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:
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?
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."
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.
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.