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Michael Vlahos

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Did We Lose the War?

Posted: 09/07/11 05:18 PM ET

Official Disclaimer: This is my take, and mine alone.

I thought at least someone would ask the question. This is after all a solemn commemorative occasion. It is perhaps our only real moment for constructive reflection, because this anniversary also effectively marks the end of the war itself.

It is almost as though we collectively decided not to say it, and focus instead on a fitting and proper emotional memorial -- never the word, defeat.

But we will learn nothing and gain nothing from ten years of tragedy, waste, and ruin unless we face up to it. And facing up does not mean asking, "Did we win?" Not winning, as the coachman says in The Wizard of Oz, is a horse of a different color. It is for example the correct question to have asked at the end of the Korean War (Answer: No we did not win. But we did not lose either).

So how do we know we lost? The history of war shows us two stainless measures: One is emotional and one is objective. You have lost when you feel you have lost, no matter what you say in public. You have lost when your instruments of war fail to achieve your goals, and instead lead you to a place of strategic vulnerability and disadvantage -- when you are in a worse situation coming out of war than going in.

The 9/11 War is a straight-up defeat on both counts. Our nation today is depressed and disheartened and feels itself in steep decline. The US military -- the instrument we chose to achieve our goals -- not only failed to achieve them: Its very enterprise has led to a world situation of severe vulnerability and disadvantage to the United States.

Emotional defeat is a quick review because it is so visible and clear:

  • We feel weak. We were in budget surplus going into war, and now we are going to top 100 percent GDP debt very soon -- and a third of that will be paid to the war. Hence actual unemployment is at 1934 levels, and will hover there very much longer than it ever did after 1934.
  • We feel in decline. We feel China stole a march on us and we will never catch up. How we were startled by a report that China would surpass us by 2016, even though the message was couched in the deceptive measure of purchasing power parity. Yet we still feel like our time has passed.
  • We feel we have nothing to show for 200,000 casualties -- which must include the yet uncounted wounded by TBI, PTSD, and toxic dust. They will witness and testify for this war for decades to come.
  • We feel divided as a nation. Republicans believe Democrats are socialist "defeatocrats" and thus traitors to the American idea. Democrats believe Republicans are sweatshop-loving Scrooges whose worldview is closer to medieval Taliban than modern American ideals. The only belief both share is a judgment that national political leadership has failed. Utterly.

Naturally all this is voiced, cacophonously. It is just that the wild surround sound is not connected to the very thing that caused it: The war.

Objective defeat seems like the more difficult argument because it is so hotly denied. But the very denial of objective defeat actually makes it a stronger argument, because denial is in itself powerful evidence for the prosecution.

Evidence falls into three baskets: Did the use of military force achieve our goals? How well has the military adapted to difficulties and shortcomings? What is the military's concluding assessment?

  • Goals: The US Government has put forward many different war goals at different times and from different sources within Government. Yet the overarching goal announced in strategic initiation and six-year follow-through was twofold: The "transformation of the Middle East" into democratic polities according to US standards, and the extirpation of terrorism and its source, "violent extremism." Specific benchmark-goals within this strategic framework were the establishment of democratic polities in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the maintenance of "stability and security in the Greater Middle East" (US official policy since 1991).

    None of these goals has been achieved, and as a consequence of the Arab Spring, stability and security in the Greater Middle East has also been lost. Iraq and Afghanistan are not stable, let alone democratic polities. Violent extremism, as defined by US leadership (i.e., al-Ikhwan), is an increasingly powerful and legitimate force in Muslim politics. Indeed it can be argued that military force in the short term highly encouraged and hardened Islamist "extremism." In the longer term, because of the ways force was used to seduce occupied societies to adopt US political forms, our "kinetic" military administration encouraged wider popular revolution, even against "stable" tyrants that were America's most valued "friends and allies in the region."

