America’s retreat from Afghanistan after nearly 20 years of war, $2 trillion in taxpayer dollars, and 2,448 dead service members is nearly complete. The top commander of U.S. forces there, Army Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, stepped down on Monday after three years in the role. He is not being replaced. Good riddance.
We can now say that this war, in which I fought in 2010–11, will end in defeat. The Taliban currently controls half of Afghanistan’s districts and actively contests an additional quarter that, on paper, remain in government hands. Last month, Miller warned that “a civil war is certainly a path that can be visualized if this continues on the trajectory it’s on right now.”
For the second time in the modern era, including the Vietnam War, our military has not accomplished the mission prescribed by the White House and Congress. Presidents and politicians have received their share of blame, but for too long our nation’s military leadership has escaped reproach. It is the generals and admirals’ foremost job to fight and win wars; dozens of them in every branch of service, across presidencies of both parties and multiple generations, have decisively failed.
Across two decades, our military leaders presented rosy pictures of the Afghanistan War and its prospects to the president, Congress, and the American people, despite clear internal debate about the validity of those assessments and real-time contradictory information from those fighting and losing the daily battle against the Taliban. Or, to put it in the words of John Sopko, the inspector general who issued a series of reports known as the Afghanistan Papers: “The American people have constantly been lied to.”
The promise that victory was just around the corner proved intoxicating to presidents and politicians, not to mention everyday Americans, who blindly trusted anyone with four stars on his epaulettes. Despite the partisanship and institutional mistrust of the past two decades, the military consistently has been the most trusted institution in the country, rated highly by roughly 70 percent of Americans. Cloaked in near-universal trust, these officers repeatedly argued that an unwinnable war could be won.
For example, when President Obama put an 18-month deadline on the surge of 30,000 troops he would announce at the end of 2009, Gen. David Petraeus said, “The timeline was just sprung on us.… And we were then asked, are you all OK with that? [Obama] went around the room and everyone said yes. And it was take it or leave it.” But he later admitted thinking at the time that “40,000 additional U.S Forces was the minimum needed to do the mission” and that it would take much longer than the president’s timeline. And in uniform-clad testimony to Congress, he failed to air his concerns, instead selling the war as vital to the national interest and being fought with a winning strategy.
He was not alone. Repeatedly the generals in charge of this war gave misleading assessments rather than being straight with the American people; they should have refused to distort the truth and resigned, their honor intact. That none of them did so shows the extent of the rot in our system for training and promoting flag officers.
These men should have been fired like any other person who fails to do their job. During World War II, it was common for officers of all ranks to be relieved for failing to achieve military objectives. But since Vietnam, the generals have had the kind of job security only afforded to tenured professors. Firings are increasingly rare, except for the most junior officers and enlisted service members. Even when a top general is replaced today—as happened to Stanley McChrystal—it is often a soft exit on terms of their own choosing.
But even if these generals had believed the war was winnable and been honest about its difficulties, they still failed at their jobs. The military can only remain an honorable profession if those who partake in it are willing to accept shame as a consequence of failure. But for far too many generals, shamelessness is exactly what is required to reach the top of the flagpole.
Many of these generals have been rewarded with promotions to lead their service branches, to chairman of the Joint Chiefs, or to Cabinet positions. Those who retired have gone on to venerated and lucrative postmilitary lives. They sit on the boards of Fortune 500 corporations, are hired for six-figure speaking engagements, and bask in the glow of the nonprofit and academic communities, which seek the credibility of their endorsement.
This is not new, but it shows that we are once again repeating the mistakes of Vietnam. Gen. William Westmoreland, the architect of that war, received similar accolades after he was promoted to chief of staff of the Army and later retired.* As late as 1986, he was feted as the Grand Marshal of the Chicago Vietnam veterans parade, where more than 200,000 people marched. This established a standard of veneration that over the years has transformed our generals into celebrities.
Gen. David Petraeus, who, along with Gen. James Mattis, was a primary architect of our counterinsurgency approach in Iraq and Afghanistan, continues to be idolized in American culture. Petraeus broke the Uniform Code of Military Justice by cheating on his wife—an offense any lesser service member would have been harshly disciplined for—and illegally sharing classified intelligence with a reporter. Generals like Petraeus trade on the trust the American people give them to act with impunity during and after their military service because they justifiably know that they are above the law.
But even an officer like Mattis, who is revered in the Marine Corps and considered one of the great military minds of his generation, should not escape culpability for our loss in Afghanistan. As a two-star general, Mattis upheld a similar standard during the Iraq invasion, when he was one of the few commanders to relieve a subordinate during wartime for failing to achieve a battlefield outcome. When he returned from deployments, he personally wrote to the families of every Marine killed under his command and drove cross-country to give his condolences face-to-face to their families. By any normal standard, Mattis is a decent and honorable man, and yet the stakes are too high in war to hold generals to a normal standard.
I have no doubt that the generals believe they have an obligation not to tarnish the memory of the men and women who gave their lives under their commands by speaking ill of the war or their failures. After all, how can you tell a Gold Star parent that their child died for nothing? And yet their silence, which is not a lie but is also not the truth, has only allowed more American and Afghan sons and daughters to die on the next general’s watch. If an officer’s foremost task, other than winning wars, is to bring as many soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines back home alive, then their silence is an act of profound moral cowardice and a dereliction of duty.
American service members risk their lives for a small paycheck and passing moments of thanks for our service, but there are no board seats awaiting us. For many years, there were barely any jobs at all. If the average service member can risk their life, the least the generals could have done was to risk their reputations by leveling with the American public. But they failed in that, too—and now they’re basking in undeserved glory, while thousands of parents mourn their dead children and tens of thousands of service members endure life with a disability.
Whatever lessons we learn from Afghanistan will be meaningless if they don’t result in consequences for the war’s leaders. That means no lucrative speeches, no hagiographic book deals, no fawning interviews, no plum sinecures in the private or nonprofit sector, and no appointments to blue-ribbon government posts. May they, in the words of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, end their “military career and just fade away”—and may their retirement be spent quietly contemplating the profound damage they’ve done to their country.
* A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Gen. William Westmoreland was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.