The Buzz

The U.S. Military’s 5 Biggest Victories (And 5 Most Stunning Defeats)

On May 23, 2003, Paul Bremer (chief administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority) ordered the Iraqi Army to disband. It is difficult to overstate the unwise nature of this decision. We don’t need hindsight; it was, as many recognized, a terrible decision at the time. In a moment, swept aside was the entirety of Iraqi military history, including the traditions and communal spirit of the finest Iraqi military formations. Eradicated was the best means for managing the sectors of Iraqi society most likely to engage in insurgent activity.

It’s not hard to see the logic of the decision. The Iraqi Army was deeply implicated in the Baathist power structure that had dominated Iraq for decades. Many of its officers had committed war crimes, often against other Iraqis. It was heavily tilted towards the Sunnis, with few Shia or Kurds in positions of responsibility. Finally, it had, from the American perspective, a recent history of appallingly poor military performance. As Bremer argued, it had largely dissolved in response to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

But this was not how many Iraqis viewed the army. The Royal Iraqi Army had come into existence in the early 1920s, when Iraq remained a protectorate of the British Empire. It had revolted in 1941, but the British made the wise decision to keep the force together so as to maintain order. In 1948, its units fought against Israeli forces during the wars of Israeli independence, and it participated in the 1967 war, if briefly. In the 1980s, it waged an eight-year struggle against Iran. While its legacy was complex, for many Iraqis, service in the Army (and in particular its performance against Iran) remained a source of personal and national pride. Eradicated was eighty years of institutional history.

It’s impossible to say how the reconstruction of the Iraqi Army might have played out differently, but then it’s difficult to imagine how it could have been worse. The Iraqi Army has consistently failed in the most elementary of military tasks when not directly supported by American forces. It remains unpopular in broad sectors of Iraqi society, and its performance against lightly armed ISIS fighters has made it the laughingstock of the region.


American military failures have undoubtedly had an impact on the country’s strategic position, but have yet to fundamentally undercut national power. The United States recovered quickly from Operation Drumbeat, Antietam, the disbanding of the Iraqi Army and the defeat in Korea.

National greatness depends on more than simply victory in battle, as the persistence of U.S. power suggests. Nevertheless, each of these avoidable defeats proved costly to the United States—in blood, treasure and time.


Is there an American way of war? The question evokes deep controversy, not least because for a very long time, Americans considered themselves an exceptionally peaceful nation. Even into the twentieth century, American presidents boasted about the nation’s aversion to war and defense expenditures.

But even during the period in which the United States openly embraced pacifism, its military forces won some remarkable victories. This article examines five great American victories, spanning from 1780 until 1944. We’re looking for neither technically impressive victories (although most of these are), nor predictable thrashings. With one major exception, these battles did not turn on chance or on the need for remarkable heroism (although such heroism was always present). Instead, these successes came at the end of well-conceived and executed campaigns, designed to integrate the elements of national power into a strategic victory. We’re looking at how the United States built a series of advantages that led inexorably to victory, even if the outcome sometimes remained in doubt until the final play.

Battle of Yorktown: 

The Battle of Saratoga decisively ended British attempts to subdue the northern colonies. Although British forces remained in control of certain critical areas (including especially New York City), the focus of British attention turned south. British commanders hoped to rally loyalists, and perhaps to fully detach the southern colonies from the rebellion. British forces won several major victories, although colonial resistance continued and the loyalist recruits never appeared in the anticipated numbers.

In early 1781, Lord Charles Cornwallis led an invasion of Virginia, in an effort to cut off rebel forces in the south from their sources of supply. Blundering, bad communication, and poor command relationships on the British side led Cornwallis to occupy Yorktown, while waiting for outside support. Yorktown was defensible, but could also be easily cut off through the effective combination of naval and ground power. Washington and Lafayette saw the opportunity for a major victory, and moved quickly to take advantage. The French and the colonials executed a series of moves that required exceedingly complex planning, especially given the communications technology of the day.

The siege of Yorktown began on September 28, 1781, and ended with Cornwallis’s surrender on October 19, after the Royal Navy failed to break through. Opponents of the war in the British government quickly took advantage of Cornwallis’ defeat, and peace negotiations soon ensued.