Time to ask about lessons learned from our wars, a last opportunity to gain something from them

Summary: This is a follow-up to Remembering is the first step to learning. Living in the now is ignorance.

System Failure

“The commonest error in politics is sticking to the carcass of dead policies.”
— Lord Salisbury, discussing Great Britain’s policy on the Eastern Question (1877)

“My first company commander told me that there’s two ways to learn
1. blunt trauma
2. mindless repetition.”
— Mike Few, from the comments

These quotes go to the heart of American geopolitics, the deep flaw: a too-slow response to information, and unwillingness to learn from events. That is perhaps the great lesson — war warning — from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We show no signs of learning it. The outcomes of these wars were apparent long ago, even to non-specialists like me.  It’s a great betrayal to those who suffered in these wars to treat these as occasions for patriotic rituals, but fail to learn.


In March 2007 I wrote that the war was lost, the outlines of the new Iraq were visible, and we could help build it then leave: The Iraq insurgency has ended, which opens a path to peace. In September 2007 this was even clearer; from Beyond Insurgency: An End to Our War in Iraq

The following are guesses amidst the fog of war. The first two expand upon observations in my article of March 2007. These were controversial then, but almost consensus wisdom today.

  1. Iraq is fragmenting into three parts.
  2. Development of local, armed “governments” drives this process.  Ethnic cleansing is their major tool.  This is a road to peace for Iraq, perhaps the only path still open.
  3. It’s not about us. The Coalition has been and probably will be irrelevant to nation-building in Iraq.
  4. More fighting lies in Iraq’s future, mostly battles for control of the new proto-states and border wars. Hopefully this means less killing.

By July 2008 it was obvious:

As time goes by the fabric holding “Iraq” together torques and tears.  Kurdistan is now in almost all respects an independent nation.  Slowly the Sunni and Shiite Arab regions are developing their own political and governmental apparatus.  Eventually the pieces will fit together in a new configuration.  That process might be peaceful, incendiary, or anywhere in between.  We have little to say about it.

Yet the war continued until the July 2009 withdrawal from the cities, with the last troops out by the end of 2011.  Blood and money spilled in an already vain quixotic war, for no gain for America.  Worse, out intervention unleashed forces now tearing Iraq apart, so that the toll of suffering greatly exceeds anything Saddam might have done — something we refuse to see (amnesia is so comforting).


“Calling Afghanistan a war without exit or victory is stupid as well.”
Joshua Foust, in February 2008, one of the many hawks who built a career advocating war in Afghanistan. Six years later we have found neither victory nor an exit.


In October 2003 my second post ever said that we were losing in Afghanistan; the 100+ subsequent posts described this sad tale in detail. Yesterday’s post showed that this was obvious to any objective observer, as Stephen M. Walt explains in “Leaving Afghanistan: Not With a Bang, But a Whimper“, Foreign Policy, 28 October 2013 — Excerpt:

I don’t know if the United States and NATO could have achieved a meaningful victory in Afghanistan had the Bush administration not embarked on its foolish misadventure in Iraq. But it was clear by 2009 that doubling down in Afghanistan wasn’t going to produce an effective or fully legitimate Afghan government and wasn’t going to produce a strategically more favorable outcome from the perspective of U.S. interests. But President Obama decided to “surge” there anyway, mostly because he wanted to look tough on national security and feared the domestic backlash if he cut our losses and withdrew.

Now, some five years later, NATO and the U.S. are preparing to (mostly) leave.

Yet this monumental failure remains missing from our new media, or has this prompted the necessary debate about how and why this happened.

Failure to see, followed by failure to learn

“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
— George Santayana, Life of Reason (1906)

Not seeing this, our unwillingness to learn, resulted in my most foolish predictions. If it was obvious these wars were unwinnable, they would end soon.

As usual, my misunderstanding of our condition — our problem — produced scores of equally false analysis about ways to reform America.

Now I believe reform must start with a clearer vision of ourselves and the world. Reform will not come from a set of technocratic policy proposals — the magic platform that gains popular support.  A deeper change in ourselves is needed. Much like that which transformed English subjects into a self-governing people.

Our amnesia about our past, unwillingness to learn from experience, and difficulty seeing the present are flaws that offset the dynamism and adaptability of US society. Better describing the problem and a solution is the goal of the How to Reform America series. Contribute your thoughts in the comments.

Lessons learned

For More Information

(a)  All posts about our wars in Iraq, Af-Pak & elsewhere.

