Does America have the best military in the world?

Summary: As we begin yet another cycle of wars, we owe it to ourselves and even more to our soldiers to ask why the best soldiers in the world keep losing? Here is one answer, stark and contrarian.

FM Laws #1: all discussions of 4GW, the wars we actually fight, get derailed into discussions about hardware for theoretical conventional wars. More fun! Less scary!

The Atlantic cover: Jan-Feb 2015


  1. Fallows describes the problem.
  2. Are we the cause?
  3. Rephrasing the problem.
  4. Another example.
  5. Other post in this series.
  6. For More Information.

(1)  Fallows describes the problem

I consider James Fallows to be one of the most perceptive journalists of our day. So when the Jan/Feb copy of The Atlantic arrived with his article on the cover, I eagerly turned to it. The provocative title, “The Tragedy of the American Military“ predisposed me to like it, as I’ve written much about this during the past decade.  Much of it presented — brilliantly, as usual, the critique developed by the military reform community during the past 20 years (with nil effect on the Pentagon). Here’s the core problem, shown in this excerpt…

Ours is the best-equipped fighting force in history, and it is incomparably the most expensive. By all measures, today’s professionalized military is also better trained, motivated, and disciplined than during the draft-army years. … Yet repeatedly this force has been defeated by less modern, worse-equipped, barely funded foes. Or it has won skirmishes and battles only to lose or get bogged down in a larger war. Although no one can agree on an exact figure, our dozen years of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and neighboring countries have cost at least $1.5 trillion …Yet from a strategic perspective, to say nothing of the human cost, most of these dollars might as well have been burned.

(2)  Are we the cause — the reason why America can’t win these wars?

So what causes this inability to win wars in the 6 decades since Korea? Fallows gives a compelling analysis of the problem (with which I agree) then blames the American public.

Citizens notice when crime is going up, or school quality is going down, or the water is unsafe to drink, or when other public functions are not working as they should. Not enough citizens are made to notice when things go wrong, or right, with the military. The country thinks too rarely, and too highly, of the 1% under fire in our name.

America’s distance from the military makes the country too willing to go to war, and too callous about the damage warfare inflicts. This distance also means that we spend too much money on the military and we spend it stupidly, thereby short-changing many of the functions that make the most difference to the welfare of the troops and their success in combat. We buy weapons that have less to do with battlefield realities than with our unending faith that advanced technology will ensure victory, and with the economic interests and political influence of contractors. This leaves us with expensive and delicate high-tech white elephants, while unglamorous but essential tools, from infantry rifles to armored personnel carriers, too often fail our troops…

The difference now, I contend, is that these modern distortions all flow in one way or another from the chickenhawk basis of today’s defense strategy. At enormous cost, both financial and human, the nation supports the world’s most powerful armed force. But because so small a sliver of the population has a direct stake in the consequences of military action, the normal democratic feedbacks do not work.

That struck me as quite wrong, so I wrote Are we chickenhawks and so bear the responsibility for our lost wars since 9/11? in rebuttal. But that did not answer the vital question Fallows implicitly asked. Why do we lose so often in our modern wars?

(3)  Rephrasing the problem.

So I asked someone who knows about these things: G I Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired). He immediately gave the answer. It was on the cover (Fallows probably didn’t write the headline). 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.

Our 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. 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. For more about this see this analysis by GI Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired): The strengths of our 4GW foes; above all they learn faster.

So it has gone in most of our wars since then, except for Saddam’s mad conventional war with the US in the first Gulf War. Perhaps this will change in the future.

Nowadays the medium and senior personnel of all modern armed forces undergo extensive school education. Nevertheless, even in today’s technological world the view that war is the best teacher of war still holds much truth. … Over the last 40 years in particular, professional militaries have suffered any number of defeats at the hands of guerrillas and other practitioners of low-intensity conflict — who do not in the ordinary course of things undergo staff- and war-college training but have instead the authentic daily experience of combat.

— Martin van Creveld’s Training of Officers: From Military Professionalism to Irrelevance (1990).

(4)  Two other examples

Overconfidence is an infection capable of destroying the strongest army, and ran like epidemic through our forces during the 9/11 wars (and perhaps still does today). For a stunning example, see this by one of the top intellects on our side — Australian army officer David Kilcullen. He published “Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency“ in the May-June 2006 issue of Military Review. The advice was fantastic — when used by an insurgent. It was horrific if adopted by us. Look at article #1.

