In a word, dishonesty. That’s the key reason why America keeps losing its wars of choice, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, or elsewhere.
Dishonesty is nothing new, of course. Recall the lessons from the Pentagon Papers in the Vietnam War. U.S. leaders knew the war was lost, yet they lied to the American people about seeing lights at the end of tunnels. Recall the Iraq war and the “fixing” of intelligence to justify the invasion. Today the newspeak for Afghanistan is “corners,” as in we’ve turned yet another corner toward victory in that 16-year conflict, according to military testimony before Congress this week.
About those “corners,” here’s a concise summary from FP: Foreign Policy:
Afghanistan turning a corner. Again.Or still? After 16 years of war, the United States and its Afghan partners “have turned the corner,” and Kabul’s battered forces are “on a path to a win,” the top US general there told reporters on Tuesday.
But FP’s Paul McLeary notes that we’ve heard this before. American generals have been seeing victory on the horizon since at least 2007, and “Gen. John Nicholson is at least the eighth top commander in the last decade to forecast a pathway to victory in a war that has dragged on nearly all century, and his optimistic forecasts contrast starkly with deteriorating Afghan government control and a resurgent Taliban.”
The military and our leaders can’t even level with us on the number of troops deployed in Syria. Consider this report today, courtesy of FP: Foreign Policy:
The Pentagon is good at a great many things, but they can do absolutely magical things with troop numbers. The U.S. Central Command announced this week that it was pulling 400 Marines out of Syria, where they had been providing artillery support for the Syrian Democratic Forces battling ISIS.
The number is remarkable given that the military continues to insist there are only 503 US troops in Syria overall. And somehow, that 503 number has managed to remain exactly the same even after the Marines left. Recently, a general running US special operations in Iraq and Syria said there were 4,000 US troops in Syria. He quickly backtracked, saying the number was around 500 and holding steady, despite all actual physical evidence to the contrary.
Do we have 500 troops in Syria, or 2000, or 4000? Who are our generals trying to fool? Our rivals and enemies know how many troops we have in their regions and countries. Why can’t the American people have a full and honest accounting of what “our” troops are up to in places like Syria?
Whether from the Executive branch or from the military, the dishonesty keeps coming. This is exactly why we fail.
Why are we so persistent in our folly? For several reasons. Some people come to believe their own lies, their own happy talk. Careerism plays a role; so does politics. Money is a big concern, since there’s so much of it to be made in war. Some people even think it’s OK to lie if it’s for the “right” reason, i.e. better to project an image of dumb strength than one of pacific wisdom. America must never appear “weak”! For some, that means never quitting a war, no matter how foolish. Better to lie about “progress” than to admit problems that should lead to dramatic change.
Deception is at the heart of war, but we’re supposed to be deceiving the enemy, not ourselves. We’ve allowed public relations – driven by dishonesty – to rule our thinking and reporting on war. But, to paraphrase a saying of Richard Feynman with respect to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster,
To wage a successful war, reality must take precedence over public relations, for the war gods cannot be fooled.
And to borrow from the penultimate sentence of his report (using the Pentagon in place of NASA): The Pentagon “owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources.”
Imagine if our leaders were frank, honest, and informative about our wars and their costs? But they prefer dishonesty instead – and that is why they (and we) fail.
William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools and blogs at Bracing Views. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.