Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars
By Daniel P. Bolger
Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 544 pages
The shooting wars may be drawing to a close, but the war about the wars continues to rage. The latest salvo is Why We Lost, a provocative book by Daniel P. Bolger, a U.S. Army lieutenant general who retired in 2013 after 35 years and three major commands in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I am a United States Army General, and I lost the Global War on terrorism,” Bolger writes in the preface. “It’s like Alcoholics Anonymous, step one is admitting you have a problem. Well, I have a problem. So do my peers, to wit: two lost campaigns and a war gone awry.”
Bolger’s confession may center on an arguably premature assertion of defeat but it certainly promises writing of a directness, self-awareness, and skill seldom encountered in books by former generals. What’s more, it suggests a bracing and much-needed critique. Is it?
Why We Lost turns out to be every bit as gripping as you would hope, thanks to a writing style that is sharp, astringent, and refreshingly jargon-free. (Bolger, who has a Ph.D. from Chicago and taught at West Point, was an accomplished author long before he received his star, having published a thriller as well as several works of military history). But it falls short as both a confession and an indictment. Although the book’s subtitle describes “A General’s Insider Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars,” Bolger’s work is not autobiographical. Neither is it a treatise or policy argument. Instead Bolger offers a fast-moving narrative history of the two major military campaigns of the Global War on Terror, interspersed with vivid stories of “in the weeds” combat taken from various recent memoirs and histories. These tales, which include accounts of exhausted and enraged soldiers breaking the laws of war, seem intended not just to give a flavor of the fighting but to illustrate the agonizing difficulties of battling insurgents and therefore the supposed wrongheadedness of forcing American soldiers do it.
What the stories don’t do, however, is back up Bolger’s central claim: that the campaigns were lost, and that they were lost because of “poor strategic and operational leadership” by himself and his fellow generals. Nor does Bolger go into much detail discussing specific errors of judgment by his fellow generals. After a while, Bolger’s insistence that generals take the blame for political and strategic decisions—which were actually made in Washington by presidents, cabinet officers, or the joint chiefs—feels almost masochistic.
In fact, one of the odd things about Why We Lost is that Bolger’s talk of “losing” and “failure” tends to be undermined by a narrative that demonstrates how impressive the U.S. Army is at adapting and learning from its mistakes, at least compared with other large bureaucratic government organizations. Bolger himself admires how the Army rapidly developed a talent for combining intelligence with special operations in order to capture and kill terrorists.
He also touches on the impressive fact that junior commanders not only quickly realized that fresh approaches were needed in Iraq but also experimented with techniques that were eventually codified in the Counterinsurgency Strategy and Field Manual championed by General David Petraeus—which resulted in the Surge and the Sunni Awakening that turned around America’s fortunes in Iraq in 2007.
Even odder, Bolger’s own account suggests that some of the worst reverses of the Iraq war took place not because of poor strategy, poor structure, or poor decisions made by generals—but thanks to unpredictable mistakes made by less powerful individuals. Prime examples include the worldwide scandal that erupted as a result of a few prison guards and their horrible behavior at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison and the recklessness of private military contractors who brought about the first battle of Fallujah in April 2004.
But Bolger’s storytelling is so skillful that it almost doesn’t matter if his arguments contradict one another. The first half of the book, which deals with the war on terror before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is especially entertaining, not least because it is free of political correctness and diplomatic scruple. After describing how General Norman Schwarzkopf, the chief commander of the 1991 Gulf War, acceded to Saudi demands that American troops based in Saudi Arabia abjure not only alcohol but also Christian and Jewish insignia, he explains that “the Saudis did not see themselves as hosts.” He continues:
In their own eyes they were customers, buying Americans and other defenders in much the same way they hired hundreds of thousands of Filipino, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani contract laborers to build their homes, run their oil wells, and clean their streets…Schwarzkopf agreed to the King’s directives, and the Americans accepted substantial Saudi financing and, later, material support…so the transactional relationship looked very clear to the Arab authorities…the House of Saud had rented the best armed forces in the world.