Know the people, the topography, economy, history, religion and culture. Know every village, road, field, population group, tribal leader and ancient grievance. Your task is to become the world expert on your district.

It was vital for a company commander to know that the world expert on “his” district already lives there and probably was born there.  An American officer on 6-12 month rotations could not develop comparable knowledge about the area, especially in so foreign a culture. It might be difficult for some of them to quickly do so in Watts or Harlem. Despite its bad advice, the article was a big hit. No surprise that both wars were expensive busts in both money and lives. See my review for more from this fascinating vignette of our mad wars.

Also see this simple but brutal statement of the truth from a 2016 article by Fred Reed:

“The military of Vietnam wasn’t very good at fighting, and neither is the military of today. GIs in Asia would assault a hill, usually of no importance, and, after three days, with the aid of helicopters, helo gunships, napalm, artillery, and fighter-bombers, would capture it. This would be called a triumph. The astute observed that if the Americans had to fight on equal terms, without overwhelming material superiority, they would last perhaps ten minutes.

“This is now a recognized pattern. Note that numerically superior and hugely armed American forces have been outfought for years by lightly armed Afghan goat herds. Since neither the wars nor the soldiers in them are of much importance, this doesn’t  matter.”

See the next chapter: Why we lose wars so often. How we can win in the future.

(5)  Other posts in this series: why does America keep losing?

These matters are more extensively discussed in the previous posts in this series.

  1. Are we chickenhawks and so bear the responsibility for our lost wars since 9/11?
  2. Does America have the best military in the world?
  3. Is victory impossible in modern wars? Or just not possible for us?
  4. Why we lose so many wars, and how we can win — a summary at Martin van Creveld’s website.
  5. A powerful new article shows why we lose so many wars: FAILure to learn.

(6)  For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about our military., especially these…

  1. Reforming the US Army: can be done, must be done.
  2. So many scandals in the US military: signs of rot or reform?
  3. Overhauling The Officer Corps to build a military that can win wars.
  4. How officers adapt to life in the Pentagon: they choose the blue pill.
  5. A step to getting an effective military. We might need it soon.

48 thoughts on “Does America have the best military in the world?”

  1. Patria Grande

    The advice was fantastic — when used by an insurgent. It was horrific if adopted by us. Look at article #1.”

    “Know the people, the topography, economy, history, religion and culture. Know every village, road, field, population group, tribal leader and ancient grievance. Your task is to become the world expert on your district”.

    This is ISIS ideology.

    Lovely article, no objections

  2. Patria Grande

    ““It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”
    — Upton Sinclair in I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked (1935).”

    Thats the same reason why its difficult to have an American understand he is a slave.

  3. Patria Grande

    to talk to you for real, I would need to know 2 things What do you think about Commander Guevara? And what do you think about Commander Chavez? Tell me the truth, what you really think

    1. Patria,

      Che would have profited from closer reading of Mao; he seems to have read the words about revolutionary strategy but not heard the music. He did listen to Mao’s economic theories; Che would have been off talking to an average street vendor.

      Hugo needed some Econ 101 textbooks, stat.

  4. One thing is to win conventional battles, our military excels at this. A different thing is to win a war when it involves occupying enemy territory and changing the thinking of the population, this requires a far more complex and involved strategy than our military is capable of.

    1. Patria Grande

      great Editor, you do not choose the army you go to war with sure, but you could choose not to go to war

  5. Agreed. But when all you have is a hammer, all problems look like nails. Fighting ISIS for example would require offering moderate Muslims in the Middle East a whole new vision and the means to get there. The thinking and geopolitical moves required for this are beyond our military and our political system. The best thing we can do given this limitation is stay away but this is beyond our impulses and our own vision of the world, not that we all agree on what this vision is.

    1. alberto,

      “Fighting ISIS for example would require offering moderate Muslims in the Middle East a whole new vision”

      I doubt that is a viable approach. I suspect there are more practical alternatives. I am certain that under current conditions they will neither be sought not tried – and fixing that bottleneck is the vital next stop.

  6. Arthur Brina

    It has been a little more than 50 years since I read S.L.A. Marshall’s class “Pork Chop Hill”, and a book entitled “The History of the German General Staff” for the first time. 10 years later, after spending more than 6 years of active duty -3/4 of which was as a member of the Special Forces- I read them again.

