Pulitzer Prize winning writer Viet Thanh Nguyen put it best: “All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.” Those second fights are often longer, if less bloody, than the initial battles. The fights for memory and legacy often begin before the guns have even fallen silent.
America’s wars are no strangers to this dynamic. From Vietnam to the present, our wars have always been refought by participants, journalists, scholars, and politicians. As we begin to seriously debate ending America’s quixotic campaigns in the Greater Middle East, one particularly nasty narrative will be employed by the defenders of intervention and imperialism. It recurs like clockwork every time America loses a war: that we were stabbed in the back.
The modern stab-in-the-back myth got its start in Germany exactly a century ago. Imperial Germany was conceived of, created, and led by Prussia’s military caste. Prussia, in Voltaire’s bon mot, was an army with a state, not a state with an army. And Prussia, after crippling defeats by Napoleon at Jena and Auerstedt, had entered the First World War on a 50-year winning streak.
But by the fall of 1918, Germany had lost the war. With its spring offensives failing and fresh American troops flooding into France, final defeat was only a matter of time. While the front lines were still on French and Belgian soil, the German Army had been decisively beaten in the Hundred Days battles. After the Battle of Amiens, Germany’s leaders, both military and civilian, knew that the war’s outcome was simply a math problem.
Germany did the only thing it could do and sued for a humiliating peace. The Kaiser was forced to abdicate and flee, and a new civilian government signed an armistice and then the Treaty of Versailles. Germany gave up land, people, and most of its army, and took on both formal responsibility for the war and $5 billion in reparations.
Defeat was more than a bitter pill to swallow—it was incomprehensible to millions, especially those who had been at the front and had often experienced more (bloody) successes than failures.
Germany’s de facto military dictator, General Erich Ludendorff, was among the first to embrace the idea that the country had been betrayed by communists, politicians, and most of all, Jews. Though a wartime census showed that Jews were overrepresented in both the German Army as a whole and in frontline units, the “Big Lie” stuck. Its propagation was aided by often well-intentioned generals and politicians, who told the returning soldiers that “no enemy has vanquished you.”
When Adolf Hitler, a decorated veteran and budding demagogue, embraced this fiction, the Dolchstosslegende (literally “dagger stab myth”) was cemented. The German Army had not lost. It had been betrayed by the home front and the politicians.
Korea, America’s first war of the nuclear age, did not occasion charges of betrayal within. Perhaps this was because outright defeat had been so close, both at the Pusan Perimeter in the summer of 1950, and again six months later, when Chinese troops poured across the Yalu River and drove the United Nations forces back over the 38th Parallel. A draw, especially with the specter of nuclear war in the background, didn’t seem so bad.
Vietnam was different. The U.S. military, armed with futuristic black rifles and intercontinental bombers, lost to a Third World peasant army. Sure the U.S. won every battle, dropping more bombs on South Vietnam than it had on either Germany or Japan in World War II, whatever the cost. But they lost the war. The explanation: it was Jane Fonda and the hippies that stabbed the army in the back, undermining support at home and turning the U.S. tactical victory of 1968’s Tet Offensive into a strategic defeat. As Vietnam veteran and former Senator James Webb famously said of Fonda: “I wouldn’t walk across the street to watch her slit her wrist.”
This narrative was buttressed by a wave of revisionist scholarship on Vietnam. Lewis Sorley’s A Better War posits counterinsurgency and pacification as a path to victory and celebrates General Creighton Abrams’s successes in the wake of the Tet Offensive. Mark Moyar, a historian now working at USAID, penned Triumph Forsaken, an apology for South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. Max Boot, never one to miss a chance to extol the white man’s burden, has weighed in with multiple volumes on “the road not taken.”
Traditional historians make a few obvious counterpoints that are difficult to refute. Foremost among them is this one: despite two decades of French and American partnership and aid, the South Vietnamese state and army were unable to ever stand on their own. The Easter Offensive of 1972, sometimes celebrated as the finest hour of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), was defeated only with the aid of tremendous American fire support and at the cost of heavy ARVN casualties. Three years later, North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon. North Vietnam, for all its missteps and brutality, endured over 1 million casualties and maintained the will to fight. The South did not.
