LIVE BLOG: The Right Way to Lose a War

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Political Science Professor Dominic Tierney is about to begin his faculty lecture, “The Right Way to Lose a War: America in the Age of Unwinnable Conflicts.” He has a forthcoming book with the same name. The room is packed with people as Professor Ben Berger introduces Tierney.

4:44 Tierney begins in January 1842 with a British sentry in Afghanistan looking out into the hills. He was expecting a 1,000 strong army. What he sees instead is William Brighdon, a doctor from Kabul, riding a pony on the brink of death. As he rides up to the fortress, they ask him “What happened to the army?” He replied “I am the army.” He had been the only one in the entire British army to survive. The British then withdraw from Kabul and Tierney announces, “This is how not to win a war.”

4:47 His upcoming book is based upon interviews with many generals, policymakers, and scholars, and delves into this exact issue.

4:50 “The very idea of losing is hateful to an American.” In 1945, America stopped winning wars. Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq have all been losses. The only success of the past five wars we have fought has been the Gulf War. The US is now the unsurpassed superpower and is transforming how the world views foreign threats. But what kind of conflicts are we getting ourselves involved in? The good news? Since 1945, countries have basically stopped fighting each other, and interstate wars have become very rare. The bad news: Insurgents didn’t get the memo that wars are over. The major conflicts of the globe are now shifting from interstate wars to civil wars. We need to begin understanding ethnicity, culture, and religion.

4:53 “We have more power, they have more willpower.” In Vietnam, we believed there was one answer to victory: firepower. But this is indicative of how the U.S. is failing to understand the new state of warfare. Simply increasing firepower makes you more enemies than victories.

4:56 We live in an age of American power, and American military loss. We became interventionist with our power, and now our problem is figuring out how to lose. We need an exit strategy, where we can exit gracefully. This is the ultimate test of leadership. Leave too quickly and everything might collapse. Leave too late, and the country can become mired in the same or worse stagnancy than it began with. No American president has ever managed to end their own wars. They always hand it off to the next president.

5:00 Rule Number One in Politics: Never invade Afghanistan. The British understand this. By 2006, Afghanistan was an unwinnable war. For years, there were insufficient American troops on the ground and an adamant refusal to negotiate with the Taliban. Iraq also required an exit strategy. The US neither left nor won. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said, “We don’t have an exit strategy, we have a victory strategy.” He was right only on the first count. Americans consistently negotiate badly or refuse to negotiate at all.

5:06 Americans are loss-averse. They are more likely to cut their losses and leave a failing war than they are to risk losing too much. At the same time, they are strongly aware of sunk costs. This meant we were too late to withdraw from Vietnam but too quick to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan. Rationally, Washington should be able to enter and exit a war according to US interests, but normally once the US makes the decision to withdraw, they cannot send more troops if the need arises or change their mind after deciding to continue in a conflict.

5:08 Tierney’s Exit Strategy: Surge, Talk, and Leave. We need to bring the means and ends into alignment. We need to start crafting a narrative of conflict. War is too complex to comprehend. But we can understand a story about the war. Controlling the narrative of war is an essential part of leadership. Stories are the language of war, and the president has to use this language if he is to be understood. War is fundamentally a contest to control the narrative. We either write the story of war or we end up playing the villain in a story of imperialism told by the enemy.We need to end up with a story that we can bring back to not only the American people, but also the Afghan people, the Koreans, the Iraqis.

5:12 Surge. Temporary increase in US forces. American reinforcements may be necessary to overcome the immediate crisis. A bigger crisis and higher goals means more troops. If we pursue less ambitious goals, the surge should be smaller in scale. In 2010 Obama sent over 50,000 troops in Afghanistan, but he wanted these troops to come home just 18 months later in 2011. The surge averted a serious battlefield crisis. But Obama sent too many troops in too short a period. His aim in Afghanistan was ugly stability, but he sent in troops more appropriate for instating a beacon of freedom. A smaller but longer surge could have resulted in a more stable outcome. The Taliban was left too weak to win but too strong to lose.

5:16 Talk. We need to negotiate. Negotiating is incredibly challenging. The talks over how to end the Vietnam war stalled for weeks as the two sides argued over what shape the negotiating table should be.

5:20 Leave. Leaving doesn’t mean the end of American involvement in the war. Washington can continue to provide aid and other forms of assistance. Leaving is also very difficult. After Afghanistan, the enormous number of Humvees, TGI Fridays, and people had to be airlifted out of the country, as the road system was grossly inadequate. In Vietnam, the fate of POWs was highly contentious. Washington’s fixation on the prisoners was detrimental to their leverage because it gave the Vietnamese a strong bargaining chip. The way the US leaves has a huge impact on how Americans and the rest of the world remembers the war. The only event we remember from our intervention in Somalia was Black Hawk Down.

5:24 After these three phases of the exit strategy, there is the aftermath of the conflict. The US can look to divide its former adversaries. The exit of US forces may splinter opposing partnerships.  We should look to build a long-term strategic partnership with our military allies by providing security and aid. Ending a conflict honorably means protecting American veterans. As a society, we need to wrestle with painful memories of failure. How we recall war is critical because it shapes current and future policy. Americans tend to develop amnesia, where we simply forget difficult wars, dangerous myths, where we paint the enemy as having stabbed Americans in the back, and phobias, there we are allergic to any criticisms of US past actions.

5:29 Tierney ends with pictures of the last fatalities in Iraq, Vietnam, and Korea. They ended in the last minutes of the war before the ceasefires began. He prompts us to think of the lives we could have saves had we ended these wars just minutes earlier than we had. Hours earlier, days earlier, months earlier. And finally, think of the lives we could have saved had we never begun these wars at all.

5:34 Q&A session begins. Andy Lee ’16 asks how warfare is changing as the US is increasingly fighting invisible enemies, in that we are trying to fight wide-ranging guerrilla fighters with a conventional army, which puts the US at a distinct disadvantage. Tierney’s answer: we should make war safe, legal, and rare. Safe: We need to train the US military for the kinds of wars we’re actually likely to fight. There is huge resistance within the US military to cater the military to fighting insurgencies. There is no huge military industrial complex for things like language learning. For his forthcoming book, Tierney asked the commander in Afghanistan whether he thought the US would effectively transform the military in ways it needs to in order to fight insurgencies. The commander responded with a definitive no. Legal: some of what we have been doing has been illegal, and we need to make sure we adhere to laws of war. Rare: we don’t need to be fighting wars we don’t need to fight. The US is far too willing to go to war.

5:36 Question: Suppose we learn how to exit from the war. How does that then lead to an ideational shift in how we define losses and wars and how that would affect our incentives to go to war in the first place? Will this actually augment the military industrial complex? Tierney’s answer: “What I’d like to see is before we go to war, have American officials to play out how they are going to exit at the end of the conflict.” Hopefully, thinking through how the war will end will deter us from entering into wars in the first place. Before beginning a shotgun marriage in Vegas, spend some time in the divorce courts.

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