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Parade of Defeat: Trump Prefers Spectacle Over Strategy

With the U.S. military stuck in countless indecisive wars, what exactly are we celebrating?
persian gulf parade

Remember when military parades actually celebrated victories? Those were the days, or, better yet, the day—June 8, 1991 actually. A few months after the U.S. military’s 100-hour lightning ground war ejected Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait, some 8,800 soldiers marched down Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C. President George H.W. Bush and General Norman Schwarzkopf presided. The White House called it the National Victory Celebration.

The world seemed simpler then. Sure, some openly questioned Bush’s motives (no blood for oil!), the Senate authorization vote was uncomfortably close, and matters got messy when the Kurds and Shia rose up in postwar Iraq. Still, America had won a “victory” of sorts. At the cost of fewer than 200 dead (experts had predicted thousands), a highly professional U.S. Army and its coalition allies had liberated Kuwait and devastated the Iraqi military. Its objectives clearly set and now achieved, the army mostly returned home. Bush wisely ignored hawkish calls to seize and occupy Baghdad. Saddam, after all, was “in his box” and could be contained. It was time for the parades.

So as we awaken to news that President Trump ordered the Pentagon to plan for a massive military parade, one cannot help but wonder what it is we’re celebrating. Nearly 17 years of indecisive quagmire? Hardly. Make no mistake, this is not about the soldiers or the vets. Trump, following the lead of his predecessors, has turned the petty political appropriation of the troops into an art form. Soldiers are a pawn in the game, a very old game, in which the hawkish interventionists inspire the base and depict the opposition as dovish traitors. This is distraction, meant to disguise what amounts to paltry policy in foreign affairs; it’s spectacle not strategy. In truth, our soldiers languish in indecisive operations across the Middle East and North Africa—a human “sunk cost dilemma.

Still, were we to pretend that this parade is meant to celebrate military accomplishment, it’s worth asking: how are our wars doing? The short answer: not so well. But wait, someone will inevitably protest, hasn’t the U.S. military “beaten” the Islamic State?  Yes and no, actually. ISIS ideology remains strong and what now amounts to an indefinite U.S. presence in Syria just might kick off a new insurgency. What’s more, America’s ostensible ally, Turkey, is attacking U.S.-partnered Kurdish militias. There’s no exit strategy, folks, once again. That’s the Syria trap. Scarier still, the fight with ISIS is actually the good news.

Against his better “instincts,” Trump let Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster nudge him into a new mini-surge into Afghanistan. That means more troops, more treasure, and more dead in an unwinnable—and now America’s longest—war. For all the talk of new strategies, “turning corners” and “breaking stalemates,” the truth is that Afghanistan is a failing resource sinkhole. These days, despite America’s best efforts and more than 2,000 dead servicemembers, a record number of Afghan provinces and districts are under the control of, or contested by, the Taliban. Any limited, short-duration successes were never sustainable. Afghanistan’s economy still cannot support itself. In any given year, foreign aid accounts for about 95 percent of total GDP. Worse still, as events over the last few weeks have shown, no area of the country is immune to terror bombing, not even downtown Kabul.

U.S. Special Forces continue to fight “terror” all around the globe. In 2016, these advisors and trainers deployed to 70 percent of the world’s countries. Special operators died this year in Niger, Somalia, Yemen, and, of course, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. They’re not winning, though, not in any real sense. In Africa, a new hot spot for the U.S. military, the number of Islamist threat groups has only risen in response to the American presence. And, as I recently wrote at TAC, the high operational tempo might just be “breaking” America’s cherished army. As for those ever-strained, overstretched Special Operations forces, well, relentless deployments are breaking them down, too. Reports indicate that mental distress and suicide are again on the rise in America’s special ops community.

U.S. military operations in Iraq and Yemen aren’t exactly dazzling success stories either. Iraqi forces have, after three years, finally snuffed out most ISIS conventional forces from their so-called caliphate, sure. Nevertheless, they only did so by relying on popular mobilization forces (militias often backed by Iran) to augment the demoralized regular army. And, of course, a a Shia-dominated, Iran-friendly government still presides in Baghdad. It’s unclear whether it will magnanimously reintegrate the still-alienated Iraqi Sunnis. If they don’t, the country is ripe for the rise of ISIS 2.0.

Yemen is starving, literally. Saudi terror bombing, enabled by U.S. munitions and in-flight refueling, is killing a Yemeni child every 10 minutes or so, and the blockade and resultant famine have kicked off the worst cholera epidemic in human history. None of this has dislodged the Houthi rebels from north and west Yemen, and has only strengthened the real threat to America, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has found sanctuary amid the chaos. Chalk up Yemen as another likely defeat for the US.

Still, if it’s a parade Trump wants, it is a parade he shall get. He is, after all, the commander-in-chief, and, closed-door Pentagon groaning aside, the military will get it done. The cost will be profligate, of course. The logistics, like getting armored brigades from Fort Stewart, Georgia, or Fort Hood, Texas, to Washington D.C., will be daunting as ever. The can-do military professionals will perform obediently, just as they have for 17 bloody, indecisive years. And what a display it will be—one, you can be sure, that will rival the best Kim Jong-un has to offer in Pyongyang. Our button, as our president said, is bigger than his.

When the time comes, maybe a slew of winless generals should lead Trump’s parade—from Tommy Franks (who kicked things off with no plan for occupying the countries we conquered), to David Petraeus (who tried and failed to “surge” us to victory in Iraq), to Stanley McChrystal (the Rolling Stone bad boy who thought he could apply the Iraq surge to Afghanistan), to, well, whoever’s been trudging along since. It’s taken a baker’s dozen of otherwise talented commanding generals to lose a war that couldn’t be won, so let’s give them a prominent place in the coming cavalcade. Americans will continue to pour on the effortless adulation, at least until their iPhones ding.

Hail the generals-who-tried! Hail the young soldiers who died for naught but their mates! Hail the forever war and…the new American militarism!

Major Danny Sjursen, a regular TAC contributor, is a U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet and check out his new podcast “Fortress on a Hill,” co-hosted with fellow vet Chris “Henri” Henrikson.

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]