The Iraq war revisionist narrative is perhaps less plausible than that of Vietnam. True, the Sunni tribes of Anbar Province turned against al-Qaeda and the Sunni-Shia civil war had temporarily abated by 2008. These tactical realities led to absurd triumphalism from the neoconservative crowd, especially those insiders who saw themselves as the brain trust of the 2007 troop surge.
The surge, a reinforcement of only 30,000 soldiers and Marines, was hailed as one of the signal triumphs of American military history. General David Petraeus was celebrated as a “savior general.” The language of the sycophantic press corps would have made even Douglas MacArthur blush. “The gold standard for wartime command,” said then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, describing Petraeus. America was told that its forces, after initial missteps and much painful learning, had triumphed over terrorism in Iraq.
This victory, the story then goes, was squandered by President Barack Obama’s pusillanimity and inattention. U.S. troops marched out of Iraq as victors in 2011 and then had to march back in three years later when the corrupt, sectarian Iraqi Army collapsed in the face of the ragtag forces of the Islamic State: a pickup truck-borne reconnaissance-in-force of just 1,500 jihadists.
The reality is that the only thing America won in Iraq was “a decent interval,” in Henry Kissinger’s infamous phrase. The surge had always been understood as merely a means to an end: political reconciliation between Iraq’s Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds. This manifestly failed to occur. The security services became corrupt Shia fiefdoms, the Kurds intermittently plotted their exit, and the Sunnis, feeling themselves excluded from post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, sought new champions.
In a supremely cynical gambit, the Iraq war’s architects flooded America’s airwaves to blame Obama for a squandered victory in Iraq, especially after the Islamic State’s lightning offensives of 2014. Obama and his defeatist cheerleaders in the media, we were told, had walked away when Iraq was on the path to peace and prosperity.
Such a claim, regardless of the intricacies of intra-Shia politics and status of forces agreements, rests on a foundation of hubris: the idea that America had the knowledge and skill to dictate successful political outcomes to Iraqis. Nouri al-Maliki, the sectarian Shiite leader blamed for setting conditions for the Islamic State’s success, was plucked from obscurity and installed as Iraq’s prime minister under American sponsorship. Given the inability and unwillingness of two U.S. presidents to curb or remove Maliki, and the inescapable postwar Iranian influence in Shia-led Iraq, claims of a squandered victory are hard to take seriously.
The late Michael Hastings put it best: the surge narrative was “perhaps the most impressive con job in recent American history.” Maybe a decent interval was worth the casualties and cost of the surge. But deluding ourselves that “we won” is another matter.
We are already seeing the new Dolchstosslegendes take shape in the debate over Afghanistan, Syria, and once again Iraq. As both President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidates make pledges about withdrawing from Afghanistan, the pushback is in full force. Regional stability, women’s rights, and terrorism are all cited as reasons to stay, but the idea of stolen victory is also getting a workout.
Despite nearly 18 years of war and the deployment of nearly 100,000 U.S. troops at the war’s height, plus security and development assistance that far exceeds the Marshall Plan, the Taliban today controls more of Afghanistan than at any point since their overthrow in 2002.
Opium cultivation, the primary funding source for the insurgents, sets new records year after year. The situation has gotten so bad that in May the Pentagon stopped releasing its district stabilization reports, which had been used to measure the security situation throughout Afghanistan. Despite then-commander General John Nicholson’s November 2017 statement that the “most telling” metric of success is population control, the Department of Defense now asserts that the reports are “of limited decision-making value.”
Afghan security force casualties, probably the most important gauge of the war’s progress, are also unavailable, supposedly classified at the behest of the Afghan government. U.S. Central Command’s new chief, Marine General Kenneth McKenzie, Jr., recently acknowledged to the Senate that Afghan army and police losses were unsustainable. A full third of the Afghan security force has to be replaced every year due to casualties, desertion, and failures to re-enlist. The trajectory of the war is pretty clear.
One could plausibly argue that America did win the Afghan war—way back in 2002. The swift initial campaign, fought mostly by the Afghan Northern Alliance with support from U.S. Special Forces, CIA paramilitaries, and air power, toppled the Taliban government and shattered al-Qaeda’s network in Central Asia. Everything that came after, the argument goes, was mission creep and utopian fantasy.
