurgency."
Bolger is especially furious about the spurious claim that Bush's 2007 troop surge "won the war" in Iraq.
"The surge in Iraq didn't ‘win' anything," he says, pointing out that the terrorists who were supposedly defeated are the very ones we're now at war with again -- only they're savvier, better armed, and more vicious.
Yet, insanely, some officials are pushing for another surge of ground troops. Do they really believe that repeating the same mistake will produce a different result?
OtherWords columnist Jim Hightower is a radio commentator, writer, and public speaker. He's also editor of the populist newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown. OtherWords.org
The Truth About the Wars
Daniel P. Bolger / The New York Times
(November 10, 2014) -- As a senior commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, I lost 80 soldiers. Despite their sacrifices, and those of thousands more, all we have to show for it are two failed wars. This fact eats at me every day, and Veterans Day is tougher than most.
As veterans, we tell ourselves it was all worth it. The grim butchery of war hovers out of sight and out of mind, an unwelcome guest at the dignified ceremonies. Instead, we talk of devotion to duty and noble sacrifice. We salute the soldiers at Omaha Beach, the sailors at Leyte Gulf, the airmen in the skies over Berlin and the Marines at the Chosin Reservoir, and we're not wrong to do so.
The military thrives on tales of valor. In our volunteer armed forces, such stirring examples keep bringing young men and women through the recruiters' door. As we used to say in the First Cavalry Division, they want to "live the legend." In the military, we love our legends.
Here's a legend that's going around these days. In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq and toppled a dictator. We botched the follow-through, and a vicious insurgency erupted. Four years later, we surged in fresh troops, adopted improved counterinsurgency tactics and won the war. And then dithering American politicians squandered the gains. It's a compelling story. But it's just that -- a story.
The surge in Iraq did not "win" anything. It bought time. It allowed us to kill some more bad guys and feel better about ourselves. But in the end, shackled to a corrupt, sectarian government in Baghdad and hobbled by our fellow Americans' unwillingness to commit to a fight lasting decades, the surge just forestalled today's stalemate.
Like a handful of aspirin gobbled by a fevered patient, the surge cooled the symptoms. But the underlying disease didn't go away. The remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Sunni insurgents we battled for more than eight years simply re-emerged this year as the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
The surge legend is soothing, especially for military commanders like me. We can convince ourselves that we did our part, and a few more diplomats or civilian leaders should have done theirs.
Similar myths no doubt comforted Americans who fought under the command of Robert E. Lee in the Civil War or William C. Westmoreland in Vietnam. But as a three-star general who spent four years trying to win this thing -- and failing -- I now know better.
We did not understand the enemy, a guerrilla network embedded in a quarrelsome, suspicious civilian population. We didn't understand our own forces, which are built for rapid, decisive conventional operations, not lingering, ill-defined counterinsurgencies. We're made for Desert Storm, not Vietnam.
As a general, I got it wrong. Like my peers, I argued to stay the course, to persist and persist, to "clear/hold/build" even as the "hold" stage stretched for months, and then years, with decades beckoning. We backed ourselves season by season into a long-term counterinsurgency in Iraq, then compounded it by doing likewise in Afghanistan. The American people had never signed up for that.
That said, those who served deserve an accounting from the generals. What happened? How? And, especially, why? It has to be a public assessment, nonpartisan and not left to the military. (We tend to grade ourselves on the curve.) Something along the lines of the 9/11 Commission is in order. We owe that to our veterans and our fellow citizens.
Such an accounting couldn't be more timely. Today we are hearing some, including those in uniform, argue for a robust ground offensive against the Islamic State in Iraq. Air attacks aren't enough, we're told. Our Kurdish and Iraqi Army allies are weak and incompetent. Only another surge can win the fight against this dire threat. Really? If insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, I think we're there.
As a veteran, and a general who learned hard lessons in two lost campaigns, I'd like to suggest an alternative. Maybe an incomplete and imperfect effort to contain the Islamic State is as good as it gets. Perhaps the best we can or should do is to keep it busy, "degrade" its forces, harry them or kill them, and seek the long game at the lowest possible cost. It's not a solution that is likely to spawn a legend. But in the real world, it just may well give us something better than another defeat.
Daniel P. Bolger, the author of "Why We Lost," retired from the United States Army last year as a lieutenant general.
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