Book Review: Lessons Unlearned: The U.S. Army's Role in Creating the Forever Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq

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by Pat Proctor

Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 2020. Pp. xvii, 486. Maps., diagr., notes, biblio., index. $40.00. ISBN: 0826221947

What Did We do Wrong?

Col. (ret.) Pat Proctor’s Lessons Unlearned is a powerful combination – a very detailed and footnoted historical survey and a well-structured argument that the US Army neglects the political dimension of warfare.

I began reading the book in Spring 2021 and despite some minor disagreements thought it a good read. After the Biden Administration’s needless Afghanistan collapse, I regard the book as a necessary read.

Proctor surveys the debate over and general neglect of effective U.S. Army counter-insurgency training since roughly 1960. It is unfair to reduce Proctor’s historical account, argument and analysis to three bullet points. However, the art of the book review is to summarize complexities succinctly but justly.

Here are my three bullets.

  • Page 19: Avoid universal laws about war. (Right on, brother.)
  • The U.S. Army always starts over again. (A point made throughout the book.)
  • Page 393: “The Army’s persistent challenge throughout the 1990s and into the war on terror has been its inability to achieve a political solution and terminate conflicts.”

Proctor argues the Army has “been reluctant to engage the political dimension [of conflicts]” and has deferred to other agencies, like the UN or the host nation. The Army “has reluctantly waded into the political dimensions of low intensity conflicts, it has refused to take sides and back a designated winner in the conflict, instead trying to forge a solution in which every party won.”

All are well formulated and pertinent questions.

However – is this really the U.S. Army’s failure? Or is this an institutional failure in the Beltway? Yes. I’m indicting the White House, Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon.

But back to damning universal laws. Proctor says U.S. interventions in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo all reflect a “repeating pattern.” Why? The Army failed to institutionalize lessons learned. He makes the case, and he nails it.

I won’t attempt to recap his coverage of Army training, doctrine and operational guidance debates post-Vietnam through 2001. They’re superb. Proctor’s history is by far the most detailed and accurate I’ve yet to read and I recommend it without reservation. In particular, he addresses the 2003 post-Iraqi Freedom peace transition, reconstruction and security operational failures accurately, succinctly and brutally.

Full disclosure: in 1977 as a first lieutenant I worked in a staff slot for Gordon Sullivan when he was a Lt. Col. on the fast track to Colonel. It did not surprise me that General Sullivan became one of the most creative and thoughtful officers in American history to serve as Army Chief of Staff. Proctor agrees. Sullivan advocated balancing high intensity and low intensity mission training and capabilities.

I do have problems with Proctor’s subtitle “The Forever Wars.” I addressed this exact issue in a 9/11/01 20-years-on essay published by the Dallas Morning News. I’ll steal from that essay. “I’m not quite sure what ‘forever war’ means in the real world. The notion measures time like a Hollywood movie – beginning and end. That’s disconnected from reality. The term works as angry rhetoric, but fails to address on the ground conditions.”

I think the term imposes a frame or scheme on a situation, something Proctor abhors. Perhaps we have a semantics debate, but it may be one we should have.

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Our Reviewer: Austin Bay has a doctorate from Columbia University, and is an Army War College graduate. A novelist and historian, he is an Associate Editor of StrategyPage and a syndicated columnist, and his commentaries have appeared on National Public Radio's “Morning Edition”. He has worked as a special consultant in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. A colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, he is a veteran of the Gulf War of 1990-1991, and although retired, was recalled to active duty in 2004 and served in Iraq with US Army III Corps (Multi-National Corps--Iraq). His past reviews include Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer and The 4th Marine Brigade at Belleau Wood and Soissons: History and Battlefield Guide,

 

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Note: Lessons Unlearned, a volume in the UMP series “American Military Experience”, is also available in several e-editions
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StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium (www.nymas.org)

Reviewer: Austin Bay   


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