    It is my conclusion that the U.S.Army of the Vietnam era was much better, in practically every phase of small unit combat, than the army of the Korean era. But the essential shortcoming remained.

    Shortcoming #1: The US Army has rejected the idea of “battle drill”. For all the training, that i received prior to deployment to Vietnam, in “fire and maneuver” ,we -myself included- resorted to “firepower” over maneuver, and thought of that as “offensive operations”. But in 1972, and again in 1974, I watched South Korean infantry engage, close in, and finish off well-dug-in North Vietnamese (1972) and elite North Korean commandos (1974) with both a precision and a ferocity that was amazing to me. They demonstrated that the “storm-trooper tactics, developed by the Germans in response to machine guns, artillery, and tanks during WW I, is still the best way to use the infantry: “find them” (patrolling); “fix them” (machine guns and artillery); “finish them” (assault).

    It is my conclusion that, at the Headquarters level, The U.S. military has matched or exceeded what the German General Staff was capable of doing with two exceptions. Thank God! that the U.S. military has been so well-equipped and so much more formidable than our enemies, that it has not yet been forced to do too much with so little in the way that the Germans exemplified. But not since WW II has the U.S. military grasped the importance of what the Germans called “The Principles of Warfare”.

    Shortcoming #2: “Victory” is not an objective in the U.S. Military doctrine; “Occupation” is. In order to avoid ever getting into another quagmire like Vietnam, or an interminable stalemate like Korea, Colin Powell developed and formalized the Powell Doctrine. It was centered around the two most important principles of warfare, as defined by the German General Staff: “Objective” and “Offensive”. The best example of the Powell Doctrine that I can recall in my experience was the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. In less than 3 days the Soviet army had swept through all of that country, occupying every town and city, every transport and communication hub. NATO was still trying to get from their barracks to their assembly points. The Russians learned some hard lessons from the Germans. Evidently, they learned them well.

  7. Ours is the best-equipped fighting force in history…



    The M-16 is a piece of shite. The AK-47 will fire underwater, fire while dirty, has an amazing resistance to jamming, can be taken apart and put back together much more easily and quickly, and the AK is made from much simpler components. By every imaginable criterion, the AK-47 is an immeasurably superior weapon.

    Pieces of junk like the F-35 recapitulate all the failures of the M-16 at a higher level. Unnecessary complexity. Failure-prone. Too many sophisticated components, too often going bad. Much too difficult to repair. Much too expensive. Finicky, quirky, very hard to keep working, thoroughly unreliable.

    These are the not the hallmarks of good military equipment. A piece of good military hardware should work in the rain, under fire, in the mud, clogged with dirt, and you should be able to tear it down and fix it with a minimum of expertise and time and an absolute minimum of specialized tools.

    American military hardware is all prima donna stuff. Exotic, hyperspecialized, spectacularly complex, far too hard to diagnose or fix problems in, filled with specialized exotic components, and prone to constant failure. This is exactly the opposite of what you want in a piece of weaponry.

    As a perfect diametric opposite to today’s absurdly overcomplicated failure-prone unreliable weapons, I give the 1911 Colt .45. No design change in 100 years. Reliable. Simple. I predict the U.S. military will ditch it and replace very soon it with a non-working piece of $15,000 crap that has infrared targeting, self-aiming bullets, requires a working internet connection, and doesn’t work in rain, snow, ice, or when dirty, and needs a 50-pound battery pack to operate.

    By all measures, today’s professionalized military is also better trained, motivated, and disciplined than during the draft-army years.


    You’re kidding, right?

    More U.S. soldiers died from suicide last year in Afghanistan than from engaging the enemy. This is “better…motivated and disciplined” than in the Vietnam era? Puh-lease.

    In June, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that, under pressure to fill the ranks, the Army had been allowing into its ranks increasing numbers of “recruits convicted of misdemeanor crimes, according to experts and military records.” In fact, as the military’s own data indicated, “the percentage of recruits entering the Army with waivers for misdemeanors and medical problems has more than doubled since 2001.”

    One beneficiary of the Army’s new moral-waiver policies gained a certain prominence this summer. After Steven Green, who served in the 101st Airborne Division, was charged in a rape and quadruple murder in Mahmudiyah, Iraq, it was disclosed that he had been “a high-school dropout from a broken home who enlisted to get some direction in his life, yet was sent home early because of an anti-social personality disorder.”

