“I am a United States Army general, and I lost the Global War on Terrorism.”
These are the opening lines of retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger’s book, “Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.” Bolger teaches military history at N.C. State.
“No U.S. general has criticized the Iraq and Afghanistan wars more sharply” than Bolger, wrote reviewer Carter Malkasian in The Washington Post.
Continuing the shocking opening words of his book, Bolger writes, “It’s like Alcoholics Anonymous; step one is admitting you have a problem. Well, I have a problem. So do my peers. And thanks to our problem, now all of America has a problem, to wit: two lost campaigns and a war gone awry.”
With President Obama’s decision to send 450 more U.S. troops to Iraq, Bolger’s acceptance of responsibility and his explanation of “why we lost” are extremely timely.
Just what did Bolger and the other generals do wrong in Afghanistan and Iraq? You do not have to read all 500 pages of “Why We Lost” to understand Bolger’s explanation. He makes his point in just a few pages in the book’s epilogue.
He writes, “Despite the unmatched courage of those in U.S. uniform — including a good number of generals who led their people under fire — our generals did not stumble due to a lack of intellect. Rather, we faltered due to a distinct lack of humility. Certain we knew best, confident our skilled troops would prevail, we persisted in a failed course for far too long and came up well short, to the detriment of our trusting countrymen.”
This failed course was the military’s nation-building efforts based on a counterinsurgency strategy. But, writes Bolger, “Counterinsurgency works if the intervening country demonstrates the will to remain forever.”
He continues, “Once it becomes clear that the external forces won’t stay past a certain date, the guerrillas simply back off and wait it out.
“We did not understand our enemies. Indeed, drawn into nasty local feuds, we took on too many diverse foes, sometimes confusing opponents with supporters and vice versa. Then we compounded that ignorance by using our conventionally trained military to comb through hostile villages looking for insurgents.”
Throughout the extended operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bolger says there were always only three options: “Stay the course. Add forces. Pull out. Over time, in both countries, all three approaches were tried. Only the third one, pulling out, worked, and that in the finite sense that it ended U.S. involvement. But it left both friends and foes behind, sowing the seeds for future troubles.”
The question remains. Why does Bolger blame himself and the other generals for losing the war on terrorism? Were not all these decisions made by the country’s civilian leadership?
Here is his answer. “The record to date shows that no senior officers argued for withdrawal. Instead, like Lee at Gettysburg, overly impressed by U.S. military capabilities and our superb volunteers, commander after commander, generals up and down the chain, kept right on going. We trusted our invincible men and women to figure it out and rebuild two shattered Muslim countries and do so under fire from enraged locals.”
The question remains for Bolger and for President Obama.
Are we doing the same thing again?
One more thing, if you skip the first 400 pages of “Why We Lost,” you will miss gripping, disturbing and inspiring accounts of the incredible performance of U.S. troops in the most challenging and ambiguous situations.
These pages should be required reading for any president or presidential candidate who proposes sending American troops again to fight an extended counterinsurgency war.
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.