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How the Afghan War Was Lost, in Five Easy Steps

403807 04: U.S. Army Capt. Greg Frey from Fredrick, Maryland, of the 101st Airborne, is seen through a hole blasted through plywood by gun fire as he walks away from checking his paper target taped to the wood April 12, 2002 at the firing range at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. He was part of a group of soldiers zeroing in their sights on their weapons as they continue to prepare for their next mission in Afghanistan against the Taliban and al Qaeda. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
403807 04: U.S. Army Capt. Greg Frey from Fredrick, Maryland, of the 101st Airborne, is seen through a hole blasted through plywood by gun fire as he walks away from checking his paper target taped to the wood April 12, 2002 at the firing range at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. He was part of a group of soldiers zeroing in their sights on their weapons as they continue to prepare for their next mission in Afghanistan against the Taliban and al Qaeda. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images) (Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images North America)

America’s abrupt abandonment of Afghanistan a year ago precipitated a humanitarian crisis and was a debacle for the Joe Biden administration; the president’s approval ratings plunged and have not recovered. Watching Kabul fall to the Taliban has also been a difficult experience for veterans who fought there.

Elliot Ackerman’s forthcoming book, “The Fifth Act: America’s End in Afghanistan,” is a searing condemnation of both the conduct and abandonment of the war effort. Ackerman, a former Marine Corps and CIA officer who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, is one of the most prolific and powerful figures of the current renaissance of writing among American military veterans. (He also the co-author, with Bloomberg Opinion columnist Admiral James Stavridis, of the bestseller “2034: A Novel of the Next World War.”)“The Fifth Act” weaves together the languor of his family vacation in Italy with the urgency of attempting to get people out of Afghanistan and the regretful ruminations on the meaning of his service and the wars he fought in. Below is a lightly edited transcript of a recent chat with Ackerman about the book:

Kori Schake: I love the book’s opening line: “The war has always been there, even though I don’t go to it anymore.” The idea of deciding to leave, of soldiers in wars of long duration having to negotiate their own separate peace, resonates throughout the book. Explain why that’s such a weighty emotional burden.

Elliot Ackerman: Because there’s always another deployment to go on. Every time I came back from Iraq or Afghanistan, there was the question of the next deployment. Are you going? It’s tough to bow out, no matter how many deployments you’ve already done. These guys you’re serving alongside are your best friends, so it’s tough to tell them that you’re done, that they can go on the next one without you, that it might not be time for them to leave the war, but it is for you. That type of decision can weigh on friendships. It certainly weighed on some of mine.

KS: Why did you title the book “The Fifth Act”?

EA: As Kabul was falling, a friend of mine, Bari Weiss, asked me to contribute a brief article about Afghanistan to her Substack. I was, admittedly, feeling at a loss for what to write. I mean, what else was there to say about Afghanistan after 20 years of war?

She said: “Elliot, most people haven’t been paying any attention to this for years. This is a tragedy, maybe you can just explain what’s going on.” It was that word, tragedy, that stuck with me. Going back to Horace and the ancients, in classic dramatic structures, tragedies are told in five acts. I then wrote Bari this short article that broke down the Afghan War in five acts: Bush, Obama, Trump, Biden and, as the denouement, the Taliban. I later realized that would be the structure for this book.

KS: You write that “never before had America engaged in a protracted conflict with an all-volunteer military that was funded by deficit spending.” How has that changed the American way of war?

EA: Successive Republican and Democratic administrations have deliberately anesthetized Americans to the wars being fought in their names. Our political class has done this by the way they structure our wars — we don’t pay a war tax because we place the cost in our deficit; an increasingly narrow band of Americans, that 1% of us who man our all-volunteer force, take up the burden.

The result is that war has become easy to wage because only a slim segment of society feels the pain. Wars used to be existential events in American society and generationally defining. Not anymore, and not for my generation. I’ve often wondered if it would be better to be part of a “Lost Generation” than to be “the lost part of a generation.”

KS: You write that choosing to build in plywood explains America’s failures in Afghanistan. Please explain.

EA: If you traveled to Afghanistan, one thing you would note at most of the major American military bases, in places like Bagram or Kandahar, was that even after 20 years of war much of the construction of our headquarters were done in plywood, as though our occupation were temporary and at any minute we were going to leave. This decision, to build in plywood as opposed to more durable materials, spoke to the transient psychology of the American effort in Afghanistan.

We waged a 20-year war, but at any point in those 20 years we had one foot out the door, with a drawdown scheduled within months. In his book on Vietnam, “A Bright Shining Lie,” the journalist Neil Sheehan quotes John Paul Vann, a legendary military and foreign service officer, who said: “The problem with Vietnam wasn’t that we fought a seven-year war, but that we fought seven one-year wars.” You could say the same of Afghanistan, and if you want a physical reminder of this truth, it’s our decision to build in plywood.

KS: You write: “In any year, we couldn’t even agree on what victory even looked like. And so we lost.” Please explain your thinking on what it takes to win a war.

EA: A coherent strategic objective — that’s what it takes.

We never had that in Afghanistan. Were we there to rebuild Afghanistan? To kill Osama bin Laden? To deny Afghanistan as a refuge for terrorists? All of the above? None of the above? Four presidents, Democratic and Republican, could never answer what winning meant.

If you look at the wars we’ve won, there has been a clear strategic objective: Preserve the Union; the unconditional surrender of the Axis powers; pushing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. The wars we lose, there’s always a vague strategic objective.

It also takes strategic patience, a belief by your enemy that your will is superior to his. A truism in Afghanistan was that the Americans had the watches but the Taliban had the time. We never convinced the Taliban or the Afghans that we had both the watches and the time. And so we lost.

KS: You reflect on America’s war memorials, and how you’d design a single memorial to all our wars. Talk about that, please.

EA: The planning for a Global War on Terror Memorial has been going on for a number of years. The Global War on Terror, technically, isn’t over, and it doesn’t look as though the authorizations underpinning it are going to be rescinded anytime soon. This creates an interesting conundrum: How do you create a memorial to a war that’s still going on?

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, established in 1982, inaugurated an era of war memorial construction on the National Mall. Before then, the National Mall was a place where we commemorated individuals — Washington, Lincoln, Grant — not wars. But that has changed in the past 40 years, and with diminishing real estate on the National Mall at a premium, often there is a great deal of controversy about whether certain conflicts merit a memorial.

I think we should abolish all these individual war memorials. Instead, we should have one single National War Memorial. I imagine it being a black trench like the Vietnam Veterans memorial, but it spirals underground like something out of Dante. A war memorial built into the earth as opposed to above it seems appropriate; if there’s one thing you learn to do in the military it’s to dig.

This spiraling trench would have all the names of America’s war dead, more than a million, beginning with Crispus Attucks, a freeman of African and Native descent who is counted as the first death in the American Revolution. Every time we fought a war, we’d dig a little deeper to add the names. Down and down, we’d go. We wouldn’t have to debate real estate on the mall, we’d just keep on digging.

Also, I’d propose that Congress pass legislation that every time the president signs a troop deployment order, he or she can only do so with a special pen that’s kept under guard on a special desk next to the last name on the American War Memorial.

KS: So much of your fiction is about warfare, and you explore it from such various perspectives — the sympathetic portrait of an Afghan who kills American soldiers in the “Green on Blue”; the desperate refugees in “Dark at the Crossing.” What’s your favorite book about war?

EA: That’s a tough one. There are so many books that on the surface are about war but whose subject is much broader than war. There are also many books that don’t seem to be about war at all but are in fact very much tethered to the subject. I guess I’ll pick a favorite from the latter category: “The Catcher in the Rye.” J.D. Salinger landed on D-Day, fought in the Huertgen Forest, and helped liberate Dachau. But he never wrote much about the war, or at least not head-on. He handled the subject obliquely.

“The Catcher in the Rye” is the greatest novel about the Second World War and its long shadow. Holden Caufield’s voice, for which the novel is renowned, is the voice of a war veteran, to whom everyone is “a phony” and who wants to visit the ducks in Central Park, to recover an innocence that will never return and perhaps never was. The novel’s last line — “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody” — is one I’ve often related to. 

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• All Wars Are Culture Wars: Kori Schake

• Biden’s Afghan Withdrawal Achieved Nothing But Disaster: Hal Brands

• In the End, the Afghan Army Was Always Doomed: James Stavridis

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Kori Schake leads the foreign and defense policy team at the American Enterprise Institute.

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