Over the past few weeks, I have encouraged patriots to set aside hopelessness and disappointment, get refocused on local government, and assess new ways of thinking about decades-old problems.
I had intended for my post on opposing endless wars to be brief, but the thoughts kept coming as I wrote. I ended up with a treatise accounting for much more of my personal experience than originally planned. As an Army Military Intelligence officer at a tactical level, my job was to think. How do we eliminate the enemy? How do we keep them from eliminating us? How does weather impact mobility? Does my colonel already know this?
As those questions climb higher within the chain of command, they turn into ones like “What do we need to do to win this war and get our troops home?” Or at least we have been led to believe that is the case. Truthfully, many promising young officers and soldiers choose different career paths when they finally wake up to the realization that deployment orders are not underwritten with a willingness to win the endless wars.
When a mind that previously trusts in a system takes a “red pill,” it never sees the world the same way again and is unable to return to the former system of belief. One of my most memorable red pills was ingested when I realized that we never had a plan to win any of the wars we have started this century, and arguably long before.
If the reader is unfamiliar with the term “red pill,” then it should be made clear that it originates from the movie, The Matrix. Those who choose to take the red pill, as the story goes, are only able to see the world and its systems as they truly are. They can never return to a life of ignorance, embracing the established narratives and championing failure, like those who take the “blue pill,” as we can observe on platforms like LinkedIn when purported professionals act as if the individuals most responsible for corrupting America can save her now.
In my own experience, I was thrilled to become an Ole Miss Army ROTC cadet in 2006. I was a true believer that American involvement in Iraq and other seemingly hopeless, war-torn hellholes were worthwhile and required the sacrifice of American lives. Many seeking to join the military service do not ask important questions aimed at understanding the true status of the world, but rather join out of tradition, to make something of themselves, for adventure, or even a strong sense of patriotism. In the years immediately following 9/11, patriotism was in no short supply, and many young people, deprived of the vast wealth of researchable information on today’s Internet thought President Bush was doing the Lord’s work in two theaters of war that would come to haunt his miserable second term.
My family has never failed to have an Army officer in active service since October 1963. My father, buried in Arlington today, served three tours in Vietnam and retired a Lieutenant Colonel. Two older brothers served as Warrant Officers and Apache pilots, one becoming one of the youngest Chief Warrant Officer Fives in history. My career lasted six years, with a tour in Afghanistan in the middle, and my nephew (the son of the Chief Warrant Officer Five), is currently serving as a Captain. We have collectively spent well over a decade deployed across the world, in combat zones and other overseas assignments, with more than 80 years of combined service.
Clearly, we all consider it an honor to have served. The lessons are plentiful. Nowhere else can a 23-year-old learn on such a steep curve, get thrown to the wolves, be broken down, and then built back up in an environment where you either learn your trade or you let everyone around you down. For those in combat arms roles, letting your soldiers down may as well mean tragic loss of life. In my line of work, bad intelligence often leads to the same thing down the line, indirectly.
During my year in Afghanistan, I began to realize a lot of the things we believed in were rooted in a foundation of quicksand. For instance, counterinsurgencies have been largely unsuccessful, with the rare exceptions of those conducted on islands, which are usually small and can be patrolled by navies to prohibit the influx of arms, personnel, and supplies, thereby allowing effective division and isolation of the population, followed by elimination of enemy insurgents. In Afghanistan, a place the size of Texas, enemy fighters, arms, and supplies come in from six bordering nations, particularly Iran and Pakistan. Fighting like this for two decades is like brushing your teeth while eating Oreos.
The fighters being mowed down by coalition troops in Afghanistan are pawns on the combat chessboard. It is not common to take a bishop, rook, or knight, let alone a queen. As far back as a decade ago, our “allies” were giving away communications equipment and other supplies to enemy groups in exchange for not being attacked while out on patrol when I was there. The Afghan National Police and Army, who would need to maintain order should America finally leave for good, would claim that ammunition had been suspended imaginary firefights so they could be replenished with more rounds. In reality, they were supplying the enemy with these “spent” rounds.
During that surge year of 2010-11, one of the most significant and real dangers in our region (RC-West) was getting shot in the back of the head by your “friends.” That year was bleak in regard to the number of base attacks, high-level assassinations of senior officers and NCOs that happened thanks in a large part to subversion and infiltration by those we were expected to be in close working relationship with, while our soldiers were in harm’s way for their country.
To highlight the lack of actionable objectives and winnable outcomes present for many years, our Apache attack crews would incinerate home-made repeaters, valued at perhaps $25 worth of junk supplies, with $70,000 hellfire missiles. In critical battles, units across Afghanistan would often require multiple levels of senior officer approval, often from generals, for routine combat engagements, even when the rules of engagement suggested that an engagement was safe and legal. Of course, it is not beneficial when our own country employs an army of lawyers waiting to lock up American soldiers for engaging an enemy in a war our country seemingly has no plan to win or finish.
After all, that warlord-run nation didn’t earn the moniker “graveyard of empires” for nothing. Yet, Fort Huachuca and the rest of the doctrine machine swears by counterinsurgency principles that are, at best, severely lacking in actionable solutions. Those endorsed strategies generally require handing out lots of soccer balls and MREs, while hoping said warlords will suddenly see the merits of adopting western systems and values, which they find morally abhorrent (depending on where in the west, they may not be entirely wrong). We are talking about a nation that still stones women for learning how to read, which you will not hear about in the progressive echo chamber that seeks to brand traditional Americans as bigots and extremists.
