Super Cities №260—The War Stories We Tell

Brendan Hart

On Monday, the Washington Post released The Afghanistan Papers, an exhaustive investigation into America's longest-running war. The series exposes hard truths with a "bluntness rarely expressed in public."

On Monday, the Washington Post released The Afghanistan Papers, an exhaustive investigation into America's longest-running war. The series exposes hard truths with a "bluntness rarely expressed in public."

The whole investigation is worth reading, but in particular, a question posed by Jeff Eggers, former Navy SEAL and senior NSC staffer, perfectly captures the underlying challenge:

"Why does the U.S. undertake actions beyond its abilities?"

Eggers was asking this question in the context of the war in Afghanistan. But the same question can be asked about many ambitious, bad decisions made by the U.S. government in recent history.

The U.S., directly and indirectly, looms large around the world. Our successes – PEPFAR comes to mind – have saved lives and spread dignity. They should be celebrated.

Our failures, though, were of our own making. They resulted not from limited means but instead from limited abilities. Even a country with a $20 trillion GDP and unmatched military reach can do too much. It often does.

When a nation (or company, or person) has been on top for so long, it does not take kindly to realistic, self-imposed limitations. Ambition has a remarkably resilient animal spirit.

In the case of Afghanistan, failure can be measured in thousands of lives and trillions of dollars.

The question will be what, if anything, we learn from it.

One answer is to do less but do it well.

*How did the Post unearth this secret material?

The investigation's backstory is remarkable. After running down a lead, The Post spent three years battling the U.S. government in court. The paper won the release of the material under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

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