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The Casualties of Peace

The paradox of a peacetime army forever at war has deadly repercussions.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN: Relatives and neighbors of the Ahmadi family gathered around the incinerated husk of a vehicle targeted and hit earlier Sunday afternoon by an American drone strike, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

This past Sunday, August 29, the United States military conducted an airstrike to eliminate an imminent threat to Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, where the chaotic evacuation of Afghans and Americans was limping into its 21st day. An American drone blew up a vehicle in a residential neighborhood, as well as a good deal of its surroundings—which U.S. Central Command said was due to “substantial and powerful subsequent explosions” suggesting “a large amount of explosive material inside” the target vehicle.

Whatever threat may have existed was eliminated. So were 10 innocent Afghan civilians. Their names were Zemaray, Naseer, Zameer, Faisal, Farzad, Armin, Benyamin, Sumaya, Ayat, and Malika. Seven of them were children between 2 and 10 years old. According to relatives of the two families who spoke to Al Jazeera, none of them had any connection to ISIS-K, whose operatives American authorities claim to have been targeting. As yet, there is no evidence to the contrary—nor any confirmation that any ISIS-K operative was taken out by the strike—save Pentagon assurances that a clear and present danger was thwarted swiftly and cleanly by a heroic U.S. drone. Also according to Al Jazeera’s sources, those killed in the drone strike had just finished packing up their belongings, preparing to be evacuated to the United States. Of 12-year-old Farzad, one neighbor said: “We could only find his legs.”

None of them should be dead right now.

U.S. decision makers were on high alert after a suicide bombing last week at the airport, whose security they had delegated to the newly empowered Taliban. That attack killed at least 182—169 Afghan civilians, and 13 members of the United States military who were supposed to have come home three months ago under the agreement forged by President Trump. Their names were David Espinoza, Nicole Gee, Darin Hoover, Ryan Knauss, Hunter Lopez, Rylee McCollum, Dylan Merola, Kareem Nikoui, Daegan Page, Johanny Rosario Pichardo, Humberto Sanchez, Jared Schmitz, and Max Soviak.

None of them should be dead right now.

Of course, on the grand scale, the conditions for these two mass killings should never have been in place. The U.S. should have left Afghanistan 19 years ago, when most of those Marines, soldier, and Navy corpsman were still in diapers and those Afghan children were not yet born. At the very least we should have left in May, when the safe withdrawal of Americans from the site of our longest misadventure was, finally, supposed to have occurred. There was absolutely no reason, in August of 2021, for the United States of America to be blowing up houses and cars in Kabul, much less for members of the U.S. Armed Forces to be on the ground there, vulnerable to suicide attacks from Islamic militants who would have posed no threat to them had they been (as they ought to have) 7,000 miles away. The mere fact of our presence is damning enough.

But the senselessness of these deaths goes beyond that. Seven children killed in a supposedly precise drone strike that may or may not have stopped a potential terrorist attack. Nearly 200 killed in an intentional explosion at a site that was not only supposed to be secured by the U.S. military, but was being used by them for the express and sole purpose of delivering civilians to safety. Not to mention that a number of the airport deaths, it has now been admitted, may have been the result not of the initial blast but of U.S. troops opening fire in the aftermath. These are massive, inexcusable failures on the part of American military, intelligence, and civilian authorities.

Some would like to lay the full blame at President Biden’s feet. In an editorial insisting that American service members ought to have stayed in Afghanistan without end—while, funnily enough, putting the term “forever war” in scare quotes—right-liberal newsletter The Dispatch called this a “crisis of [Biden’s] own making.” Charles C.W. Cooke, senior writer at National Review, responded to suggestions that military leaders responsible for the carnage in Kabul, such as Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley, should step down, asking, “Why Would Anyone Other Than President Biden Resign?” As Cooke sees it, because the commander-in-chief made the decision to bring American troops home, he and only he is responsible for how his intention was carried out by the military’s leaders. Cooke observes, simply enough, that these officers and officials have only two options when faced with lawful orders from the president: “(a) to carry them out, or, (b) if they believe them to be illegal or immoral, to resign.” Austin and Milley, after all, were just following orders.

It seems never to have occurred to Cooke that the problem here is that they were following orders poorly. Thankfully, his own magazine picked up that thread three days later. In an editorial calling for Milley and Austin’s resignation, despite a good bit of snark aimed at those who actually wanted Americans to come home, NR admits:

Once Biden made the call, it was their job to ensure it didn’t devolve into an emergency with our troops in dangerously constrained circumstances and forced to wait for Americans and Afghans to make their way to them through Taliban checkpoints.