    Recently, Eli Flyer, a former Pentagon senior military analyst and specialist on the relationship between military recruiting and military misconduct, told Harper’s magazine that Green had “enlisted with a moral waiver for at least two drug- or alcohol-related offenses. He committed a third alcohol-related offense just before enlistment, which led to jail time, although this offense may not have been known to the Army when he enlisted.”

    With Green in jail awaiting trial, the Houston Chronicle reported in August that Army recruiters were trolling around the outskirts of a Dallas-area job fair for ex-convicts.

    “We’re looking for high school graduates with no more than one felony on their record,” one recruiter said.

    Source: “U.S. is recruiting misfits for army / Felons, racists, gang members fill in the ranks,” San Francisco Chronicle, 1 October 2006.

    Articles like “Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving” (Atlantic magazine, January 2011) suggest that Fallows’ claims about the alleged ‘excellence’ of U.S. military recruits is an absurd fabrication.

    “Why do the best soldiers in the world keep losing?”

    If they keep losing, obviously they’re not the best soldiers in the world. Crap weaponry, shite equipment, rotten training, and an army of gang members and rapists led by cowardly careerist incompetents will tend to lose wars.

    The unit knew it would soon be shipped to the front. Some soldiers responded by deserting. Others got drunk and fought. In response, officers locked the unit in its barracks, allowing the troops out only to drill, not even to smoke a cigarette, until it could be put on the transport that would take it into combat.

    It sounds as if I am describing some third echelon Soviet infantry regiment in, say, 1942. In fact, I am talking about the 1st Battalion of the 178th Field Artillery Regiment, South Carolina National Guard, in September 2004. According to a front-page story in the September 19 Washington Post, the unit was disintegrating even before it was deployed to Iraq. One shudders to think what will happen once it gets there and finds itself under daily attack from skilled enemies it cannot identify.

    Source: “On War #85: Destroying the National Guard,” William S. Lind, 2004.

    Study says 1 in 3 women raped in the military.

    These are the “best soldiers in the world”?

    Was James Fallows drunk, on drugs, or suffering from head trauma when he wrote his article?

    1. I agree with the general message of Thomas More’s outburst: “If they keep losing, obviously they’re not the best soldiers in the world”. In addition, “most-equipped military” should be used instead of “best-equipped”.

      However, this is a bit over the top.

      First of all, while the F35 is indeed an astounding technical and economic debacle, it is not actually equipping US forces. This weapon is still at the testing stage.

      The account of the disorder amongst soldiers sent to Iraq is gripping — but this was National Guard members: a reserve force of part-time militiamen. I suspect similar events would occur in any other army under comparable conditions. In no country is the Landsturm ever supposed to be sent fighting a violent, controversial war overseas in the first place.

      The suicide rates should be compared to a long-term data series since the professionalized army was set up. And objectively, there were few fatalities during the Afghan expedition.

      It is difficult to see whether recruitment difficulties are worse than in other armies. The UK and France have problems attracting soldiers outside poorly educated or borderline criminal classes, and retaining officers.

      The incredibly high rates of rape do not surprise me — soldiers are not known for restraint and respecting other people (they are drilled to kill them and blow up their property). Things might perhaps be different if the USA would set up two distinct military organizations, one entirely male and one entirely female, instead of mixing a majority of men with a machist disposition with a minority of women.

      This being said, “If they keep losing, obviously they’re not the best soldiers in the world” is true.

      1. Guest,

        “In addition, “most-equipped military” should be used instead of “best-equipped”.”

        That’s an interesting observation. It’s of course true — that’s the American way of war starting in WWII. It works because, as engineers say, “quantity has a quality all its own.”

        On second level, its is an oversimplification. WWII started our tradition of mediocre basic weapons plus high-tech war-winners. In WWII these ranged from analogue target data computers in our submarines to high-tech airplanes (America had the best anti-tank weapon: if flew at 300 mph). Today we have satellite recon, NSA monitoring of enemy cell phones, drone surveillance and bombing — and a thousand other tools adding to what I described as “tools Buck Rogers would have envied”.

        There is a third level still more important: “finest” is a relative term, a comparison with something else. Thomas compares us to some ideal (Heaven’s army?). In fact the US is the finest by most of the metrics we value. But that’s because the other developed nations have little interest in playing the conventional warfare game (other than the UK, who does so on a small scale). They go through the motions of keeping armies, buying weapons — but with relatively small funds. They know that it’s a busted game.

