Fighting wars just to show US can win one

When I was a schoolboy, I was taught that the United States had never lost a war.  Reasonable people can differ over the War of 1812, but the United States not only defeated, but utterly crushed, its enemies in the Mexican War, the American Civil War, the Indian wars, the Spanish-American War, World War One and World War Two [1].


The Vietnam Conflict, on the other hand, was an unambiguous defeat — the first in American history.  The Nixon-Kissinger administration was the first, but not the last, U.S. administration whose objective was not victory, but to mask defeat in the guise of an “honorable” withdrawal.  The U.S. outcome is symbolized by the fact that our heroes in that conflict were defiant prisoners of war (and they really were heroes, I don’t question that) rather than triumphant conquerors.

Subsequent U.S. administrations did not seek to avoid military interventions.  Instead, starting with the Reagan administration, they sought to overcome the “Vietnam syndrome”, which was perceived as the American public’s cowardly refusal to support open-ended wars in far off lands.

This was weakness rather than strength.  Strong nations do not need to go to war merely to project an image of strength.

The fight against the “Vietnam syndrome” began with the invasion of Grenada in 1983, which I recall being hailed as a great triumph—much like a Roman emperor crossing the Rhine, burning a German village and then returning to Rome for a victory parade.  Next came the elder President Bush administration’s attack on Panama in 1989 and the Gulf War of 1991, in which Bush through his diplomatic skill was able to line up virtually the whole world against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.

None of these wars involved U.S. occupation forces.  We came, we saw, we conquered—and we left.

The Clinton administration, on the other hand, was unable to avoid getting bogged down.  Clinton’s “humanitarian intervention” in the former Yugoslavia kept U.S. forces there for more than a decade.  Clinton inherited a low-level war with Iraq, an economic blockade and intermittent bombings, without the possibility of either victory or peace.

Thinkers within the U.S. military sought ways win wars while avoiding U.S. casualties.  One such thinker was Air Force Colonel John Boyd, a brilliant former ace fighter pilot, who advocated a “revolution in military affairs” based not on massive force, but on quick response and flexibility.  The new tactics involved a combination of air power, elite special forces and alliances with indigenous fighters, such as the Kosovo Liberation Army in the former Yugoslavia and the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan.

The 9-11 attacks gave the U.S. military a chance to use the new strategy.  It worked very well as a means of destroying an enemy government at little cost to the U.S. side.  U.S. forces destroyed the Saddam Hussein government in Iraq with much fewer troops than senior U.S. commanders recommended.

The problem was what came next.  The Department of Defense found that it had to ramp up the number of troops, and they still were not able to control the territory they occupied.  Indigenous forces, it turned out, had agendas of their own, which were not the same as U.S. policy.   American troops found themselves in the middle of conflicts they did not understand, and in the position of having to support governments that were without popular support among their people.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Richard Cheney and others in the Bush administration hoped to fight a new version of the Vietnam Conflict and, this time, win.  The Iraq and Afghanistan wars were fought in the same manner as Vietnam, and were lost for the same reasons.  U.S. technological might is fragile.  It depends on long supply chains that are vulnerable to disruption and complex technologies that are vulnerable to failure.

But the biggest problem for the U.S. side is asymmetry of information.  U.S. troops are in countries where most of them don’t know the local language, and can’t tell friends from enemies or either from bystanders.  They constantly face the choice of shooting first and asking questions later, which results in killing of innocents and creation of new enemies, or of holding fire when in doubt, which leaves them vulnerable to sneak attack.

Local insurgents face no such problem.  They know who everyone is, and their killing is not random.  That means they can control the countryside, and U.S. forces cannot.

President Obama continued this trend.  He drew done the size of the U.S. armed forces while relying on special forces and flying killer drones to destroy designated enemies.  But this did not solve the problem.  Drones are a useful battlefield weapon for reconnaissance or attacking entrenched positions, but not as a substitute for troops on the ground.   Drone assassinations have killed fewer enemies of the United States than they have created more new enemies.

U.S. troops now are being reluctantly withdrawn from Afghanistan and Iraq.  The Taliban is poised to make a comeback in Afghanistan, and al Qaeda was a strong presence in Iraq, which it never did prior to 2003.  Even the heads of government installed by the U.S. military want U.S. forces to leave.  This is defeat, but the reality of defeat, unlike in Vietnam, is not acknowledged.

In warning against reckless military action, General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993, had a saying – the so-called Pottery Barn Rule [2].  “If you break it, you own it.”

But this rule was not observed in regard to Afghanistan and Iraq.  United States forces have broken the governmental, economic and social structures of these two countries, but we Americans do not take ownership of the consequences.  Instead most of us act as if these failures never happened or, if we do, that the only ones to suffer from our failures were ourselves.


President Obama, during his first term, seemed to follow the failed patterns of the past. He seemed eager to start a war with Syria and willing to go to war with Iran, repeating the failures of the past. But last year he reversed course, which gives cause for hope. His willingness to negotiate peace in Syria and Iraq may – may – represent a new turning in U.S. policy, one in which diplomacy is a first resort and war is a last resort. Much could go wrong with this, even assuming good will on both sides, but it is just possible that the President will retroactively deserve his Nobel Peace Prize.


Rumsfeld’s War and Its Consequences Now by Mark Danner for the New York Review of Books.

The Empire’s New Clothes: America’s Strategic Rebalance as Covert Retreat by John Feffer for Naked Capitalism and TomDispatch.

The misuse of American might and the price it pays by Andrew J. Bacevich for the Los Angeles Times.

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

[1]  It is true that other countries contributed more than the United States did to the defeat of Germany in the two world wars.  I’m looking at things from the standpoint of how we Americans saw things at the time.

[2]  Evidently the actual Pottery Barn stores had no such rule.

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