Bolger is also good on the attitudes and actions of Saddam Hussein in the wake of his 1991 defeat. The Iraqi dictator, he says, drew important lessons from the American victory, our rapid departure from the conflict, and Schwarzkopf’s naive decision to let Saddam’s regime continue to use its attack helicopters. Most critically, he understood the “operational importance” of propaganda and the possibilities of 24-hour cable news: It was relentless CNN footage of the “Highway of Death,” along which Iraq’s military retreated from Kuwait, that prompted the eventual cease-fire. As Bolger points out: “Rarely have rapists and pillagers garnered such thoughtful consideration.”
But when Bolger reaches the 9/11 attacks, he turns his sardonic wit on the U.S. government. Something had to be done, of course, but, he says, the question that planners didn’t want to confront was, “Who was the enemy?” While it was al-Qaeda rather than its Taliban hosts who still threatened America, “the quasi-conventional Taliban furnished a much more appropriate target set for U.S. firepower.”
And yet Bolger has little time for those who lambast the Bush administration and the military under Donald Rumsfeld for the fact that Osama bin Laden and his entourage were not killed or captured in the Afghan caves of Tora Bora in the winter of 2001. Given the terrain and the weather, America “could have deployed the entire 10th mountain division” and still been unable to close off every ratline” into Pakistan.
Bolger’s critique intensifies with his account of the first days after the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003. Some of the mistakes he highlights were unquestionably just that. One of the most astonishing was that General Tommy Franks, in charge of the invasion, and his staff failed to set up a clear chain of command in newly conquered Iraq. They envisaged a civilian headquarters called the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), to be run by retired general Jay Garner, which would “coordinate” with the Army’s V Corps headquarters during the six months or so it would take Iraqi society to get back on its feet. This meant no one was in charge.
As Bolger relates, this arrangement was soon replaced by an equally hazy one. Paul Bremer, a former ambassador to the Netherlands, took over the newly formed Coalition Provisional Authority. V Corps was replaced by a new military headquarters led by Ricardo Sanchez, a newly promoted lieutenant general who had never commanded a division in combat. According to Bolger, when Bremer issued his controversial orders dissolving the Baath Party and the country’s army, he did so without consulting his military opposite number.
Regardless of who was in charge, Bolger believes the underlying situation was impossible. “Replace Bremer with Henry Kissinger and Sanchez with Dwight Eisenhower, cancel the de-Baathification orders, and the stark facts on the ground still sat there oozing pus and bile,” he writes. “With Saddam gone, any voting would install a Shiite majority. The Sunni wouldn’t run Iraq again. That, at the bottom, caused the insurgency.” (Like many commentators on the war, Bolger often seems blasé about the oppression of Iraq’s Kurds and Shia under the Baathist regime and the dominance of the Sunni minority.)
Bolger has a peculiar soft spot for General John Abizaid, who commanded the U.S. Central Command during that first vital year of the occupation. Given Abizaid’s inability to see that the heavy-handed, crudely “kinetic” approach of the U.S. military was quickly fomenting an insurgency, Bolger’s regard is hard to understand. The reason only becomes apparent in subsequent chapters, when Bolger reveals his loathing for David Petraeus, who took over the American effort in early 2007. It’s a loathing so intense that it targets not only Petraeus’s person but also the counterinsurgency doctrine he championed and everyone associated with it. At the same time, any general, who, like Abizaid, prominently opposed Petraeus and his team of maverick soldier scholars, or who opposed the surge, gets an automatic high rating from Bolger, no matter how unsuccessful his command really was.
Much of this animus seems to be a matter of personality. Petraeus, as Bolger points out, had risen quickly thanks in part to what he sees as shameless networking. “He had more connections than ten of his peers, and he wasn’t shy about using them,” he writes. Petraeus possessed “inordinate” ambition and was a skilled and assiduous “self-promoter.” Indeed, according to Bolger, Petraeus was a member of “the AAA club,” which he defines as “that careerist self promotion society that hung out near the military throne rooms: Aides, Adjutants, and Assholes.” Bolger makes sure to remind the reader of Petraeus’s relative lack of height, as if that might be the key to his character flaws.
