A HALLMARK OF American democracy is that the civilians are in charge. So, in theory, the division of labor between the president and his top generals is straightforward: the president sets the policy, and then leaves it to the professionals to carry it out. During the initial deliberations, they can voice their concerns, point out the hazards, and suggest alternatives, but in the end, it is the president who decides. He is the commander in chief.

But what happens when the president pursues a policy that his generals are convinced will lead to disaster? The failure of the military establishment to speak up during the Vietnam War was the theme of the current national security advisor H. R. McMaster’s book Dereliction of Duty, now considered a classic among US officers.

On the one hand, officers tend to be can-do types, and they have no wish to be seen as disobedient. At the same time, they find it hard to stand idly by when the civilians persist in some terrible mistake.

This is the central question raised Mark Perry’s vivid The Pentagon’s Wars. Examining American conflicts from the end of the Cold War up to the election of Donald Trump, he sets out to document the tensions between the nation’s civilian leaders and an “often recalcitrant and quietly dissenting military establishment.” In addition, there are the skirmishes within the military itself, between traditionalists and the counter-insurgency crowd.

In Perry’s view, two changes have contributed to the United States’s disappointing recent military record: the availability of cruise missiles and drones, which has made it tempting for the civilian leadership to strike from afar, as well as the 1986 Goldwater–Nichols Act that removed the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) from the chain of command and instead made its chairman “the principal military adviser” to the president. This was intended to cut down on service rivalries, but the temptation was now for the president to choose a pliable chairman.

Bill Clinton had serious run-ins with Colin Powell, the powerful chairman of the Joint Chiefs, over the issue of gays in the military, which forced the president to compromise and settle for “don’t ask, don’t tell” and which left him with a Powell complex. “Clinton was apoplectic on the subject of Colin Powell, terrified of Colin Powell,” recalls presidential advisor Robert Reich. Hence Clinton’s advice to his successor George W. Bush: “Whatever you do, don’t appoint a strong chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

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The book starts with a triumph. George H. W. Bush’s Gulf War revolutionized warfare by pulling a reverse Clausewitz: instead of working from the outside in by first taking on Saddam’s army, it attacked his command structure first, thereby paralyzing his military.

The war forced Saddam out of Kuwait, but fumbled the end by allowing his Republican Guard to escape. Things were further botched when the commander on the scene, General Norman Schwarzkopf, let Saddam fly his helicopters over Iraq, with which he proceeded to quash a revolt in the South that might have toppled him.

A self-described “reluctant warrior,” Powell, who had played a key role in Desert Storm and now served Clinton, spelled out his views on the use of military force in a 1992 article, which Perry sums up like this: “the United States should only go to war as a last resort, only when its vital interests were threatened, only when there were clearly defined objectives, only with a full commitment of US resources applied through overwhelming force — and, most crucially, only with the support of the American people.” According to the ahairman, “America was at its most vulnerable when it deploys its troops incrementally, while overwhelming force signals true commitment.”

The great fear of Powell and officers of his generation was getting stuck in another Vietnam-type morass with all its connotations of mission creep and nation building. The US military is not in the building business, they believed; it is in the demolition business.

Powell clashed mightily with US ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright over Somalia, where rival factions were using food as a weapon and where George H. W. Bush, in the final days of his administration, had committed 25,000 troops as part of a UN force to ensure food distribution. And the fight continued over the ex-Yugoslavia, where Powell feared the United States would become entangled in a Balkan civil war.

“What’s the point of having this superb military you are always talking about, if we can’t use it,” countered Albright. “I thought I would have an aneurysm,” Powell later wrote. “For Powell […] the whole point of having a strong military was to deter war, not invite it,” writes Perry.”

To the military, Albright, who went on to become secretary of state, was the advocate-in-chief of the hated idea of nation building, the high priestess of liberal internationalism that believed that the world could be shaped according to American ideals.

Somalia, of course, ended in disaster: on October 3, 1993, a few days after Powell’s term as chairman was up, Delta Forces and Rangers, sent on a mission to capture warlord Mohammed Aidid’s lieutenants, got trapped in the maze of Mogadishu, resulting in 19 dead and many wounded American soldiers, hundreds of dead Somalians, and abruptly ending the US involvement in the country.

Powell’s nightmare scenario of US troops getting sucked into a Balkan civil war did not come true, but many officers resented the halfhearted way the war in Bosnia was fought on behalf of the United Nations and how the Air Force was used to send “messages” to Milošević in support of ambassador Richard Holbrooke’s diplomacy. It took a three-week massive and sustained bombing offensive of the Bosnian Serbs to finally force Milošević to the negotiating table.

