A Marine’s Reflection on Afghanistan

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When I was 19, I met a giant among men.  Sgt Major Ellis was a Marine’s Marine that stood as proud as the uniform he wore.  He knew everyone in the battalion by name (all 1,000, or so) and could outrun most Marines a decade younger than him.  He was killed by a suicide bomber.  His story is not unique. 

The white graves that mark Arlington, and countless other cemeteries across America represent a story like his.  That is why veterans feel bitter, angry, and betrayed after the slipshod pullout of Afghanistan.  Not only because of the way it was conducted, but because this was a war we could have and should have won. 

The takeaways from Afghanistan might be horrendous.  Consider if we draw the lesson: “the military does not work.” Coupled with China’s aggressive imperialistic designs, this could be existentially fatal.  That is why it is imperative to get this issue right. 

Wars are won by breaking an enemy’s will to fight.  Not by making them like you, but by making them fear you.  This was the case in WWII.  Almost every major city in Germany and Japan was pulverized.  This had the effect of not only crippling their ability to wage war, but also sapping their will to take up arms. 

The Civil War is another example.  Sherman’s march to the sea destroyed the confederacy supply chain and demoralized Lee’s troops.  This is not a phenomenon of a past age.  The Afghan army, after losing American support, folded in days to the Taliban after realizing their cause was futile.  Victory in war is achievable.

After 9/11 we choose a different path.  Not doing his best impression of Churchill, President Bush once said: “I don’t think you can win it…I don’t have any…definite end (for the war).”[1]  This defeatist attitude set the tone for the campaign.  First, we refused to name the enemy — a political movement that sought to impose a radical form of Islam on the world.  Bush called it a “war on terrorism.”  Terrorism is a tactic.  This would be like declaring war on Kamikaze missions during WWII.  This made it almost impossible to think about 9/11 clearly. 

Moreover, we refused to use whatever force was necessary to break the will of that movement.  Self-effacing rules of engagement hampered our military.  Soldiers could not return fire from mosques.  Levels of force had to be authorized by bureaucrats and lawyers.  A Pentagon study reported, “every group of soldiers and Marines interviewed reported that they felt the existing ROEs (rules of engagement) tied their hands, preventing them from doing what needed to be done to win the war.”[2] 

During the battle of Tora Bora, we allowed Al Qaida leaders (including Osama Bin Laden) to escape for fear of civilian casualties, and many times gave the Taliban advance notice of attacks.[3]  In Iraq, we allowed fighters to leave the city before the battle of Fallujah, and then Marines were ordered to halt their attack.[4]

This strategy was influenced by “just war theory.”  In the WestPoint popular book “Just and Unjust Wars,” Michael Walzer, explains in no uncertain terms that his view is that the chief aim of militaries is for humanitarian crises.  Not self-defense.  He writes: “the chief dilemma of international politics is whether people in danger should be rescued by military forces from outside.”[5]  Or consider this head-scratcher: “In our judgment of the fighting, we abstract from all consideration of the justice of the cause.  We do this because the moral status of individual soldiers on both sides is very much the same….  They face one another as moral equals”[6] This raises so many questions.  First and foremost: why are you fighting a war against people who are your moral equal?

On a political level, American policy attempted to promote democracy in the Middle East, even if that meant allowing countries to vote our enemies into power. Once when Bush was asked if the U.S. would accept a theocratic, militant regime in Iraq, he said yes.  “Democracy is democracy… if that’s what the people choose, that’s what the people choose.”[7] 

This mindset emboldened the enemy.  It is essentially saying: “what you did on 9/11…what you do to women and gays, and everyone who does not share your faith…that is all okay so long as a majority voted for it.”  In fact, they did vote in warlords who were not much different than the people who attacked us.  Failure was not owned by one administration.  Obama surged the level of troops in Afghanistan.  Not as a new strategy that resembled victory, but as a way to double down on Bush’s legacy.  Trump even invited the Taliban to Camp David to broker a peace deal. 

Why did we choose this path?  The simple answer is that Americans do not believe we have the right to stand up for ourselves.  Consciously or unconsciously, we have absorbed the rhetoric (with varying degrees) that all cultures and governments are equal.  We desperately need to shed ourselves from this neuroticism.  A culture that stones unveiled women or throws gays off of buildings is not the moral equivalent of one that protects peoples’ freedoms.  What would a rational foreign policy look like?  For our military, it means destroying threats as swiftly as possible.  Not just the immediate threat, but defeating him thoroughly enough so that we have drained his motivation to fight.  Our military should not be treated as fodder to go on dangerous missions to safeguard elections or supervise the construction of sewers.

Pundits sometimes argue this type of war will create more enemies.  This is groundless and ahistorical.  If this were true, Japan would be an enemy after WWII.  Ditto for Germany, and the Confederacy.  When an enemy is thoroughly defeated, materially and spiritually; he realizes that his cause was futile and misguided. 

Oftentimes, former addicts talk about hitting “rock bottom.”  This often involves a rejection from another person.  A spouse leaving them, fired from their job, or getting arrested.  What the former addict finally realizes at this moment is that it is the result of their actions alone that caused this.  Even in the cognitive fog of addiction, they see this. 

A similar revelation happens on a cultural scale to a defeated army.  They grasp that they were in the wrong and deluded by irrational ideologies.  That is why the Japanese navy minister Yonai Mitsumasa called the atomic bombs “gifts from heaven.”[8]  That is not to say every city that harbors a threat needs to be flattened.  But it is to say that every legitimate threat should be met with whatever force is necessary to defeat it.  Civilian casualties, while tragic, are crimes of the aggressing actor.

As easy as it is to become bitter about Afghanistan, there is a comforting thought that assuages it.  The men and women who fought never wavered in their tenacity.  In two decades of fighting their ferocity and skill was every bit as present on the tarmacs of Kabul as it was on September 12th,  2001.  It is this fighting spirit that gives me hope for America.  The same cannot be said about their leaders.  They do not deserve the men and women that serve under them. 

Undoubtedly, the Afghanistan fiasco will result in more terrorism, more bloodshed, and emboldened adversaries.  With the equal vigor that our fighting men and women displayed on the battlefield, the promise of American exceptionalism must be intellectually fought for.  It is the dissemination of this knowledge that will nurture our sense of life, and help us grow to become a people with an upright and proud self-esteem.  That — and only that — will stop the bleeding and ensure a free and prosperous future- one that our fallen comrades would be proud of.

Photo credit: Petr Kratochvil Public Domain Pictures

[1] Elan Journo “An Unwinnable war?” in Winning the Unwinnable War, (Lexington Books, 2009). 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] John David Lewis “Gifts From Heaven” in Nothing Less than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014). 

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