Why We Lost – Book Review
In Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, Daniel P. Bolger, LTG (Ret.), brings to bear the twin pillars of military strategy, Carl von Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, to make his argument that the generals lost because they never understood their wars nor their enemies. Unfortunately, Bolger’s argument serves only as the bookends to a history-by-vignette of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—albeit an enjoyable series of vignettes. Bolger’s insistence on casting every leader in the conflicts as the reincarnations of former generals and presidents paints more of a caricature than a real assessment of the men involved. The book is a great read, but never really manages to tie the vignettes to his larger argument.
The book opens with Bolger’s basic argument: American generals lost the war because of poor strategic and operational leadership. The generals never knew their enemy, used the troops in ways for which they were never designed, and never reassessed their initial assumptions. The prologue details the lessons of Desert Storm from the perspective of the generals, Saddam Hussein, and the distant observer Osama bin Laden. The generals learned that “shock and awe” worked, Saddam learned that propaganda trumps reality, and Osama learned that the Americans lacked the fortitude for the long fight.
Part one outlines the period from September 2001 until April 2003. Bolger details the rise of Bin Laden and his desire to draw the Americans into Afghanistan and crush them in the same way he felt he crushed the Russians. The level of preparatory work that went into the attacks on 9/11 is detailed to include the surprisingly prescient assassination of a potential Northern Alliance leader. The failure to define the enemy or understand the potential for a Taliban resurgence is covered, as is the spin-up of detainee operations that would eventually lead to the loss of the moral high ground. Bolger notes the hunger of the powers in Washington to shift away from the fight in Afghanistan to the perceived threat in Iraq.
Part two delves into Iraq and the mistakes made beginning at the end of major combat operations. Bolger rightfully gives the tactical leaders their due, but bemoans the continued failure of leaders to understand the fight or the enemy. Fallujah is rightfully trotted out as a victory, as are the 2005 Iraqi elections. Bolger pinpoints the destruction of the al-Askari mosque as the beginning of the sectarian explosion that threatened to undermine everything that had been accomplished. No fan of David Petraeus, Bolger paints the new four-star as a self-promoter with eyes on the presidency. The ascension of Barack Obama marked the end of support for the bad Iraq war in favor of the good one in Afghanistan.
Part three delves into the tribal no-man’s land of Afghanistan and outlines the U.S. efforts to bring order to chaos. Bolger begins with the disconnect between ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) and American forces, and he details the continuously shifting landscape of American generals and their different visions for success in the wilds of Afghanistan. Bolger’s basic argument briefly surfaces here as he examines the inability to understand the mission because of the larger inability to define the enemy. Bolger delights with a rare correct translation of Clauswitz’s “political intercourse” only to turn it into a vulgar reference to sexual intercourse where the U.S. military is on the receiving end. His central theme in this section is that the military fought the fight with unrealistic constraints on their actions. The return of Petraeus is trumpeted more for its failure to accomplish any of the successes of Iraq. The section concludes with the decay of morale in the morass of Afghanistan and the rise of the “green on blue” threat from the very Afghan soldiers we were trying to empower.
The epilogue details the costs in blood, treasure, and peace of mind while chiding the generals as “mulish” in their efforts. Bolger lays out his opinion of what went right in the wars, but 13 years of tactical supremacy and victory after victory could not add up to strategic success. Tactical successes exist in the adaptation of forces, the use of the reserves, the rotations of units, the competence of the Special Forces, and the training efforts directed at both U.S. and indigenous forces. The failures that Bolger outlines are the limited engagement in unlimited, irregular conflicts; the failure to identify a concept of operations; the unrealistic expectation of counterinsurgency strategy as a silver bullet; and the failure to understand the enemy. Amusingly, Bolger attributes the final failing to the civilian leadership who failed to listen to the generals, even after Bolger’s claims that the generals never got it right and never understood their own shortcomings.
It was Clausewitz who maintained that commanders have to understand the type of war in which they are engaged, and Sun Tzu who argued that knowledge of the enemy was paramount. Bolger trots out these aphorisms as a condemnation of the generalship during the wars without any substantive evidence for his case. It is entirely plausible that senior leadership failed to understand the wars, the missions, and the enemies, but Bolger simply fails to make the case in his stream of vignettes. The parade of mostly positive senior leadership portraits in the book never really illustrates his point that poor mission definition led to a 13-year struggle against poorly understood enemies in a theater where we never really knew what we were doing. Regardless, the book is a fascinating read, worthy of attention from anyone interested in a retrospective look at the conflicts from one who was there.
Major Chris Townsend enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1996 and earned his commission via Officer Candidate School in 2004. He has held a variety of assignments in Signal, Sustainment, and Infantry units including two company commands. His operational experience includes multiple deployments to Kuwait and Iraq. He is now a Middle East Foreign Area Officer, pursuing a Master’s Degree in Middle East Security Studies at the Naval Post Graduate School.