(b)  Steps to fixing America:

  1. Fixing American: taking responsibility is the first step, 17 August 2008
  2. Five steps to fixing America, 19 October 2011
  3. A third try: The First Step to reforming America, 28 May 2013
  4. The second step to reforming America, 14 August 2013
  5. The third step to reforming America, with music, 3 September 2013

(c)  Other posts about reforming America:

  1. Fixing America: the choices are elections, revolt, or passivity, 18 August 2008
  2. The project to reform America: a matter for science or a matter of will?, 16 March 2010
  3. Can we reignite the spirit of America?, 14 September 2010
  4. The sure route to reforming America, 16 November 2010
  5. Should we despair, giving up on America?, 5 May 2012
  6. We are alone in the defense of the Republic, 5 July 2012
  7. The bad news about reforming America: time is our enemy, 27 June 2013
  8. Why the 1% is winning, and we are not, 26 July 2013
  9.  Occupy & Tea Party are alike, both saving America through cosplay, 18 October 2013



13 thoughts on “Time to ask about lessons learned from our wars, a last opportunity to gain something from them”

  1. One great geopolitical mistake America made in both cases was confusing morality for sound policy. We’ve never wanted to be confused for imperialists, who, when they were most effective, did the opposite. An effective imperialist would have divided and conquered both countries – in Iraq, the country could have been split into three sections quite readily and much of the blood might have been avoided, while in Afghanistan, they’d have put the ex-king back on the throne and propped him up with just enough cash and arms to keep in just enough control to prevent al Qaeda and the Taliban from taking charge.

    Neither of these would have been democratic changes in line with any UN convention. But they all would have had a better chance of working than working so hard to “liberate” countries that had no idea what the hell we really meant by “liberation,” and even less interest in it.

    1. Mr B.

      That’s a logical analysis. However I disagree with your assumption of our intent.

      “We’ve never wanted to be confused for imperialists”

      Yes, we did not want to look like imperialists — but the evidence suggests that we wanted to be imperialists.

    2. FM, methinks Mr. B needs to educate himself about the neoconservatives who overwhelmingly dominated the Republican Party at the time — particularly those associated with the think tank Project For A New American Century which strongly advocated, encouraged, and pushed for the establishment of a global hegemony dominated by the United States (among them such high-ranking officials within the Bush administration as Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney).

      May I suggest that Mr. B begin his education by perusing the Wayback Machine archive for the Project for a New American Century website (https://web.archive.org/web/*/http://www.newamericancentury.org)…perhaps with the BBC documentary “The Power Of Nightmares” as a follow-up?

    3. I should clarify – by ‘we’ I meant the American public at large that first gave large approval ratings for these ways. As Bluestocking rightly notes, neoconservatives were often self-aware enough to realize their imperial project, but did not want to say so too loudly for fear of the public backlash.

      That being said, neoconservatism has a moral component as well – a belief that all peoples, regardless of development, culture, or history, desire to be “free” in the Enlightenment and liberal democratic sense of the term.

      1. Mr. B,

        “neoconservatism has a moral component as well – a belief that all peoples, regardless of development, culture, or history, desire to be “free” in the Enlightenment and liberal democratic sense of the term.”

        In what way is that a distinguishing belief of neoconservatives? It says in the Declaration:

        We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. …

  2. I have a standard rant about Afghanistan:

    I used to play a game called Pax Brittanica, which simulated world conditions from 1880-1916. In that game, Afghanistan was a region that was 1) most likely to revolt, 2) a real pain to conquer, and 3) cost more to govern than could ever be extracted from it. Furthermore, should anyone ever be dumb enough to actually invade it, the mere act of occupying the country would be enough to give at least one major power, if not two, cause to declare war. In the games I played, no one ever messed with the place.

    If a friggin’ game can figure that out, why can’t people do so in the real world? Yeah, I know, Osama bin Ladin and the Taliban. Still, the above wisdom should have been enough to convince people to get in, get the job done, and get out.

    I still stand by this piece of wisdom I gained by being a gamer geek.

    I also have a graphic showing the relative costs of going back to the Moon and fighting in Afghanistan at the link. Spoiler, the Moon would have been cheaper.


    1. Neon,

      “I also have a graphic showing the relative costs of going back to the Moon and fighting in Afghanistan at the link. Spoiler, the Moon would have been cheaper.”

      Awesome. Easily best of thread.

      Both are useless projects, but going to the moon would have been more fun, gave more stimulus to the US economy, and involved shedding of less blood.

      Oddly, in America the latter factor is a disadvantage. Shedding blood, real or prospective, is a bigger justification than any other factor.

  3. In the previous post, FM wrote (regarding the US military intervention in Afghanistan):

    “How did this happen? This cannot just be repeated mistakes. My guess: decades from now historians will look back at us, easily seeing some structural flaw in our society. Our thinking, our organization, perhaps our values. They will wonder why this flaw was not apparent to us. It’s not just that both wars failed to produce benefits to American [sic] (although many individuals and corporations profited).”

