America really gave it the college try in Iraq, but in no sense of the word can it be said we “won.” It was more like a draw or a mixed bag. We won everything worth winning back in 2004: Saddam was gone, no WMDs were found, and we had lost a minimum of lives. But since then we’ve seen an insurgency arise that cannot be beaten, and we have empowered Iran and installed an Iranian-friendly government in Iraq due to the friendliness of these two Shia-majority regimes.
This week we left Iraq with little fanfare; indeed, we left kind of in a rush since the “friendly” Iraq government would not approve important details in a renewed status of forces agreement focused on training Iraqis.
The insurgency has ebbed and flowed during our tenure, and it still persists. Our military became really interested in counterinsurgency along the way, and this led to the rising star of General Petraeus for a time, but the military and politicians alike realized–perhaps without saying so explicitly–that we’re not really cut out for this kind of war, and that it cannot be won without a decent partner in the indigenous government, and that such a partner is nearly impossible to find when there is a tradition of nationalism and also the Islamic religion, i.e., in the entire Middle East. So we left, and we’re soon going to be leaving Afghanistan for many of the same reasons under similar circumstances (and there, as well, finally having done something useful in whacking Osama bin Laden in spite of all the marginal results during the interim).
One thing wars do is expose a nation’s military in all its competence and glory–consider the Battle of Fallujah, the swift expulsion of the Taliban, or the death of bin Laden–but also in all its infamy, pettiness, and mismanagement, coupled with the casual dishonesty and misinformation that surround even the most basic affairs, such as the bestowing of a Medal of Honor. Surely, these contrasts are not lost on the soldiers and veterans, many of whom now are learning what class of people run the VA bureaucracy or have found that a good war record can be turned into dust with a few bad fitness reports in garrison.
Thomas Ricks has an interesting observation that the type of war we have fought, where so little measurable progress can been made, particularly encourages various type of “chickenshit,” as a means of restoring the illusion of control:
The main issue is this–a LOT of the senior leadership is lost in the sauce, has no idea what’s going on or how to accomplish anything concrete. So, they attempt to make themselves feel like they’re in control of the situation via a) imposing ludicrous chickenshit on those below them, and b) spending most of their time liaising with other senior Americans, doing coordination meetings, briefings, etc., etc., etc. That way, they feel like they are in control of their environment, and never have to encounter anything which would suggest differently. All this is done at the expense of their subordinates and of the war in general, but that’s ok.
Of course, peacetime militaries are notoriously worse in this department, and it will be interesting to see how the huge cadre of combat veterans reacts to these things as we withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan.