I was a young army lieutenant on May 1, 1975. I remember it well. We had just started the day with the usual morning formation after which the sergeants took charge to have the troops clean the barracks and perform other routine duties at our base in West Germany. Satisfied that the normal duties of a normal day were well underway, I stopped by our mess hall to grab a cup of coffee. But upon entering, it was quickly obvious this was not a normal day.
Unusually, seated around one of the mess hall’s large circular tables were about a half dozen or so of my unit’s captains, all of them having five or so more years of service than me. Sitting there and sipping coffee they were sullen and distracted, speaking in low voices. All of them had served at least one tour in Vietnam.
I walked over and lingered for a moment, my presence at first unnoticed until one of them asked me to have a seat and join them. I did so and essentially just listened, quickly realizing they were all pained and I was merely an observor of this moment they were sharing.
The morning news had reported that earlier in the day Saigon had fallen to the North Vietnamese army. These captains, all good officers and very decent men, were saddened by the news and somewhat bothered by the belief that their own year in and around the jungles of South Vietnam had been for naught. But they were more worried about the fate of the South Vietnamese colleagues they knew would inevitably be left behind.
Depending on where one wants to select as the beginning of the American experience in Vietnam, roughly a generation of professional American soldiers served in Vietnam. Afghanistan will be at least double that. The large majority of the military’s Vietnam generation only did one tour in Vietnam; I suspect the large majority of the Afghanistan and Iraq generations served more than two. Some of the generals in the latter years of Afghanistan were probably themselves captains during their first tour there. But despite the additional investment of time, money, and effort, the result was the same. At army posts around the world, I suspect there are officers and sergeants standing around in small groups sharing the feelings of those captains I joined some forty-six years ago.
Historians in the coming years will discuss what was done, who decided to do it, what alternatives were rejected, and what motivated numerous governments — in the United States and elsewhere — to push on. These are good questions and worthy of intense examination. But the experiences of Vietnam and Afghanistan should answer at least two lingering questions.
First, are western militaries capable of nation-building? The answer is clearly no. And that applies to most other militaries as well. When following the initial entry into Afghanistan, to hunt down al-Qaida and Osama Bin Laden, American and later NATO forces stayed in the country to establish a new governmental order. And then after the spring of 2003 invaded Iraq with the intention of doing much the same. A retired senior military officer asked the obvious question regarding such efforts: “What do we think we know about this that the British and even Russians didn’t?”
At one point during the Iraq experience a senior officer was asked why it was taking so long to establish a functioning government, to which he replied, “In my thirty years in the Army no one has ever taught or trained me how to stop a sectarian civil war.”
No western military has ever succeeded in taking down the ruling structure in a Middle Eastern country and replacing it with something reflecting western values or governmental practices. From Morocco to Afghanistan such efforts are “unblemished by success.” Even the Israeli effort to change the political order and structure in next-door Lebanon in 1982 proved disastrous. Lebanon remained chaotic, the Israeli government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin collapsed, and American Marines suffered hundreds of casualties at the Beirut airport in a poorly considered effort to help.
And when it comes to what the American military actually can provide, namely military training, even that has its limits. Inevitably any training effort is driven by an attitude built around “here’s how we do it.” As former defense secretary Robert Gates noted about the training efforts in Afghanistan, “The one thing they all had in common was they were all trying to train a Western army instead of figuring out the strengths of the Afghans as a fighting people and then building on that.”
And one certainly should not dismiss the fighting ability of the Afghans. They prevailed over the British in 1842, the Soviets in 1989, and now the United States in 2021. And all three stories, separated by nearly two centuries, are eerily familiar.
Second, do countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq want to copy our governmental structures or way of life? Not really. In some ways they admire the west in general and the United States in specific. But that does not mean they want to be like us. They want to be themselves. As Winston Churchill once noted of his time as colonial secretary in the 1920’s, “Unfortunately people prefer local government to good government.”
As many have noted about experiences such as Vietnam and Afghanistan, the side we are supporting must “want it more than we do.” In the absence of that fundamental condition, no amount of support will be meaningful in the long run. In Vietnam the North Vietnamese communists proved to be much more Vietnamese than communist, although few could see that at the time. However, current Vietnamese relations with the US are relatively good while Hanoi’s relationships with both China and Russia are relatively cool. A retired American army officer who had served in Vietnam and recently visited reported that he was warmly greeted everywhere he and his family went. But he also reported the Vietnamese remained, in general, rather anti-French as France had controlled Vietnam as a colonial power from 1880 until 1954.
But perhaps the greatest failure in such adventures is the observation of a little known American general named Fox Connor. Connor was a senior officer on General John Pershing’s staff in World War I and became an important mentor for Generals George C. Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower. Connor had three general guidelines for war: Don’t fight unless you have to, don’t fight alone, and don’t fight for long. Regarding Afghanistan, following 911 there was no doubt the US would go into Afghanistan and punish Bin Laden and those who had supported him. And rather soon others joined in the effort, particularly our NATO allies. So, we fought because we had to having been attacked, and we fought with allies. But that was twenty years ago — nineteen years after pushing the Taliban out of Kabul and ten years after the killing of Bin Laden. There has been more than enough time to recognize the onset of diminishing returns, and to consider the seriousness, commitment, and motivation of those we were supporting.
The American military will attempt to carry out any legal mission it is given by our elected officials. And it has successfully carried out many non-standard missions over the years, such as running the Civilian Conservation Corps and Tennessee Valley Authority during the great depression of the 1930’s. But nation-building in a distant and culturally distinct place is simply not in its knapsack. Still, if ordered — the military will try. But it is well past time for civilian leaders to stop giving such orders. Afghanistan, and Iraq and Vietnam before it, are what happens when, as political commentator George Will has noted, “You give a ‘can-do’ organization a ‘can’t do’ job.”