They failed — miserably.

The problem here was not the decision, which was long overdue, but the execution. And for that Joe Biden, a more-or-less-senile party hack from Delaware with no military experience or expertise, can only be expected to rely on his advisors and officers. Pity, then, that his advisors and most senior officers are incompetent hacks as well.

Seven years ago, retired Lieutenant General David Barno, sometime commander of American forces in Afghanistan, warned that as the Mideast conflicts wound down the greatest challenge faced by our armed forces would be the calcifying effect of peace. “During wartime,” Barno wrote, “military bureaucracy plays on in the background, muted.” But in peace, “stultifying” bureaucracy becomes the dominant force in any military organization. Initiative is discouraged, as is innovative thinking, and the armed forces—largely separated from their purpose—start to resemble every other government agency, manned by “‘milicrats’ — bureaucrats in khaki focused on process and rules at the expense of bold thinking and battlefield results.”

Barno pointed to the aftermath of the Vietnam war as one such period in which peacetime threatened to corrode the effectiveness of the force. The only path for a military in such circumstances is to actively combat bureaucratizing forces by means such as Gen. Edward Meyer’s “selective disobedience” or Lt. Gen. Walter Ulmer’s “power down” campaign, “designed to wrest authority out of the hands of petty Army bureaucrats and drive it down to the lowest possible level.”

Those now at the helm of the United States’ national defense apparatus all came up in that period of peace. Secretary Austin graduated from West Point in 1975, just after America’s war in Vietnam. General Milley was commissioned in 1980 after graduating from Princeton with a B.A. in politics. General Kenneth McKenzie, commander of United States Central Command, was commissioned in 1979. Now, these men formed by that post-Vietnam culture are charged with leading an army whose major conflicts have all been over for nearly a decade.

But the problem is not that we have a peacetime army; it’s that we have a peacetime army that happens to be deployed all over the world—including to places like Afghanistan, where the bureaucratic leadership of men like Milley and Austin is ill-matched to the dynamic, often dangerous, reality on the ground. Milley’s hysteria over “white rage,” Austin’s inquisition into “domestic extremism” in the ranks, and other such petty, paranoid political concerns are not just irrelevant but actively counterproductive to our Armed Forces’ warfighting mission. There is a direct contradiction between a system in which men like this, by-the-book bureaucrats with neither the inclination nor the talent to innovate and fight effectively, rise to the top, and a global situation in which wartime-style leadership may actually be required at any moment.

The more I think about it, the more I worry that the peacetime conundrum is an in-built problem for a post-industrial nation like ours. Because the realities of American life, by and large, no longer demand extreme physical and mental toughness in the civilian world, it is practically impossible to take large numbers of civilian men—as we did as recently as the Second World War—and turn them rapidly into combat-ready soldiers. We need a large, professional standing army, ready to face any potential threat, but in practice, a large, professional standing army eventually becomes another bureau of a sclerotic and ineffective federal leviathan.

Then, when it comes down to it, whatever advantages we have in resources and technology will not count for much when our military institutions themselves, at the highest levels, crack under serious pressure—when they prove incapable of evacuating Americans from hostile nations, or of killing (maybe) a single terrorist without taking seven kids as collateral. That is what happened in Kabul, and neither it nor the hundreds of resulting deaths can be blamed on President Biden alone.

Until we solve that systemic problem, it will not matter one iota whether Mark Milley resigns to take a six-figure salary from Raytheon; whether drone strike procedure is fine-tuned to improve the kid-to-kamikaze casualty ratio; whether every soldier sent abroad is brought home to serve and train safely on American soil under our archetypal peacetime officers, complete with DEI seminars and tome upon tome of inflexible, insensible regulation. The United States will continue to be a nation equally incapable of war and peace.

This is a fallen world, and the conflict in Afghanistan will not be our last. We can hope that this administration’s admirable tendency toward restraint will usher in an era decisively divorced from lingering Aughts imperialism, but if we allow that peace to do to our national defense what near-peace has been doing to it for years, then we will enter the next war with all the wrong people in power still, and leave it once again with all the wrong people killed.

about the author

Declan Leary is associate editor of The American Conservative. He was previously an editorial intern at National Review and a frequent contributor to such publications as National Review Online and Crisis Magazine.

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