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.
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.
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
limited (for the United States), total (for North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front), civil (at stake was the future political control of South Vietnam), international (the war elicited massive direct US and indirect Soviet and Chinese intervention), conventional (for the United States and its South Vietnamese ally from 1965 on, and increasingly, after the Tet Offensive, for the North Vietnamese), guerrilla (largely for both North Vietnam and the NLF before the Tet Offensive), and revolutionary (the communist side sought not only national reunification but also imposition on the South of a revolutionary social order).
Regardless, the United States was seldom fighting the right war at the right time. Record quotes former President Richard Nixon, writing in 1985: "We failed to understand that the war was an invasion from North Vietnam, not an insurgency in South Vietnam." It was, for most of its duration, a guerrilla war that we were fighting with conventional forces and techniques—which switched to a conventional war by the time we mastered antiguerrilla warfare.
In Korea, we were intervening in a civil war that soon became a major-power international war with the entrance of China on the other side.
In Iraq, the United States planned for and brilliantly executed a major conventional war to decapitate the regime and its forces. It spent the next several years fighting a massive insurgency before acknowledging that, in fact, it was an insurgency. Meanwhile, we were relearning how to do the sort of counterinsurgency fighting we'd mastered too late in Vietnam.
In Afghanistan, by contrast, American special forces famously won the day initially with a small footprint force that married up with anti-regime locals, easily ousting the Taliban government to the cheers of the local population. The ensuing eleven years, however, have featured conventional forces fighting a constantly changing set of missions, alternating between counterterrorism, counterinsurgency and benign neglect.
Record concludes his essay by asserting that "The United States could not have prevented the forcible reunification of Vietnam under communist auspices at a morally, materially, and strategically acceptable price."
Rereading that line, I was immediately reminded of Henry Kissinger's January 2009 caution regarding the Afghan war. He argued that, for every policy issue, we must consider three aspects: Our goal, our capabilities toward achieving that goal, and our staying power.
While wholeheartedly wishing for the achievement of the stated objective, which he described as "a democratic state—in the fullest sense of the term, including equal rights for women and religious tolerance—that is centrally governed," Kissinger argued that "Not only is our goal the achievement of something that has never existed in that territory but, to the extent that it's plausible nobody seriously thinks it possible in less than twenty years." Given that we lacked the political will to commit anything like the necessary troops and time to achieve the objective, he observed, we "need a different strategy."
Instead, a few months later, President Obama doubled down on the war effort with the so-called surge. We're no closer to victory, and only the most optimistic analysts think what gains have been made will long survive the U.S. exit.
The same was true in Korea and Iraq. In both cases, our expanded war aims were unrealistic and far out of line with our political will to expend the necessary resources to achieve them. Consequently, we failed to do so.
The bottom line in all four cases, then, was that American war aims were unachievable given the available resources. It's arguable that, in all but Vietnam, we achieved our realistic objectives quickly and at little cost—and then snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by moving the goalposts.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.