The same hesitant application of US force was repeated in the small province of Kosovo in 1998–’99, where Serb militias were slaughtering the Muslim population. Instead of asserting the US NATO leadership role by immediately putting out the lights in Belgrade, US pilots were reduced to “tank plinking,” hitting the same puny targets over and over, until the White House finally unleashed the Air Force on Belgrade, which caused Milošević to fold at once and withdraw his army. The United States suffered no pilot losses in the Kosovo conflict. But as Air Force Commander Michael Short noted, what should have been achieved in 78 hours had lasted 78 days.

As a sign of the internal friction in the officer corps, Wesley Clark, the general who had conducted the Bosnia and Kosovo campaigns, was seen by his colleagues as “the perfumed prince,” a relentless career-seeker and nation-builder, “Madeleine Albright with stars on his shoulders.” He was not reappointed as supreme allied commander in Europe, and, significantly, Hugh Shelton, who had been JCS chairman from 1997 to 2001, refused to endorse Clark’s short run for president in 2004.

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In the 2000 election, the military backed George W. Bush because, some believed, he gave the impression of being less interventionist than his Democratic opponent Al Gore and hence less likely to misuse American troops on nation-building missions. As Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security advisor put it, “We don’t need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten.”

But then came Afghanistan and Iraq, which Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wanted to use as “laboratories” for his new concept of a smaller, but extremely flexible and mobile army, equipped with smart weapons. This worked spectacularly in the Iraq War’s initial phase, where Saddam was toppled, but left too few troops to handle the aftermath, when the war turned into insurgency. Powell, now secretary of state, had explicitly warned Bush that after an invasion the “Pottery Barn rule” applied — if you break it, you own it — and Bush would be “the proud owner of 25 million people.”

The only officer to make this point had been the Army chief of staff, General Eric Shinseki, who had no doubts about the outcome of the actual fighting but argued that some 300,000 men would be needed in Iraq to stabilize the country, for which there were no plans. The United States, he believed, was operating on a best-case scenario: that invaders would be viewed as liberators, and that the cooperation of the Iraqis would be smooth.

“Shinseki was the highest military official to question these assumptions,” writes Perry. “The senior military was absolutely terrified of Rumsfeld. Just terrified,” says an official. Shinseki’s skeptical Senate Armed Services testimony caused a stir and earned him scorn of Rumsfeld’s inner circle: “This is more bullshit from a Clintonite enamored of using the army for peacekeeping and not winning wars,” an anonymous Rumsfeld flunky stated.

Retired General Jay Garner arrived in Iraq to oversee the reconstruction. He agreed with Shinseki on the inadequacy of the troop numbers and on the Army’s overoptimistic expectations. He particularly stressed the need to retain the loyalty of the Iraqis by getting the demobbed Iraqi army involved in the rebuilding of the country and paying them. All of which landed him in Rumsfeld’s black book and led to his recall.

Instead, the administration opted for control over legitimacy, writes Perry. The Defense Department dispatched Paul Bremer to Baghdad, who set up shop as proconsul, ruling by decree. Apparently unfamiliar with the situation in Germany after World War II, where de-Nazification had to be discontinued due to a shortage of qualified people, Brenner sent the civil servants and the Iraqi soldiers home without pay as part of his de-Baathification process, which made them prime recruiting material for the insurrection.

Thus, instead of being viewed as liberators, US troops became, in Marine Major General James Mattis’s phrase, “shit magnets” for thousands of Iraqis who had lost their sinecure. The United States was now faced with a “second war [in Iraq, which] would be as important as operation Iraqi freedom itself,” writes Perry. Rumsfeld just brushed it off as a case of a free people committing crimes.

After three years of ever-growing insurgency, on March 19, 2006, in the so-called Generals’ Revolt, a group of retired officers called for Rumsfeld’s resignation on the grounds of incompetence. Not one to just roll over, Rumsfeld fired back that he may well have knocked a few heads together, but his only point had been to reassert civilian control over the military, so they wouldn’t push Bush around as they had Clinton. But the president chose to replace Rumsfeld, which paved the way for a new battle plan and General David Petraeus famous surge, emphasizing “clear and hold,” which for a while restored the equilibrium in the country.

In his handling of the war, Bush seems to have learned the supposed lessons of Vietnam a little too well. As Eliot Cohen demonstrates in his classic analysis of the civilian military relationship Supreme Command, great political leaders will let the military get on with it, but will monitor and probe, and overrule when necessary. For Bush to have let three years pass before taking action was far too passive.

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The book ends with the frictions under Obama, who came in committed to fixing domestic problems and was less interested in foreign policy. But events did not accommodate. With the arrival of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, Obama let himself be persuaded by his NATO allies and by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to support the uprising against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. The president ordered a no-fly zone over the country and the neutralizing of its defense systems, and then handed the show over to the NATO partners, an exercise Obama called “leading from behind.”

JCS chairman Mike Mullen opposed the invention, as did his boss, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates: “Can I finish the two wars I’m already in before you guys go looking for a third one?” asked Gates, while senior officers were muttering about this being another case of the “cruise missile liberals” being at it again.

