Keith Boyea's Blog

Notes & Commentary on National Security, Current Affairs and Bourbon

A Short Comment on “No Worse Enemy”

I finished Ben Anderson’s No Worse Enemy last night and I wanted to offer a couple of comments.

Anderson has spent a lot of time in Afghanistan–the book covers the period between 2007 and 2011.  In 2007, Anderson was with the British in Helmand, and in 2009-2011, he was with the American Marines in the same area.  What struck me about his experience is the comments that the two groups of soldiers were making.  Actually, it was only one set of comments:  As far back as 2007, the Brits were using the same COIN-speak that the Americans employed years later.  If you’ve followed the Afghan war at all, you’ve heard this type of talk.  “The Taliban’s momentum is being stopped.”  “We will provide security so that the population will decide to support us.” “The people here only want security and peace.” “Afghan forces are in the lead.”  And so on and on and on…you’ve likely heard it all by now.

I just want to emphasize the point.  According to Anderson’s reporting, despite the lives, effort and money poured into Helmand between 2007 and 2011, nearly nothing was noticeably different. Like the British in 2007, the Marines in 2009 had to blast their way through the various villages and towns to establish fire bases.  Support from the population was tepid. Vast numbers of civilians were killed or displaced, just so NATO forces could pursue the Taliban.  

To close watchers of the Afghan war, this is hardly surprising.  In fact, I had seen much of this reporting already in Anderson’s 2011 documentary “The Battle for Bomb Alley.” Claims of progress by US military and political leadership are legion.  Just last month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called the recent rash of “green on blue” attacks the last gasp of a desperate insurgency. If you grant the US military and political leadership a generous reading, they’ve deluded themselves into thinking that progress has been made over the past 3 years.  If you take their claims with more skepticism, then you might be inclined to think the claims of progress are outright lies.  Anderson’s book is a piece of evidence that will tilt you towards the latter category.

One additional point I did want to try to ruminate on is the way that some American soldiers are “true believers.”  These guys really do believe that they are their to help the Afghan people and their efforts are worth the sacrifice.  I feel qualified to comment because I used to be that guy.  During my 2005 deployment in Southern Iraq, I recall saying the exact same things to an Iraqi contractor.  I was saying things like, “We’re here for you.  The faster we can help you build up Iraq, the faster we can leave…” and so on.  The Iraqi contractor smiled and nodded politely; he probably knew that I was completely deluded.

That delusion, I think, is remarkable.  I’m Becker-ian in outlook–I think our life’s project is to create meaning for our lives.  The created meaning is an illusion, but to lose it is die.  Really, Becker says to lose it is to die. 

So, to make the connection–I think these guys are operating under the illusion of progress in Afghanistan because that illusion sustains them.  While deployed, it is literally the meaning of your life.  It is necessary for their own sustenance.  I think what’s worthy of further study is how good the military is at creating these illusions.




Written by keithboyea

October 8, 2012 at 12:15 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Glad I see you posting again.
    I agree with you on the need for purpose. No one wants to be there and fight and risk their life for something they don’t believe in. I wonder what the percentage is of people who are true believers to those who think otherwise, and how performance might vary with both.


    October 10, 2012 at 9:27 am

    • I get the sense from my reading (admittedly anecdotal) that there are pockets of soldiers–they seem to mostly be enlisted–that are willing to say, “Screw the war, I’m here for my brothers.” It might just be that a lot of the people that tend to be quoted in books and articles feel they have to stick with the party line. I don’t know. I think you’re query is a good one, but how would we feel if we find out there’s not performance variation between the two groups? Would that mean that the mission doesn’t matter? Would that signal that we are fully professionalized?


      October 10, 2012 at 9:46 am

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