The United States military is led and staffed by some of the world's finest minds. The service academies and other officer training programs excel in all aspects. What went wrong in Afghanistan? There was a recent study detailing failures over the past 20 years, and there will certainly be more to come.
But a simple answer is hubris. All of us strive for success and have a hard time owning up to failure. John F. Kennedy famously said after the famed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, "success has a thousand fathers; defeat is an orphan."
I investigated the Three Mile Island accident early in my career as a team member at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and later the Challenger explosion on a NASA manned space mission. The Three Mile Island accident in particular was due to a well trained, perhaps a bit inexperienced, team of reactor operators just refusing to believe that their actions uncovered the core. It was changed only when a new shift of operators came on duty and quickly figured what had happened. Subsequent simulations indicated many —but not all — of trained operators would have taken the wrong course of action. Since then, with training and new requirements, this has not been repeated. The Challenger accident reflected NASA's underestimating the risks from manned space missions.
The world needs a "hubris-limiting" mechanism of some sort, but it didn't happen in this case. Four presidential administrations had a shot at this, and the fourth (Biden) made a mess of the exit strategy, but the third (Trump) and fourth (Biden) caused the proper big-picture end to happen.
The United States has a history of using selective wars — particularly against Native Americans, ourselves in the Civil War, Mexico, and later Spain — to gain control of new territories or to better our national interests. We're not unique, but I suppose we excelled at it for over 200 years.
If we are to continue to be the self-expressed world leader, we need a better self-restraint model. We're not off to a good start, because the Trump administration wanted to use the U.S. military — based on many published books, including the latest upcoming one from Bob Woodward — to overthrow our election process and maintain him as president.
I served as a ROTC officer in training and spent many years in the Cold War working with the military in weapons systems development. On retirement, I received a flag that flew over key American nuclear weapons producing facilities, and I display it at home. Our military staff are patriotic, hard working, ambitious, and believe that they are doing the right thing. I am glad that they are are on our side. That shouldn't change.
But we have to have a good handle from a bitterly divided federal government on military strategy, especially from the Biden administration, which is both in power and has shown some courage in resolving this mess, but must beef up this effort substantially and place it alongside economic recovery and COVID treatment. It will be messy, won't get much help from the press and is often thankless yet can't be deferred.