Gaddafi was duly toppled, but Libya descended into chaos exactly as Mullen had predicted. Fired by the false promise of the moment, the mission’s supporters had given little thought to the aftermath. “But, unlike previous controversial interventions (and especially the one in Iraq), at least the military leadership had taken a more careful view and stood its ground,” writes Perry. “And while Mullen had lost the debate, he stubbornly reflected the military’s view.”

The Libyan fiasco affected Obama’s subsequent handling of the Syrian rebellion against Bashar al-Assad, where he was under pressure to arm the opposition. The problem was deciding who they were and what they stood for, and the risk that US arms would end up with Islamists. This hesitation was warranted — it was later revealed that the Pentagon aimed at training 5,400 Syrian fighters, and produced a grand total of 60, at a cost of $2 million per man. That’s one expensive warrior.

But Obama suffered a loss of credibility when, after having drawn a red line if Assad were to use chemical weapons, he failed to act upon his threat when the Syrian army used chemical weapons in 2013.

Obama pulled completely out of Iraq in 2011. But in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal had asked for more troops, a request that was backed by General Petraeus, leading Obama’s staff to complain the president was being cornered by his military. Reluctantly, Obama agreed to 30,000 troops but imposed a tight timeframe: a withdrawal would start in July 2011. And according to the president, the goal was no longer to defeat the enemy, but to “disrupt.”

“[T]he Afghan debate left the impression that the military had maneuvered Obama into adopting a surge he didn’t think would work. In exchange the military had agreed to a withdrawal date they did not support,” says Perry.

When McChrystal was dismissed over an article in Rolling Stone the following year, David Petraeus took over. A man in a hurry, Petraeus had to discard some of the finer points of his own counterinsurgency manual with its strict rules of engagement, and focus on killing terrorists, which for a while led to a leveling off of US casualties.

Within the Army, there had been a long-simmering feud between the counterinsurgency advocates and the traditionalists, who considered the counterinsurgency doctrine too subtle and too theoretical to be of use. But what pulled the plug on the United States’s commitment to full-bore counterinsurgency, notes Perry, was Obama’s conviction that the expense of intervening in failed states would bankrupt the nation. Instead, the country should concentrate on the challenge posed by China, and the beneficiaries of this would be the Navy and the Air Force.

Which brings us up to the 2016 election. While some top officers supported Hillary Clinton, the great majority of the military came out solidly for Trump. That the man had avoided getting drafted to Vietnam on the flimsiest of excuses, and that he was intellectually, temperamentally, and morally unfit for the office, did not seem to matter. What mattered was his promise to rebuild the Army and pull up the drawbridge.

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Who is right and who is wrong in all this? While Perry tends to be on the non-interventionist side, Albright’s contention that it made no sense having fine military forces if you cannot use is surely valid. George Schultz made the same argument to Caspar Weinberger during the Reagan administration, who had held the much same views on the use of military force as his protégé Colin Powell.

Thus the military’s attitude occasionally smacks of McClellanism, the trait named for General George McClellan, who was excellent at training men during the Civil War but strangely passive where taking on the enemy was concerned, and consequently had to be replaced by Lincoln. The United States must stay engaged in the world, or else somebody else will call the shots.

But policy makers like the Albright crowd went wrong in their willingness to use military force without a clear sense of a national interest. While the concept of the national interest has always been regarded as slightly suspect by liberals, to expect soldiers to lay down their lives in the spirit of pure altruism is asking too much.

While it is vital to address the conventional threats posed by China and a resurgent Russia, at the same time, the United States cannot allow failed states like Afghanistan or Yemen to be taken over by terrorist organizations and become staging grounds for attacks on the US, and, as Eliot Cohen has noted in The Big Stick, such interventions must necessarily involve a measure of stabilization efforts: relying on drones and the occasional special-ops raid alone won’t do the trick.

Sure enough, having pulled out of Iraq in 2011, only a few years later, Obama had to order airstrikes and rush back a small number of troops to prevent Baghdad from falling to ISIS. And in 2017, with Afghanistan backsliding, Mattis and McMaster managed to persuade Trump to send a modest reinforcement, bringing the current figure up to 14,000.

Perry’s question of why the United States keeps losing its wars is, of course, a vital one. In retrospect, the idea that one could turn faraway tribal societies into small versions of the United States turned out to be unrealistic. From this, it is tempting to conclude that one should only enter wars one can expect to win outright.

Unfortunately, the war on terror is not that kind of war, and unfortunately, one does not always get to choose one’s enemies. Thus it might be helpful to look upon it the way we look upon crime, a problem to be managed rather than completely rooted out. After all, we do not stop policing our own societies just because criminals keep cropping up.

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Henrik Bering is a journalist and critic.