By Eliot A. Cohen
Sunday, June 27, 2010; B01
In all of America's wars, we develop stories that help us explain and live with the outcomes. After Vietnam, for example, a consensus gelled: that the civilians in Washington had botched the conflict by micromanaging the generals. And after the Persian Gulf War in 1991, George H.W. Bush's administration developed another storyline -- that the nation had triumphed because the military had been given a clear mission, ample resources and the freedom to do the job right. "By God," Bush said, "we've kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all!"
The rise and fall of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal -- whom President Obama dismissed Wednesday as commander of the faltering U.S.-led war in Afghanistan after an explosive magazine article featured the general and his top aides deriding the president, vice president and other civilian leaders as well as foreign allies -- will no doubt play a major role in the stories we ultimately tell ourselves about the Afghan conflict.
These war stories are not just morality tales to be retold in high school history books or television documentaries. They can shape the way the United States fights its enemies in the future, and the way it settles disputes over war at home. The McChrystal saga, with its echoes of the Vietnam era's bitter civilian-military recriminations, threatens to do the same.
In Vietnam, as in the Gulf War, the old stories are, to say the least, radically incomplete. The civilians did not, in fact, micromanage most of the Vietnam War. President Lyndon B. Johnson restricted bombing targets in North Vietnam for the sensible reason that he did not want to bring China and Russia into a larger conflict. The campaign in the South -- including massive bombardment and search-and-destroy missions -- was the product of a conventional military that understood the war chiefly in terms of killing the enemy, not fighting an insurgency. Similarly, a truer tale of the Gulf War would emphasize the U.S. failure to shatter Saddam Hussein's power, which paved the way for years of blockade and sporadic bombardment, leading to a second and conclusive showdown more than a decade later.
However untrue, embellished and slanted, the war stories had real consequences. They helped account for the difficulties President Bill Clinton had with his military subordinates over the issue of whether to allow openly gay men and lesbians to serve in the armed forces, and during the conflicts in Serbia and Kosovo. They also help explain the scourging Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld took for his intense vetting of the plan to invade Iraq in 2003, and the willingness of retired generals to denounce him in public when the war veered off course. The stories misled a generation of Army officers into thinking that there was a simple recipe for victory -- give us everything we ask for, a start date and a finish line, and get out of the way -- and they gave sanctimonious, militarily ignorant politicians talking points with which to belabor their opponents.
The wars the United States is now fighting will produce stories of their own.
The fragile and uncertain success in Iraq is chiefly described in terms of the troop "surge," the dispatch of five additional combat brigades, a new strategy and a new commander to the fight in 2007. But no single account can explain what turned the situation around. The five brigades mattered, no doubt. The new team, with Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, mattered as much or more. So, too, did the whittling away of the Sunni insurgency by targeted apprehensions and killings. But the Iraqi side of the tale remains largely untold: The growth in the size and capabilities of Iraqi security forces, the Anbar Awakening of tribes willing to take on al-Qaeda, the final awareness of Iraq's Sunnis that they had lost power for good and the slow maturation of a political system were also important.
The United States' second Iraq war, then, will probably not lend itself to the simple revisionism of the first one -- and that is a good thing. But Afghanistan may be different. Three disturbing narratives have begun to appear to explain what may be a difficult conclusion to a conflict that Democrats and Republicans alike once described as a war of necessity.
The first is that U.S. involvement in Afghanistan was doomed to fail, because that country is "the graveyard of empires." This reflects a geopolitical essentialism; such a view yields little more than thundering clich?s. This is the same doctrine that in the 1990s contended that the people of the Balkans have always harbored unquenchable genocidal urges, and the same kind of pseudo-wisdom that, in an earlier age, suggested that Germans could be found only at one's feet or at one's throat.
The "graveyard" story line neglects some salient facts: that the Afghan population has remained supportive of the United States and its allies; that far from being the warlord-ridden anarchy of popular conception, Afghanistan has had periods of stability, relative prosperity and weak but not negligible government; and that its people's attitudes may have changed as a result of 30 years of chronic warfare.