    What I take from your posts is that the protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were not mistakes, they were deliberate. They were carried out because they accomplished certain desired objectives. They are not repeated errors but reiterated successes. The country is not a victim of inept military strategy. We have, within our country, differing viewpoints on the whether these wars have been a net good.

    Please explore this further. “Who benefits” is essential. War profiteering is not new – it was not invented here. Avoid shock or shame and explore politics. The reluctance of Congress to make these declared wars is symptomatic. The national level political class is presumptively one of the beneficiaries of the wars.

    This appear to be part of the larger problem of lack of social cohesiveness or increased class differentiation. Is that too superficial? If true, does that suggest a remedy? (And, if true, was Vietnam a precursor to “the 1%”?)

    1. Hans,

      All good questons.

      (1) “They were carried out because they accomplished certain desired objectives. They are not repeated errors but reiterated successes.”

      My view is that these wars were carried out for objectives in addition to those stated. We can only guess as to what they are. Here are two articles by Stratfor pondering this:

      (2) “The country is not a victim of inept military strategy.”
      The strategy was inept (but well-executed), and accomplished little of value to the US.

      (3) “We have, within our country, differing viewpoints on the whether these wars have been a net good.”
      I doubt that, but we can only guess without knowing our rulers’ reasons for the wars.

      (4) “War profiteering is not new – it was not invented here.”
      Quite so. But nobody says the reasons for these wars were unique in history. Almost nothing is.

      (5) “Avoid shock or shame”
      I do not understand.

      (6) “explore politics.”
      War is politics by other means, so the reasons for a war are political (at least in one dimension).

      (7) “The reluctance of Congress to make these declared wars is symptomatic.”
      Symptomatic of what? Perhaps it just reflects a loss of authority by Congress in national security policy.

      (8) “The national level political class is presumptively one of the beneficiaries of the wars.”
      I don’t know what you mean by “political class”. The actual politicans are in effect high-level professionals employed by the 1%. Broadly speaking, they are not beneficiaries of the policies they advocate, except in the sense that successfully advocacy of successful policies can further their success.

      (9) “This appear to be part of the larger problem of lack of social cohesiveness or increased class differentiation. Is that too superficial?”
      I don’t see the connection between our wars and those phenomena. But those phenomena are IMO serious and growing problems.

      (10) If true, does that suggest a remedy?”
      Not to me, but then I’m at sea when it comes to remedies.

      (11) “And, if true, was Vietnam a precursor to “the 1%”?”
      I do not see the connection.

  4. A great post, it encapsulates what I’ve been thinking for a while, and I think it applies to a lot of the western enlightenment societies, not just america.

    As a society I think the best thing we can do is to make space for new thought. This means giving over more time to leisure( as in not work). With the coming productivity gains to be derived from robotics and automation, we can be both richer, and work less.

    I really hope that all the benefits of productivity don’t end up in the pockets of the few. That would be a great shame.

    We live in a time of great opportunity, in most of the west access to medical care, food and education is greater than at anytime previously. Our political thought however is still mired in the relations of who sits to the right of the king, and who to the left. There have been abortive attempts to move beyond those relations, fascism, communism, libertarianism, syndicalism, none have been logically coherent, or even survived commonsense questioning.
    Liberalism is still supreme, and rightly, as it is the only one which accommodates the realities of the real world. Its the best starting point we have for building a system of thought to get us through the next few hundred years.
    There are probably men and women doing great work as we speak, but my guess is the world is not ready to except there thought.
    It is very rare that the original thinker lives in a world which chimes with his values, (Locke was one).
    But this is very unusual, we shouldn’t be discouraged if the world doesn’t accord with our beliefs, if our conceptions are correct, one day the world will recognize this (but probably not us!) and what was once laughted out of court will become self evident.

    For my own part I feel that the next big societal question shall be the problem of inherited economic power. Once it was taken as part of Gods design that Political Power would pass along bloodlines, this was natural and right, and for a long time it provided the stability for western society to survive.
    In the end it became a victim of its own success, the stability it provided for helped to produce a class which wanted a ever larger part of political power, and in the end rejected the concept of inherited power. This confluence of political and religious thought developed slowly, but in the end was irresistible.

    Will economic power under go a transformation in the robotic age? What seems right and natural now, will, I suspect seem preposterous in a few hundred years. The concept of Apples and Googles and vast economic power being passed though families, could one day seem abhorrent to all right thinking men. .

  5. It seems to me it is not about war profiteering as much bringing down countries who are independent and not within Pax Americana. That seems a continuing thread. It is not about dictators, If so the ones in Central Asia would not be courted nor the ones in the Gulf/ME.

  6. Isis is our baby. A new Sunni state just happens to pop up in between 3 Russian supported Shiite countries, what could be better for America? A stroke of genius by the deep state.

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