Daniel P. Bolger, Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars

Daniel P. Bolger, Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014)

A book with the defiantly downbeat title Why We Lost is not geared to enchant ‘higher circles’ or make much of a media splash. Count that in its favor. Moreover, in military memoirs about major debacles, the customary tack is for the indignant author to blame shifty politicians, vile fifth columnists, sniveling news columnists or, more gingerly, clueless civilians for betraying intrepid soldiers at the front in ‘stab in the back’ (dolchstoßlegende) fashion. Anyway, people prefer to read about thrilling triumphs instead. The Alamo for Americans, Dunkirk for the British and Thermopylae for the Greeks are among the few defeats that losers spent a lot of ink on and only because of ultimately achieving redemptive victories. Yet in his bold reconsiderations of the misbegotten conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Daniel P. Bolger, a recently retired three star General, writes ruefully about the lack of military ‘pushback’ (but not disobedience) to orders from above, which itself is a somewhat dicey position, however much truth there is to it.

Not that the Pentagon knew much more than hubristic political leaders. “As generals,” Bolger owns up, “we did not know our enemy – never pinned him down, never focused our efforts, and got all too good at making new opponents before we’d handled the old ones.” That short damning litany does sum up a good deal of what happened. By never ‘knowing our enemy we never knew ourselves’, he confesses, which gets even closer to the nub. In the US, where soldiers are worshipped by conservatives so long as they don’t cost them much for aftercare, the military, from chiefs of staff to grunts, were treated as, well, pawns.[1] What a surprise, eh? Did military honchos ever realize that the natty neoconservative ‘defense intellectuals’ hectoring them were as much their foes as the grottiest guerrilla planting an IED? What difference would it have made if they did? The military is bound constitutionally to follow proper executive orders, no matter how dumb. Would you want it any other way?

Bolger nonetheless wishes the top brass had been brutally frank with the Bush administration about flaws permeating their hernia-inducing wishful strategic thinking. The problem is that any high-ranking officer who quibbled with White House schemes was banished in the blink of an eye. In 2002 Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki was ridiculed by Bush aides for his unwanted estimate that the Army needed many more troops for an Iraq invasion in order to handle occupation duties. He got the heave-ho, despite refraining from questioning the merits of the invasion itself. Afterward, Bolger confirms, “absolutely nobody in the Army or outside it was concerned about a postwar occupation and how it would play out.” Another case was Joint Chiefs of Staff leader Admiral William Fallon who let slip publicly in the mid-2000s his intention that the US would not invade Iran on his watch. He quickly got the boot, despite his utterly sound concern about overstretching US forces. Real men ‘game-theoried’ going to Tehran.

After the Iraq invasion “no senior officer argued for withdrawal,” Bolger confirms. The show must go on. Careers were on the line. ‘Within weeks of 9/11,’ Bolger says of the Afghan intervention,” the basic goals were fulfilled, not perfectly, not completely, but probably close enough.” Suddenly, they were being dispatched to the Middle East too. The Iraqis were not the culprits that US soldiers were told they were and, years after the invasion, most troops, more painstakingly misinformed than the American public, still held Saddam Hussein responsible for 9/11. After regular Iraqi forces were smashed or melted away, the fedayeen resistance came as a ‘nasty surprise,’ Bolger admits, at least to policy-making insiders. There were plenty of disregarded warnings beforehand.[2] In Afghanistan, after boastful celebrations on ousting the Taliban regime late in 2001, Bolger raises a question that nobody else in the elite ranks thought through at the time, “What if the Taliban broke off for a while, regrouped and returned?”

Bolger, who commanded combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan, regrets the use of an Army trained for short, sharp conventional operations instead for long term attritional counterinsurgency, which they resorted to in order just to hang in there. Actually, in the early going, the generals expected to ‘butcher and bolt’ in punitive colonial era fashion. Commanding general Tommy Franks ‘did not spend much time on Phase four [post war occupation] stuff’ and six months after the invasion, it seemed the better part of valor to many generals to ‘declare victory and leave.’ Bolger can’t seem to figure out, or cope with, the likely reasons why US forces stuck around so long. In retrospect, at least, he understands that “Bin-Laden saw a winning formula which was to get the US to invade Afghanistan.”

