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Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

‘The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan’: Trying to recognize ourselves in the reflections of war

A review of "The Mirror Test," a memoir of a soldier's time at war.




By Yaniv Barzilai
Best Defense book reviewer

Baghdad. Fallujah. Kabul. Khost. Anbar. Sadr City. Helmand. Places that, for this generation, will live in infamy like Normandy, Iwo Jima, Inchon, and Khe Sanh. And Kael Weston was there, advancing U.S. interests as one of the State Department’s only long-term warzone diplomats.

Weston’s memoir of his seven years back-to-back in warzones is a tragic tale of small victories, large losses, and the enduring challenges of counterinsurgency. Part Clausewitz, part Lawrence of Arabia, and part George Kennan, Weston was one of the few civilians practicing counterinsurgency before it was inscribed in new military manuals. Using his diplomatic savvy, Weston bolstered local allies in Iraq and Afghanistan and undercut America’s enemies in a way that sheer military force never could. Even as Anbar burned and Iraq descended into civil war, Kael al-Falluji (Kael the Fallujan, as he became affectionately known by some Iraqis) brought America closer to victory. Scholars and practitioners of counterinsurgency will study Weston’s experiences for years to come.

Weston shows that even in war, the pen is a mighty companion to the sword. If war is the continuation of policy by other means, as Clausewitz famously wrote, then diplomatic efforts to achieve political successes should — in theory — supersede merely tactical victories. However, Weston observed that special operations forces acting independently of the main political-military effort sometimes undermined painstaking counterinsurgency conducted by the State Department and the Marine Corps. Efforts to kill suspected low- and mid-level insurgents often took precedence over the more subtle points of counterinsurgency, even when the ramifications of military action far outweighed the rewards. He is yet another witness to the notion that, in wars like Iraq and Afghanistan, winning individual battles has little to do with winning wars.

Likewise, Weston’s memoir highlights the important and woefully underreported role that diplomats played in advancing U.S. counterinsurgency objectives in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, while one of the key goals of diplomacy is to prevent wars, diplomacy does not end when war begins. A former Marine who knew Weston from his time in Fallujah commented: “if only the United States could have replicated him a thousand times over, we may have had a different outcome in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The Mirror Test, however, is also a somber memorial to the human cost of war. Weston vividly captures the brutality and sacrifice of too many Americans, Afghans, and Iraqis. Reading the book is heartbreaking at times, and Weston refuses to let abstract numbers of losses numb the reader. In one chapter, he lists the 93 U.S. troops killed in action during his year in Fallujah, along with their hometowns and ages. After introducing many of these individuals in the narrative, the reader must then flip through a ten-page list of 20-year-olds who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their nation. He does the same for the 91 American troops lost during his year in Helmand. Weston also tells of paying blood money to an Afghan teenager who lost six family members (including his parents) in a U.S. night raid. Weston relives watching his Afghan bodyguards killed in an IED attack on his convoy. It is story after story of tragedy, miscalculation, error, or incompetence.

Not everyone will agree with how Weston portrays American foreign policy in the 21st century. From the start, he labels Afghanistan as “the right war” and Iraq “the wrong war.” He is deeply critical of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, which he deems government-approved torture, as well as the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. But more than any pundit or politician, Weston deserves to make those judgments, as he is one of the few who has seen the cost of those policies firsthand. He has been to Abu Ghraib and Bagram. He spent time in military morgues at the height of the bloodletting in Fallujah. He met with former Guantanamo Bay detainees in Afghanistan. He dealt with the gut-wrenching aftermath when American troops killed civilians. He watched people blown up, shot, killed, and maimed as a result of choices in Washington, D.C. Who can better evaluate major foreign policy decisions than someone who spent seven years observing the impact of those policies on the ground?

The Mirror Test also confronts the home front and life after war. Upon returning to the United States, Weston departed on a journey to visit the graves of 31 Marines who died when their helicopter crashed in a sandstorm while traveling to secure a remote outpost for the 2005 Iraqi election. He blames himself for tragic loss because he overruled military officers who argued against such deployments. He carries this burden with him as he tries to reintegrate in a largely uninterested homeland, where the cost of the nation’s wars rest on the shoulders of the few.

As I begin my first tour in Afghanistan with the State Department, the death toll of Iraqis and Afghans who collaborated with the U.S. government stands out above all else. Weston joins Ambassador Ryan Crocker, Senators John McCain and Jeanne Shaheen, and others in highlighting the importance of the Special Immigrant Visa Program, a little-known initiative which allows U.S. embassies to grant immigrant visas to Afghan and Iraqi collaborators who face serious threats as a result of their service. My job over the next year in Kabul will be to support this effort, but unfortunately, some members of Congress seem determined to shutter the program. Weston’s account of the heroism of Afghan and Iraqi collaborators should be recorded in the Congressional docket so no member of Congress can claim ignorance while voting against the program.

The Mirror Test gets its name from the moment in the recovery process when a severely wounded or disfigured veteran sees his or herself in the mirror for the first time. The once-familiar face staring back is no more. As I read Kael Weston’s aptly-named book, I could not help but wonder if America, itself disfigured by two brutal and protracted conflicts in distant lands, will be able to recognize itself in the mirror at war’s end.

Yaniv Barzilai is a State Department foreign service officer and the author of 102 Days of War – How Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda & the Taliban Survived 2001. He has worked on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Azerbaijan in the State Department and is currently assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. The views expressed in this article are his alone and do not necessarily represent those of the State Department or the U.S. Government.

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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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