This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
Victory at Last!
In America's Wars, Failure Is the New Success
By Tom Engelhardt
It was bloody and brutal, a true generational struggle, but give them credit. In the end, they won when so many lost.
James Comey was axed. Sean Spicer went down in a heap of ashes. Anthony Scaramucci crashed and burned instantaneously. Reince Priebus hung on for dear life but was finally canned. Seven months in, Steve Bannon got the old heave-ho and soon after, his minion, Sebastian Gorka, was unceremoniously shoved out the White House door. In a downpour of potential conflicts of interest and scandal, Carl Icahn bowed out. Gary Cohn has reportedly been at the edge of resignation. And so it goes in the Trump administration.
Except for the generals. Think of them as the last men standing. They did it. They took the high ground in Washington and held it with remarkable panache. Three of them: National Security Advisor Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, Secretary of Defense and retired Marine General John Mattis, and former head of the Department of Homeland Security, now White House Chief of Staff, retired Marine General John Kelly stand alone, except for President Trump's own family members, at the pinnacle of power in Washington.
Those three generals from America's losing wars are now triumphant. One of them is the ultimate gatekeeper when it comes to who sees the president. All three influence his thoughts and speeches. They are the "civilians" who control the military and American war policy. They, and they alone, have made the president go against his deepest urges, as he admitted in his address to the nation on the war in Afghanistan. ("My original instinct was to pull out and historically I like following my instincts.") They've convinced him to release the military (and the CIA) from significant oversight on how they pursue their wars across the Greater Middle East, Africa, and now the Philippines. They even convinced him to surround their future actions in a penumbra of secrecy.
Their wars, the ones that began almost 16 years ago and just keep morphing and spreading (along with a proliferating assortment of terror groups), are now theirs alone to fight and... well, we'll get to that. But first let's step back a moment and think about what's happened since January.
The Winningest President and the Losingest Generals
The most surprising winner of our era and possibly -- to put ourselves fully in the Trumpian spirit -- of any era since the first protozoan stalked the Earth entered the Oval Office on January 20th and promptly surrounded himself with a set of generals from America's failed wars of the post-9/11 era. In other words, the man who repeatedly promised that in his presidency Americans would win to the point of tedium -- "We're going to win so much, you're going to be so sick and tired of winning, you're going to come to me and go 'Please, please, we can't win anymore'" -- promptly chose to elevate the losingest guys in town. If reports are to be believed, he evidently did this because of his military school background, his longstanding crush on General George Patton of World War II fame (or at least the movie version of him), and despite having actively avoided military service himself in the Vietnam years, his weak spot for four stars with tough monikers like "Mad Dog."
During the election campaign, though a general of his choice led the chants to "lock her up," Trump himself was surprisingly clear-eyed when it came to the nature of American generalship in the twenty-first century. As he put it, "Under the leadership of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton the generals have been reduced to rubble, reduced to a point where it is embarrassing for our country." On coming to power, however, he reached into that rubble to choose his guys. In the years before he ran, he had been no less clear-eyed on the war he just extended in Afghanistan. Of that conflict, he typically tweeted in 2013, "We have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Their government has zero appreciation. Let's get out!"
On the other hand, the careers of his three chosen generals are inextricably linked to America's losing wars. Then-Colonel H.R. McMaster gained his reputation in 2005 by leading the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment into the Iraqi city of Tal Afar and "liberating" it from Sunni insurgents, while essentially inaugurating the counterinsurgency tactics that would become the heart and soul of General David Petraeus's 2007 "surge" in Iraq.
Only one small problem: McMaster's much-publicized "victory," like so many other American military successes of this era, didn't last. A year later, Tal Afar was "awash in sectarian violence," wrote Jon Finer, a Washington Post reporter who accompanied McMaster into that city. It would be among the first Iraqi cities taken by Islamic State militants in 2014 and has only recently been "liberated" (yet again) by the Iraqi military in a U.S.-backed campaign that has left it only partially in rubble, unlike so many other fully rubblized cities in the region. In the Obama years, McMaster would be the leader of a task force in Afghanistan that "sought to root out the rampant corruption that had taken hold" in the American-backed government there, an effort that would prove a dismal failure.
Marine General Mattis led Task Force 58 into southern Afghanistan in the invasion of 2001, establishing the "first conventional U.S. military presence in the country." He repeated the act in Iraq in 2003, leading the 1st Marine Division in the U.S. invasion of that country. He was involved in the taking of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, in 2003; in the fierce fighting for and partial destruction of the city of Fallujah in 2004; and, in that same year, the bombing of what turned out to be a wedding party, not insurgents, near the Syrian border. ("How many people go to the middle of the desert... to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization?" was his response to the news.) In 2010, he was made head of U.S. Central Command, overseeing the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan until 2013 when he urged the Obama administration to launch a "dead of night" operation to take out an Iranian oil refinery or power plant, his idea of an appropriate response to Iran's role in Iraq. His proposal was rejected and he was "retired" from his command five months early. In other words, he lost his chance to set off yet another never-ending American war in the Middle East. He is known for his "Mattisisms" like this piece of advice to U.S. Marines in Iraq in 2003: "Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet."
Retired Marine General John Kelly was assistant division commander in Iraq under Mattis, who personally promoted him to brigadier general on the battlefield. (Present head of the Joint Chiefs, General Joe Dunford, was an officer in the same division at the same time and all three reportedly remain friends.) Though Kelly had a second tour of duty in Iraq, he never fought in Afghanistan. Tragically, however, one of his sons (who had also fought in Fallujah in 2004) died there after stepping on an improvised explosive device in 2010.
McMaster was among the earliest figures in the Pentagon to begin speaking of the country's post-9/11 wars as "generational" (that is, never-ending). In 2014, he said,
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