Review – Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars

BolgerWhy We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars by Daniel Bolger. Kindle Edition, 565 pages. Published November 11, 2014 by Mariner Books. ASIN: B00KEWAP04

I first published this on Goodreads back in 2014. Someone recently liked it, and the notification caused me to go back and reread it. I’m a little proud of it, so I’m republishing here.

LTG Bolger’s review of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is disappointing. The title is a bait and switch–promising an examination of the strategic failures of these two wars but offering largely anecdotes of ground-level combat. The stories of the battles are told in greater depth and with more personal observation by those who actually fought them. Bolger commanded large organizations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and his reputation within the Army combined with this book’s pre-publication media blitz led me to hope for a serious insider discussion of the strategic choices that left us where we are today.

Instead, Bolger offers, to the extent he has a thesis at all, a recapitulation of the Weinberger-Powell doctrine of quick, decisive force with a clear exit stategy. The prescription is appealing to those who experienced the euphoria of the quick, Gulf War “victory,” but it fails to address our continued tendency to land in wars that do not fit neatly into our preconceptions. Bolger even acknowledges that the Gulf War “victory” was a strategic illusion. If so, then his preferred method of warfare failed to achieve its political ends. Bolger, like so many U.S. security pundits, does a great job of identifying the failures in our post-Cold War strategy without offering any real insight into how to do better.

The U.S. today must deal with a frustrating paradox: we are the wealthiest country in the world and expend more resources on defense than the next 14-15 countries combined. All things being equal, we would expect to be superior in whatever military arena we choose to emphasize. This is an extremely effective strategy for deterring conventional threats from rival nation states. However, we cannot expect any adversary to challenge us in our arena of greatest strength. Developing overwhelming capability in conventional military operations will not eliminate opponents; it will drive our opponents to employ asymmetric techniques like flying IEDs and people’s war. The more effective the U.S. military is at conventional warfare, the less likely we are to engage in conventional warfare. Asymmetric means are very costly to our opponents, but a few will still be willing to employ them, particularly when their survival depends upon it.

Despite our preparation and predilection for maneuver warfare, we have ended up confronting asymmetric threats in Vietnam, El Salvador, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Philipines, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Pakistan, and Yemen. We have been successful where opponents have failed to maximize their strengths against our weaknesses. We have largely failed where our opponents have proven resilient, persistent, and used safe havens. It is all well and good to say we should not engage in nation-building that might lead to counterinsurgency, but our repeated failure to heed that advice requires us to either embed it in our political process or rethink our strategy, doctrine, manning, and equipping.

Modern conventional warfare requires few people and lots of expensive technology–largely due to choices the United States has made about equipping and training our forces. Our conventional forces are roughly equal or even greater in capability to the “special forces” fielded by other nations or by our own in the past. Even the United States cannot maintain both a very large military relative to our population and equip/train it to the levels we have come to expect. Superbly competent infantry have proven invaluable in tactical counterinsurgency just as superbly competent combined arms formations facilitated the rapid overthrow of Iraq. However, the size of our military, particularly the ground forces, has continually limited our reach and therefore our capability to control populations–the essential function of counterinsurgency. Manning a larger ground force at the current levels of training and equipping is prohibitively expensive in the absence of more significant threats than we currently face.

We have two reasonable courses of action going forward, but each involves significant tradeoffs.

We can continue on the current road of high-tech mastery. It will cost us a lot of money and leave us without an effective means to control foreign populations over long periods of time. If we build a national strategy around defending U.S. territory and vital national interests and leaving the rest of the world to muddle through their internal issues, this could work. It will frustrate those who do not differentiate between amounts of military power and types of military power. Recent history indicates we will continue using our superb hammer to drive screws with predictable results.

We can taper off our addiction to high technology. Paradoxically, this may position us better for some future great power war. We could start day one with lots of room for growth and lots of R&D but few sunk costs. Currently, we have enormous sunk costs and had better hope that we bought the right stuff. We have not demonstrated much capability for adapting quickly after the shooting starts. With less money spent on hardware, and I would argue additional tapering on per-person personnel expenses, we could afford a larger military that would be perfectly adequate for defending U.S. territory and vital interests, provide adequate manpower to occupy other countries if necessary, and remain more connected to the civilian population. It would NOT deliver lightning fast and bloodless victories in future Desert Storms. We would pay in casualties to some extent because we would be fielding a military of adequately-equipped citizen soldiers rather than superbly equipped/trained operators. Ask the guys in the Huertgen Forest how that can turn out.

LTG Bolger never really addresses the strategic paradox that put us in this position in the first place. If he is willing to stand up in the public square and loudly oppose future military operations to shape the world to our liking in the absence of existential or at least deadly serious threats, I will stand right there beside him. If not, then perhaps the problem lies not only in our decisions to fight such wars but in the institutional military’s refusal to prepare for them.

Here is one area of praise for the book. Bolger lays squarely on the general officer corps the responsibility for not arguing the case against the Iraq invasion and the Afghan nation-building. He essentially calls his fellow generals moral cowards as a group. Unfortunately, he undermines his own point by praising individually nearly every general he names. Only David Petraeus comes in for anything approaching personal attack. The other generals are all smarter than the press gave them credit for. They all see clearly (even though they see differently). When they fail it’s because they were too trusting or too honest. He conspicuously avoids naming those generals who deserve particular and unmitigated condemnation. Likewise, Bolger finds admiration for some of the less savory characters of the wars. He praises COL Mike Steele and implies that he was treated unfairly. Bolger clearly loathes the rules of engagement imposed in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but he completely fails to address the historical precedents–we tried unfettered strikes and high collateral damage in Vietnam. How did that work out? He acknowledges war crimes by various lower-ranking U.S. service members but either poo-poos them as mostly harmless shenanigans (Abu Ghraib) or emphasizes the tremendous pressures that must have led good-hearted American boys and girls to such lengths (Mahmudiah, Haditha).

Why We Lost essentially argues that we lost because we played. Bolger praises the courageous efforts of American service members and junior to mid-grade leaders. He condemns the general officers as a body (though not individually). In the end, however, he offers no path forward. To the extent he hints at a prescription, it is one that has been tried and found wanting. The U.S. has become the indispensable nation. Too many political blocs within the U.S. are unwilling to simply accept a world that does not conform to our desires. Unless that culture changes in the near future, the military will have to build itself for the world in which it lives–not the world in which it would like to live. Incompetent and purely evil opponents will not line themselves up in countries with U.S. ally neighbors and offer to fight us mano-a-mano. The last guy who did that ended up on the end of a rope.


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