In the military you can indeed get away with insubordination if you are sly enough and the right people see the point of it. General George Casey artfully shrugged off Coalitional Authority czar Paul Bremer’s orders in 2004 to arrest cleric Moqtatda Al-Sadr because it was plain to Casey that the Shiite cleric and his militia could be a valuable ally in the extremely urgent task of splitting the Iraqi resistance by turning Shiites and Sunnis against each other. Then an immensely relieved US military apparatus regretfully could portray the eruption of civil war as the revival of ancient implacable hatreds no one could foresee or stop.[3]

Apart from a torrent of suitcases of cash, the Sunni ‘awakening’ was stoked by Iraqi loathing of al-Qaeda intruders who, ironically enough, weren’t around before the Americans and their coalition partners stormed in. So the coalition forces at the time had a lot for which to be grateful to Al-Qaeda fanatics. The invaders’ expeditious formula swiftly became ‘al-Qaeda out, Sunnis in, [Shiite] Iraqis increasingly in the lead.’ The evolution, if that’s the word, of al-Qaeda elements into ISIL today is indisputably a result of the engineered civil war where the reconstituted Iraqi Army behaved as little more than Shiite death squads and the Sunnis sought any haven from them. No invasion, no ISIL.

Bolger agrees with all those who pinpoint the 2004 Al-Aqsa shrine bombing as the moment in Iraq when it all went undeniably south.[4] The bickering between civilian and military authorities was ceaseless. Exchanges between Bremer and General Sanchez were ferocious. General Tommy Franks called Bush Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith the ”****ing stupidest guy on the face of the earth.” Bolger justifiably observes:

But it is difficult to see how different personalities might have changed that year much. Replace Bremer with Henry Kissinger and Sanchez with Dwight Eisenhower, cancel the de-bathification order, and the stark facts on the ground still sat there, oozing pus and bile. With Saddam gone, any voting would install a Shiite majority, The Sunnis wouldn’t run Iraq again. That, at bottom caused the insurgency. Absent the genocide of Sunni Arabs, it would keep going.

The military opposed the 2007 ‘surge’ in Iraq but Bush pressed ahead to get the welcome cover he needed for his personal exit. The ‘surge ‘only bought time for withdrawal,” Bolger judges. ‘If you thought you saw anything other than a stalemate you were kidding yourself.’ Bolger criticizes Obama’s decision to leave but not do it right away (although Obama was carrying out Bush’s October 2008 Status of Forces Agreement to withdraw), and to surge in Afghanistan with 33 thousand more troops but with a time limit.[5] Bolger’s reasoning here is a patent flight of fancy: ‘The enemy feared a long term commitment of troops on the ground, aircraft overhead, and sustainment of the Kabul regime,’ he proposes. ‘If the United States agreed to keep them in place for decades, as in post-1953 Korea, as few as ten thousand Americans might have cracked the Taliban will to fight.” Sure thing, but a decades-long US/NATO ground presence was never in the cards, as Bolger himself says elsewhere.

What would have been gained? Here is a broad hint of an answer. Bolger describes a fierce Afghanistan hilltop assault where 3 US soldiers were killed and 39 wounded allegedly in order to protect a hundred villagers. These grateful villagers in 2009 generated four thousand votes for Karzai, whose ‘writ ran to the outskirts of Kabul’ (and they pulled it off it without a single electronic voting machine). Democracy in action. Oh, what about local casualties? “For those tracking at ISAF headquarters in Kabul, not a single noncombatant dies,’ Bolger writes, ‘although every dead Taliban wore civilian clothing.’ Huh? How’s that go again? One assumes Bolger is macabrely ironic here, as is many a soldier’s habit.