        Hence my primary point: the actual standard of comparison is with our foes, using the metrics that measure victory. Although that’s the obvious message of the post, I suspect only a few readers get it. Americans’ thoughts run on rails, and getting them off those tracks requires explosives. I have seen this in scores of conversations with military buffs — even experts — about 4GW. The discussion quickly swings into discussion of weapons. Wow, look at the specs of the USS Ford. No, the F-35 stinks.

        I suspect it was ever so. The French got whipped in the 3 great battles of the 100 years war, learning nothing after each defeat. The discussion afterwards was probably about hot new design of armor of mounted knights.

    2. Overall, I agree with your remarks. When you state: “the actual standard of comparison is with our foes, using the metrics that measure victory” then why not start with the definition of a victory by von Clausewitz? It consists of three elements:
      a) control of the disputed territory;
      b) destruction of the adversary’s will to fight;
      c) physical destruction of the enemy forces.

      According to this measure, the US forces do not look like the finest ones at all — no matter how much or how advanced training and equipment they are endowed with.

      Just as small point about the French who “got whipped in the 3 great battles of the 100 years war, learning nothing after each defeat”. Well, they must have learned something. I found the best summary in a comment at nakedcapitalism:

      “The English got their asses kicked all the way back to Merry Old England. Which is why British accounts of the Hundred Years War contain long and loving accounts of Poitiers, Crecy and Agincourt, followed by some vague, terse acknowledgement that the conclusion of the war didn’t quite live up to the initial promise.”

      1. guest,

        (1) ” why not start with the definition of a victory”

        It’s unnecessary to do so because everybody knows, in their hearts, if we won or lost. They don’t need some military theorist to explain.

        (2) “According to this measure, the US forces do not look like the finest ones at all”

        You appear to be stating as rebuttal the very point of this post.

        (3) the Hundred Years War.

        I suggest adopting an initial assumption that all comments at Naked Capitalism are wrong until proven otherwise. Like this one. Henry V decisively won the war, putting his son — by the French princess, Catherine of Valois — in line of succession of the French throne. H5 died on 31 August 1422. After which the English won several more telling victories. H6 was crowned King of France on 16 December 1431. Then French got 2 lucky breaks.

        First, Henry V died with his son (Henry VI) only 9 months old, instantly fracturing the English political structure. Their strategy was poor, diverting their efforts into attacking “the low countries” instead of consolidating their hold on France. The Duke of Burgundy changed sides from England to France.

        Second, the French counter-stoke was devastating. Catherine passed on the Valois’ family’s insanity to Henry VI. Things went bad, then worse. The War of the Roses began in 1452. The English were finally defeated in France in 1453.

    3. “It’s unnecessary…”

      Relying an established, well-founded definition cuts short all those disquisitions to recalibrate what a victory is — for instance “We did not lose in Vietnam, because we never lost a battle, smashed every NVA and VC unit, and it’s the South Vietnamese who lost after all”, “We won in Afghanistan because…”, “We did not lose in Iraq, since…”, etc.

      “You appear to be stating as rebuttal the very point of this post.”

      Actually, I intended my comment to be a confirmation, via another argument, of your main conclusion…

      1. guest,

        These people are not saying that we won in Vietnam or Afghanistan, but shifting the blame for our loss to others. To the Left, to journalists, to our allies — or, in the Fallows article described in this post, to chickenhawk America. They are saying that we could have won.

        There are probably a few who believe that we actually won in those wars. There are people who believe the Earth is flat.

        Also — thanks for the explanation about your comment. I misinterpreted it.

  8. Another reason they nearly always lose is the nebulous, unachievable objectives we give them.

    “Democratize Iraq”

    “Modernize Afghanistan”

    “Keep a parasitic absentee landlord class in Saigon and mostly Catholic-staffed local governments in power over Bhuddist peasants”

    A defined, limited objective tells you when you’re done.

    like “Kick the Iraqi Army out of Kuwait”

    You’ll notice that this has nothing to do with ‘The Troops’ themselves, but with an oligarch-friendly regime in DC that likes endless war, and a population that refuses to pay attention to how they’re being bled, both financially and physically.

