Book review – Why We Lost:

A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars by Lieutenant General Daniel Bolger (U.S. Army Retired)
Daniel 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. And thanks to our problem, now all of America has a problem. To wit: two lost campaigns and a war gone awry.”
Bolger places the blame for ‘why we lost’ not to any particular person or persons, decision or event but at the feet of U.S. generalship – his peers. “Above tactical excellence yawned a howling waste”, Bolger laments. Typically such criticism comes from lower ranking officers or in time from historians. Bolger seems an unlikely source for such an assessment and I’m pretty sure that he didn’t secure an agreement on such a confession from all his general officer peers.
Bolger served in Iraq from 2005 to 2006 as the officer in charge of training the Iraqi army, and then from 2009 to 2010 as commanding general of the 1st Cavalry Division. After that, from 2011 to 2013, he led the U.S.-NATO mission training the Afghan army and police. He holds a doctorate in history and has written several military histories. He speaks his mind, comparing himself to Gen. Joseph ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell of World War II fame, who was known for his coarse personality.
Why We Lost is neither a memoir nor a window into high-level meetings and discussions. It is largely a casual open source history, U.S. centric and well-padded with heartfelt stories of erstwhile soldiers and Marines in firefights and other challenging circumstances. It does not, however, clearly identify the key reasons ‘why we lost’, or even establishes that ‘we’ have indeed ‘lost’ (vice having shortfalls in meeting the original objectives).
Bolger’s honesty is refreshing but his prose at times reads like an exercise in introspection and venting personal frustration – something a psychologist would suggest a patient does to expunge demons. In measured doses, self-flagellation cleanses and clarifies but placing all the blame on America’s generals lets too many others off the hook. There is always a risk that professional military advice to politicians becomes ‘politicised’ or compromised to some degree; particularly in the more challenging circumstances involving insurgencies and nation-building as we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is little doubt that both of these ‘projects’ required much more than just a military response. Perhaps Bolger should have asked “What is the U.S. and its allies seeking to achieve in the Middle East and to what extent can the military contribute to that enterprise?” Of course, that question is not for generals alone to answer. It rightly belongs to elected and appointed officials.
Despite his thesis regarding a failure of generalship writ large, with a single exception, he describes the three- and four-star officers who have run those wars as “decent and well-meaning”; perhaps damning them with the absence of terms like intelligent, bold or courageous. That exception is David Petraeus, who Bolger clearly loathes. “Petraeus was all about Petraeus,” Bolger writes. He was a charter member of “the careerist self-promotion society that hung out near the military throne rooms.” “King David” excelled at selling – mostly himself, but also for a time the Iraq war. Toward that end, he assiduously cultivated journalists, academics and members of Congress, who spread his message “like docile carrier pigeons.”
Bolger’s strategic case is that the U.S. military should have gotten out of Afghanistan and Iraq as quickly as possible after the combat-operations phases and never started down the road of counter-insurgency and nation-building. He believes that ‘we lost’ largely because our generals never argued vigorously for this course of action: “Over time, piece by piece, the generals recommended slogging onward, taking on two unlimited irregular conflicts.” I think in many respects this is exactly what did happen in Afghanistan with the draw down in 2002 and transition to NATO leadership, and I’m not convinced that this was a realistic course of action in Iraq circa 2004.
Why We Lost weighs significantly into the ongoing debate over how the U.S. should wage war. Bolger wrestles with defining the nature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In both cases from the external interveners perspective there seems to have been a distinct combat operations phase to remove two governments, followed by a ‘post-combat/counter-insurgency/reconstruction/ stabilisation/nation-building’ phase. Within the second phase there have been insurgencies against the two new governments ‘playing host to an semi-imperial occupier’, as well as ‘civil wars’ between different ethnic and religious groups within both countries. Bolger recognises that this type of post-combat/ counter-insurgency/reconstruction/ stabilisation/nation-building actions are complex, difficult and expensive, and require a long-term commitment in support of a legitimate host-nation government. Bolger believes that given the circumstances in Afghanistan and Iraq the objectives for this second phase were preordained to failure from the outset. He may be right, but such a judgement is much easier in hindsight.
Bolger argues that the U.S. military is not designed or suited to post-combat/counter-insurgency/ reconstruction/ stabilisation/nation-building operations and should focus on short conventional combat operations against a clearly-defined enemy force. This is almost identical to the perspective in the U.S. military after the war in South Vietnam and which saw the organisation eschew military operations other than ‘real’ war for the better part of three decades.
In a couple of instances Bolger seems to espouse the view that ‘we lost’ because not enough force was being applied – largely in response to complaints of civilian casualties from the Karzai government. “Many of the average Pashtuns…accepted that in a war, innocent people sometimes get killed. Afghans would never love the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), but they might well fear and respect the occupiers.” Here Bolger seems to revert, disturbingly, to a misplaced imperial or colonial mindset.
Bolger’s language is sometimes too casual and his charges often unsubstantiated with evidence or examples. As the book goes on, the Vinegar Joe tone wears on the reader. Red Cross workers are “international do-gooders.” On President Obama, Bolger is unfair: “The thoughtful, deliberate U.S. president thoughtfully and deliberately condemned Americans in uniform to years of deadly, pointless counterinsurgency patrols.” On former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, he is simply offensive: “Karzai’s writ ran to the outskirts of Kabul…At least his obnoxious half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai was no more, having been assassinated.” Bolger also repeatedly refers to Clausewitz’s friction and Sun Tzu’s dictums in an effort to explain the nature of the wars; but almost to the point of banality.
In the early stages of Why We Lost Bolger states that the so-called Global War on Terror has ‘gone awry’ but the book focusses almost exclusively on the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Other counter-terrorism actions around the world are only peripherally mentioned. While ‘victory’ has remained elusive in those military-centric actions, there has been more success in global coordination in the intelligence, finance, legal and policing (i.e. non-military) realms against terrorism.
The recent re-intervention in Iraq and the conclusion of the ISAF combat operations in Afghanistan has given rise to a lot of questioning and soul-searching. Americans in particular are thinking afresh about the world and their place in it. As U.S and coalition military forces, including Australians, once again go to war in Iraq and stretch out their withdrawal from Afghanistan it is certainly worth thinking deeply about the nature of the wars we are participating in.
Bolger’s book is 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. But as Bolger himself admits, the young men and women who served at the sharp end will be far more able to process the lessons of these wars than his own generation. This book is worth reading and will hopefully help that generation begin this necessary and important process.

Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 2014; 544 pp.; ISBN 9780544370487;

RRP US$20.97 (hardcover)

Contact Marcus Fielding about this article.

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