“Don’t worry about getting it right, just make a decision, fast, and execute it forcefully,” a fellow candidate whispered. As a 19-year-old Marine Corps officer candidate, I looked forward to the days in Leadership Reaction Course where four of my fellow candidates and I set out to solve unsolvable problems.
“Using a rope, a barrel, and two planks of plywood, get your entire fire team across the water and over the wall, you have 30 minutes,” the sergeant would bark. We all knew the formula—set up security, spend no more than two or three minutes thinking about the problem, and then move.
No one I know ever solved the puzzles, but that didn’t matter to our sergeant instructors who weren’t evaluating competence or problem-solving skills. They evaluated for “leadership,” or rather, what has passed for leadership for decades in the military. The message was clear: Instant action, any action, was better than thoughtful deliberation.
A “bias for action,” is what it’s called. Rash, arrogant, ineffective, and inefficient was what it actually was, and this thinking pervades the ranks. It was considered weak to think about a problem for more than a few seconds.
Which is why I wasn’t surprised to read the revelations of the Afghanistan Papers released by The Washington Post earlier this week. US strategy in Afghanistan has followed the exact formula we were supposed to use to solve the puzzles when I was training to become a Marine officer—don’t think, just act.
In my 13 years of military problem solving, this formula never once worked for me, and I quickly learned from good instructors the value of deliberation—so why were men with decades of experience waging war unable to learn that lesson?
Arrogance among leadership has only amplified the military’s “bias for action.” This arrogance is built on two assumptions. First, military might is the most important if not the only way to win a modern war. Second, the US military is a superior fighting force to any other in the world and thus will win any modern war.
It’s true that the US military is the world’s most heavily funded defense network. With futuristic technology, a determination that military might is superior to soft power, and a grotesquely bloated defense budget, policy-makers have been quick to treat the military as a panacea, making the Defense Department the de facto leader in US foreign policy since the end of World War II.
Any military history hobbyist can explain how history’s most powerful militaries have failed to unite and rule Afghanistan. Ironically, I spent the months leading up to my deployment to Afghanistan researching my master’s thesis in which I ultimately concluded that Afghanistan could and had been defeated militarily, but none of that mattered if the conquerors failed to unite and rule.
Perhaps it was a function of our culture, or of the masculinity that pulsates through the national security space, or of the “perfection politics,” of our society that doesn’t allow for mistakes, growth, or changing course, but what these Afghanistan Papers really revealed was not that the war was unwinnable—that was clear to anyone who with a basic understanding of international relations, colonization, or Afghan culture. What the papers revealed was that the men in charge of strategy knew that too, and knew it from the opening salvos of the war. Instead of stepping back, and reworking the problem from the beginning, or even acknowledging the losses and ending the fiasco, they did what every young lieutenant is taught from day one: hit it harder with more money, more bombs, and more blood.
By the time I arrived in Afghanistan in the waning weeks of 2010, we were nearly a decade into a war Ambassador Crocker called “somewhere between unbelievably hard and outright impossible to fix.” Each week the overall intelligence picture stayed the same. Halfway through our eight-month rotation, the United States killed Osama bin Laden, and for a brief moment, it seemed like we had “won.”
Only the war didn’t end eight years ago. In the Afghanistan Papers, The Washington Post quoted President Obama’s special assistant for national security affairs, Jeff Eggers, who confessed, “After the killing of Osama bin Laden, I said that Osama was probably laughing in his watery grave considering how much we have spent on Afghanistan.” What Jeff didn’t say was the cost of that war—in lives and money—was, and will always be, incalculable.
I wasn’t surprised that Afghanistan was unwinnable, and neither were any of my fellow servicemembers, from the infantry lance corporal on up. What was shocking about the papers released on Monday was the confirmation that those in the highest levels of government, entrusted with the most somber decisions and equipped with a vast, ever-expanding, and largely unchecked pool of resources, failed to show maturity, leadership, or competence beyond that of a 19-year-old officer candidate equipped with a barrel, some rope, and two planks of wood.
We can, and should, forgive ignorance, honest mistakes, and even certain levels of incompetence—war is messy and we often get more things wrong than we do right, but that’s not what happened here. The papers show leaders weren’t simply unprepared for the complexities of war in Afghanistan, they acted immorally, failing the nation and people of Afghanistan, the American public, and every servicemember who sacrificed in a war that could never be won. They knew—and they let it happen anyway.