It was a cold fall morning in 1993 at Pope Air Force Base, adjacent to Fort Bragg in North Carolina. The sun would not rise for a few more hours. I chose to drive out to the Joint Special Operations Command Headquarters to wait for the arrival of those returning from Somalia, where 18 of our troops had recently died in combat during the incident made famous in the book and movie “Blackhawk Down.” For reasons I still do not fully understand, I felt compelled to be there — to welcome them home.
I heard the plane land at the nearby field. They arrived in a nondescript gray bus half an hour later. I removed my gloves and shook the hand of each man as he disembarked. There seemed to me far too few in the official homecoming party. The troops trundled off to find their personal vehicles in the parking lot, bleary-eyed, haggard and, I thought, heartsick.
Nobody expressed joy at being home, only a kind of dogged resignation. Soldiers had fought and died, but for what? Our commander-in-chief of that era failed to understand the potential costs of committing our soldiers to combat prior to their deployment. I am still angry about it. From my perspective, our soldiers died for little beyond presidential arrogance and ignorance, no matter his stated intentions.
Tragically, the butcher’s bill over the last two decades reached frightening heights. The numbers of U.S. and allied dead and wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan were terrible. However, it is critically important to note that the losses suffered by the Iraqi and Afghan people dwarf our nation’s casualties in these conflicts. Only a politician could try to make a case that the massive sacrifices in blood and treasure were worth the expenditure. I have that chill feeling of deja vu all over again.
Our military’s combat performance in both wars was superb. We won the ground battles. Yet, America lost the wars — more lives were sacrificed, more national treasure was wasted, and more political and diplomatic capitol was squandered because we selected unrealistic national goals. Our military’s warfighting strategy development tanked as a result. And, even now, there are no answers from our political and military leadership concerning why. The problem is clearly top-down, reflecting all too common human failings.
Commanders-in-chief from both political parties seem to make the same mistakes, leading to similar regrettable outcomes. This must stop. Our armed forces personnel recognize the dangers of service. All that they ask is that their sacrifices — life and limb — not be wasted. Tragically, lives were wasted on the Horn of Africa back in the autumn of 1993, later in the Middle East and now Southwest Asia too.
U.S. soldiers do not have the luxury of selecting their adversaries. That is the responsibility of our most senior elected leadership. Those leaders have done the country poor service with their choices. The decision to go-to-guns in Somalia was birthed in a Democratic White House. The decision to war in Iraq and Afghanistan originated in a Republican Oval Office. Defeats were the ultimate result. Somalia still wars with itself. The winner in Iraq is Iran. The victor in Afghanistan is the Taliban. Clearly, we learned nothing from the debacle in Mogadishu. And now, what of Ukraine?
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American chief executives are not royalty. Presidential arrogance and ignorance, regardless of political party, must be brought into the light and examined. We must come to better understand these awful errors in judgment. The price of our refusal to examine-in-detail such wrong-headed and costly decisions, honestly and openly, is too high. More U.S.-involved conflicts are on their way. There is little time to get our house in order.
Robert Bruce Adolph is a retired senior Army Special Forces soldier and UN security chief. He formerly taught university classes in both U.S. Government and American History. He is a frequent guest columnist to the Tampa Bay Times, Atlantic Perspectives Magazine of the Netherlands and the Military Times. He is also author of his publisher’s number one best–selling book, “Surviving the United Nation: The Unexpected Challenge.”