In This Review

The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan
The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan
By J. Kael Weston
Knopf, 2016, 585 pp.
Illusions of Victory: The Anbar Awakening and the Rise of the Islamic State
Illusions of Victory: The Anbar Awakening and the Rise of the Islamic State
By Carter Malkasian
Oxford University Press, 2017, 280 pp.
War and the Art of Governance: Consolidating Combat Success Into Political Victory
War and the Art of Governance: Consolidating Combat Success Into Political Victory
By Nadia Schadlow
Georgetown University Press, 2017, 344 pp.

The U.S. military has little difficulty winning battles, but once it begins to occupy territory, it gets into trouble, no matter how benign its intentions. Both Weston and Malkasian saw this phenomenon firsthand as civilians working closely with the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq. Weston details his experiences with U.S. marines and Iraqis in Fallujah, trying to make the city function, and then reflects on a similar stint in the Afghan city of Khost, close to the Pakistani border. He attempts to come to terms with the human impact of the wars, visiting the graves of 31 marines whose helicopter was brought down in a mission for which Weston feels responsible. This is a book of bitter and mournful reflections, of lives lost, and of failures to think through the consequences of individual actions. The “mirror test” in the title refers to the moment at which a wounded veteran is allowed to look at his or her “new self.” Weston’s aim is to force the United States to take a hard look in the mirror after the “heedless, needless” wars of the post-9/11 era.

Malkasian’s book is shorter and more analytic but written in the same spirit. His focus is Iraq’s Anbar Province. In 2007, after many false steps, U.S. counterinsurgency strategy appeared to hit its stride as Anbar’s predominantly Sunni residents turned on the al Qaeda forces that had controlled the area for years. Al Qaeda’s defeat in Anbar became a model, with the hope that the U.S. success there might be replicated in Afghanistan. Sadly, in 2014, with the tribal forces of Anbar divided, Baghdad insensitive to Sunni interests, and the U.S. role in Iraq subsiding, the jihadists of the Islamic State (or ISIS) launched their own “surge” and took the province. In making sense of those developments, Malkasian emphasizes the importance of tribal politics, the resolve of local leaders, and the ruthlessness of the jihadists. The takeaways from the U.S. experience in Anbar, he concludes, are the importance of preparing for the long term once military forces commit to an intervention abroad, the need for a continuing presence on the ground, and a sober appreciation that, no matter how well the military plans and prepares, it all might come apart. He concludes by warning not to overestimate Washington’s “ability to change foreign lands.”

Schadlow explains why the United States struggles with that task: the military does not like the idea of governing. Military leaders would rather be fighting enemies than addressing the security and welfare of foreign populations, which they see as a job for civilian agencies. But civilians unfortunately lack the capacity to cope with the many problems resulting from a military occupation, so the task of maintaining order has to be led by fighting forces. Schadlow describes the refusal within the U.S. military to accept that truth as “denial syndrome.” Yet past campaigns offer some evidence that good outcomes can result from energetic, military-led governance efforts—for example, the ones that followed World War II. Schadlow’s survey of 15 cases of postconflict military governance, starting with the aftermath of the Mexican-American War, is meticulously researched and presents readers with clear lessons. I would urge policymakers in the Trump administration to read it, but that might be unnecessary: Schadlow recently joined the staff of the National Security Council.