On December 30th 2009, a CIA triple agent ignited a suicide vest in Khowst, Afghanistan. In an instant, he killed 12 Americans bravely serving their country. One was Jennifer Matthews, a mother of three and my first supervisor at the Agency. Another was Darren LaBonte, a fellow ops officer and a lion of a man.
Each Veterans Day, I think about Jennifer and Darren. Along with them, I think about the sacrifice my generation has made over the past 15 years. We’ve saluted two presidents from opposing parties, marching off into wars and conflicts largely without question.
When one of us died, it was our leadership who usually launched an inquiry into how it happened, and the means to correct it. The answers were almost always tactical in nature: more weaponry, more money, more training. More personnel.
But when I left the intelligence community after nearly 10 years, I came to the painful realization that “how” my colleagues died was ultimately secondary to “why.”
The “why,” of course, is supposed to be answered by politicians and their staff. It is the President and his/her counsel that must determine the degree to which a threat is a clear and present danger. It is also their burden to explain this reasoning to Congress and the American people, who accept or reject it.
On the other hand, the organs of national security – the Pentagon, CIA, State Department, NSA – are left to design and implement the resulting “how.” They operate their drones, conduct sabotage, hold secret negotiations, and launch cyber attacks at the request of the President. In sum, they are the tactics to a policymaker’s strategy.
Yet having sat at the tables of power in Washington DC, I can say with certitude that policymakers are often derelict in their most basic of duties.
During the Bush Administration, the "why" of their war was predicated on a lie: there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Instead, there was a nation with oil and a perceived path to democracy. The result? An Arab nation that is still in the grips of war, with over 4,000 fellow Americans dead and a treasury drained of $1.7 trillion (expected to reach $6 trillion in the coming decades).
The Obama Administration was equally hapless. In Libya, for instance, we joined with European powers to assassinate an unquestionable thug — Muammar Qaddafi — but did so decades after he stopped being an actual threat to the U.S. There was no "why." The result? Dead soldiers and Ambassador in Benghazi, a new safe haven for the Islamic State, and a refugee crisis that threatens Europe’s political stability.
In short, my generation has borne the brunt of Sun Tzu’s warning: tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. And we have the broken bodies and troubled minds to prove it.
And what of the Trump administration? There are a myriad of international problems that need addressing — a bellicose Russia, an unpredictable North Korea, a complicated Iran, an ascendant communist China, a disastrous Syria, and the spread of Salafi Islamic extremism. The demands for American blood and treasure will remain, carried this time largely by Millennials and the iGeneration.
Nice write up on Darren LaBonte (slain CIA agent; former ITOA member). http://t.co/Mkf3W2SqZh— IL Tac Ofc Assoc (@IL_Tactical) January 2, 2014
Veterans Day is thus more than honoring those who have served or serve still. It is a time to organize and demand that the question of "why" be faithfully answered.
Together, America's servicemen, women, and allies can prevent another generation from having to suffer our fate. These combined voices can accomplish our final and most important mission: shielding our young brothers and sisters from the harms of unjustifiable warfare.
This is my hope — and plea — made in memory of Jennifer and Darren this Veterans Day.
Wright is a former covert CIA operations officer. He resides in Oregon. Follow him on Twitter @BryanDeanWright.
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