    1. rkka,

      Great point! If we believe we have the finest military, we’re more likely to have maximum goals. Especially if we see our finest military fighting foes we regard with contempt.

      Add to the list this from the Vietnam War: “What President Nixon means by peace is what other people mean by victory” — By Don Oberdorfer in the Washington Post.

  9. Todd Guthrie

    I think a lot of people make the mistake of equating cost with quality, price with worth, as in “it’s more expensive, so it must be better”.
    Happens with wine, food, medicine, consumer goods, higher education, financial services, and apparently also armed forces.

    Even in so-called ‘conventional war’, a billion-dollar aircraft carrier is worthless if it can be sunk by a million-dollar missile.

    1. “Even in so-called ‘conventional war’, a billion-dollar aircraft carrier is worthless if it can be sunk by a million-dollar missile.”

      Pretty much anything can be killed by ammunition which costs far less than the target, it is as true for the aircraft carrier as it is for the western infantryman which is worth ($ for training, pay etc) far more than the price of the bullet which can kill him.
      While an aircraft carrier is a very juicy target a CVBG is a tough nut to crack and it offers very valuable capabilities. And while the missile may be relatively cheap all the support around it, like say the Oscar II SSGN carrying it or the satellite providing the data do cost quite a bit.

      1. I’m going to COIN the FM Laws. #1: all discussions of 4GW, the wars we actually fight, get derailed into discussions of theoretical conventional wars. More fun! Less scary!

        I suspect Islamic jihadists love us building aircraft carriers. The More, the Better. Burning away our resources from otherwise useful domestic and foreign uses. Investing in military tools of proven ineffectiveness against them. Keeping us busy, instead of learning 4GW. If Bernie Sanders wins in 2016, ISIS might start a petition to save our carriers.

    2. “all discussions of 4GW, the wars we actually fight, get derailed into discussions of theoretical conventional wars.”

      Indeed. It is funny that in the discussion of the cost/effectiveness of US equipment vs adversary’s, a considerably better and more relevant example would have been the various forms of ubiquitous, cheap, redoubtably effective booby traps, IED and other kind of mines used with redoubtable efficacy against US foot soldiers, APC and tanks.

      Nice, pointed rule. You may well build up an incisive list.

  10. The reason we keep losing wars is simple. In order to win wars the military must defeat the enemy – their military and their people. When the people acknowledge defeat that means we have won the war. And how do you get them to acknowledge defeat? By killing them. Lots of them. Lots of civilians. But isn’t that a war crime? That’s why we will never win another war again.

    1. Matt,

      “how do you get them to acknowledge defeat? By killing them. Lots of them. Lots of civilians.”

      That’s wrong in two senses. First, history shows many victories without killing “lots of civilians”. Such as the American Revolution (few British civilians killed), the American Civil War (e.g., there was one civilian killed at Gettysburg, by a stray bullet), and the Fall of France in WWII. Killing civilians sometimes works, but is often counter-productive.

      Second, killing large numbers of civilians often fails. After WW2 the colonial and neo-colonial powers fought insurgencies by means that killed millions of civilians. They almost always lost.

      “But isn’t that a war crime?”
      No. We killed lots of civilians in WWII, all AOK under the laws of war.

      “That’s why we will never win another war again.”

      You imply that since Korea we have not killed civilians in large numbers. That’s quite false. I suggest you read Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.

  11. Putting aside for a moment how a military strategist might define a “win”, I think in order to conclude that the US keeps losing, one is tempted to view the outcomes of these interventions through the paradigm of the publicly stated goals of those who lead us into war. For example, Bush Jr.’s folks said invading Iraq was an imperative because Saddam was developing WMD’s, had close ties with Al Qaeda, was an evil dictator, committed war crimes, etc. He must be stopped, democracy installed, and his people freed!!! Well, they did “stop” Saddam. But, in context of their stated goals, at great cost not much else beneficial was accomplished.

    However, if we choose to employ an alternate paradigm in which to view the ongoing war in Iraq (e.g., cui bono?) it becomes clear that while many lose much, a few win big. Here are some examples of Iraq victories for your consideration:

    ~ Reinstated the US dollar as the reserve currency for Iraqi oil (Saddam having had the audacity of switching to the Euro in November of 2000).
    ~ Direct US control of how Iraqi oil interacts with the international market (Saddam had begun to court deals with several countries other than the US).
    ~ Astronomical profits for US corporate war contractors (augmented by massive corruption evidenced by one-third to one-half of the immense funds allocated by Congress going unaccounted for).
    ~ Conversion of Iraq from a state-owned economy (what Rumsfeld called, a “Stalinist economy”) to a free-market capitalist economy (or at least to an economy a certain free-market capitalist economy could exploit).

