War is the worst method of dispute resolution. In war, combatants and civilians are killed and injured, physical and social infrastructure is destroyed, and individuals and societies are traumatized, resulting in harms that can continue long after wars are declared to be over.
People often use the term “collateral damage” referring to death and injury of civilians and destruction of their property. But a more accurate definition would include the post-traumatic stress of individuals, including combatants and their families, as well as social dysfunction. Even “just wars,” such as the war against the Nazis, involved collateral damage and moral lapses, like the bombing of German cities and internment of US citizens of Japanese descent.
War has been a regular part of human history since at least 11,000 BCE, according to San Jose State Professor Jonathan P. Roth, author of the “Great Course,” War and World History. He writes, “Warfare is an integral part of virtually every human culture and society.” Indeed, he shows that war has been thoroughly intertwined throughout human history in politics, economics, technology, culture, religion, and ideology.
I have been reading a lot about history, which shows the decisive effects of war. For example, imagine what would have happened if the losers of the Revolutionary War, Civil War, or World War II had won. We would live in a very different world today.
I started planning to write this post when the US withdrew all combat troops from Afghanistan this summer. At that time, Washington Post reporter Craig Whitlock published The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War, which piqued my interest. The book is based primarily on a government inspector general study conducted between 2014 and 2018 as well as several oral history projects. The Washington Post published this summary.
At the time, I was reading Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes, a Marine officer who served in Vietnam. It’s the story of a Marine company slogging through the jungle.
Both these books are written from an American military perspective. To get the perspective of a citizen of a country attacked by the US, I read Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq by a writer using the pseudonym “Riverbend.” This book is a collection of her blog posts written in 2003-2004 about life during the American occupation of Iraq.
Barack Obama, before he was elected president, famously opposed “dumb wars.” Unfortunately, the American wars in Vietnam, Iraq (the one started in 2003), and Afghanistan all were dumb wars that became quagmires. Although the US invasion of Afghanistan was justified to defeat al-Qaeda, President Bush “took his eye off the ball” by gearing up to invade Iraq instead of completing the mission in Afghanistan.
There was great collateral damage in all three of these wars in terms of corruption, cynicism, and continuing conflict. This post highlights this damage as portrayed in the three books.
American Vietnam War
Matterhorn, a Catch-22 novel of the Vietnam War, is a gripping, page-turner conveying the horrors of war in gruesome detail. The protagonist is a green lieutenant, Waino Mellas, who is dropped into the jungle to take command of his platoon. His education is our education about the realities of the War and life in the military. He commands a diverse group of enlisted men, and he is subject to the orders of middle-level officers directing operations from the comfort of their safe headquarters.
There are a substantial number of Black Marines who react to the civil rights and black power movements in various ways. The Blacks self-segregate and generally resent the Whites, some of whom are overtly racist. There is tension between some Blacks as well.
Mellas is a college kid and he hears the resentment of non-college educated troops, who have few other options than serving in the military.
All the characters cope with the often unreasonable orders and expectations of their superiors.
Truth and integrity are collateral damage in this war. As in other wars, “truth is the first casualty.” In Matterhorn, colonels and majors constantly pressed to get casualty figures and “kill ratios” so that they can make impressive reports of progress to their superiors to justify promotion and new commands. This pressure led grunts in the field to inflate the numbers of enemy killed, which deepened their cynicism.
In a later article, Mr. Marlantes wrote, “In Vietnam lying became the norm and I did my part. … Lies in the Vietnam War were more prevalent because that war was fought without meaning. Death, destruction, and sorrow need to be constantly justified in the absence of some overarching meaning for the suffering. Lack of this overarching meaning encourages making things up, lying, to fill the gap in meaning.”
The story of Matterhorn was a microcosm of the massive deception throughout the military as documented in the secret Defense Department study known as the Pentagon Papers. It was not just the military who lied. President Johnson and administration officials lied trying to avoid the political consequences of losing the War.
Some of the worst damage is the PTSD that the surviving troops experience after “humping” through their miserable experience in the jungle, constantly at risk of being killed and having to kill de-humanized enemy soldiers to avoid being killed themselves.
The American public also suffered a kind of PTSD, as people’s reactions to the War led to intense social conflict and loss of confidence in the government, military, media, and other institutions.
I highly recommend Matterhorn, especially the audible version. Actor Bronson Pinchot won an award for his narration in which he reproduced many dialects and accents.
The 2003 Iraq Invasion and Occupation
Since the Civil War, Americans haven’t lived through a war in our homeland. The US has engaged in numerous military conflicts since then, but always somewhere else – often thousands of miles away. The shocking September 11 attacks took place in the US, but we didn’t experience ongoing life in a war zone.
Baghdad Burning provides a vivid account of day-to-day life under foreign military occupation – supposedly for the Iraqis’ benefit. The experience was scary and maddening, and ordinary citizens had no option but to live with it.
People lived in constant fear of physical danger. They might be killed by American bombing, middle-of-the-night raids, or checkpoint incidents. Or they might be caught in the crossfire with Iraqi militias or blown up by suicide bombers. Or they might be unlucky because kidnappers don’t receive ransoms in time.