This antipathy corrupts Bolger’s analysis of the Iraq war. After he condemns the generals for trying the same failing policies year after year, he pours scorn on those such as Petraeus who not only tried something different but were so successful that the war was virtually won when the Obama administration decided to abandon it.
That said, when Bolger’s perspective is not distorted by this odd animus, he points out problems most civilian authors have failed to notice. These include the fact that the Army underwent a major structural reorganization—becoming a force based on “brigade combat teams” rather than divisions—in the middle of the war, and that its personnel-rotation policies undermined unit cohesion until 2004.
Bolger is particularly perceptive about the way “information warfare” turned out to be a force multiplier for the other side in Iraq. He considers the grotesque photographs from Abu Ghraib the equivalent of a huge battlefield defeat. And he explains how the Marine Corps’ efforts to retake Fallujah in April 2004 were essentially defeated by Al Jazeera news teams. The Qatar-based network’s carefully curated footage of destruction and suffering so rattled both the Tony Blair government and Iraqi politicians that the United States had little choice but to halt the operation.
Unfortunately, insights like these play a smaller role in the book than do attacks on COIN and its champions. Though Bolger himself once advocated for more COIN training, he now insists that the military must pursue only “short, decisive conventional wars, for limited ends.”
It’s a view that mirrors a way of thinking that first became Army orthodoxy in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Apologists for that failure, led by the historian Russell Weigley, maintained that the “American way of war” was “big war” involving the use of overwhelming force and high technology to annihilate the enemy. COIN, they argued, is incompatible with our national character and talents, and should not be studied, lest familiarity lead to use.
This was and is nonsense: The United States has successfully fought many “small wars”—starting with the campaign against the Barbary Pirates.
It is understandable that commanders of Bolger’s vintage would dislike tricky “low-intensity operations” and prefer that the military be used only in Desert Storm–style pitched battles against easily crushable Third World armed forces. Unfortunately, U.S. interests may require riskier forms of military action, especially now that America’s enemies are often too smart to challenge her in conventional army-to-army battles. And the fact is that in Iraq many U.S. commanders—and their troops—turned out to be very adept at using forms of warfare that required cunning, cultural awareness, intellectual flexibility, a willingness to delegate authority, and the skillful application of relatively limited force.
Bolger may have a point, however, when he says that one of the greatest mistakes our generals made was to assume that the politicians at home would go along with a decades-long military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans, he maintains, don’t do long-term active military commitments. Bolger believes the generals should have argued for immediate pullouts after overthrowing the Taliban and Saddam regimes.
Some experienced and thoughtful people in the military share Bolger’s view. It’s an understandable argument given the tremendous difficulty and cost of Afghan nation-building. It seems likely, however, that had the United States and her allies pulled out in 2002 after installing Karzai in Kabul, Afghanistan would have returned quickly to the chaos and civil war that characterized the pre-Taliban era. And Pakistan probably would have ensured that its favorite fundamentalist terror groups and the rump Taliban retained power. This would have cast a pall over America’s swift victory and might have emboldened other regimes giving sanctuary to anti-American terrorists.
It is also far from clear that the campaign in Afghanistan has been lost. America and her coalition allies have achieved much there despite various mistakes. And there are encouraging signs from Afghanistan, despite the opportunities offered to the insurgents by the premature drawdown of coalition forces and President Obama’s insistence on a 2016 withdrawal. We could still lose in Afghanistan. But if the campaign ends in defeat, it is likely to be a self-inflicted and unnecessary one, like the one the Obama administration oversaw in Iraq. Although Bolger’s book was completed before ISIS took Mosul, ISIS’s rise to power surely casts doubt on his belief that an even more premature withdrawal from Iraq by U.S. forces would have had more benign results for the region or American interests.
Despite all these caveats, Why We Lost serves an important purpose as one of the first salvos in the military’s historiographical battle to make sense of the past decade. It also sets a high literary bar for the books that will follow and answer it.