Why can’t world’s biggest military win wars?


The United States has far and away the largest armed forces in the world.  We Americans spent more on our military than the 10 runner-up countries combined; we spend almost as much as the whole rest of the world.  The U.S. Navy rules the seas.  The U.S. Air Force has controlled the air in every U.S. war in the past 50 years.  Our armed forces have boots on the ground in 177 of the world’s 195 countries.  U.S. military commands encompass the whole world.

Yet, as Andrew J. Bacevich, Tom Englehardt and Ian Welsh have recently pointed out, we Americans can’t seem to win wars.

Why not?

The U.S. armed forces are well able to defend the United States and fulfill U.S. treaty obligations.  Few if any nations are capable of withstanding a U.S. attack.   But U.S. forces have consistently failed in what we call nation-building.  They have not been able to suppress insurrections in defeated nations against the governments that we put in power.

The Viet Cong, the Taliban, al Qaeda did not represent the forces of righteousness, any more than did the Ku Klux Klan in the American South following the Civil War, to mention an early failed attempt at nation-building.   That is not the point.

U.S. forces could have stayed in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan, or, for that matter, the Reconstruction South, as long as we Americans were willing to pay the price.  They were, and are, highly skilled at exercising lethal force.  If they time came, they would, I am sure, exercise these skills with courage and professionalism in defense of their country.

What they couldn’t do, didn’t know how to do and still don’t know how to do, is to make the Vietnamese, Iraqis or Afghans submit to their rule.  It is not their fault.  It is the fault of those who send them into harm’s way with instructions to accomplish the impossible.


The fragility of domination on Phil Ebersole’s Blog.

The misuse of American might and the price it pays by Andrew J. Bacevich for the Los Angeles Times. Before becoming a politican scientist, Bacevich was career Army officer who served in Vietnam.  His son, also a career Army officer, was killed while on active duty in Iraq.

Why Can’t the World’s Most Powerful Military Accomplish Any of Its Goals? by Tom Englehardt for TomDispatch and the Nation.

The Future of War in the Developed World by Ian Welsh.

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3 Responses to “Why can’t world’s biggest military win wars?”

  1. whungerford Says:

    I am uneasy with the concept of winning a war. John Adams believed that there never was a war worth the cost. Leonard Pitts wrote in a recent column that “it works” is no excuse for a bad policy, especially when it doesn’t. Our military policy, predicated on another world war, seems like bad policy that doesn’t work. Nuclear disarmament would make us safer; we urge it on Iran, but don’t adopt it for ourselves.


  2. JB Says:

    First off the rules of engagement prevent it. Secondly, nobody in their right mind is going to fight in the open against the American military. Third, politics.
    It aint rocket science.


    • philebersole Says:

      This may not be rocket science to you, but it seems to be beyond decision-makers in Washington, who keep making the same mistakes decade after decade.

      There are no good rules of engagement in a situation in which U.S. troops cannot tell friends from enemies, nor either from bystanders, while the enemy knows exactly who everyone is.

      If your rule is to shoot first and ask questions later, then you are a force multiplier for the enemy.

      If you believe in General McChrystal’s “courageous restraint,” then you leave yourself, your comrades and the troops you command wide open to the enemy.


      For what it’s worth, I think General McChrystal had the right idea, but, if I had been serving in Afghanistan, I wouldn’t have been able to stand carry it out. It is one thing to put oneself in harm’s way by taking action; it is another to risk one’s life by doing nothing.

      Superior U.S. firepower does not solve this dilemma. The best way to get out of a no-win situation such as this is to not get into it.


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