My primary job in all of this was to think and to use that thinking to present intelligence support for battle plans with the two-fold purpose of keeping our forces as safe as possible while enabling the extermination of enemy fighters where they could be found. My second key duty was to oversee the production of intelligence reporting that fed operations throughout our region, which was a known hub for weapons and personnel trafficking from nearby Iran, which kept both the Iraqi and Afghan theaters stocked with supplies used to kill American soldiers.
I alternated between day and night shifts, spending many long hours thinking through the strategic challenge of what exactly we were planning to do to win this war, even though my rank was not commensurate with that level of decision-making and planning. I realized in the middle of my deployment that there was no organized or achievable plan to win the war, but we kept sending people back to have their legs blown off and minds traumatized, and for no direct or worthwhile purpose.
I am no pacifist but will not set aside my convictions in order to support wars that are unwinnable or one's war hawks don’t want to win, particularly when the origins of the conflicts are misrepresented to our people. I support acting on quality intelligence to wipe out legitimate threats, which is why I wholeheartedly supported President Trump’s termination of Qasem Soleimani last January. I think there was a case after 9/11 to target with precision for a window of time. I am now 36, a decade removed from Afghanistan, and today there are people who were 7 or 8 years old at the time of the surge, who are suiting up in combat there.
The ineptitude of our planning and decision making at the highest levels was evident to just about everyone who tried to rationalize our actions. One day, a warrant officer who later took his own life said to me, “Sir, using the U.S. Army to perform a counterinsurgency is like doing an open-heart surgery with a battle-ax.” This cynical warrant officer, mad at the world for being grounded for the duration of the tour, provided me with a quote I’ll always remember.
From Afghanistan, I moved on to more schooling with a promotion to Captain and then moved again to an assignment in Alaska in 2012. On a gray December day, with the temperature below -20, I was riding on a bus with a broken heater between Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, where my unit had a training exercise, and Fort Wainwright. I was reading my latest eBook download, Liberty Defined, by Ron Paul. I picked it out for some additional perspective after President Obama had been reelected the month before. While never identifying as a libertarian, I found myself agreeing with many of the social issue chapters, but most definitely on the topic of war.
In short, Dr. Paul contributed more to the end of my career in the Army than any other event, although the life itself is not an easy one for families, as anyone who ever spent more than a few weeks away from home can attest. Paul compared America to Rome, a welfare-warfare state near the time of the empire’s collapse that became so consumed with funding endless wars that its own citizens no longer desired to serve in the Army. Those duties were outsourced to the conquered barbarian hordes spread around the empire. The chapter in focus effectively outlined the waste, abuse, and foolishness present by design in the system and took note of the many military officers who are friends of Dr. Paul’s that resigned in disgust after taking this “red pill” – the one that showed aimless, meandering wars as being engineered never to end.
It wasn’t long after that bus ride that I made the decision to move onto another life path, away from the Army and back to Texas. Piecing together my own realizations in Afghanistan with the larger framework of the war policies of a late-term welfare-warfare state left me unable to thrive in an organization that plans its unit rotations to an unwinnable theater of war in increments spanning nearly a decade. I remember seeing rotation plans extending out to 2018 all the way back in 2010 when I first arrived in Kandahar. Imagine if the 101st Airborne on D-Day 1944 received word that they would be rotating to Holland in 1952. If you can do that, you can get a glimpse of how poorly managed our strategic goals were for many years and under multiple administrations.
The divorce rate in the military is astronomical, about 70 percent. Roughly 22 veterans commit suicide every day. Young Americans are committing heavily in the name of defense to serve a country they love but are most often unknowingly committing to the plans of those with no real plan to win campaigns we engage in, rather than the plans of the empire. Once that red pill is swallowed, many outstanding officers and soldiers get out and are often made to feel terrible for doing so; nevertheless, once the heart isn’t in it, you can’t continue on the same path.
I am glad I served. That time afforded me a lot of life skills I could have never picked up elsewhere. I’m still friends with the sergeant who was NCO-in-charge of our intelligence section in Afghanistan. He had served several tours overseas as an infantryman and spent about four months, in the truest tradition of NCOs helping young officers learn, brutalizing me in the art of getting things done with insufficient personnel and guidance. I had been thrown to the wolves as a First Lieutenant because our Captain was unable to deploy for four months thanks to a family emergency. We had three people, the two of us included, to run 24-hour intelligence operations in an area the size of Georgia. Thanks to him, we pieced it together and made it work. Nowhere else can you learn project management, leadership, mental and physical toughness, and dealing with the worst of the world than on a tour like that. To top it off, I had to endure the loss of my father in the thick of that tour, which taught me the ability to cope with personal tragedy. I had said goodbye to him in person more than 3 months before he died, which was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.
For these experiences, I’m thankful. These times made a lot of veterans who they are, even though the truth is that many now know they were not led with integrity by those starting campaigns that cannot be won. In response, I hope this perspective points to ways we can all move ahead with espousing a productive and beneficial foreign policy that dispenses red pills all Americans are willing to take. The issue of fighting only just wars, and pursuing peace by default, should resonate with all people who don’t believe a nation should expend blood and treasure on behalf of people who don’t want their own nations to be free.
Seth Keshel, MBA, is a former Army Captain of Military Intelligence and a veteran of the War in Afghanistan.