    In viewing the Iraq war through the later paradigm, the invasion and destruction of Iraq can be seen as something other than a loss (i.e., for some). Although it wasn’t the quick and easy victory expected, overall it served the plutocracy quite well. Albeit at a horrific price to the people of Iraq (and a heavy price for the US taxpayer).

    1. Grand Patria

      This is similar to how the British colonial endeavor in India was a net loss, only a gain for the British oligarchy, who externalized the military cost to the commons.

      1. Grand Patria,

        That’s a great observation, and worth pondering.

        Despite the common opinion in America that the lower class Brits loved the Empire, in fact they were aware that they paid in blood for it — yet got few of the benefits. Orwell frequently points this out (e.g., “In England all the boasting and flag-wagging, the ‘Rule Britannia’ stuff, is done by small minorities.”).

    2. Arguendo,

      That’s out of the box thinking, to ask if our leaders define “win” differently than we do. It’s a commonplace conclusion of those in the military reform community that “it’s all about the money”. So perhaps our wars since 9/11 have been wins to our ruling elites, since they have been a massive transfer of funds from us to them.

      It’s the sort of explanation that cannot be verified, and assumes that our rulers are psychopaths. That’s too far for me to go. Hanlon’s razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

    3. That’s out of the box thinking…

      I’d say it’s less out-of-the-box thinking than it is highly-discouraged thinking. ;)

      It’s the sort of explanation that cannot be verified…

      Agreed. Human motives are impossible to observe in any empirical way. We can view behavior and listen to their words, but we cannot directly observe the actual intent that is attributed to them. Intent can only be inferred or imputed. While people profess all sorts of intentions, they also are capable of outrageous deception, including self-deception. How then can we determine, or dare presume, what might be their actual motives?

      The problem becomes crucial when dealing with political leaders, many of whom make it difficult to determine the intentions behind their actions. Washington policymakers are the last to admit that they engage in the use of economic skulduggery and military interventions to expropriate the land, labor, markets, and natural resources of less powerful countries on behalf of wealthy interests at home and abroad. They claim their interventions are motivated by an intent to defend, to fight terrorism, protect human rights, oppose tyranny, prevent genocide, bring democracy, maintain peace and stability, protect weaker nations from aggressors, etc.

      So are we to accept their noble claims? If not, how can we demonstrate that they are often false and that their true motives are more closely aligned with pursuit of financial gain? Well for one, we can look for patterns in US foreign interventions. Are there any consistencies? If so, what kinds of governments and political movements do US leaders support? What kinds do they oppose and wish to subject to regime change? What political-economic goals do they pursue once they’ve intervened? What were the actual (vs stated) outcomes of these interventions? And as always, cui bono? Rather than characterizing US policy as befuddled and contradictory, I see it as remarkably consistent in services rendered on behalf of transnational economic domination (i.e., on behalf of our plutocrats and their buddies). I don’t contend that no other policy considerations come into play, but there’s no reason I can find to treat those policy considerations as mutually exclusive of global business interests – and somewhat irresponsible to ignore money as a primary motivating factor in human behavior.

      …and assumes that our rulers are psychopaths.

      I merely assume them to be greedy bastards. Although, you might be onto something there.

      1. arguendo,

        I too assume they are greedy for wealth and power. Almost everybody is, and those at the top often get there in part due to their greater thirst for these things. But starting wars purely for personal gain takes us beyond routine greed into comic book Joker-type madness — something quite rare. I’d want some evidence for that. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof (see the origin of this here).

    4. @Grand Patria

      This is similar to how the British colonial endeavor in India was a net loss, only a gain for the British oligarchy, who externalized the military cost to the commons.

      Imperialism is very old game.

  12. Grand Patria

    This blog is producing interesting respectful conversations amongst vastly different people, and as predictable this is producing excellent results Go America!!! (Argentina and Latin America are in America, remember)

    1. “Argentina and Latin America are in America, remember”

      Brutal honesty. We let them go their own way, so long as they don’t do anything against our interests. Then we crush them. Cuba volunteered to become an example. The Latin America spirit is strong, since we’ve had to make additional examples (e.g., Cuba, Nicaragua , Venezuela).