The more likely tale of the Afghan war, already evident in Jonathan Alter's recent book, "The Promise," will be one of civilian-military tensions in Washington. In this narrative, disseminated by senior officials in the Obama administration, the new president inherited a disastrously underresourced and mismanaged war and proceeded to do the right thing: He studied the problem and tried to find a way to win without an endless and ruinous commitment. He found himself nearly boxed in by a military command that -- as generals always do -- clamored for vast new resources. In Alter's telling, Obama shrewdly pinned them down to a promise of success by a date certain; if they do not deliver victory, it will be because they lied to him.
The alternative is a tale of civilian betrayal of the military. In this view, with its echoes of Vietnam, highly professional soldiers did their best with inadequate means. Second-guessed and badgered by Washington amateurs and pundits, and abandoned by the State Department, they did all they could to wage a war for which they had insufficient tools and support. And when they tried to tell their civilian masters what the job would really take, they encountered domestic politics that mandated a hasty pullback from a battle in which the civilians irresponsibly willed the ends, but denied them the means.
The McChrystal episode can fit either narrative, and indeed make both more poisonous. It can be told as a story of a "runaway general," as the Rolling Stone article called him, contemptuous of civilian authority and of the commander in chief himself. It can also be told as a tale of a harried hero doing his best in a situation almost constructed to be impossible, with inept civilian counterparts and a president eager to shift the blame to troops.
Were such conclusions to become cemented in the minds of the nation's future leaders, both in and out of uniform, the U.S. government would set itself up for the same kinds of misfortune it experienced in the wars that followed the Sept. 11 attacks. Democrats will come away mistrusting the military; Republicans will position themselves as its defenders. Soldiers may wind up thinking of themselves as martyrs or victims, rather than as professionals confronting a mixed record that they must ponder, to do better the next time.
Because there will be a next time. It will almost surely be a very different kind of war, but the same tensions, dilemmas and setbacks will occur, as they do in every war. In trying to do what the best troops have always done -- study the past to learn from it -- we would do well to propel ourselves forward and consider our recent history as though it were decades behind us.
The underlying reality of the Afghan war is complicated, as both Vietnam and even the first Iraq conflicts were. Some commanders in Afghanistan have been outstanding; others have not. The military as an institution has adapted to some but not all of the requirements of counterinsurgency (for example, it still finds it difficult to allocate adequate numbers of first-rate personnel to the mission of training Afghan forces). The civilian agencies have made promises they could not keep; but then again, most have neither the resources nor the leadership to become effective partners with the military. And political leaders have often received misleading assessments from the military professionals of what is happening on the ground.
Today, in the midst of the conflict, we cannot achieve the detachment that military historians writing 50 years from now will have. But we can at least cling to some basic principles in explaining our wars to ourselves.
The first of these is that the civilian leadership is always -- always -- the responsible party. It is responsible for choosing the war, responsible for the strategy, responsible for the military leaders it hires or fires, responsible for ultimate success or failure. It should never be off the hook. The second is the recognition that military institutions and their leaders are radically imperfect. The leaders vary in quality; few have all the attributes required to win, particularly in an era made more complicated by continuous news cycles. The organizations may stubbornly resist doing what they ought to do, which is why Robert Komer's Vietnam war classic, "Bureaucracy Does Its Thing," merits re-reading.
The twinned morality tales of Vietnam and the Gulf War did a great deal of damage: They created unrealistic expectations and fostered imprudent behavior. The story of Stanley McChrystal's injudicious interview, however, should be seen as something different: a tragic lapse by a great leader and his well-meaning, if foolish and undisciplined, staff. The return of the victor of one war -- David Petraeus -- to take over another has the makings of more tales, whether they turn out to be heroic, tragic or both. But for the moment, that's story enough.
Eliot A. Cohen is a professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and the author of "Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime." He was State Department counselor from 2007 to 2009, advising on strategic issues.