America in the Looking Glass: All Questions and No Answers in Iraq and Afghanistan


Kael Weston, The Mirror Test, America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan (Alfred Knopf, 2016).

It is time to look into the mirror. Fifteen years into America’s ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and South Asia, we have many memoirs and battle histories, but little consensus on what lessons to draw about why we have not achieved our objectives. Kael Weston believes it is time to better understand and learn from what he calls the 9/11 wars.

That is the quest that animated Weston to write this superlative book. In a preface devoted to describing the horrific burns and recovery of a wounded soldier, Weston discusses that pivotal moment when a burn victim first looks in the mirror and confronts what has happened to him. Metaphorically, Weston wants that disfigured veteran’s mirror test to become our own: “reflecting on what it means when a country, but not a nation, goes to war – and is still at war…. It is past time for this kind of shared reckoning.”

The author brings unique credentials and credibility to the task, and his personal experiences inevitably color the entire book in ways that should have  helped  this reckoning. Weston spent seven consecutive years deployed as a State Department representative, first three years in Iraq and then four more in Afghanistan. For most of that time, he served alongside marines, first in Al Anbar province and later in Helmand province.

As a political advisor, Weston insisted that the Marines support election security in an outlying area of Anbar during the 2006 campaign. Marine leaders objected to the high risk and limited payoff of such a mission, preferring to concentrate security forces in the populated urban centers, but Weston got his way. A Marine CH-53 helicopter supporting that mission crashed at a cost of 31 lives. The author does not bear his responsibility for that decision lightly, and he spends much of the book describing his personal visits to the hometowns and grave sites of these fallen marines and sailors. His chapters capturing each of these lonely trips in his Tacoma pickup truck are something of a psychological catharsis and also a fascinating insight into hometown America.

Weston excels at personal observations and brings his readers alongside with him on numerous trips with leaders, on small patrols, and in small meetings with Iraqis. Weston’s empathy for the people he served with is evident. More poignantly, he takes his readers to aid stations, hospitals, and a personnel recovery and processing site — units that collect the fallen — after the battle for Fallujah. His descriptive recounting is visceral; the reader can almost smell that sickly odor veterans never forget.

The author is committed to bringing home the human costs of both wars. Nearly ten pages are allocated to a list of the 90-some fatalities from one regiment in Anbar. Eight pages are devoted to a list of the 91 marines (with rank, age and hometown) who made the ultimate sacrifice with 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade (2nd MEB) in Afghanistan.  I was left wanting to know more about why their sacrifice was necessary or how our policy aims could have been better pursued.

Marine readers will find that Weston is a sympathetic and acute observer of Marine culture. He clearly had a close relationship with key Marine leaders such as Joseph Dunford (now Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) in Iraq and Larry Nicholson, then commander of 2nd MEB in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. At the same time, he offers numerous observations about the enlisted marines he worked and lived with. He thinks that a counterinsurgency by nature is a marathon, and works to “rein in the twitch-muscle instincts” and kinetic culture of the Marine Corps. Weston observed of the Corps that “almost Borg-like, the collective identity outweighed that of the individual.” He knows that the U.S. Marine Corps rejects elitism and prefers simple uniforms with few badges or distinctive badges. His visits to Twentynine Palms and Camp Lejeune accurately capture the unique ecosystem that pervades the Marine’s culture.

I wish he had been equally adept at capturing critical political and strategic decision points in the war. Looking into the mirror requires that we ask hard questions, such as what courses of action should have been taken in Fallujah or Ramadi?

Weston spends little on his own role advising the Marines and even less on the  senior military leaders in devising the campaigns that implemented U.S. policy. He may be struggling with what his personal mirror is revealing. He suggests that Colin Powell might have saved many lives had he resigned in protest rather than help the Bush administration make the case for the invasion of Iraq. The author was present that day in New York when Powell laid out the evidence in the United Nations. Had the secretary of state taken a different stance about the intelligence undergirding U.S. policy, Weston thinks Iraq could have been “a wrong war avoided.”

The author is too oblique in his strategic assessments about two wars which he obviously believes were strategic disasters for both the United States and our partners in Iraq and Afghanistan. Weston believes that Iraq was unnecessary if not avoidable, and he thinks that marine commanders were not postured properly in Afghanistan. The merits of his argument are either indirect or buried. Only at one point, he asks, “We had Marines here in northern Helmand for what reason?  I thought. The main effort in counterinsurgency had long been; go where the people are, spend the money where the people are, and not least, ‘send in the Marines’ where the people are.” But if the author thinks the Marines were not employed properly in Marja or Sangin districts in Afghanistan, where should they have been positioned, and why? More strategically, the author fails to ask why did the coalition go to Helmand in support of an unpopular, corrupt, and incompetent government that possessed little credibility? Nor does he question, despite his access, why U.S. political and military strategies did not mesh with the realities of either country. As Congressman Seth Moulton recently noted, the United States often fails to integrate the two.

Weston has been interviewed in major media outlets and wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs. In all of these, he was openly critical of Obama surge, and yet when asking America to look into the mirror, he himself is not well to look at his own argument. He never asks and answers the larger question: What should the nation take as a lesson when it looks into the mirror? The book left me feeling like I had gotten many questions and no answers. As I happen to agree with his insistence that we need an answer to this question, it was disappointing that Weston had little to offer on that front.

This book presents a mirror that many Americans need to look into.  It is not a book for anyone who wants to feel good. Learning is often the result of being uncomfortable. For its willingness to start the process of inquiry that is essential to learn lessons as a country, The Mirror Test is strongly recommended. Weston’s book is a deeply introspective journey about the human costs of two protracted conflicts. It does not present anything new to those who served in either campaign, but it was not written for them. It was written for the author to wrestle with his own role, and for the civilian leaders of the next generation of warriors. As a nation, the United States owes it to the fallen and those who came back scarred that we learn as much as possible about the last two wars. Weston’s offering is a huge step towards that reckoning.


F.G. Hoffman currently works as a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University in Washington, DC. These views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government. 

Image: USMC, Alfred V. Lopez