“In Iraq, and now Afghanistan, the thoughtful, deliberative US President thoughtfully and deliberately condemned Americans in uniforms to years of deadly , pointless counterinsurgency patrols,’ Bolger charges, ‘sure to end in a wholesale pullout.” And he proceeds to blame military suicides (at unprecedented rates), drug use, demoralization and some ghastly misbehavior on this decision alone.[6] Obama bears some responsibility – including for drone strikes – but he is scarcely the only villain and he is very far from the worst of them.

In 2010 General David Petraeus jetted into Iraq bearing a counter-insurgency gospel that Bolger attests already was practiced by US troops in the improvisatory course of trying to salvage a very dire situation. (Bolger’s distaste for the showboating Petraeus is palpable.) Bolger believes that the generals hoped – hoped? – their highly skilled troops eventually would figure out a way to win, but “sooner or later, the protracted war goes to the home team.” Counterinsurgency, he concedes, works “only if the intervening country demonstrates the will to remain forever – and even then it doesn’t always work, as France learned the hard way in Indochina and then Algeria.’ Ambassador (2009-2011) Karl Eikenberry, a former general, “did not favor robust counterinsurgency because he believed Karzai’s regime was corrupt and erratic and thus would be unable to hold what ISAF cleared.’ Yes, so why stick around?

Petraeus’ successor General John Allen placed way too much faith in mesmerizing statistics. “Many metrics hung on things that defied numbers,” Bolger points out. How do you measure poppy cultivation after the Taliban took its cut? Pure guesstimates of police and army effectiveness were ‘taken as fact.” “Attacks rose in the summer and fell in the winter,” peaked in 2010 during the surge, and never fell below 2600 per month. What constituted an attack anyway? This roasted philosophical chestnut was a real concern and a propaganda tool too. All that this vaunted numerology really disclosed was a stalemate, Bolger justifiably snorts. An external examiner charged that accounting techniques were a “carefully rigged portrayal’ designed to show progress. Official reporting, Bolger reckons, “varied from adequate to ludicrous” so that “you had that sick feeling in your stomach that you were looking at hamlet evaluations from outside Danang, circa 1967.” Too few fellow officers would understand this mordant reference to the Hamlet Evaluation Survey system and to countless other statistical legerdemains in Vietnam.[7] The military clearly never throws anything useful away.

Bolger discusses the jaundiced grunts-eye view of a formal policy of firepower restraint versus their own self-protective ‘preference for ‘preemptive fire.’ Which prevailed? In a campaign in the Arghandab over 90 days he finds that 2,035 155mm artillery shells, 2,952 mortar rounds, 60 HIMSRS guided rockets, 266 aerial bombs, 19 hellfire missiles, and more than fifty 30mm strafing rounds by A -10 Warthogs and Apache helicopters caused ‘hundreds of hostile dead” while 65 yanks died. Some restraint. Meanwhile ‘Green on blue’ [Afghan allies attacking US/NATO troops] incidents soared during 2011-2014 period, which was “a hell of a way to work together, with a rifle constantly trained on your counterpart.”

In a far from final tally, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan generated almost 7000 dead US soldiers, seven times as many wounded, with many more (perhaps 300 thousand more) brain injury and psychiatric casualties.[8] Who didn’t return with PTSD? Several wasted trillions pumped up war supplier profits, two-thirds squandered in Iraq. Native combatant and noncombatant casualties are off the charts, certainly in seven figures. “Our primary failing in the war involved generalship,” Bolger, looking back, humbly charges. Really, how? “If you reference the war-college lexicon, we – guys like me – demonstrated poor strategic and operational leadership—strategy and ‘operational art ” translate to the ‘Big Picture’ (your goal) and the ‘Plan’ (How you get there).” Yet the military did not call the shots as to invade or not.[9] Civilian ideologues did, so the breast-beating seems peculiarly excessive.

Generals, even those with doctorates, will be generals, however, so Bolger buys media tall tales of Saddam evicting weapons inspectors in October 1998,[10] that noncombatant detainee status ‘passed legal muster,’[11] that Saddam ‘allowed’ Bin-laden to set up in Kurdish areas (which Saddam did not control) and that the Fallujah campaign was conducted to “avenge Blackwater,’ which is rather like musket-wielding Redcoats avenging maltreatment of Hessian mercenaries during the American war of independence. (As many ‘military contractors’ died in those two wars as US troops.) Bolger reports that many veterans were glad he spoke out and it is he, not them, taking the heat, but also mentions many who abhor him for admitting the US lost when in their rosy perspective the ‘surges’ in 2007 in Iraq and 2009-2011 in Afghanistan led to, um, victorious withdrawals.

