“The Military Goes to War. The Country Does Not.”

What most Americans don’t understand about the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

U.S. soldiers walk down a road in Kabul.
U.S. soldiers arrive at the site of a car bomb attack that targeted a NATO coalition convoy in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept. 24, 2017. Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

In his new book The Fighters: Americans in Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, New York Times correspondent C.J. Chivers examines the two wars he has been writing about for more than a decade, with a special focus on the men and women who have been fighting them. The book follows the lives of a number of people who served in various capacities, with different ages and ranks, and how they’ve all coped with the stresses of combat. “I’m trying to capture something more human,” he told me recently over the phone. “The idea being that if you follow these characters and understand them as human beings and what their experiences of these wars were, you’d be better informed on some of the larger strategic and doctrinal questions.”

During the course of my conversation with Chivers, who is also a writer at large for the New York Times Magazine, we discussed why there are fewer differences between the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq than people might think, what it’s like to be fighting in a war that your superiors don’t believe can be won, and whether decision-makers have learned any lessons from all the things that have gone awry in these conflicts over the past 17 years. The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Isaac Chotiner: What about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, aside from their length, are different than other wars America has waged?

C.J. Chivers: Well, one of the main differences is the separation between the fighting class—the people in the military who actually go to the wars—and the larger public. We had something like 3 million veterans from these wars. That’s less than 1 percent of the population. These veterans are in many ways geographically and socially isolated from the rest of us. There’s not a broader sense of stake in the outcome of these wars at the personal level than there have been in the major wars of our past. The military goes to war; the country does not. We have a very, very deep and almost psychic separation from these wars because of the absence of selective service, because of the all-volunteer force.

How do you think that affects the men and women fighting?

There are short-term and long-term effects. I would argue in the short term the effects are probably positive. The fact that when our units go into war, or even not in war but in trying and isolating circumstances for a long time, it is very helpful that the people they are serving with volunteered to be there and want to be there and are not there by some sort of mail lottery system, which would make it much harder.

Over time, that cohesion in these units breaks down because they come home, they leave their units, they’re separate from the people they went to war with, and I think they’re quite isolated, because the larger communities around them, unless they settle near a military base, have almost no experience of these wars. They just don’t understand them.

There was a feeling among people, especially on the left and among those who were opposed to the Iraq war, that it was very important to view the Iraq war and the Afghanistan war, which started a few years earlier, as separate. I think Barack Obama felt that way and spoke that way. John Kerry at a certain point felt that way and spoke that way. Do you think it’s helpful to look at them as part of the same war, in terms of the way the men and women fighting in each place view it? The way in which we think about what the conflict accomplished or didn’t accomplish? The morality of the fights?

I’m going to be all over the map here, kind of like you just were. Of course, they’re separate, right? But they’re not. It’s impossible to understand and to follow the arc of the Afghan war without accounting for the invasion and the occupation of Iraq because of the grand distraction that it created.

The invasion [of Iraq] of course wasn’t until early 2003, but the planning for invasion was underway long, long before that. That was a diversion of the resources of the military. The intellectual resources, the command resources, the logistical resources. Then that diversion became extraordinary as Iraq did not go anything like pitched and became a conflagration, especially for Iraqis but of course for the occupying forces as well.

I cannot separate them. I would also argue if you look at the military socially, they’re not that separate. There are senior officers who served in one but not the other, [but] there was a great body of troops from midoccupation Iraq to, let’s call in shorthand, the Obama surge of 2009 and ’10 and ’11 who served in both. They formed a core of these wartime experiences. The repeat veterans who were in both wars and who showed up in Afghanistan. … In some cases, they showed up in Iraq having experienced Afghanistan, but more commonly they showed up in Afghanistan during the Obama period with a lot of Iraq experience and it affected a lot about that war. The equipment that was used, the tactics that were used, the doctrine and other ideas that were transferred. These wars are deeply intertwined, and I find them impossible to separate except almost as an academic exercise.

What about just in terms of what you think they have or haven’t accomplished?

Why don’t I stop you right there? I mean, what they have or have not accomplished? On whose terms? On the military’s terms? On the military’s terms, they’ve failed. Let’s make a list of things the military said it was going to do or that it predicted would happen. It didn’t accomplish those things. We have had an endless recreation of the security partners, the Iraqi or the Afghan security forces, that we were developing and training, fostering, equipping, mentoring, fighting alongside. These units often were made of sand.

