Washington's Losing Streak

March 19, 2013 Topic: Grand StrategyMilitary StrategySecurity Region: United States

Washington's Losing Streak

A tendency to expand objectives mid-fight has seen America fail in its last four major wars.

As we approach the tenth anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq on March 20, it's worth reflecting on the fact that it has been nearly seventy years since America's last successful major war.

On August 15, 1945, known as Victory Over Japan Day or V-J Day, the Japanese unconditionally surrendered, marking the end of the Second World War and establishing the United States as a superpower. Since that day, the United States has lost three major wars—Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq—and is counting down the months until its loss in Afghanistan.

To be sure, we won the Cold War, which was surely more important than those four combined. But that was fundamentally a contest of political systems and economies. We wouldn't have prevailed without a powerful military and a great military alliance with NATO. But it wasn't a war in a literal sense—and we lost the two major wars (Korea and Vietnam) waged as part of it.

And, yes, we won the first Gulf War. But, despite the perception at the time—and I say this as one who participated in the conflict as an Army officer—it was by not a major war in any meaningful sense. The whole conflict lasted less than seven months and the actual fighting took six weeks; the ground war famously lasted precisely 100 hours, with the last several taking place after a cease-fire went into effect. The U.S.-led coalition lost 482 personnel; of those, only 190 were killed by enemy action.

The United States has fielded easily the best military force during the postwar period. (The Soviets were vastly inferior, considered a superpower only by virtue of a large nuclear arsenal.) Indeed, the U.S. military easily outmatched every opponent it fought during the losing streak.


I recently had occasion to revisit defense-policy strategist Jeffrey Record's classic 1996 essay " Vietnam in Retrospect: Could We Have Won? " (later expanded into book form as The Wrong War ) and was struck throughout by the parallels with the efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Below, I use Record's framework to analyze American failures in all four conflicts.

War Aims

In his own classic analysis ( On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War ) U.S. Army Colonel Harry Summers famously recounted a conversation years after the war with a North Vietnamese counterpart named Colonel Tu. When Summers mentioned that U.S. forces had "won every battle" in the war, Tu countered,"That may be true, but it's irrelevant."

And so it was. Wars are, as Carl von Clausewitz instructed, fought to achieve political ends.

In Vietnam, America's chief war aim was to prevent a communist takeover of South Vietnam. We failed in that objective. To be sure, they retained technical sovereignty upon the departure of U.S. forces. But their fall was inevitable, coming less than two years later.

In Korea, the initial war aim was to repel North Korean forces back across the 38th Parallel, restoring the status quo ante. This was quickly achieved and expanded from saving South Korea to unifying the peninsula and ridding it of the Communists. The ultimate armistice resulted in the achievement of the initial war aims. Considering that getting back to that point took an additional two and a half years of better fighting and incurred the bulk of U.S. killed in action during this period, it's difficult to regard it other than as a failure.

As noted recently in this space, the United States quickly achieved its declared war aims in Afghanistan, toppling the Taliban regime to punish it for its role in the 9/11 attacks and destroying al Qaeda bases and communications facilities. The subsequent eleven years—during which all but a handful of the 2,187 and counting American dead have been lost—the mission has been devoted to nebulous goals regarding the Afghan political, cultural, and economic systems. They will not be achieved come the handover next year.

Similarly, in Iraq, the ostensible goals of ousting Saddam Hussein's regime and ensuring it did not gain or proliferate weapons of mass destruction were achieved in three weeks at a cost of fewer than two hundred American lives. The vast majority of the 4,486 American dead in the war were lost during seven-plus years seeking to, as George W. Bush defined the mission, "help democracy and peace and justice rise in a troubled and violent region." That, alas, was not achieved.

War's Character

Record cites Clausewitz's dictum that, "first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its true nature."

In the case of Vietnam, this was especially complicated by the fact that it was, at various stages