So now we know that which many of us long surmised. The generals lied, repeatedly; in fact, the whole damn Afghan War was a lie. I wish I could take some pleasure in the vindication, but I can’t seem conjure any. Too many of my own boys died in, or took their own lives after, that ongoing nightmare of a war. Deep melancholy seems, for an Afghan veteran, the only appropriate response. No amount of “I-told-you-so’s” will bring back the 2,440 American soldiers, and more than 30,000 Afghan civilians who’ve perished (so far), in that aimless, endless conflict.
What, then, can one learn from The Washington Post’s recent release of the Afghanistan Papers? Perhaps this: Forever war is a bipartisan enterprise (the lies spanned three administrations) and more importantly, the time has come to stop trusting the generals—although I’m not sure we Americans ever will. The latest revelations most certainly count as the (remarkably similar) Vietnam-era, Pentagon Papers of my generation.
In 1971, there was a large, active antiwar movement in the streets, and Daniel Ellsberg’s leaked documents enflamed it. Today, in the absence of a broad military draft, and with President Trump’s impeachment-as-entertainment hearings dominating the media, I doubt the Afghanistan Papers will amount to much in the way of results.
If, as an activist-writer, I felt a touch vindicated, and as a career soldier, I felt sad, then as a historian, I can’t say I was surprised by the Post’s disclosure. Back in the Vietnam War, successive commanding generals—most famously William Westmoreland just before the massive enemy Tet Offensive—had assured the White House and the American public that there was “light at the end” of the conflict’s “tunnel.”
Similarly, throughout the Afghan War, and across all the countless theaters of America’s expansive post-9/11 theaters, literally dozens of generals provided optimistic predictions that the U.S. military had “turned the corner.” For almost two decades, Washington insiders and an entertained-to-death public took the resplendently dressed, strong-jawed flag officers at their word. The Afghanistan Papers should, but probably won’t, break the spell.
In the wake of the revelations, the most famous Afghan War commander, former four-star general and CIA Director David Petraeus, couldn’t help but take the bait and self-righteously defend himself within a day. His defense made me want to vomit in my mouth a bit. “I stand by the assessments I provided as the commander in Afghanistan,” Petraeus said in a statement emailed to The Daily Beast. He said he believes “the security gains, while very hard fought and fragile, were indisputable. We clearly reversed the momentum the Taliban had on the battlefield.”
Is he serious?
The self-styled intellectual, “enlightened” general sounds, in this mea culpa, like a defensive, impetuous child. Just as “King David” never divined that his own stated purpose in the Iraq surge—to create space and time for an ethno-sectarian political settlement—hadn’t come to pass, he can’t seem to admit that a temporary lull in Taliban violence was irrelevant. Sorry, general, but if Afghanistan is worse off today than it was when you left, well then, your pet counterinsurgency strategy—by its very definition—failed. You lost … deal with it. The whole damn military, myself included, lost.
Sure, maybe I do have a vendetta, of sorts, against Petraeus. Why shouldn’t I? I met the prima donna general back in mid-2007 in Iraq. In preparation for his visit, my squadron set up for hours, repeatedly practiced our stock briefings, so he could proceed to pay no attention to us as he devoured the snacks we’d prepared—“the general loves fresh fruit,” one of his aides had told me—then treat us to one of his anodyne, canned lectures on counterinsurgency theory.
On a grander scale, Petraeus must stand as the biggest, most unapologetic villain of all. No one better personifies the gilded military culture of the “terror wars.” Under his carefully self-promoted veneer lay defeat in the two wars he led, his wrong-on-all-counts Vietnam War Ph.D., and a profound moral scandal—a criminal conviction for sharing classified data with his young mistress-come-biographer. Symbolically, at least, Petraeus is the forever war.
Nonetheless, he’s not the only vacuous general or senior intelligence official to blow smoke up our proverbial you-know-what’s. Consider recently retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford. It wasn’t too long ago that this clown—in an impressively Orwellian stretch of the English language—claimed it was “premature” (after 18 years!) to discuss withdrawal from Afghanistan. Let that sink in. The hard truth is, all of us officers in that war were complicit—up and down the chain of command—by deceiving each other about the “progress” on the ground.
To please the bosses, keep them away from my outpost and protect my troopers, I, too, played the game.
Promotions, especially for general officer careers built on the terror wars, depended on the illusion of success. Senior colonels and budding flag officers had a status, and a pecuniary interest in reporting improvement in their sectors. The Afghanistan Papers prove, indisputably, that the generals lied to us. But it’s far more complicated (and unsettling) than all that. I truly believe they also lied to each other, to themselves. They had to believe, wanted to believe, needed to believe, that their wars could be won. A good number graduated from West Point, where we were forced to memorize General Douglas MacArthur’s famous mantra: “There is no substitute for victory.”
Seen in that light, the entire war was, for those who led it, one grand delusion. Thus, when the statistical measures of effectiveness—unsustainable Afghan Army casualties and the number of districts contested by the Taliban—proved inconvenient, the generals had them classified, or they simply quit counting. Perhaps that’s why it took The Washington Post so long to compile these documents; to force the U.S. government to release them.
Yet there’s something else at work here that society must grapple with: Why are Americans so apt to trust the generals when, throughout modern U.S. history, they’ve been wrong time and again? I, for one, blame the contemporary (post-Vietnam) penchant for—rather dangerous—public military adulation.
Take, for example, the charade that is generals’ testimony before Congress. Whether it’s Petraeus—who absolutely reveled in the spotlight—or another senior general, the military man shows up in an intimidating dress uniform replete with a “fruit salad” chest-full of superfluous medals. Frankly, they look sharper than the poor schlub legislators attired like country lawyers. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, when those congresspeople veritably kowtow before the generals–fawningly “thanking” them for their service both before and after they are questioned.
It is not supposed to be that way. Congresspeople are the bosses. The generals are supposed to answer to them, and by extension, to the People. Legislative oversight, hearings and questioning, are by design meant to be like legal trials, confrontational. So, assuming it’s the fancy uniforms intimidating the congresspeople, I’ve got a ready proposal: Until further notice, generals summoned to Capitol Hill must wear rumpled, ill-fitting, Bernie-style civilian suits. Let them win a few wars and speak some hard truths before they earn their snazzy attire back.
By the way, there’s precedent for this. In a far more modest era, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall—architect of victory in World War II—wore civilian clothes at government meetings in Washington, D.C., declaring: “I didn’t want to antagonize the public and the Congress with the easily aroused feelings toward the military that always existed.” Let us bring back a tad bit of that humility.
I, for one, doubt that I’ll ever again trust the assertions and promises of most generals. And I’m not in bad company. Recall that some 56 years ago, President John F. Kennedy, himself a heroic young officer in the Second World War, mistrusted his senior military advisers. After they, to a man, all recommended outrageously pugnacious policies almost certain to cause worldwide nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK flippantly—but correctly—reflected that “These brass hats have one great advantage in their favor. If we listen to them, and do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong.”
Will we never learn?
Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen