A General’s Regrets
Review: Daniel P. Bolger’s ‘Why We Lost’
Militants from the al Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) celebrate the group’s declaration of an Islamic state, in Fallujah
Militants from the al Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) celebrate the group’s declaration of an Islamic state, in Fallujah / AP
BY: Wayne Hsieh
January 3, 2015 5:00 am
Daniel P. Bolger’s Why We Lost starts off as a bracing confessional: “I am a United States Army General, and I lost the Global War on terrorism. It’s like Alcoholics Anonymous; step one is admitting you have a problem. Well, I have a problem. So do my peers.”
Bolger finds among uniformed American military leaders, including himself, “poor strategic and operational leadership”—a damning statement since such skills are the special domain of these men. Reflecting the military’s tradition and ethic of command responsibility, he forthrightly declares the eighty losses under his various commands “all my fault.” After this penitent declaration, however, the book becomes both more and less than a memoir castigating American military leaders. Instead, what emerges is a first-draft history of America’s still ongoing post-9/11 wars, which benefits from both Bolger’s self-effacing military ethic and his academic training at the University of Chicago, where he received a doctorate in History.
While judicious and balanced in its treatment of these complex conflicts, Why We Lost never quite escapes Bolger’s own professional background as a senior U.S. Army officer, and the complex internal dynamics of the regions in which Bolger fought his wars do not receive the crisp analysis they deserve. Most importantly, the larger Arab Spring and its nightmarish consequences never fully factor into Why We Lost (although mentioned, ISIS’ recent rampages were obviously too recent to receive full treatment from Bolger).
Such a discussion would greatly complicate Bolger’s most important claim—that the greatest failing of American military leaders was to not forthrightly call for the United States to immediately depart both Afghanistan and Iraq after scoring early victories in the conventional military operations at which the United States most excels. Whatever one thinks of the Obama Administration’s decision to not push harder for a substantial American military presence in Iraq after 2011, it is hard to believe that a swift American departure would have left behind a durable enough Iraqi state to withstand the tumults triggered by what has become the Arab Winter, and which could thus avoid becoming a safe-haven for terrorism targeting the United States.
Furthermore, for those who believe the 2003 invasion of Iraq either villainous or incompetent (or both), Bolger himself ably portrays the invasion as an understandable reaction to the chaotic circumstances following 9/11. Indeed, Bolger’s own narrative account of the U.S. war in Iraq seems to undermine at times his own argument that the whole project was preordained to failure. Take, for example, his optimistic treatment of the state of affairs in late 2005 and early 2006, before the bombing of the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, and the importance he ascribes to the latter to triggering the sectarian carnage of 2006 and 2007.
If individual acts (in this case a terrorist attack masterminded by a Jordanian extremist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) have such weight, then surely sectarianism need not have doomed Iraq to years of brutal ethnic cleansing? After all, the al-Askari Mosque had long stood as a Shia shrine in a sea of Sunnis, relatively unmolested until it was demolished by an extremist foreigner. Never mind the relatively calm years following the Surge, compromised to large degree by the tumult in Syria, Iranian meddling, and the misguided decisions of Iraq’s own political leaders—factors that might have been mitigated by inspired and effective diplomatic and military assistance from the United States. Finally, the Obama Administration’s slowly escalating re-commitment of American military resources in Iraq, and its entrance into the new theater of Syria shows how even a White House determined to avoid the tribulations of the Middle East may find itself drawn into such troubles against its own inclinations.
While Bolger argues that the destruction of Al Qaeda’s centralized leadership structure (culminating in Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALs) should be a proper limit of a sensible military strategy focused on counterterrorism, the Islamic State has displayed some of the shortcomings of relying on special operations forces and drone strikes. The radicalization via social media of thousands of young men—and even some young women—holding western passports does not seem amenable to solutions focused on tightly targeted counterterrorism measures.
And what of Afghanistan, which at the moment seems to be free of dangerous threats to the US homeland? In his treatment of Afghanistan, Bolger especially faults American military leaders for not providing a credible counterterrorism option during the Obama administration’s first major strategic review of US policy in 2009. While one cannot help but admire Bolger’s unwillingness to scapegoat civilian leaders for the US military’s own internal failings, the Obama administration early in its tenure never gave a coherent sense it wanted a real alternative to the nation building and large commitment of resources Bolger saw as misguided, despite the President’s own skepticism regarding the Afghan surge.
No one compelled the White House to retain a Republican secretary of defense obviously committed to Stanley McChrystal’s proposed increases in US commitments, or to install a counterinsurgency advocate such as Michèle Flournoy into a senior Pentagon posting. Such was the policy incoherence in the White House that according to media reports, it recently floated the prospect of Flournoy for the position of Secretary of Defense, which she swiftly shot down—this despite Flournoy’s past support for a substantial residual force in Iraq and for the Afghan surge, the former a policy option the White House continues to repudiate, and the latter one which it seems to regret.
Considering his scathing condemnation of American military leadership in his preface, it is curious that the book is largely free of more specific criticism of general officers. The portion of the book devoted to Afghanistan is the only part of his larger narrative that criticizes an American general officer, McChrystal, for specific errors of judgment beyond the acceptance of a strategy of nation-building and long-term commitments of large numbers of US forces to Muslim countries.
Even then, while Bolger sharply critiques McChrystal’s restrictions on US troops’ use of firepower while fighting the Taliban, his portrayal remains deeply sympathetic. Bolger at one point compares George Casey, who presided over Iraq’s descent into sectarian chaos in 2006, to Ulysses S. Grant, while even the much-maligned Ricardo Sanchez appears more a victim of impossible circumstances than anything else. Bolger at times reveals to the reader the hidden undercurrent of resentment among some quarters of the U.S. military to David Petraeus’ famed ambition, but he also makes clear his admiration for King David’s abilities and inimitable talents. The only American general who receives a truly unkind word in the entire book is the author himself, which speaks well of Bolger’s character as a leader and officer, but not so well of his ability to grain critical distance from his professional peers.
Bolger’s book remains an important one—a testament to the frustrations and complexities of more than a decade of war after 9/11, the end of which remains out of sight. Its narrative method of mixing vignettes at the tactical level with larger big-picture analysis provides real insights, and its absence of over-pious moralizing and Monday-morning quarterbacking is refreshing. For readers unfamiliar with these wars, its honesty about the grim realities of combat and its absence of partisan rancor will prove especially valuable. But as Bolger himself admits, the young men and women who served at the sharp end of the spear, sometimes under his own command, will be far more able to process the lessons of these wars than his own generation. This book, however, will help that generation begin this important process.
Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh is an associate professor at the United States Naval Academy, where he teaches military history. He helped conduct counterinsurgency operations at the district level as a State Department political officer in Iraq in 2008 and 2009.
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