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Best Defense

Taking the Gourley challenge: Where moral injury meets strategic failure

A Tom Ricks guest blogger discusses how the U.S. military faces a dilemma in how to determine its postwar identity.

Operation Atlantic Resolve, Latvia
A U.S. Army Stryker armored vehicle, assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, moves to an objective during a combined live-fire exercise with the Latvian land forces, part of Operation Atlantic Resolve in Adazi training area, Latvia, March 6, 2015. Operation Atlantic Resolve is a U.S. Army Europe-led land force assurance training mission taking place across Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to enhance multinational interoperability, strengthen relationships among allied militaries, contribute to regional stability and demonstrate U.S. commitment to NATO. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Pablo N. Piedra / released)


By Peter Lucier

Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted

From the perspective of a veteran of the Afghan war, what may have been most refreshing about the Gourley challenge may not have been any single answer, but the resounding chorus of voices that admitted that we did lose. After years of double speak and spin, there was a powerful catharsis in simply and honestly saying we failed. Now that some of us are admitting we lost, the US military faces a dilemma in how to determine its postwar identity.

There exists disparity in the military’s internal conversation with itself. When General Odierno blames whole of government for failure in Afghanistan, on the surface, it appears to be a conversation between the DoD and the rest of the US government. It isn’t. He is making clear claims in an intra-DoD conversation about what the military is, and what it isn’t. This identity crisis is even more clear when platoon commanders say things like, “My job is to bring everyone home safely” or “Our role is to not let our area of responsibility fall to the Taliban on our watch, whatever happens afterwards is not our problem.” Meanwhile generals give vague orders to “conduct COIN” and speeches to the boys about progress in the clear/hold/build mission in Afghanistan. These contradictions are signs serious internal conflict of identity and purpose.

The military fails to engage successfully with the external world, of both civilian overseers, and enemy forces. Outsiders not in the know do not understand the military. Sebastian Bae says “thank you for your service” represents the banality of the public’s understanding of the wars we fought. Those in the know do not trust the military to be honest with itself or the public. Tom Ricks suggested to Major Cavanaugh that military staff might only be capable of regurgitating baseball-esque clichés at public conferences. Afghan civilians did not trust the US military, and enemies in Afghanistan defeated the military’s attempts to forward policy goals, even if those goals were nebulous.

We have lost two wars. Our failure to resolve our internal identity debate and our inability to complete assigned tasks has resulted in projecting an uncertain image. There is nothing that ties us together about who we are and what we do—especially what we do now, as we try to leave behind Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is the narrative that Sebastian Bae craves in his moral injury piece; something to tie it all together. To craft this narrative, the military must first resolve its own internal identity crisis. As clichéd as it sounds, we must first know who we are. As Tom Ricks noted, we live in an age of negative definitions. When we define things by what they are not, it is a sign we don’t understand or do not want to admit what the thing really is.

What now? First the military must get out of the business of takfir, the Islamic concept of excommunicating those whose ideas about identity conflict with your own. Second, it has to settle on a strategy, not designed to win acceptance, (as historical identity clashes have done) but to win wars. Our war fighters are already suffering from the inability to fit narrative to their war stories. If the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, then perhaps our next war is being decided right now.

Peter Lucier is a former Marine infantry rifleman (2008 to 2013) who deployed to Afghanistan in 2011. He is currently a student at St. Louis University. 

U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Pablo N. Piedra / released

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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