John Paul Vann, the U.S. adviser in Vietnam whose story was told in the book A Bright Shining Lie, once complained, “We don’t have twelve years experience in Vietnam. We have one year’s experience twelve times over.”
The Global War on Terror’s six-to-twelve month rotation policy created many similar problems. One in particular is that its histories tend to work in those increments. Many of the memoirs out there are written from a first-person or a unit perspective, and there’s usually a noticeable lack of information or interest about what happened before or after the person or unit was there.
To make matters worse, there’s also a creeping narrative problem in the way many official accounts read. A popular one:
At the start of the deployment the area of operations was extremely hostile and overrun with insurgents, with inept and passive local security forces. But after hard and tireless work the AO became passive and pro-government, the insurgents went away, and the local security forces became professional and competent.
And they all lived happily ever after…
I first noticed this on my deployment to Nawa with 3/3 in 2010. While 1st Battalion 5th Marines had done an amazing job clearing the area in 2009, there had actually been U.K. forces there since 2006. Yet I kept hearing this kind of closed, cyclic narrative, both from my unit and the units that relieved us, as recently as November 2012. In other words, 3/3 received a bleak situation and left with a good one, yet somehow our relief also walked into a bleak one. This had implications for our daily operations as well. Were we making progress? Were we even needed in the area to begin with, or had the previous units done all the work?
Now that the Marine Corps is finally withdrawing from Afghanistan the creeping narrative is starting to be applied to the entire campaign. Marine Commandant General Amos recently toured Helmand Province, claiming success:
“[V]iolent events, from gunshots to roadside bombs, has dropped in almost every district since 2010, Marine commanders say, though the figures are still being finalized. Roads have been paved and markets secured, allowing commerce to grow in places like Marja, Nad Ali and Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital. Civilian casualties are down by 20 percent… [T]he Afghan National Army has grown, to almost four brigades with more than 16,000 soldiers.” — Source: New York Times
Yet there is little interest in what the situation in Helmand was like in 2007 before any Marines came to the province, or how the campaign affected the overall war in Afghanistan. For that matter, there seems to be some confusion about why Marines were there to begin with. There also seems to be an equal lack of interest in what Helmand will look like two years from now.