In both wars, these were central, let’s call it, midwar objectives of the military and they were touted repeatedly and sometimes almost triumphantly as things that were progressing well. They did not progress well. They progressed poorly. Let’s talk protecting populations, right? Perhaps the centerpiece of the American counterinsurgency doctrine, the reboot of that counterinsurgency doctrine, as pitched. Did we adequately protect the populations? I mean, you can find cases where of course we did. On balance and on aggregate I think we can point to an enormous amount of social and property destruction on our watch where we were supposed to do those things and they didn’t happen. That’s not even to get into the loss of life, which was many times the order of magnitude of ours.

Let’s talk about fighting corruption. I mean, corruption remains endemic in both countries. Let’s talk about the counter-narcotics piece. We tried a number of other strategies that were intended to wean the local economies and farmers off of poppy production and encourage them to grow other things. Do you think poppies aren’t growing in Afghanistan right now? In places where we and many Afghan security partners lost their lives and limbs?

I mean, we can go on, but you get the point. If we want to use the Pentagon’s own terms we can point to some successes here and there and certainly the killing of Osama Bin Laden is high on that list. If we talk across the wide slate of things that these wars were supposed to accomplish on the Pentagon’s own terms, those things didn’t happen as advertised.

When you read accounts of the Obama and Trump administrations or even maybe the late Bush administration, you get a sense of people pushing policies that they may not totally even believe themselves can work. Obviously we saw this in other wars, like Vietnam, where sometimes policies would be pushed knowing that this was putting a Band-Aid over something and was not actually going to succeed. Is your sense that there was a time that the military collectively stopped believing that these wars could succeed, and do you think that filtered down to the men and women on the ground? And what effect would that have, if it did?

Let me cut it into parts. Using the words the military is kind of like using the word music. It’s big. It has too many meanings. The military that I mostly look at and what this book is about is the lower ranks. War history is, in my view, too much general and not enough sergeant. My lenses are down there around the sergeants, above and below. Up to captain typically and down to privates first class. That’s where I physically inhabited these words and observed them most closely.

I worked for a big newspaper, and we had other people who were covering the organizers of the war and its senior commanders. I wasn’t one of them except for occasional glancing interactions with the generals. I just did not look there. Let’s talk about the part I did look at. I think it was quite clear that the rank and file and the midlevel people actually fighting the war day to day understood that the things their campaigns were supposed to achieve were unrealistic and unlikely to happen. That was almost seen among the people I came to know well as not even really their concern. They had daily missions or hourly missions. They had immediate things to do, and they did them.

They worked within their competencies and within the time they had to fight, to help each other. When they encountered resistance to win that fight, the battles were typically brief because the other side would run away before fire support was maxed. They operated there. I had the sense often that they recognized many of the objectives were unobtainable and there was a lot of, on the better days, wry disapproval and, on the worst days, bitter disgust at some of what they heard coming out of the mouths of the higher commanders about what would be accomplished in these countries. I think many of the soldiers knew it wouldn’t work.

I also think, and I mean this sincerely, that that wasn’t in many ways their mandate. Their mission isn’t to turn the country around. Their mission is much narrower than that. They worked on these missions almost invariably in good faith and with great energy. They saw the war as a template upon which a personal account of themselves would be written. They wanted to show up and do well for the people around them.

That’s not a political idea. That’s not even a campaign idea. That’s about personal character. That’s about being a human being. That’s a little bit separate from your question, but it bears mentioning because that was, I think, the engine of a lot of the behaviors I observed.

Do you have any hope or sense that, if the United States was about to engage in another war with lots of ground troops, that we, as a country, or people in the Armed Forces, have learned some of the lessons that hurt us over the past 15 years, and hurt the men and women on the ground over the past 15 years?

Do you have a keyboard and can you type 17 asterisks into this transcript to say there’s a big caveat here? Because I have enough trouble as a journalist and a writer or an analyst, whatever you want to call me, trying to describe what already happened. The future gets tough, right? I can’t see out into the future. I don’t pretend to have the temperature of the mind of the broader military and its decision-makers. I think that among the people I know who are in these wars for any length of time, and that’s a lot of people … I’m not going to call it a consensus because there’s no such thing in something as complicated as the military. I would say that a strong and prevailing view is a certain skepticism about our ability to occupy and project power over time in ground wars, as you described.

I think that’s understood. I think it’s inarguable. I think, yes, at the rank-and-file level and the midcareer level, or even the later-career level, because the wars are long enough that we have veterans who were at a low level before and are colonels or lieutenant colonels now … I think that those people get it, of course. Does that mean that they have any power? I don’t know. Power that projects our military forces ashore derives from the civilian side, right? From our political class. I don’t think that our political class is really connected to these wars in a way that they have a solid understanding of how our forces should be used.

I’m not sure that the future is secure from more bad decisions because the country. … It goes to that separation again, right? The country doesn’t go to war. The military does. The bulk of the military, I think, gets it. I don’t know what the country knows, but I’d be pretty worried.