04/24/2012 09:00 am ET Updated Jun 24, 2012

Soldiers' Stories

In the winter of 1944, Belgium became a vicious final counter-offensive of a retreating Nazi army, and my father was there. He fought and killed, and those around him were killed and maimed.

He would never speak about his experiences in combat. Never. Even when I asked, after junior high history classes, and even after his cancer had become terminal. The most he ever said, with Scandinavian restraint, was that it had been "bad, real bad." Later, in the midst of the Vietnam War, I understood what he meant. I confess I cannot relive that time, but at least I share something with my father whose grave on Pilot Knob, outside Minneapolis, I often speak to. We communicate, in a way, about wars -- including his and mine, ranging from Belgium to Central America. As I clean the leaves and dirt off his grave marker... Lutherans don't do mausoleums, just little stones in the ground... we chat about bad things we've seen and we wished we had not.

These are not uplifting conversations, but liberating nonetheless. We speak to each other about the pains of seeing the dead and dismembered.

What will today's veterans say about their multiple tours in Iraq or Afghanistan? How will they explain to their children and grandchildren, if they are able, why they or their friends sustained their grievous physical or mental injuries? Almost seven decades ago, the purpose seemed clear no matter how bad it had become. During most of this past decade, the reason for sacrifice has waned, and the costs have mounted.

Our invasion and occupation of Iraq have led to a dissolute government of transient capacity, well-lubricated by oil money, but without an allegiant citizenry and manipulated by heavy Iranian influence. And, the moment we depart from Afghanistan, Karzai is toast. So what were these ten years for, when even Bin Laden was located and killed in Pakistan in a special ops night-time raid?

Wars are won or lost often not on the battlefield but by the narratives that follow. Victory or defeat evaporates if the narrative can be spun. The Germans in WWI were not defeated, after all, but rather "stabbed in the back" by treacherous politicians. King Pyrrhus may have defeated the Romans at Heraclea, but he is forever branded as a victor in battle who could not win the war. What will be the narrative of America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? In Vietnam, defeat was often spun as being a consequence of politicians' unwillingness to "unleash" the U.S. armed forces. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the lasting narrative will likely be closer to the legacy of King Pyrrhus.

The savagery we have created and endured has fallen on ordinary people in Iraq and Afghanistan and on our military forces and those of allied countries. Our successes have been with Special Forces and drones, not a massive assault on Fallujah or trying to penetrate remote mountain ranges of Afghanistan. Sustained ground combat, even supported by air assets that none of these opponents could challenge, has not led to anything more than momentary favorable outcomes.

In these longest of all American wars, it has been "bad, very bad," as my father reluctantly admitted decades later about the Battle of the Bulge. The duration of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, and their terrible human consequences and grievous social and economic injury are unprecedented. These invasions and occupations -- the endless wars -- will unquestionably be judged as catastrophic mistakes.

Soldiers' stories from these wars are likely, once again, to be hushed and belated. As after Vietnam, however, the silence has another basis: No one will be sure why we sacrificed so much for so long.

Daniel N. Nelson, CEO, Global Concepts & Communications, Alexandria, Virginia, and previously served on Capitol Hill and in the US Departments of State and Defense.