How the Afghan War Was Lost, in Five Easy Steps
Kori Schake: I love the opening line of the book: “War has always been there, even if I don’t go there anymore. The idea of deciding to leave, of soldiers in long-running wars having to negotiate their own separate peace, resonates throughout the book. Explain why this is such a heavy emotional burden.
Elliot Ackerman: Because there’s always another deployment to do. Every time I came back from Iraq or Afghanistan, there was the question of the next deployment. Are you going? It’s hard to bow out, no matter how many deployments you’ve already made. Those guys you serve with are your best friends, so it’s hard to tell them you’re done, that they can go on without you, that maybe it’s not the time for them to quit the war, but he is for you. This type of decision can weigh on friendships. It certainly weighed on some of mine.
KS: Why did you call the book “The Fifth Act”?
EA: As Kabul was falling, a friend of mine, Bari Weiss, asked me to contribute a short article on Afghanistan to her Substack. I was, admittedly, feeling short of what to write. I mean, what else was there to say about Afghanistan after 20 years of war?
She said, “Elliot, most people haven’t paid attention to this for years. It’s a tragedy, maybe you can just explain what’s going on. It is this word, tragedy, which marked me. Going back to Horace and the ancients, in classical dramatic structures, the tragedies are told in five acts. I then wrote this short article in Bari which broke down the Afghan war into five acts: Bush, Obama, Trump, Biden and, as a denouement, the Taliban. I realized later that this would be the structure of this book.
KS: You write that “never before has America engaged in protracted conflict with an all-volunteer army funded by deficit spending.” How did this change the American mode of warfare?
EA: Successive Republican and Democratic administrations have deliberately numb Americans to wars fought in their name. Our political class has done this by the way they structure our wars – we don’t pay war taxes because we put the cost in our deficit; an ever-shrinking band of Americans, that 1% of us manning our all-volunteer force shoulder the burden.
The result is that war has become easy to wage because only a small segment of society feels the pain. Wars were existential events in American society and defined generations. Not anymore, and not for my generation. I have often wondered if it would not be better to be part of a “lost generation” than to be “the lost part of a generation”.
KS: You write that the choice to build in plywood explains the American failures in Afghanistan. Please explain.
EA: If you travel to Afghanistan, one thing you will notice in most major US military bases, in places like Bagram or Kandahar, is that even after 20 years of war, much of the construction of our neighborhood general was made of plywood, as though our occupation was temporary and at any moment we were going to leave. This decision to build with plywood rather than more durable materials speaks to the passing psychology of the American effort in Afghanistan.
We fought a 20-year war, but at any time during those 20 years we had one foot out, with a planned withdrawal in a few months. In his book on Vietnam, “A Bright Shining Lie”, journalist Neil Sheehan quotes John Paul Vann, a legendary army and foreign service officer, who said: “The problem with Vietnam was not that we fought a seven-year war, but that we fought seven one-year wars. The same could be said of Afghanistan, and if you want a physical reminder of that truth, it’s our decision to build in plywood.
KS: You write: “Every year we couldn’t even agree on what winning looked like. And so we lost. Please explain your thoughts on what it takes to win a war.
EA: A coherent strategic objective is what is needed.
We never had that in Afghanistan. Were we there to rebuild Afghanistan? To kill Osama bin Laden? Denying Afghanistan as a haven for terrorists? All the foregoing? None of these answers? Four presidents, Democrat and Republican, could never answer what it meant to win.
If you look at the wars we have won, there has been a clear strategic objective: To preserve the Union; the unconditional surrender of the Axis powers; pushing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. The wars we lose, there is always a vague strategic objective.
It also requires strategic patience, a conviction on the part of your enemy that your will is greater than his. A truism in Afghanistan was that the Americans had the watches but the Taliban had the time. We never convinced the Taliban or the Afghans that we had both the clocks and the time. And so we lost.
KS: You’re thinking about American war memorials and how you would design one memorial for all of our wars. Talk about it, please.
EA: Planning for a memorial to the Global War on Terror has been going on for several years. The Global War on Terror technically isn’t over, and it doesn’t look like the clearances behind it will be revoked anytime soon. This creates an interesting puzzle: how do you create a memorial for an ongoing war?
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, established in 1982, ushered in an era of building war memorials on the National Mall. Before that, the National Mall was a place where we commemorated individuals – Washington, Lincoln, Grant – not wars. But that’s changed over the past 40 years, and with real estate on the National Mall dwindling, there’s often a lot of controversy about whether certain disputes deserve a memorial.
I think we should abolish all these individual war memorials. Instead, we should have one National War Memorial. I imagine it’s a black trench like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but it winds underground like something out of Dante. A war memorial built into the earth rather than above it seems appropriate; If there’s one thing you learn to do in the military, it’s dig.
This spiral trench would have all the names of the American war dead, more than a million, starting with Crispus Attucks, a free man of African and Native descent who is considered the first death of the American Revolution. Every time we went to war, we dug a little deeper to add the names. Bottom to bottom we were going. We wouldn’t have to debate real estate on the mall, we would just keep digging.
Additionally, I would propose that Congress pass a law that whenever the president signs a troop deployment order, he or she can only do so with a special pen kept under surveillance on a special desk next to the name family on the American War Memorial. .
KS: A lot of your fiction is about war, and you explore it from so many different angles – the sympathetic portrayal of an Afghan who kills American soldiers in “Green on Blue”; the desperate refugees in “Dark at the Crossing”. What is your favorite book about war?
EA: It’s difficult. There are so many books that, on the surface, are about war but have a much broader subject than war. There are also many books that don’t seem to be about war at all, but are actually very related to the subject. I guess I’ll choose a favorite from the latter category: “The Catcher in the Rye”. JD Salinger landed on D-Day, fought in Huertgen Forest, and helped liberate Dachau. But he never wrote much about the war, or at least not from the front. He treated the subject obliquely.
“The Catcher in the Rye” is the greatest novel about World War II and its long shadow. The voice of Holden Caufield, for which the novel is renowned, is the voice of a veteran, for whom everyone is “an impostor” and who wants to visit the ducks of Central Park, to find an innocence that will never return. never and perhaps never was. The last line of the novel — “Never tell anyone. If you do, everyone misses you” – is one that I have often referred to.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
• All wars are culture wars: Kori Schake
• Biden’s Afghan withdrawal ended in disaster: Hal Brands
• In the end, the Afghan army was always doomed: James Stavridis
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Kori Schake leads the Foreign and Defense Policy team at the American Enterprise Institute.
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