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The Questions I Want Americans to Answer

Knowing our three year anniversary and our 500th post were coming up, Eric C asked me and Matty P to write posts on the topic that embody our writing here at On Violence, the most important thought we hadn’t written about yet. So I asked myself, why do I write on this blog?

The answer hit me reading two sentences from Colonel Gian Gentile’s review of Lewis Sorley’s biography of General Westmoreland in The National Interest:

“Washington lost because it failed at strategy. It failed, in short, to discern that the war was unwinnable at a cost in blood and treasure that the American people would accept.”

Very early on in this blogging adventure, I asked a question that echoes Gentile in a post called, “The Problem with America’s Force Protection Bias”:

“Specifically, would a U.S. soldier trade the entire U.S. Army staying in Iraq or Afghanistan for one week longer if he knew his whole platoon could come home safe?”

While that question seems hypothetical, soldiers make that decision every damn day when they’re deployed. During the initial invasion of Iraq, if soldiers hit IEDs, they counter-attacked with a “death blossom”, firing in a circle at everything that moved. That helped create the insurgency. When soldiers tortured inmates, killed civilians or refused to patrol constantly, they helped fuel an insurgency. When more and more soldiers deployed to “Super FOBs”, they failed to stop the insurgencies.

In my tour to Afghanistan’s Kunar Province, I faced that question head on: Where do we patrol? How often? Simply getting on a helicopter could mean entering a horrific firefight, but we did it to win, because we had to. Still, I decided we would never go to some sections of my district, like Ganjgal valley, where many marines and Afghan soldiers later lost their lives.

In Kunar, I lived a contradiction that I had dreaded since I joined the Army ROTC program. I quoted the Cadet Creed in that earlier post, and I have to repeat it here:

People First, Mission Always

People and mission, two incompatible ideals. And the American people don’t understand that.

When I first started my training at Fort Benning, I saw how training to keep soldiers (people) alive wouldn’t help beat a budding Iraqi insurgency (mission). I started scribbling in a notebook. Eventually, those thoughts became this blog. So in honor of our 500th post and third anniversary, I want double down on that contradiction. I don’t have a topic I wish I wrote about more, I have some questions I wish I could ask everyone in America.

1. If I could guarantee victory in Iraq (when we were there) or Afghanistan (now) or Iran (in the future), how many soldiers would you sacrifice--how many would you let die--for that guarantee?

I want a number, America. You owe the soldiers that much. Every politician should have to state the cost up front.

2. To the generals, would you accept victory in Afghanistan if it meant losing your entire division? To the battalion commanders, would you accept victory if it meant losing your entire battalion? Half a battalion? How many men would you sacrifice for victory? What is more important, victory or survival?

It’s an easy answer: the professional army refuses to sacrifice large numbers of men for the mission. So far the combined wars of Iraq and Afghanistan have cost 7,000 lives. In historical terms, that’s the least amount of soldiers the U.S. has ever lost. Ever. In World War II, the generals leading our Army sacrificed that many men to take single beachheads.

Here is the important point: if military leaders or the American people won’t sacrifice their own men, then they aren’t prepared to win.
We want to win wars, but we don’t want to lose any men, but these causes are as noble and as vital as ever...so long as we keep casualties to a minimum. The duality or hypocrisy or irony of all those competing ideas--don’t lose men, cannot lose, but don’t win and sacrifice any of our own men, but we have to win--just make me to want to scream. But I don’t really blame the generals or the politicians, I blame the people who can’t decide what they want.

America, if you want to truly, really win a war, how many men will you sacrifice?

If the number is too high, then don’t go to war.

three comments

In all of these cases, the answer for me is zero. There is no gain in any of those countries worth the death of an American soldier. Iraq was a shitshow from the start, it never should have happened, and Iran is the same. There’s no reason for war there. By the way the first question is framed, you’ve left me with an out in Afghanistan because going forward from this point, there is, in my opinion, no possible gain worth the loss of another soldier. However, if the question were posed in 2001, it is much tougher because I do think some military action was necessary. The answer for me then is 200, because that’s how many soldiers we lost through 2004. To me, 2004 was the perfect moment to exit—Karzai was elected, the Taliban defeated and AQ seriously deteriorated. We’ve been searching for a mission ever since. (This is all with the benefit of hindsight and time. I wouldn’t have said this in 2004, I don’t think.)

As a Marine officer veteran and a father of a Marine KIA Iraq in 2005, I have conflicting biases and duties. However,and a corollary to Keith above, many of us stated in 2004 AND prior that any number was wrong. I can state this without reservation in regard to the invasion, occupation, fight against an insurgency, surge, and eventual departure without accomplishment in Iraq. Yes, the Afghanistan combat action is more complicated. But I can easily fall back to the events of the Fall of 2001. No Taliban hijacked aircraft on 11Sept01, yes the hijackers trained in Afghanistan, but yes, there is evidence that if the contemporary government of the USA approached the events of 9/11 as a crime vice an inflated act of war, history obviously would be different. In short,Americans in 2001, large majority of them anyway, just blindly supported the National Rhetoric about the need for war and developed quickly a hands off policy regarding casualty numbers. Look at the fact that a large (relatively) number of female military KIA/WIA resulted from both OEF and OIF. The dialog in the previous decade included cries about how terrible it would be for women combat losses. After 9/11/01, that conversation ceased to exist. Americans embraced the early combat losses in Iraq and Afghanistan. The question really needs to be framed around strategy and troop levels—both concepts that have failed in the last decade. The mourning isn’t necessarily over the over count of KIA/WIA, but the dragged out stupidity of the conduct of both wars.

Keith and Derek. Thanks for your thoughts, and I wish more Americans were up front and honest about their feelings. I also wish we could have this conversation before the wars start, as opposed to years later.

And Keith, I think I misread your tweet online so I understand your stance better now with this comment.