When America’s All-Volunteer Force Loses a War
The sudden fall of Afghanistan marks the very first time that the U.S. military has clearly lost a war fought solely by volunteers. This defeat will have many strategic consequences, but it also may have a deeply corrosive effect on the nation’s all-volunteer military. Losing a war can be debilitating for any military organization and can deeply erode morale and confidence. For a force that is widely viewed as the most capable and professional military in the world, the potential for such harmful consequences should not be underestimated. Left unaddressed, they could imperil the long-term health and effectiveness of the all-volunteer force.
Arguments will rage for a long time about whether the United States could have won the war in Afghanistan with another approach — or even won at all. But after the nation invested two decades, more than $2 trillion, and the lives of almost 2,500 military personnel, the outcome remains the same. Afghanistan is now occupied and controlled by essentially the same Taliban movement that governed the country in 2001 and which is gleefully celebrating its victory over the United States, NATO, and the internationally backed government in Kabul. The U.S. military now faces the challenge of processing this defeat on two different levels: as individuals, among those who deployed and fought, and as an institution, in which the military’s leaders should now help the all-volunteer force process this painful outcome while simultaneously ensuring that it remains strong and capable of winning the nation’s future wars.
Individually, those who served in Afghanistan are reeling from the speed and shock of the final collapse that capped a frustrating war many of them committed years of their lives to fighting. Watching scenes of the chaotic evacuation of Americans and some of their Afghan allies from Kabul, those who served in the Hindu Kush — one of us included — are inevitably experiencing painful and clashing emotions of anger, loss, grief, and resentment. They face an existential question about their service: Why did I sacrifice years of my life and lose friends in a war that essentially ended up where it began, with Afghanistan in the hands of the Taliban?
That angst will be compounded by a deep sense that the humiliating departure from Afghanistan — nearly the worst imaginable way to leave — represented a violation, an abandonment even, of the deepest ethos instilled among those who serve in uniform. All of the U.S. military services subscribe to a version of what the Army calls its warrior ethos: “I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade.” The Marine Corps reflects this commitment in its recruiting pitch, “Battles Won,” and in its famed motto, Semper Fidelis (always faithful). And in the special operations community, “no one left behind” is a sacrosanct bond. An untold number of military servicemembers have been killed and wounded fulfilling that specific commitment to their brothers and sisters in arms during the past 20 years.
Yet the chaotic bumbling of the last days of the Afghanistan War undercut every aspect of this ethos. Committing to leave no one behind is especially important when creating bonds between the men and women who choose to place themselves in harm’s way for the nation. Many servicemembers now believe that the nation violated that bedrock principle by leaving behind 100 to 200 Americans and tens or even hundreds of thousands of Afghans who supported the United States at great personal risk over the last 20 years. Ad hoc veteran and military efforts to help get those people out in the last weeks of the U.S. withdrawal, which have been brilliantly described as a “digital Dunkirk,” powerfully reflects this deep-seated military creed.
Military leaders at all levels are going to have to confront these issues — for themselves and for their troops. And though that will be a complex and difficult process, this conversation should begin with the following message: “You served honorably and did what the nation asked you to do.” For the nation to keep its promise to those it asked to fight, this affirmation is a vital expression of gratitude and respect for all those who deployed to Afghanistan simply because the nation sent them. But it is not sufficient to sustain a strong all-volunteer force into the future. Unlike the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, the costs of this war — especially its human costs — were borne not by the nation as a whole, but by a small cohort of volunteer warriors while the vast majority of Americans remained uninvolved and largely uninterested. The failures of the war, and the policies that led to them, do not in any way diminish the fact that every single person who served in the war volunteered to fight when there was no obligation to do so. That choice, and the profound consequences it would have for those who stepped forward, shielded the rest of us from the painful experiences of war. The nation’s leaders and its people have an obligation to convey their gratitude for those who volunteered to serve so that those who follow in their footsteps know that their sacrifices are both honored and appreciated.
