West Point military historian denies the net value of a decade of war

The NYT has a very important piece today reporting that the head of the military history program at West Point has openly stated that the United States gained “not much” from 10.5 years of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The program head, Col. Gian Gentile, concluded– presumably in light of the cost of these wars in both blood and treasure– that they had been “Certainly not worth the effort. In my view.”
A sobering assessment. Especially since the NYT has published it on Memorial Day, the day on which U.S. citizens remember their (our) war dead, a remembrance that can have different emotional overtones depending on whether or not you supported the decisions political leaders made to send those military personnel into action against (and in many cases, in) the targeted foreign countries.
For those who by and large supported those war-initiation decisions (which I did not, in either case), I imagine it might be hard to hear that all the effort and sacrifices that members of the military and their families made may actually have ended up as “not worth the effort.”
However, if we are to prevent our political leaders from ever again making quite avoidable and extremely destructive and counter-productive decisions to launch wars against other countries, I don’t think we can afford to sentimentalize the human losses that U.S. military families have suffered to the point that we cannot make (or even really hear) the kind of clear-headed assessment that Col. Gentile made in that interview:

    Certainly not worth the effort.

Worth noting there, too: The fact that Col. Gentile is no merely academic egghead. Before serving at West Point he commanded a combat battalion in Baghdad.
Maybe now is a good time for the U.S. public to look back over these past 10.5 years of war-making and consider what might have been done differently, and what the probable or possible effects of such alternative, non-war-based policies might have been… And also, to look at the various hotspots and issues around the world where the (still fairly heavily bellophilic) U.S. political class is still, today, actively discussing the possibility of war or other forms of serious escalation of tensions, such as might very easily lead to war… And to redouble our efforts to explore alternatives to war as a way to meet the security or other forms of concern we have about the behavior of other governments, and the kind of responses our government might make that would aim centrally at de-escalating rather then escalating tensions, and resolving outstanding issues through negotiation, rather than war.
The two main places where people in that toxicly bellophilic space “inside the Washington Beltway” are currently actively discussion escalation and possible war, or “interventions” leading to war, are, of course, Iran and Syria.
It is obvious that regarding these two countries, as regarding the situation in Iraq leading up to March 2003, one of the major forces stoking the bellophilia of members of Congress and its suffocatingly incestuous helpmeets in the MSM has been the pro-Israel lobby. The lobby has effortlessly demonstrated its power in Washington in recent years– most notably when its shills in Congress orchestrated 29 standing ovations for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year– at a time when Netanyahu had come to Washington to openly confront President Obama’s policy on a settlement freeze.
For many months now, the advocacy efforts of the lobby’s main arm in Washington, AIPAC, have been strongly focused on stoking tensions with Iran, and ramming through Congress bills mandating an ever tougher U.S. posture toward the country, that have the effect of making the conduct of normal diplomacy with it ever harder and harder… More recently, AIPAC’s website has also started to feature the issue of Syria as one deserving of U.S. “intervention”. In this latter campaign, AIPAC and the other pro-Israel organizations have been joined by many apparently “liberal” and human-rights-focused organizations, who have been pushing for the kinds of policies “safe havens”, “humanitarian corridors”, etc, that sound as if they are only humanitarian and dedicated to saving lives but whose major effect would be to further stoke the tensions among the Syrian people that are already running high, and to give a green light and considerable de-facto support to the members of the country’s completely unaccountable and deeply Islamist-dominated armed opposition.
Ah, that old illusion of a “war for the sake of human rights”… Where has that led us, before?
Well, back in the 1880s, it led King Leopold of the still-infant “nation” of Belgium into a campaign to conquer and control the whole vast area of what became known as “the Belgian Congo”– a campaign carried out in good part in the name of “saving those native people from the ravages of the Arab slave traders.” Yes, there may well have been some Arab slave traders operating on the far margins of the area that the Belgian forces brought under their control. But the Belgians then instituted in Congo a system of extremely rapacious forced labor and prison camps that led to the death of an estimated 10 million Congolese people over the 23 years that followed…
Indeed, very many wars have been justified by their authors, either at the time or shortly after their initiation, as having a clear and present dimension of the enhancement or protection of rights. (Nobody ever launches an avowedly unjust war, remember. All wars have to seem to be “just” to their authors and supporters.)
In Iraq, as soon as it was clear that the U.S. military were not going to find any actual evidence of the (as it happened, quite illusionary) “WMDs programs” whose presence had been the ostensible cause for which the U.S. public was jerked into the war, Pres. G. W. Bush almost immediately started to rebrand the invasion and war as having been all about human rights.
In Afghanistan, as the war dragged on and on with no clear “victory” in sight, many efforts have been made to rebrand that whole conflict and the United States’s huge and expensive military presence there as being in good part an effort to assure the rights of Afghanistan’s people, especially its women.
Perhaps people who still have that illusion should read some actual testimonies about the situation and thinking of actual Afghan women, like this poignant and timely one published today by the great, heroic antiwar activist Kathy Kelly, currently in Kabul.
She writes about a meeting at a small, volunteer-run tutoring center with three Afghan mothers– two of whom have to try to raise their children almost alone while caring for husbands who are disabled..

    Fatima recalls the past winter which was particularly harsh. They couldn’t afford fuel and had to find other ways to keep warm. But Nuria adds that all the seasons present constant problems, and it is always difficult for the family to make ends meet. Asked whether they could recall ever getting a day off from work, the women answered in unison, – “No.”
    Asked about the notion that the U.S. is protecting Afghan women, Nekbat said that whatever officials claim in this regard, they are bringing no help. These women have seen no improvement in Afghanistan, and neither, they claim, has anyone they know. They don’t travel in the circles of those most likely to meet and speak with Western journalists, and poverty and the uncertainties of war seem to dictate their lives more surely than any government. They tell me all foreign money is lost to corruption – no one in their communities sees it going to the people.
    Although no government official or journalist ever asks them about the conditions they are facing, they know the West is curious; the mothers are aware of the drone aircraft – planes without pilots, some of them armed with missiles, with cameras trained on their neighborhoods.
    The drone cameras miss a lot. Nekbat adds that even when people come through to witness firsthand the suffering of common Afghans, she is sure this news never reaches the ears of Karzai and his government. “They don’t care,” she said. “You may perish from lack of food, and still they don’t care. No one hears the poor.”
    One hospital in Kabul, the Emergency Surgical Center for Civilian War Victims, serves people free of charge. Emanuele Nannini, the chief logistician for the hospital, reminded us, the previous day, that the U.S. spends one million dollars, per year, for each soldier it deploys in Afghanistan. “Just let six of them go home,” he said, “and with that six million we could meet our total annual operating budget for the 33 existing clinics and hospitals we have in Afghanistan. With 60 less soldiers, the money saved could mean running 330 clinics.”

These kinds of calculation about costs and opportunity costs are, within a slightly different framework, exactly what the U.S. public needs to consider as it looks– as Col. Gentile has– at whether any particular war is “worth the effort.”
Strategy, Gentile reminded the NYT interviewer, “should employ resources of a state to achieve policy aims with the least amount of blood and treasure spent.”
The NYT article also has, as an intriguing footnote, a quote from Col. John Nagl, who was one of the earliest adopters of, and avdocates for, U.S. use of a ‘COIN’ (counter-intelligence) strategy in Iraq, and probably elsewhere. Nagl currently teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy, in Annapolis.
U.S. foreign policy, Nagl tells the reporter, should “ensure that we never have to do this again.”
The reporter then apparently asks him whether COIN works:

    “Yes,” he said. “Is it worth what you paid for it? That’s an entirely different question.”

4 thoughts on “West Point military historian denies the net value of a decade of war

  1. jerry hill

    great article; thanks.
    i got here from an interesting-looking link on, it think, twitter. you’re bookmarked now and i shall return 🙂

  2. Warren Metzler

    I think the basic premise of this post misses the point. War is almost never worthwhile; the levels of pain, suffering, and destruction almost always vastly exceeding the “gains” present at the end of the war. So rarely if ever is the real motivation for going to war what is presented to the public. I am personally clear that no Al Queda person was involved in 9/11, and I am personally clear Bush and Cheney knew that. So their push for invading Afghanistan and Iraq had nothing to do with a war on terror. There were other motivations, and because they are not made clear, it was impossible to end the war when those motivations were achieved. So other motivations had to be invented. And since each one of them was a lie, each was without a foundation, there was no way victory could be achieved. And until victory can be achieved, which politician is willing to risk being seen as a backboneless coward, and call an end to an obvious waste of time and money?
    A further issue is involved. If this county agreed that we should operate as our Constitution tells us to operate, we would have no justification for most of the actions our government takes, an example being that we are the world’s policemen. And to cover up that lack of justification, it is highly desirable to have repeated incidents where it appears there is a “need” for our policemen behaviors; almost all such needs being conflicts.
    So most politicians actively look for ways to have our military be involved; and they are supported in this by most in the media, including bloggers, most in the education realm, most in business, actually most in America.
    So this and many other mindless activities will continue until most Americans give up living in the worlds of delusions they inhabit. And I see no evidence that is happening any time soon.

  3. annie

    “the U.S. spends one million dollars, per year, for each soldier it deploys in Afghanistan. “Just let six of them go home,” he said, “and with that six million we could meet our total annual operating budget for the 33 existing clinics and hospitals we have in Afghanistan. With 60 less soldiers, the money saved could mean running 330 clinics.””
    just wow. great post helena.
    i read something that gave me shivers over @ the nyt..”On Saturday, 972 cadets graduated as second lieutenants, sent off in a commencement speech by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. with the promise that they are “the key to whatever challenges the world has in store.” ”
    972, israel’s area code. probably a coincidence..except i don’t really believe in them.

  4. Kenny

    A sobering assessment. Especially since the NYT has published it on Memorial Day, the day on which U.S. citizens remember their (our) war dead, a remembrance that can have different emotional overtones depending on whether or not you supported the decisions political leaders made to send those military personnel into action against (and in many cases, in) the targeted foreign countries.

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