The idea of sacrifice has a special place in the US military: the greater the sacrifice on behalf of the US Government, the greater the glory of the act. When you completely buy in to this curious ideology, it can lead to some strange trade-offs.
Reflecting on this part of my career, I’ve come to understand how the idea of sacrifice on behalf of a greater cause can be weaponized, turning human bodies and minds into fuel for our national interests. While many in the military would say this is why they signed up and may even get angry at the suggestion that this sacrifice is unnecessary or not for a good cause, I can’t help but wonder: what is it that we’re sacrificing? And on behalf of what are we making these sacrifices for?
American values are, overall, nebulously understood within our culture. That being said, I think reasonable people can agree that killing innocents, wasting money on monstrously expensive boondoggles, and behaving like childish fools to our local partner forces are not in line with American values. What I witnessed while deployed with Special Operations Command (SOCOM) in Afghanistan was a systematic sacrifice of values and any chance at lasting progress on behalf of bureaucratic report cards, and little else. From the missions we ran, the targets we chose, the way we collected and used our intelligence, to the tone we took with our partner forces; there were few parts of our operation not heavily impacted by the DC bureaucrat’s crippling-addiction to good news and positive stats.
What did this look like in practice and what are the real-world implications? One example is the way we treated “jackpots” – which is the military’s term for the kill or capture of someone designated as an official target. Jackpots were a very big deal for the higher-ups in DC. Think about every time you hear about a politician visiting the troops in Afghanistan. Every single VIP guest seemed obsessed over jackpots and incessantly demanded we increase the rate of killed/captured targets, regardless of the reality on the ground.
In reality, the way we measured the effectiveness of killing or capturing a jackpot was the resulting impact on a given terrorist network by that individual’s neutralization. Operations or drone strikes costing millions of dollars usually resulted in an “estimated disruption” of 2-3 weeks. When coupled with our constant undercutting of the systems and organizations we were purportedly creating to assist the Government of Afghanistan in becoming self-sufficient, it seemed this short-sighted, water-treading jackpot-centric strategy was all the Department of Defense knew how to do well.
Sometimes, when the Afghan forces we mentored were on a mission, they found that the compound they were raiding contained no named targets. On more than one such occasion, the American leadership demanded that they arrest any “Military-Aged Males” (men aged between 18 and 49) they could find in the area. While in custody, these individuals would be officially designated as targets so they could be counted in the monthly jackpot stats. In the absence of any actual targets, a target had to be invented in order to satisfy the demand from higher headquarters and our own commander’s desire for a good report card. I came to call this process “jackpot laundering.”
This unofficial “jackpot laundering” policy only added more friction to an already-tense warzone. The Afghan leadership, both the troops on the ground and the staff in their JOC (Joint Operations Center), often objected that these men were likely just local farmers. But they had no choice but to comply – American demands come with threats and consequences.
In addition to being self-defeating, this strategy is also a tremendous waste of time and resources. Our partner force would bring the Military-Aged Males back, interrogate them, give them official target nomenclature, and send them on to an Afghan prison. There, the prison intake staff would find they had no derogatory information or evidence to justify holding or sentencing their fellow countrymen. Oftentimes, they really were just local farmers, as we’d been warned. The farce would end with providing them cab fare and sending them on their way.
But it didn’t end there. Unfortunately, counting these men in the monthly jackpot stats required giving them target nomenclature – code names that would flag them as official targets, potential threats. Once in the system, they were lumped in the same category with terrorists and conspirators. This meant that once our bloated intelligence bureaucracy latched onto their details, they could be considered potential targets for future drone strikes or night raids. I often wondered how many militants began as simple farmers and were forced into violence or outright killed by a faulty designation assigned by a reward-seeking DC bureaucrat.
Watching this process occur in a circular pattern over a year, during which we had six different commanding officers, each with their own neurotic style and focus, was a sobering experience. Coupled with the ubiquitous racism, sexism, lack of regard for civilian lives, and deep yearning for less civilian oversight I witnessed throughout the Joint Special Operations community, practices like jackpot laundering left me with deep misgivings as to the efficacy and wisdom of allowing this organization to conduct dozens of operations all over the world while representing America.
What are the fruits of this labor? Not peace and harmony for the nation we’ve been building for nearly two decades. Not improved lives for the people living in Afghanistan or in America. Not more safety. Not more security. In fact, it seems that what we’re sacrificing is peace and security itself. The fruits of our labor seem to be nothing but a lot of good report cards for a lot of officers and bureaucrats, all at the expense of building the positive outcomes our rhetoric might have you believe were the end goal of our actions and tax dollars.
The gender and democratic reforms we’re so proud of showcasing exist as shoehorned policies maintained through a combination of local elite cooperation and international funding, without real local buy-in or organic support. If we leave now, these programs will crumble and the people we helped pave that path for will be at the mercy of violent, unforgiving men.
We’ve built nothing but a circus with thousands of American bureaucrats feverishly spinning plates on rods and posing for selfies while paying locals to run around and catch the plates as they fall. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t end our wars now, but if we do so without ensuring the sustainability of the fragile cultural institutions we’ve created, with a true and honest focus on conflict resolution and nation-building best practices, the fragile bloom of organic change in a highly war-exposed society will soon be riddled with American-imported bullets fired by the reactionary hands we’ve helped empower and radicalize.
Our many spinning plates.
But it’s not the bureaucrat’s fault. By building a feedback system based on quantitative metrics and buzzword-salad review bullets, the US government has made the esoteric, long-term journey towards a stable society into a Sisyphean task for all involved. Bureaucrats, military personnel, and contractors working on this problem set are not incentivized to work towards long-term sustainability and unilateral decision-making in their host government.
Treading water and creating as much churn as possible to perpetuate the need for their own existence seemed to be the primary role of nearly every person I met while deployed. Endless meetings about stats and strategy fill our days as we hear people blather on about the same thing the same types of people have been blathering on about since 2001. If you, an apostate, dare deliver stats or a narrative counter to the steady drumbeat of success, the information is thrown out or altered before it’s sent up to a higher headquarters, ensuring only rosy pictures make it to DC.
Back in our JOC, we would stand and cheer while watching the live footage of a successful drone strike on a handful of the 20+ flat screen TVs bedecking our walls. The other monitors would remain fixed on other drone footage, circling over compounds and villages all over the region and world, waiting for a bureaucrat to authorize the launch of a $115,000 hellfire missile to kill a man on a motorbike.
I remember one strike in which I saw a man’s body fly many meters through the air. When he landed, he took off running again. Everyone in the JOC seemed to become feral and filled with bloodlust, willing the second hellfire to descend on the running man. The second missile hit, but the man only flew a few meters before he got up to run again. Finally, the third missile blew the man’s body into pieces and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. This one terrorist network might have been disrupted for two weeks. Mission accomplished.
Another staff member turned to me and said, “You know, the guy was probably dead after the first one. Sometimes the body just keeps going for a while, even after death.”