The Wrong War

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Even worse, perhaps, is that when terrorists are captured, there is nothing to be done with them, thanks to a corrupt system, perhaps, but also because of the timidity of the rules America insists the war must be fought under.

However, coalition and Afghan rules covering crime and punishment lacked purpose, consistency, and reliability. A few kilometers south of Jakarta, and an eleven-year-old boy often waved at passing patrols. The Marines took to chatting with the boy, who pointed out a trail that Taliban occasionally used. A few weeks later, the Taliban executed him and his brothers, sisters, mother, and father. Although shocked neighbors knew the identities of the gang that had gone to the farm in the middle of the day, no one would testify.

The tragedy illustrated the disquieting truth; American military doctrine didn’t know how to confront evil…. The American military and judicial systems were so tied up in political knots that in Afghanistan there were no coalition trials for murderers or terrorists. If they renounced the insurgency, the coalition would give them jobs. Worse, Afghans as a society denied that fellow Afghans were capable of evil. The locals knew the killers. But there was no penalty for murder if committed in the name of Islam.

Among the book’s most gripping chapters is the story of the ill-conceived and ill-fated Operation Dancing Goat (which I’m sure is informally known as goat-something-else among those who participated.  Here, the Rules of Engagement and brass with no respect for the enemy’s capabilities, nearly led to a huge disaster, save for the unbelievable heroism of one Marine.

The Marines were assigned to attend a shura (think powwow with tea as the peace pipe) with an Imam for whom they had built a mosque recently.  Despite objections that the plan left their east flank open, and that was the flank directly leading to Pakistan where Taliban and al Qaeda were hold, up, the Marines were sent anyway, with a full complement of Afghan soldiers and border police.

They were ambushed by a large force, and Sgt. Dakota Meyer rescued wounded soldiers while inflicting punishment on the enemy over and over again.  As West explains:

For a man to charge into fire once requires grit that is instinctive in few men; to do so a second time, now knowing what awaits you, requires inner resolve beyond instinct; to repeat a third time is courage above and beyond any call of duty; to go in a fourth time is to know you will die; to go in a fifth time is beyond comprehension.

Myer’s performance was the greatest act of courage in the war, because he repeated it, and repeated it, and repeated it.

But even while Marines and Afghans were being gunned down, they could not get approval for a fire mission.  After the goat… rodeo… was over, Meyer, a man any platoon would want to have as part of its fighting force, had to be removed from the battlefield, his rage at what had happened was just too great.

West does allow that General David Petraeus, upon taking over in Afghanistan has allowed for more aggression against the bad guys—particularly through Special Forces operations.

Conventional combat troops, however, are still overly hampered with their nation-building mission.  And Petraeus still answers to Admiral Mullen, who answers to Barack Obama—whose Attorney General Eric Holder stands ready to leap into action against any soldier who makes a mistake.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Michael Mullen, was fond of saying quote we can’t kill our way to victory.” That was political drivel. If the Taliban weren’t killing people, there wouldn’t be 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan. It was comparable to a police chief saying, “Arrests are not the solution to crime” — a vacuity sure to result in fewer arrests. War centered upon killing. The grunts knew that, even if their own generals did not. Killing was not the solution, but it was the means to the solution.

When generals bemoaned killing, they were trying to make themselves seem morally and intellectually enlightened, while indicating their shallow understanding of what their own grunts were doing day after day.

But while The Wrong War effectively chronicles the problems, blunders, and just plain cluelessness about human nature that the Afghanistan War has produced, it is, like all Bing West books, at its core a tribute to the young men who take up arms for their country’s cause.

What the film critic dubbed “vague notions about honor and patriotism” are the lifeblood of any great nation. It is an elitist conceit to believe that soldiers join the military for a “drug high” or because they lack job opportunities. The majority of enlisted soldiers come from mid- and upper-class neighborhoods. 98% graduate from high school or have an equivalency degree. Officers largely come from neighborhoods in the top one-fifth of household incomes. Our troops don’t volunteer to get a thrill or a job; they have better opportunities.

Yes, soldiers fight for their comrades…. But the reason most grunts volunteer to serve — before they ever meet their comrades — is out of a desire to test themselves and to serve as our guardians (although they won’t admit it). After one hundred patrols, they know the difference between theory and reality. None remain naïve, some become cynical, and most return to the States grateful for what we have and doubtful about how much we can change others.

Recently, David Horowitz wrote a seminal article “Why I am not a Neo-Conservative” expressing doubt that creating democracies in the Muslim world is even possible, much less a viable national goal– “Because of these nation-building delusions we are still mired in Afghanistan — now the longest war in American history.”

The Wrong War is the evidence that such delusions are a waste of American blood, and as West writes, they serve to sap what’s left of our martial spirit.  It’s time for conservatives to stop the reflexive cheerleading and take a long hard look at our Afghanistan policy.

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  • BLJ

    Bing West should be required reading for all of our so-called leaders in this country. The man speaks the truth.

  • Jim_C

    If it takes an ex-Marine hard@ss to tell you it's time to bring the troops home, I say, hallelujah.

    Though I found his hair-splitting amusing in this quote:

    "The chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Michael Mullen, was fond of saying quote we can’t kill our way to victory.” That was political drivel…."

    After which he states, "Killing was not the solution, but it was the means to the solution."

    Well, what in the world is the difference?

    It's true what Mullen said was political drivel: What he means is not that we need to play nice-nice; he really means our military can't "solve" Afghanistan. And what makes it drivel is that we will continue to act as if we can until such time as politically expedient.

    I'm glad Mr. Horowitz wrote a "seminal" article about why he's not a "neoconservative" after a decade of staunch neoconservativism. He's made a career of dramtically defecting from previous faulty positions. We can only hope maybe actual conservativism will be next?