  13. Grand Patria

    And so they dont say we are anti-American here is this: a musical intermezzo, that shows Usaians can be cool too.

  14. Grand Patria

    “Brutal honesty. We let them go their own way, so long as they don’t do anything against our interests. Then we crush them. Cuba volunteered to become an example. The Latin America spirit is strong, since we’ve had to make additional examples (e.g., Cuba, Nicaragua , Venezuela).”

    It is very hard to not go against the interests of people that think the world belongs to them, very difficult

  15. Grand Patria

    If Americans would fight with the conceptual coordination, cummunication and spirit,
    with which the Greatful Dead Play, they would win every war.

    Nobody wants to conquer the world when home looks like shite

  16. Snake Pliskin

    Since Islamic jihadists have been mentioned several times, readers might be interested in this article from Der Spiegel. It might also be considered a case study in crafting (maybe very successful) strategy. Here’s the link:

    It’s a capsule history of the origins of the ISIS/ISIL movement. It may not be divine truth, but I’ve found Der Spiegel to be a consistently good source of international reporting — light years better than any “news” source on this side of the Atlantic.

    Interesting highlights of the article include:

    — The (late) mastermind, the originator of the ISIS/ISIL organization is about as secular as they come, his goals were secular, and his methods were never especially “religious”, either. The religious rhetoric was mostly a convenient rallying device. Of course, should ISIS/ISIL “win”, getting off that tiger should be interesting.

    — This is not the first article I’ve seen where this was emphasized: The prisons run by the American occupation may have been the essential catalyst that put future insurgent leaders together, and gave them experience in cooperating with each other in a clandestine fashion.

    Guess Don Rumsfeld never thought of that last. If I recall correctly, his major reaction to Abu Ghraib was how unfair it is that digital cameras are so ubiquitous. I mean, if you want to talk about strategy, you’ve got to mention blithering idiot dinosaurs at least once, no?

    1. Grand Patria

      Same thing happened in Brazil 30 years ago, they jailed narcos and got
      narcos 2.0

  17. Grand Patria

    In Argentina we have a popular saying, “God creates them and they gather” we should rephrase this, God creates them and the US makes them unite?

  18. I too assume they are greedy for wealth and power…But starting wars purely for personal gain takes us beyond routine greed into comic book Joker-type madness — something quite rare.

    Like I said, I’m not contending that other policy considerations don’t come into play, only that the financial motivations of those that lead us to war should at least be considered as a significant factor. Also, the financial motivation is not just about direct profits in pocket, but also suppressing any socio-political system that’s not free-market capitalism (i.e., the system our plutocrats have gamed in their favor). And since when did people stop doing terrible things for money? Let’s not forget the amounts to be gained (for some) in interventions are quite significant. Certainly enough to rationalize all sorts of dubious behavior in the minds of those who benefit. I’m not saying our leaders are capable of rationalizing a complete disregard for morality and values. I mean, it’s not like the US is going to start torturing people or killing their own citizens without trial or anything. But still.

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

    I consider our Representatives, media, and citizenry not discussing more the – obviously relevant – financial motivations of those that lead us to pursue these interventions to be the thing that’s truly extraordinary.

    I’d want some evidence for that.

    Me too. But as you quite rightly pointed out, verifying intent is problematic. Just because those that led us into the Iraq war massively profited from it, doesn’t necessarily mean one of their main reasons for doing so was to make those profits. Just as a spouse taking out a million dollar life insurance policy on their partner two weeks before said partner dies from a fall down the stairs, doesn’t necessarily mean that spouse is a killer – but I’d expect the police to perform a thorough investigation. So for Iraq, given the highly dubious “evidence” used to justify invasion, that Iraq posed no physical threat to the US, the economic policies that Iraq was pursuing that would have a negative financial impact on certain US corporate interests, and the aligned financial interests of those leading us to war to the oil and defense industry – I’d say we have enough circumstantial evidence to warrant a thorough investigation as there appears to be more going on here than can be adequately explained by stupidity.

  19. Pingback: Does America have the world’s best military? | Phil Ebersole's Blog

  20. Pingback: Why Has America Stopped Winning Wars? | Bill Totten's Weblog

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