The USA isn’t invincible, and never was

 I’ve written several posts pondering why the United States of America, which has the world’s most extensive and expensive armed force, no longer wins wars.

As I think about it, it seems to me that we Americans have an exaggerated idea of our invincibility in the past.

In the War of Independence, we prevailed against the much larger and more powerful British Empire, in which, however, we needed the help of our French allies.  In the Civil War, we fought with each other, and were fairly evenly matched.

An F-16 jet fighter takes off from Nato airbase in Aviano, northern ItalyOur casualties in both the War of Independence and the Civil War were a proportion of our population equivalent to millions today.   Europeans suffered proportionate casualties in the 20th century world wars.  We Americans did not.

In the First World War and in the European Theater of the Second World War, it was our allies, the British, French and Russians, who bore the brunt of the fighting.  We Americans joined the fight in the middle and, while our intervention may have provided the margin of victory, I sincerely doubt that we could have won all by ourselves.

I do not of course question the valor of Americans who fought in these wars.  They went through things I am glad I have never had to do.   But the British, French and Russians, and the Germans and other nations also were brave.

The idea of American military exceptionalism is an illusion, and a dangerous illusion, because it prevents us from understanding reality and learning from mistakes.   It leads American military officers and politicians to think we can successfully confront the Russians and Chinese in their own neighborhoods.

I think we Americans would fight as bravely as our ancestors did if our homeland were attacked.  But I don’t think many of us are interested in shedding blood to support a claim that the USA is the world’s sole superpower.


The American defeats of the past 50 years have come from our inability to fight counterinsurgencies—which doesn’t not make us unique or even unusual.

The French failed in Indochina and Algeria, the Russians in Afghanistan, the Ethiopians in Eritrea.   We don’t have standing to look down on these failures if we repeat their mistakes and with the same results.

The editor of the Fabius Maximus military web site wrote:

We consider the US military the finest soldiers in the world because we judge them by the criteria important to us.

Once pointed in the right direction, the rest was easy.  They look good: tall, strong, good teeth, healthy.  They are well-educated: most enlisted men have high school degrees, many of the NCOs have some college, almost all the officers have undergraduate degrees (and many have advanced degrees).

Most have a long list of certificates showing completion of training courses; many of the officers have written papers on highly theoretical aspects of the military or social sciences.

expert-looming-defense-cuts-mean-the-us-can-no-longer-fight-and-win-a-two-front-warOur troops wield weapons that Buck Rogers would envy, fighting small wars backed up with a supply train more capable than that supplying the entire Wehrmacht in WWII.

Contrast that with the people we fight.  Often poorly educated, lightly trained, in poor health, wielding simple weapons.  We’re better, QED.

Unfortunately War has its own calculus, not ours.  The only relevant measure is an army’s ability to win in a specific time and place.  And we don’t, and to believe that we are the best has ill effects.

Our soldiers are brave, but they fight people with literally suicidal bravery and determination.  

We Were Soldiers Once describes the first major combat by American troops in Vietnam at Ia Drang.  That 34 day campaign saw a kill ratio of 12 North Vietnamese soldiers for every American.

General Westmoreland and his staff in Saigon saw this as a success, showing that we could win.  So did his counterpart in Hanoi.  Time proved who was correct.

Our officers write academic papers about military theory, but the Darwinian ratchet guarantees that our foes’ leaders understand 4GW [Maoist fourth generation warfare].

Our officers have MBAs but our foes ruthlessly employ the most brutally effective management methods through lethal trial and error.   As a result they develop new methods faster, and so maintain an edge in performance.

via The Fabius Maximus website.

And here is a quote from a 2008 article by a military writer named Doug Sanders.

One thing this cloak is hiding is the likelihood that once a nation finds itself relying on counterinsurgency for military success in a foreign setting it has already lost. … The insurmountable problem that the COIN Team faces is that expressed by a senior French commander who told journalist Eric Walberg that “we do not believe in counterinsurgency” because “if you find yourself needing to use counterinsurgency, it means the entire population has become the subject of your war, and you either will have to stay there forever or you have lost”.

via Guest Writer – Martin van Creveld.

Our American idea that Americans are always winners is very harmful.  It tempts us into conflicts that we ought to avoid, and keeps us from learning from our mistakes once drawn in.

My ideal and role model is Switzerland during the 19th and 20th century—a citizenry able and willing to fight in defense of their homeland, but not to dominate other nations.


Are Americans’ ideas about war stuck in WWII? by Mark Kukis for Aeon.

Is victory impossible in modern wars?  Or just not possible for us? from the Fabius Maximus web log.

Does America have the best military in the world? from the Fabius Maximus web log.

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2 Responses to “The USA isn’t invincible, and never was”

  1. Editor of the Fabius Maximus website Says:

    Nicely said!


  2. John Pennington Says:

    Perhaps the most dangerous illusion is that anything can be accomplished with bombs.


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