The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History Of The War
Craig Whitlock. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021. 346 pp. Map. Notes. Index. $20.
Humane: How The United States Abandoned Peace And Reinvented War
Samuel Moyn. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2021. 400 pp. Notes. Index. $25.
Two books. The first reveals the true nature of our Afghanistan adventure just ended. The second puts that conflict into the broader context of war itself as we have come to define it. Both are masterful writings highly relevant to understanding today’s U.S. military. Together, they chronicle what the military did and why it did it that way.
The United States’ recent wars give pause; the powerful U.S. Army twice defeated by small bands of ill-equipped irregulars.
Reading Craig Whitlock’s The Afghanistan Papers (you should), one sees in their public discourse an Army and three presidential administrations more interested in happy talk than honest appraisal. A question of honor obtains: One should not lie to Congress or the American people, and many did, for many years.
In sealed oral histories and after-action reports that Whitlock fought to get through Freedom of Information Act lawsuits, one finds candor about the struggle on the ground in America’s longest war. In dark moments of stark honesty, the generals and majors and sergeants do show they were aware that they did not know what they were doing. But there has followed little Army introspection on why it failed in Afghanistan (and by extension, in Iraq).
Let me help. I offer two reasons our land-war behemoth was twice trounced.
First is the Army’s failure to take counterinsurgency (COIN) seriously. Whatever the lip service to COIN and its children, operational art—the critical layer between military strategy and tactics—is devoid of useful guidance on how to deal with insurgents and guerrillas in their native environment.
U.S. counterinsurgency efforts failed in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Especially in the latter two conflicts, the United States put the task of figuring all this out on junior officers and the strategic corporals (marvelous phrase) beneath them after they got in-country. On their own. No useful doctrine. No consistent or capable leadership.
Great credit to these young soldiers. They fought hard, and most came to some understanding of the war they were in. But then, tour up, they rotated back stateside, turning the puzzle over to the next set of neophytes.
Their leaders in the chain above them followed the same pattern: arrive; try to figure it out; make some progress; leave.
Neither in Iraq nor Afghanistan could the United States define victory or describe consistent means and methods to obtain it. Operational art for low-intensity combat is a watery doctrine devoid of useful content.
The second reason the Army could not succeed in Afghanistan lies in the all-volunteer force (AVF). After the Army failed in Vietnam, it invented the AVF to cure the draft-dependent Army’s shortcomings with a supposedly more able volunteer force. But the AVF is zero-for-two in wars this century. It does not win. It cannot prevail. The AVF is an incapable fighting force.
Perhaps, though, there might be an even deeper failure here: Should the United States have been in these two wars in the first place? I will not pursue the tired (but correct) questions of why the U.S. military went to Iraq or how that misadventure snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Afghanistan. No; the question is whether the United States would have gone into Iraq or lingered an extra 19 years in Afghanistan if the AVF did not exist and it had to call the draft to fight these wars.
And beneath this question an even more compelling quandary: Do our military leaders misunderstand the true nature of war itself?
Samuel Moyn, Henry R. Luce Professor of Jurisprudence at Yale Law School, takes up this question in his brilliant new book Humane, one that all students of war should read. In it, he traces the lengthy path of war’s definition, juxtaposing two conflicting concepts as each has evolved from the time of Tolstoy and the Crimean War through to today and the Biden administration.
Concept one: War is inevitable, so let’s make it palatable. Warring nations should be obliged to craft and follow laws of war that honor humane rules and prohibitions. Do not target civilians. No torture. No harsh treatment of prisoners. Poison gas is out. Germ warfare, too. Etc.
Has the United Sates always honored the concept of humane war and its evolving rules? No, not if Dresden or Nagasaki are considered. Generally, and especially in the past, the U.S. military has taken a relaxed view of the rules of war, interpreting them as best favored desired actions.
But, increasingly, as Professor Moyn lays out in depth, the notion of a more humane form of inevitable war has come to define the Army’s conduct and its rules of engagement, especially after 9/11. Lawyers are now part of the battle force, telling commanders how the rules apply on the ground. And the result? The United States consciously chose to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan in a tightly constrained manner that, though certainly kinder and gentler, also stretched these meandering conflicts for so long that Army promotions and an increased Army budget came to mean more than prosecuting the wars successfully.
Compounding these flaws, having an Army of volunteers kept political pressure off the conduct of the war. After all, if it is not your kids putting their lives on the line, if Congress is never forced to take a stand, if the Commander-in-Chief has his own standing army to play with, what’s a few more bucks paid in taxes if it supports the troops?
Concept two: Give peace a chance. The alternative, competing concept of war says war is hell and should never be invoked absent a truly existential threat to the nation. Keep the peace, bringing to bear the other instruments of national power to solve international issues without bloodshed. But if the nation is deeply threatened, if it must go to war, then go all the way. Unconditional surrender. Win!
Of course this second approach—work for peace holding war only as a last resort—is well beyond the AVF. It cannot even win small wars. So, an all-out war would require a draft—the young conscripted to dangerous duty, even the sons and daughters of the powerful elite. It also needs full congressional approval and presidential leadership engaging the American public, elected leaders now exposed to some serious political risk. And the free-enterprise system will require massive war mobilization.
So, which definition of war should the United States use—all-out war, but only if that is the last option? Or humane war, constrained by rules? If the latter, is the nation okay with continual war if the size is small? Are combat sorties and targeted drone strikes and special-forces incursions the best way to deal with every potential threat?
Answer, with strong evidence in Moyn’s book: The United States picked humane war. This country likes war. It relies overwhelmingly on war. Forever war.
But having chosen humane war, the blunt question is this: Has the American Democracy become just an international belligerency choosing armed intervention as its primary instrument of national power and, from that, conducting combat operations wherever and whenever it wants?
Sadly, the answer seems yes.
This country tolerated the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because they were distant and did not stretch the nation too much. The nation convinced itself that it was conducting these wars in a humane fashion, forcing ourselves to fight that way in answer to a perceived national and international consensus that war is OK if fought nicely. Yes, it is doubtful the quarter-million-plus civilians who died in the conflicts or the 14 million displaced felt it was nice. But fine by the United States, even if, in the end it failed miserably, spending an estimated trillion dollars doing so. And the nation now continues, freely applying war’s deadly tools globally with little debate on why it wars.
Professor Moyn leads readers through his superb analysis of the two competing concepts of war, naming the key players and tracing the history to our present day, with special emphasis on the years after 9/11. As a student at The National War College and in my two years there on the faculty, I did not encounter a more nuanced and informed discussion of war’s very nature. It has a Clausewitzian flavor relevant to today’s U.S. military.