That case has its merits, but the war should be judged by America’s professed goals there. These quickly grew to include the establishment of a stable, secure, and centralizing Afghan national government. By those lights, the war was, and is, an unwinnable quagmire.
Yet there are prominent national security professionals who will assert that Afghanistan was never lost, and in fact can still be won. Paul D. Miller, a Georgetown professor and former National Security Council staffer, made this case most recently in the pages of Foreign Policy. Clinging to the life raft of the possible, however faint, Miller wrote that “claiming the United States has failed is odd because the war is not over yet.” After risibly declaring that “Obama nearly won the war in 2012,” Miller judged Afghanistan a secret success, as a “mowing the grass” counterterrorism campaign.
After bemoaning the supposed hubris of those counseling withdrawal, Miller settled on a maximalism that is jarring to even a casual observer of the war: “more resources, real counterinsurgency, no deadline.” Realist detractors, called out by name, are told to keep their opinions to themselves, because their lack of faith undermines a necessary Forever War.
In Syria, unlike in Afghanistan, the insurgent enemy was decisively defeated on the battlefield. The Islamic State’s final sanctuary was destroyed in March. But after declaring a conclusion to this successful punitive expedition, President Trump reluctantly reversed himself and left a small residual U.S. force in place, ostensibly for counterterrorism purposes.
Trump had been relentlessly attacked by virtually the entire U.S. foreign policy establishment for his supposed fecklessness for even suggesting a withdrawal. Senators voted for an amendment rebuking the president by a margin of nearly 3-1. The secretary of defense, former General James Mattis, resigned in protest. Pundits and purported experts across the political spectrum inveighed against Trump’s pullout plans.
The major U.S. papers are quick to report that the Islamic State is back, with fighters slipping across the porous Iraq-Syria border and “seeding a new insurgency.” Intermittent attacks receive ample attention, as does the plight of Syria’s Kurds, stuck between Assad’s regime and their Turkish enemies.
The Islamic State is likely to survive and return for the same reason it appeared in the first place: victor’s justice and the refusal of all parties to embrace political compromise and power-sharing. Bashar al-Assad’s forces are engaged in a campaign of repression and violence in Sunni areas.
Meanwhile, in Iraq, under the supposedly less sectarian Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, a similar process grinds on. As The New Yorker’s Ben Taub detailed in a December piece, the conviction rate in Iraq’s terrorism courts is 98 percent. The average trial lasts less than 10 minutes. The families of many of those on trial are themselves detained indefinitely in squalid desert camps. Despite American advisors, American aid, and American attention, Iraq’s problems can only be solved by Iraqis. They are in no hurry to do so.
One might hope that the common-sense Middle American voter would see through this shallow sophistry. After all, the signature moment of Trump’s insurgency within the GOP primaries was in South Carolina, where he denounced the 43rd president and the Iraq war and was rewarded with an easy victory and the dispatch of Jeb Bush, the squishy embodiment of GOP conventional wisdom on Iraq.
Today even recent veterans believe these wars were for naught. A new Pew survey found that 64 percent of Iraq veterans and 58 percent of Afghanistan veterans believe their wars were “not worth fighting.” These men and women realize that we cannot fix foreign lands at the point of a bayonet, however impressive our temporary tactical victories may be.
But despite $6 trillion spent on these failed wars, American foreign policy remains largely the prerogative of elites. The stories of triumphs forsaken and troops stabbed in the back only need to reach and convince a small audience.
America’s Dolchstosslegendes, fueled mostly by optimism and hubris, are not those of bitter German anti-Semites, looking for someone to blame. But our myths and rationalizations are still pernicious and consequential—and they aren’t going away.
General H. R. McMaster, formerly national security advisor to President Trump and now ensconced at one of the most influential think tanks in Washington, recently blamed “war weariness” and “a defeatist narrative” for challenging the ongoing American military commitment to Afghanistan. As we near a presidential election and perhaps a chance at some realism and retrenchment overseas, the myths of back-stabbing and lost victory must be rejected. Until Americans, and especially elites, accept the lessons of history and the limits of U.S. power, we will be doomed to repeat our Sisyphean wars of choice.
Gil Barndollar is the Military Fellow-in-Residence at the Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship. He served as a U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer from 2009-2016.