The Atlantic put out a good piece titled Forgetting Afghanistan a few days ago about how the US government and public seem to be consciously forgetting Afghanistan as our attention shifts back to Iraq and IS. It seems that it is not solely a shift in focus, but a deliberate attempt to remove the failure of the war in Afghanistan from society’s collective thought in an attempt to relieve the guilt and shame that may be associated with the military (and diplomatic) defeat there.
The article points out that this concept is not new. After the Franco’s death in Spain, the Spanish government decided the best way to move forward was to commit to la desmemoria—the disremembering—choosing not to remember its authoritarian past in order to transition to democracy.
But this is not even the first time the US has chosen to disremember a military failure. The article also mentions that after the Vietnam War the US Army Special Warfare School threw out its files on counter-insurgency.
Perhaps I am naive, but this shocks me. I think it is well established that the US Army is not a learning institution. But to destroy records in an attempt to get out of the business of counter-insurgency is a level of infantilism from the Army that I was not prepared to accept. Once again, the US finds itself distancing itself from COIN as it deploys more tanks to Europe and refuses to send anyone but inside-the-wire advisors to Iraq.
Obviously, forgetting our COIN lessons in Vietnam did not prepare us for success in Iraq and Afghanistan. Who knows what those records contained, but the US Army should be training for any mission it is called to undertake, not just the ones it wants. As long as civilians control the government, the military is going to have to do things it would rather not do. As the United States has not won a war in over twenty years, and since World War II has lost more wars than it has won, it is probably time the DoD becomes a learning organization.
Even though the US may be purposely forgetting Afghanistan, for the moment it seems that the administration is doing its best not to disremember some of the lessons from Iraq and that is encouraging. While the main goal might only be to limit US troop casualties and prevent the nation from being bogged down again in an unwinnable situation in Iraq, at the very least we are looking at our failures from the last ten years or so and saying, “let’s not do that again.” It’s clear that Obama is doing the bare minimum there until his presidency is over. As the president who was elected to end wars, he does not want to leave another one for his successor.
The United States is currently limiting its engagement overseas for political reasons, but this cannot last forever. As the political climate changes, the DoD must prepare for the next unfavorable mission—even if that means COIN or whatever we will be calling it in 2025. Clausewitz wrote:
We must therefore familiarize ourselves with the thought of an honorable defeat. We must always nourish this thought within ourselves, and we must get completely used to it. Be convinced, Most Gracious Master, that without this firm resolution no great results can be achieved in the most successful war, let alone in the most unsuccessful.
Without honorably accepting our defeat and learning from it we will never truly win again.