We aren’t miracle workers. We’re just soldiers after all – kids barely out of their teens and officers in their mid-20s do most of the fighting. Still, policymakers in Washington, and citizens on Main Street both seem convinced that the mere presence of a few hundred or thousand American troops can alter societies, vanquish the wicked, and remake the world.
A colleague of mine refers to this as the myth of the magic soldier: sprinkle US troops in some horrific mess of a country and voilà – problem solved!
It sounds great, but this sort of delusional thinking has led the United States into one failed quagmire after another, killing some 7,000 US troops and close to one million locals. After 17 years of fruitless, indecisive war, its quite incredible that a bipartisan coalition of mainstream Republicans (neocons, mostly) and Democrats (neo-liberal relics) still cling to the idea that American soldiers wield magic powers. It’s long past time to review the record of our over-adulated troopers and reframe the actual – limited – capabilities of military force.
The standard Washington-media-military narrative goes something like this: take any unstable Muslim country that has any presence of Islamists at all; drop in a few thousand US Army advisors, trainers, or combat troops; stay indefinitely – and loudly proclaim that if ever those soldiers should leave said Muslim country it will undoubtedly collapse and the US of A will be directly threatened.
Some version of that exact formula has been tried in, sequentially, Afghanistan (2001-present), Iraq (2003-present), and Syria (2011-present), along with numerous smaller regional locales: Libya, Niger, Somalia, Yemen, etc. Sometimes the troop levels topped out at nearly 150,000 (Iraq), other times the ground forces and special operator teams are smaller (Yemen, Somalia), but the basic blueprint is the same – US airpower, plus commando raids, plus trainers and advisers can somehow stabilize the unstable, secure the insecure, and – ultimately – we hope, craft a "Little America" in the Muslim world. There’re just a couple problems with this veritable religion of US militarism: 1) we rarely consult with the locals before beginning each "crusade"; and 2) It. Has. Yet. To. Work.
Let us enter, then, the world of the absurd – US interventions since 9/11. In Afghanistan, the ultra hawks told (and tell) us, repeatedly, that more soldiers were needed to back up the government in Kabul. Without those magic troops, we’re warned, Al Qaeda will be back and the US Homeland in grave danger. Of course, the fact is there’s relatively few such fighters in Afghanistan, and the Taliban – our primary opponent – has neither the capacity or intent to threaten the US These folks want to conquer Kandahar not Kalamazoo…
Then there was the Iraq invasion, euphemistically titled Operation Iraqi Freedom, which began as a fantastical attempt to craft a liberal democracy between the Tigris and Euphrates – all at the point of a bayonet. By 2006, that adventure had all but fallen apart as the country tumbled into outright civil war. Only then, according the popular, prevailing military and political myth, a new general – David Petraeus – and some 30,000 more "magic" U.S. troopers, turned the tide. In hindsight that was never the case. The US military bought off former enemies with American blood on their hands and temporarily lessened violence. Washington never achieved a more vital political settlement in Baghdad and within three years of America’s departure Iraq was back in chaos. And back to Mesopotamia flew our soldier miracle workers.
This is when a second mainstream – and utterly bunk – myth developed: that if only Obama had left 10,000 "magic" soldiers in country that Iraq would have been just fine and ISIS would never have formed. Such an assertion denies agency to the Iraqis (who ultimately determine their own destiny), overestimates the capabilities of American troops, and ignores the fact that it was the Iraqi government that refused to sign a treaty to keep a US military presence on the ground. In the soldiers-as-miracles narrative, of course, all that is omitted or ignored.
The same goes for the smaller US presence in Syria, Africa, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and on and on. We’re assured that just a bit more airpower, a smidgen more commando raids, and a few more military advisors will turn the tide, stabilize the unstable, and ensure American security. The problem is this: in each case, no one seems able to articulate an exit strategy. That’s because there is none! And there’s the rub – so long as Americans are convinced of the preternatural capabilities of US troops, Washington will be forced to keep them forever deployed. Should they leave (any of these various locales) we’re told that chaos and transnational terror will explode in the region and in American cities. If that’s not a formula for perpetual war, then I don’t know what is!
The various interventions of the "War on Terror" have, at best, a checkered record. Most were, and are, complete strategic failures. They demonstrate the inherent limits of US military power and the need for tough cost/benefit analyses before taking the fateful step of deploying American men and women in harm’s way.
Yet on the wars churn, with no end in sight. And why not? Presidents (from both parties) wield force almost unilaterally; Congress is derelict in its duty to oversee the wars; the politicized Supreme Court demonstrates no intent to rule on the constitutionality of presidential war powers; and the citizenry, well, they could care less. With no conscription, innumerable technological distractions, and regularly fed information from a media focused more on minutiae than substance, how could we expect the American people to take much interest at all?
The truth is the war for the Greater Middle East is over. America already lost – it just hasn’t accepted it yet. The tragedy – and farce – of it all is that some number of US troops and innumerable local civilians are sure to die before Washington comes out of denial and accepts strategic defeat.
I can’t say when that will be; but odds are my own young children will be of military age by then…and so will yours.
Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]
Copyright 2018 Danny Sjursen