War is hard, but it’s even harder if you’re stupid.
There’s a story of two Germans discussing their adversaries in the blood-soaked trench combat of the Great War. Gruff General Erich Ludendorff paid tribute: “The English soldiers fight like lions.” “True,” Colonel Max Hoffman replied, “but don’t we know that they are lions led by donkeys.”
Some argue that the German leaders never really said it. It doesn’t matter. The phrase resonates to this day because both parties, the lions and the donkeys, then and now, recognized the truth. British commanders of World War I have been labeled confused, stubborn, unimaginative – you can choose the descriptor, but whatever the label, there was an unhealthy degree of inertia present.
We say we’re smarter today. In my 35 years of soldiering, I often condemned those benighted, mixed-up generals. Conversant with the lessons of two world wars, Korea, and Vietnam, my generation of American commanders knew better.
Or did we? Considering the sorry results of the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns, I have to wonder. The fighting men and women we led proved smart, tough, and disciplined indeed. Put a platoon of Americans (or Australians, British, Canadians, French, Germans, Polish, South Koreans, and many others) into contact with Al Qaeda or the Taliban, and the bitter little engagements ended time after time on our terms. Yet, a hundred thousand one-sided firefights do not a victory make.
If we could eavesdrop on an ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) cell meeting or a shura of Taliban elders, I think we might hear echoes of Ludendorff and Hoffman. “Certainly, the American soldiers and their allies fought like lions. But the generals? Not so much.”
Speaking as a general, I got it wrong, and did so in company with my many peers who commanded our forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We did not understand our enemy, a will-o’-the-wisp guerrilla foe who went to ground as we passed through.
In the end, they knew we would never stay for the decades it takes to prevail over an entrenched insurgency comingled with unhappy, suspicious civil populations. They lived there. We didn’t. And our record was clear, as shown in Vietnam in 1975, Afghanistan in 1989, and Iraq in 1991: We don’t stick with it. Our enemies know us well. Our withdrawals from both Iraq (2011) and Afghanistan (2014) have proven them right.
We also did not understand and wisely lead the superb troops that make up our skilled armed forces. The all-volunteer American military, like those of our principal allies, is designed, equipped, and trained to wage short, decisive campaigns against conventional opponents. We’re built for smashing Desert Storm offensives, not endless Vietnam counterinsurgencies.
In both Iraq and Afghanistan, we led off with brilliant quick triumphs. But then donkey-like inertia kicked in, we stuck with it without much plan beyond sticking with it, and we backed into not one, but two, inconclusive, stalemated guerrilla wars. Even our lions could not bail us out of such blunders.
In one way, the average donkey has an edge on a general like me. The beast of burden may indeed be obstinate and shortsighted, but he knows his limitations.
When you think about it – and I have, every day since I figured out this war was lost – what undid us was not just our repetition of failed actions, hoping that this month, this year, this decade would be different. No, what finished us was our arrogance – our firm belief that with the likes of us in charge, experience could be ignored, evidence excused, and history damned. Vietnam offered a stark lesson in the limits of using American military force to try to pacify a fractious populace in an alien country. But we ignored that grim example. We thought that this time, regardless, of our donkey ways, our lions would save the day. We thought wrong.
Today, as we confront ISIS, we would do well to approach the situation with some overdue humility. Our superb U.S. troops are not the right solution to every problem. Indeed, they may well be the exact wrong answer. Perhaps a few hundred U.S. military advisers and a smattering of coalition airstrikes is all we can sustain over the long haul. It’s ugly, messy, and unsatisfying. But it just may keep ISIS busy enough to upend its aspirations to wage terrorism in our homelands.
As for those urging for thousands of well-armed “boots on the ground,” we’ve been to that rodeo quite enough, thank you. It took quite a few hard lessons, but this donkey now knows better. So should we all.