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APRIL 2016


Learning the Lessons

of History

Lessons Encountered:

Learning from the Long War

Richard D. Hooker Jr. and Joseph J.

Collins, editors; National Defense

University Press, 2015; available gratis

as a PDF or ebook at



aspx, 473 pages.

Reviewed By Todd Kushner

Throughout his tenure as chairman of

the Joint Chiefs of Staff (2011-2015),

General Martin Dempsey pushed the

U.S. government to identify and inter-

nalize the strategic lessons arising from

its 15 years of operations in Iraq and

Afghanistan. The National Defense Uni-

versity’s Institute for National Strategic

Studies responded to that tasking with

this penetrating volume,

Lessons Encoun-

tered: Learning from the Long War.

As editors Richard D.

Hooker Jr. and Joseph J.

Collins note in their intro-

duction, “Not learning from

wars can be catastrophic”—

a definite understatement!

With the U.S. military and

Foreign Service likely to be

engaged in future nation-

building and counterinsur-

gency efforts, both institu-

tions have a deep interest in

avoiding the mistakes of past

campaigns and applying the

lessons of the successes.

Warning: Perusing this volume will

force readers to confront painful reali-

ties! As the contributors document, the

administrations of George W. Bush

and Barack Obama frequently failed to

define strategic problems, set forth clear

strategic aims and formulate workable

operational plans, both in Iraq and

Afghanistan. In particular, they did not

adequately orchestrate the elements of

U.S. national power or resolve significant

interagency differences.

Our military and civilian leaders

habitually misunderstood their coun-

terparts’ decision-making processes

and, consequently, talked past each

other. U.S. efforts in both countries were

plagued by confusion over who was

in charge, given the fact that multiple

agencies and commands seemed to

be running independent

programs. As a result, even

though the U.S. govern-

ment spent $1.6 trillion

just to cover the direct

costs of both wars, key

elements like foreign

assistance were signifi-

cantly under-resourced.

Each chapter of

Lessons Encountered

does an excellent job of

summarizing relevant

events, analyzing the

U.S. approach to the specific situation,

and drawing the relevant lessons. It is

not always clear, however, how con-

tributors envision implementing their

recommendations. For example, calling

for greater awareness of when “a mission

demands interagency collaboration

and mak[ing] special provisions for it”

does not exactly constitute a roadmap to

guide future decision-makers.

While the book contains extensive,

helpful background material, includ-

ing an index would have helped read-

ers identify and revisit specific topics.

Because each chapter is self-contained,

the quality of the writing and analysis

varies a good deal, but Foreign Ser-

vice readers will find the chapters on

national-level decision-making and

coordination, and

security force assistance,

particularly pertinent.

Lessons Encountered

usefully reminds us that

the United States can

claim some genuine

successes thanks to its

nation-building efforts

in Afghanistan and Iraq

over the past 15 years. But the book also

shows that most of those gains came in

spite of the system, as individual civilian

and military leaders used dedication,

adaptability, creativity and teamwork

to overcome institutional, systemic and

strategic challenges.

The shortcomings identified in this

volume contributed to the risks faced by

our military and civilian personnel and

contractors on the ground, more than

6,800 of whom gave up their lives and

more than 52,000 of whom have been

physically wounded in these operations.

Now is the time to truly learn, and

apply, the lessons “encountered” in

these pages—before our nation is once

again called upon to secure and rebuild

a foreign land.

Todd Kushner, a State Department Foreign

Service officer since 1985, is currently a

visiting faculty member at the College of

International Security Affairs. He served as

a political adviser in Iraq from 2010 to 2011,

among many other assignments.


Warning: Perusing this volume will force

readers to confront painful realities about

the U.S. role in Iraq and Afghanistan!