A Lesson Never To Be Drawn From America's Recent Wars

Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com

Sometimes it's tough to pull lessons of any sort from our confusing world, but let me mention one obvious (if little noted) case where that couldn't be less true: the American military and its wars. Since September 11, 2001, the U.S. has been in a state of more or less permanent war in the Greater Middle East and northern Africa. In those years, it's been involved in a kaleidoscopic range of activities, including full-scale invasions and occupations, large-scale as well as pinpoint bombing campaigns, drone strikes, special ops raids, advisory missions, training programs, and counterinsurgency operations. The U.S. military has fought regular armies, insurgencies, and terror groups of all sorts, Shiites as well as Sunnis. The first war of this era, in Afghanistan -- a country Washington declared "liberated" in 2002 -- is still underway 16 years later (and not going well). The second war, in Iraq, is still ongoing 13 years later. From Afghanistan to Libya, Syria to Yemen, Iraq to Somalia, the U.S. military effort in these years, sometimes involving "nation building" and enormous "reconstruction" programs, has left in its wake a series of weakened or collapsed states and spreading terror outfits. In short, no matter how the U.S. military has been used, nothing it's done has truly worked out.

Now, we are about to enter the Trump era in which a series of retired generals, previously involved in these very wars, may end up running parts of the government or directly advising the president-elect on what course to take in the world. As Trump said in his recent interview with the New York Times, speaking of appointing retired General James Mattis as secretary of defense, "I think it's time maybe, it's time for a general. Look at what's going on. We don't win, we can't beat anybody, we don't win anymore. At anything."

Nonetheless, you don't have to be either a genius or a general to draw a simple enough lesson from these last 15 years of American war, even if it's not Trump's lesson: don't do it. Of course, the new crew (aka the old crew) will naturally have ideas about how to "utterly destroy ISIS" and fulfill the president's other promises in ways different from those already used. They will undoubtedly convince themselves that, unlike their predecessors (who just happen to be them), they have answers to the conundrum of how to effectively prosecute the war on terror. They will not, in other words, have learned the obvious lesson of these years and will, in some fashion, once again apply U.S. military power to the Greater Middle East and northern Africa -- and whatever they do, however successful it may look in its early moments, it's a guarantee that further disaster will ensue sooner or later. Guaranteed as well: that vast region will be "greater" only in terms of the ever vaster expanses of rubble where cities and towns used to be; and our "empire of chaos" there will continue to blow back here as well. It will come home in expense, in frustration, and in god knows what other ways.

Rest assured of one thing, it won't be pretty, either there or here, a point made in "Winning, Trump Loves to Do It, But American Generals Have Forgotten How," by Andrew Bacevich, author of America's War for the Greater Middle East, while doing something that, strangely enough, has scarcely been done in all these years of war: evaluating the performance of America's generals.