Kudos to Bolger for his daring exercise in self-criticism, so far as it goes. One hopes more people of his caliber and decency populate the highest military ranks. One detects guilt here (however misplaced), a capacity for it, without which no one is fully human. Ordinary soldiers, most of them, can experience it – hence, many of their ‘adjustment problems.’ But very rarely do we find a trace of guilt in leaders for whom the machiavellian ditching of conscience seems a prerequisite for rising to the top. Robert McNamara, bumblingly, displayed guilt. Does soulless Dick Cheney or George W. Bush? As an honorable career soldier, however, Bolger cannot help but subscribe to the belief that smart leadership can save any situation. While that notion is not something you want to discourage in a platoon leader, it is pure folly for commanders to operate on it. Some situations just aren’t worth saving, or getting into, but how do you tell your bosses? The US military operated precisely as the lethal war machine they were designed to be, a machine that civilian buffoons ordered to enact a grandiose strategy to reconfigure the Middle East to the liking of US Neocons. We are still counting the costs, and they are mounting.



[1] For histories of a tradition of neglect see Larry M. Logue and David Barton, The Civil War Veteran (New York: New York University Press, 2007), Paul Dickson and Thomas B Allen, The Bonus Army, (New York: Walker & Co, 2004), David Bonior, The Vietnam Veteran (Praeger, 1985), and Aaron Glantz, The War Comes Home (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).

[2] See Seumus Milne, The Revenge of History (London Verso, 2012), pp. 275-276.

[3] The British Army also made “discreet’ contacts with local Iraqi resistance forces to work out deals. John Bew, Martyn Frampton, Inigo Guruchaga, Talking to Terrorists: Making Peace in Northern Ireland and The Basque Country (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), p. 9.

[4] Dexter Filkins, The Forever War (New York: Knopf, 2008), p. 219. “The Iraqis lied to the Americans, no question. But the worst lies were the ones Americans told themselves.” (p. 130)

[5] https://www.politicususa.com/2014/06/15/republicans-blame-obama-iraq-bush-signed-agreement-leave.html

[6] https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/costs/human/military/killed

[7] On similar Vietnam War statistical manipulations see Kurt Jacobsen, Pacification and its Discontents (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2009).

[8] Rebecca Ruiz, ‘A Million Veterans injured in Iraq, Afghanistan Wars,’ Forbes 4 November 2013. https://www.forbes.com/sites/rebeccaruiz/2013/11/04/report-a-million-veterans-injured-in-iraq-afghanistan-wars/ Also see https://latimesblogs.latimes.com/babylonbeyond/2010/06/iraqafghanistan-.html

[9] In Korea too civilian authorities decided to intervene, despite the “extremely reluctant” joint chiefs. Bruce Cumings, The Korean War: A History (New York: Modern Library, 2010), p. 13.

[10] UNSCOM executive director Richard Butler confirms that Washington ordered the inspectors to leave in advance of the Desert Fox bombing campaign. Richard Butler, Saddam Defiant (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000), p. 224. Also see Scott Ritter, “Saddam Hussein did not Expel Weapons Inspectors,” Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs, May 2002. It was confirmed later that the team contained CIA members too. Simon Jeffrey amd Philip Pank, ‘UN Weapons Inspectors’ The Guardian 9 December 2002.

[11] On the questionable status and its consequences see Jane Mayer, The Dark Side (New York: Doubleday, 2008), pp. 7-10, 327-3335, Mark Danner, Torture and Truth (New York: New York Review Books, 2004), and Alfred W. McCoy, A Question of Torture (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006).


Kurt Jacobsen is book review editor at Logos and co-author of Parables of Permanent War (2011).


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