Institutionally, the U.S. military faces three critical tasks. First, it has both a moral and a practical obligation to dissect what went wrong during the 20 years of war and to demonstrate that it has processed and learned from those hard lessons. Current and future generations of servicemembers ought to have confidence that the hard lessons from Afghanistan were not buried and that harsh critiques of wartime decisions and performance in this war’s aftermath were welcomed in order to better prepare for any future irregular wars. The U.S. military utterly failed to do this after the Vietnam War, as it sought to erase counter-insurgency from its institutional memory instead of insisting on a brutal degree of self-assessment examining how military actions contributed to the defeat. As a result, a new generation of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines entered their own unconventional wars a quarter century later with no current doctrine or training on fighting insurgents. This should never happen again.
Second, U.S. military leaders ought to clearly identify what went wrong with the disastrous evacuation and take full responsibility for their part in the debacle. The decision to end the war was rightly made by civilian leaders. Their decision may or may not have been strategically wise. But the execution of the withdrawal was clearly a military responsibility, and it was indisputably done poorly. Congress is already scheduling hearings in an effort to establish some accountability for the war’s ghastly final days and for leaving behind so many Afghans who took tremendous personal risks to help the American effort. In recent weeks, we’ve both seen many social media posts about the withdrawal referencing Paul Yingling’s famous observation about recent conflicts — that a private who loses a rifle suffers greater consequences than a general who loses a war. Restoring confidence in the key principles of the warrior ethos requires senior leaders to launch a swift and candid assessment of the bungled conclusion to the war — perhaps by an independent and respected outside body, to ensure its credibility — and to hold themselves accountable for any military failures.
Third, senior leaders of the Department of Defense and the services should guide the force to somehow absorb the loss of the war in Afghanistan constructively. After the rancorous end of the Vietnam War in 1975, many servicemembers and veterans concluded that the war was lost primarily because civilian leaders imposed too many restrictions on military operations, forcing the military to fight with one hand tied behind its back. For some, this led to an insidious belief that the military had been “stabbed in the back” by political leaders, the media, and anti-war protesters who ostensibly undermined the U.S. military on the battlefield and caused the U.S. capitulation. But senior U.S. military leaders, including Gens. Creighton Abrams and Frederick Weyand, sought to stamp out this dangerous interpretation by reinforcing the idea that militaries in the United States and other democratic societies always fight within constraints imposed by elected leaders. The generals ensured that the psychology of blame and defeat never took root within the force, which enabled it to refocus on preparing for the wars of the future.
The parallels with today are clear. We’ve both heard veterans of the war in Afghanistan argue that the past four administrations forced the U.S. military to fight with one hand tied behind its back in Afghanistan with overly restrictive rules of engagement and feckless decision-making. There is a clear risk that some leaders and troops may begin to blame the war’s stinging outcome on poor civilian leadership and support. Senior military and defense leaders should once again stop this narrative from spreading throughout the force. In fact, doing so today is even more important than it was after Vietnam, since a force that consists entirely of self-selected volunteers faces a greater risk than a conscript force of developing a belief that it is morally superior to the society it serves. It’s a short leap from that outlook to conclude that the military was failed in Afghanistan by the poor decisions of civilian policymakers who have never been in uniform. This third task of helping the force come to grips with the loss of Afghanistan could be strongly reinforced by the first task, since an open and candid assessment of the military’s performance during the 20 years of the war would clearly demonstrate that civilian leaders were not the only ones to make major mistakes.
The humiliating end to America’s longest war came suddenly, and its shocks will ripple throughout the U.S. military for years to come. But in the immediate aftermath of this painful defeat, the nation’s civilian and military leadership should recognize that they have some new obligations to the all-volunteer force that they lead. These leaders should address the individual pain and anger that many servicemembers may be feeling by affirming the fundamental value of their military service. They should reaffirm the warrior ethos that animates each of the military services and the special operations community and commit to upholding those virtues. They should both ensure that the hard lessons of the past 20 years are identified and truly learned and hold themselves accountable for the disastrously executed withdrawal that left thousands of America’s partners behind. These tasks stem partly from a moral obligation to those who sacrificed so much over the past 20 years, but they are also necessary to ensure that the all-volunteer force remains strong, capable, and motivated to fight America’s future wars. If the men and women who fought in the Afghanistan conflict are to remain fully committed to their service tomorrow, and to continue encouraging young people to consider military service, they need to hear about the end to this long war from those at the top.
Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, U.S. Army (ret.) and Dr. Nora Bensahel are visiting professors of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and senior fellows at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies. They are also contributing editors at War on the Rocks, where their column appears monthly. Sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter to track their articles as well as their public events.