Citizens dealt with constant humiliations as they navigated checkpoints, endured searches, and couldn’t allow women to be outside without armed male protection.
There were frequent outages of electricity and water and shortages of gas. Gas had been plentiful and cheap before the invasion. Afterward, people had to wait in long lines and pay high prices.
The author, “Riverbend,” is a 24 year old female computer programmer who apparently lost her job. She is full of contempt for the American government, especially Paul Bremer, the nincompoop put in charge of the occupation. He seemingly knew nothing about Iraqi politics and culture, and constantly made a hash of the reconstruction efforts. She disdainfully describes the Iraqi “puppets” who Mr. Bremer selected to run the country. And she is outraged by the corruption of funneling huge sums through Halliburton, Vice President Cheney’s former company, as well as by Iraqi insiders, who wasted much of the money.
Riverbend writes that various groups, such as the Shia and Sunni Muslims, generally got along well before the invasion but became polarized only in the aftermath. The war created chaos, conflict, and cynicism within Iraq. And in the US. And between the US and many of its traditional allies.
Riverbend is a remarkable narrator with a wicked, bittersweet sense of humor. She’s a combination of a diarist, blogger, journalist, and anthropologist. It breaks your heart to read what our war did to her and other Iraqis. It’s all the more maddening considering that President Bush started the war under false pretenses and allowed bin Laden and al-Qaeda to escape, thus perpetuating two dumb wars.
The Afghanistan Papers paints a picture of what might be called “Murphy’s War”: everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Or, in military lingo, a SNAFU: situation normal – all fucked up. Indeed, FUBAR: fucked up beyond all recognition.
As in Iraq, American leaders and military forces had little to no idea who they were dealing with. Were people they encountered friends or foes? Officers asked for maps showing the location of the “bad guys” as if there were clear battle lines.
Soldiers couldn’t speak the Afghans’ language and, as soon as troops learned a bit about the situation, they were rotated home so that a new set of oblivious troops would take their place, only to repeat the cycle over and over.
When President Bush initiated the war, he denied that it would be a “nation-building” mission, yet he eventually admitted that this is what it became. We engaged in “counter-insurgency” to dissuade the Afghan people from supporting the Taliban and to build political support for the American-backed government.
We tried to build a Western-style democratic government, which made no sense to the Afghans, most of whom were illiterate and “accustomed to tribalism, monarchism, communism and Islamic law.”
The US funded ill-conceived, expensive development projects that had no chance of being sustained after US withdrawal. We spent more in Afghanistan than in the Marshall Plan after World War II, adjusted for inflation. These projects fueled corruption by US and Afghan interests and actually reduced support for the Afghan government.
As in Vietnam, the US strategy involved building indigenous military forces. This was almost a complete failure as Afghan soldiers and police had little commitment to the government. Indeed, some used their positions to extort the local population. Some were secretly insurgents who killed American troops in supposedly safe spaces. Some were “ghost soldiers” whose salaries were siphoned by Afghan officers.
One strategy was to destroy the poppy crops, which were believed to fund Taliban operations. Instead, these efforts alienated Afghan farmers and drove them into the arms of the Taliban.
Military leaders ignored reports of serious flaws in their strategy and disingenuously repeated that the US war effort was making “progress.” Indeed, they deliberately misled the public by distorting statistics. Part of the problem was that military and political leaders didn’t want to be blamed for losing the war or a messy ending, as President Biden experienced.
Minimizing Collateral Damage
The three wars described in this post were not just dumb – they were tragic and expensive. The initiation or continuation of the wars were sold to the public based on false and/or misleading claims. The US attacked countries where we didn’t understand their interests, culture, or language. We assumed that we could force weaker countries to comply with our demands by using massive military might, only to be humbled by losing prolonged wars.
Although the US had some legitimate interests in these situations, we passed up opportunities for peaceful resolutions. Our counterproductive decisions to prolong the wars were largely due to political and military leaders prioritizing their career and political interests over the country’s interests.
As shown in the three books described in this post, collateral damage is much more than death and injury of civilians and unintentional destruction of their property as well as that of our own troops. Veterans and their families suffer long-lasting physical and psychological injuries.
Collateral damage includes erosion of public confidence caused by military and government deception and corruption. Wars may spawn new and protracted conflict. They may leave invisible post-traumatic wounds in both combatants and civilians. Indeed, wars can unravel the social fabric, leaving citizens estranged from each other, diverting a huge amount of resources that could advance domestic and international priorities, and decreasing the ability of institutions to function effectively.
Some wars are justified, but even just wars cause collateral damage. When planning and conducting wars, political and military leaders should consider assessments of this potential damage. Ideally, these leaders would be candid, though this is hard because candor can depress domestic support, demoralize troops, and encourage adversaries. But continuing significant deception can sap the benefits of war, especially when countries do not clearly win.
If we had seriously pursued negotiations, it’s impossible to know all the consequences, even in hindsight. But it’s plausible that the US would have less conflict internally and internationally, and we would have greater influence in the world.
Thanks to Angela Drake for comments on an earlier draft.