  • Adaptation: The US military responded so slowly that its adaptation to military failure came too late to contain the dynamic surge of a changing Arab consciousness inspired by US military action. Moreover US military adaptation was operational rather than strategic -- meaning the military chose to try only a different palette of techniques to bring resistance to heel. This approach is called counterinsurgency (COIN). But COIN has been an utter failure in Afghanistan (COIN in Iraq was of the storybook variety). Why? Because COIN believes that a larger community's actively resistant consciousness can be broken by limited (even soft) techniques. Truth is that committed insurgent communities can be broken only through the slaughter or removal of military-age males and by placing the rest of the community in concentration camps. So far Americans have shown themselves incapable of wholeheartedly embracing such a strategy.

    Hence the US military adapted too little and too late. They also adopted the wrong approach. Honing our skills in 9-11-style COIN as advertised -- the occupation and administration of entire countries -- is waste. The American people will be unwilling to risk repeat defeat and debacle for the foreseeable future. But as to practical future courses of action, we can already see chaotic irregular environments awaiting us -- whose scale and horror in coming decades will not permit even the thought of another Iraq or Afghanistan.

  • Assessment: I know of no military person, fraternity, or institution willing to utter the forbidden word: Defeat. Instead we are all just moving ahead and leaving a bitter past behind. This is both a terrible strategic mistake and a potential national tragedy in the making. To be absolutely plain: Our military has been ineffective, in shocking contrast to initial war expectations. After 9/11 we worshiped our forces as Gods of War, and yet after ten years of heroic effort they could not meet even the most limited of US war goals. This is not to say that our soldiers did not do their utmost. Furthermore their sacrifice in itself represents a stern civic message to the 99 percent of Americans who stayed home and "went shopping."

    But their efforts achieved only marginal results. Even the shining narrative of "The Surge" was in the end just brilliant propaganda. The so-called "Sons of Iraq" came to us and wiped out AQI on their own, while it was the enemy "Mahdi Army" whose winning power-drills ethnically cleansed Baghdad -- and now Iraq is his and we are out. Was our military poorly charged and led by Supreme Command (our leaders)? Yes. Were they given a task that we can admit now was unattainable? Yes. Can we see also that war has changed, and that there are conflict environments whose very nature makes submission to us unlikely? Yes. But even a shield-wall of denial cannot avoid what our senses tell us: That in not attaining, they -- we -- were defeated.


Yet harshest light shows nothing to so many who blithely insist that there were big "wins" coming out of 9/11, and that this is enough. They sanctimoniously aver that we defeated Al Qaeda, like a commonplace truth brooking no argument. Case closed.

This argument about Al Qaeda is reminiscent of Harry Summers telling an NVA colonel: "You know you never defeated us on the battlefield." To which Col. Tu famously replied, "That may be so. But it is also irrelevant." Defeating Al Qaeda was simply not the US main war goal after Tora Bora -- instead it became critical only recently. It became politically critical the way Nixon grasped at "Peace with Honor" as fig leaf modesty to cover our withdrawal from Vietnam.

Defeating "Al Qaeda and Associated Movements" (AQAI) thus becomes like a Vietnam-era changeling -- a strategic switcheroo. Yet pretending the dime-store trophy we now hold up is what we were all about these past ten years is also like asking us to throw away the whole decade -- and in turn this becomes yet another badge of defeat.

But why bring up Vietnam again? Because right now our defeat in Vietnam should be a lodestar to the American military. Because our military transcended defeat in Vietnam. Because they faced up to an honest defeat, the US military made defeat a utility of virtue. Because of Vietnam our military transformed itself, and emerged as a force so potent it practically brought down the great Soviet Empire on its own.

America's military services must find their utility of virtue in the 9/11 War. Our officers, our enlisted men and women need to answer questions like:

What are the limits of military effectiveness in the world today? How can the military be effective in the chaotic irregular environments of the human future? How can the military help national leaders understand changing limits and possibilities to military use? How can our military reinforce, rather than weaken, America's world relationships and the nation itself?

Embracing defeat is an unsung virtue -- but right now such virtue is necessity.