Why we lose wars so often. How we can win in the future.

Summary:  The previous post in this series asked why we lose when we’re great. This post gives a deeper answer, and points to two paths that at least make victory possible. It’s a brief review, with links to other sources giving more detail.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

{DoD is} ready for wars past and future, but not present. {T}he current military, an advanced version of the WWII force, is ready should the Imperial Japanese Navy return. It also has phenomenally advanced weaponry in the pipeline to take on a space-age enemy, perhaps from Mars, should one appear. It is only the present for which the US is not prepared.

— Fred Reed, A True Son of Tzu.

Victory poster



  1. We’re great! So why do we lose?
  2. Why do we lose?
  3. Let’s get better soldiers!
  4. Martin van Creveld explains.
  5. Other posts in this series.
  6. For More Information.

(1)  We’re great! So why do we lose?

A previous post asked “does America have the best military in the world?” The answer is “no”, and would have been obvious to any generation of Americans before WWII. We are inventors, explorers, and businessmen. Germans were considered great soldiers, part of their militarized society and so not esteemed by us. We came to consider ourselves military Übermensch after WWII, when we crushed little Japan and helped the Russians, who defeated NAZI Germany.

Japan’s leaders coined the term “victory disease” to describe the arrogance and over-confidence produced by their early victories, but WWII gave us a case worse than theirs.

A related question is “Why do the finest soldiers in the world keep losing wars”. The previous post gave the obvious answer: we don’t have the finest soldiers in the world (certainly not at fighting 4th generation wars). This post examines a deeper reason why we consistently lose 4GWs since WWII, and how we can win.

(2)  Why do we lose?

Why we lose has many answers, depending on your perspective. We lose because foreign armies almost always lose to local insurgents since Mao brought 4GW to maturity after WWII. We lose because we refused to see this simple fact, learning from the experience of others and our own. We lose because we repeat strategies and tactics that have repeatedly failed since WWII, including some that almost guarantee failure.  For details see this post about our FAILure to learn,

(3)  Let’s get better soldiers!

Our military can improve. A few reformers, such as Donald Vandergriff have small-scale projects under way which could have large effects if aggressively adopted (see his posts and his writings). I doubt that we can improve our troops sufficiently to win at 4GW so long as we refused to learn 4GW. If our senior generals learn to learn then winning becomes possible.

Also, 4GW requires deep knowledge of the local people, their culture and history. This doesn’t play to Americans’ strengths. We tend to arrogance about foreign societies, and have little knowledge even of our own history (and much of that is false). We’re best suited to provide aid and training to local governments until we learn to do 4GW.

Victory Is The Goal

(4)  How to win

(a)  The first step

Let’s listen to the people who correctly predicted the outcomes of our WOT invasions and occupations, not the people who recommended repeating failed methods from previous wars — leading us to failure. Unfortunately even 13 years have failure have not taught us much, because the same voices still dominate the news. Instead let’s listen to people such as William Lind, Gian P. Gentile (Colonel, US Army), Paul Pillar (ex-CIA), and Martin van Creveld.

“Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results”. The magnitude of our problem becomes apparent when we can learn from an ancient insight of Alcoholics Anonymous, who know all about dysfunctionality.  Martin van Creveld gave us good advice in a 2008 speech:

So when people ask about how we should study counterinsurgency, the first step should be to gather 95% of all the literature on the subject, put it aboard the Titanic and sink it. In fact, there is so much of it that if you put it aboard the Titanic the iceberg becomes unnecessary!

The logical answer for why the materials on counterinsurgency are so inferior is that most of them were written by people who failed to achieve victory. Ninety-five percent of the literature is written by the losers, who in trying to justify their own actions, put the blame for their failure on others. Therefore there is little reason to expect the literature to be any good. Indeed, the best thing to do with it is to put it away.

(b) Pick our battles

After WWII we involved ourselves in the internal struggles of nations around the world, often supporting tyrants and overthrowing elected regimes. We survived our folly because the Soviet Union was even dumber. Since 9/11 we have involved ourselves in many civil wars in the greater Middle East region, setting the region afire and making enemies on a large scale — an incredible strategy considering that neither we nor anyone else has learned to fight insurgencies in other lands. Eventually this will go badly for us.

Let’s pick our battles. Fight where we must — where the stakes are high and we have reason to believe we can win. See this post for details.

(c)  Fight using methods that have worked before

There are no easy solutions to 4GW. But there are methods that worked before. For details see Martin van Creveld’s essay “On Counterinsurgency” in Combating Terrorism, edited by Rohan Gunaratna (2005). This paper falls into four parts.

  1. How We Got to Where We Are gives a brief history of insurgency since 1941 and of the repeated failures in dealing with it.
  2. Two Methods focuses on President Assad’s suppression of the uprising at Hama in 1983 on the one hand and on British operations in Northern Ireland on the other, presenting them as extreme case studies of success at counterinsurgency.
  3. On Power and Compromises draws the lessons from the methods just presented and goes on to explain how, by vacillating between them, most counterinsurgents have guaranteed their own failure.
  4. Conclusions.

Both the Hama and Northern Ireland solutions are difficult, in different ways. Neither fits how we even see war, let along do it. But 4GW forces such harsh choices. For a deeper analysis see these books: The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz by Martin van Creveld and The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World by Rupert Smith.

(5) Other posts in this series

  1. Does America have the best military in the world?
  2. Why we lose wars so often. How we can win in the future.
  3. Handicapping the clash of civilizations: bet on the West to win big.
  4. How to fight the long war until we win.

(6)  For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Also see these posts about counterinsurgency warfare:

  1. COIN – a perspective from 23rd century textbooks.
  2. Is COIN the graduate level of military hubris?
  3. COIN as future generations will see it (and as we should see it today).
  4. COIN – Now we see that it failed. But that was obvious before we started (when will we learn?)
  5. COIN, another example of our difficulty learning from history or experience.
  6. A look back at the madness that led us into our wars. How does this advice read 6 years later?

9 thoughts on “Why we lose wars so often. How we can win in the future.”

  1. F1R3&M4neuv3r

    Perhaps what the US needs is to lose a war totally, inorder to learn. Perhaps the question is not Why We Lose Wars but What have we become?

  2. Fuego&Maniobra

    Why dont we know how to lose?

    We need a training course for that too….

    Ashamed Lyrics
    Deer Tick

    I am the boy your mother wanted you to meet
    But I am broken and torn with halos at my feet
    And with your purest light, why don’t you shine on me
    Well, I should have been an angel
    But I’m too dumb to speak

    Now as she gets nearer, the visions get clearer
    I’m kneeling, weeping
    I will hold her dear
    Oh, If your eyes water
    You’ve got your favorite number to spin

    And oh
    What a crying shame, a crying shame
    What we became

    Murdered my throat, screaming bloody all night
    Hit him with a book and how he crumbles
    Oh, you should have seen the arches tumble
    They’re golden no more
    Now I’m smiling in my blood

    I’m caught in a whirlwind
    I’m going to heaven
    I’m standing on trial and it’s painted on canvas
    An eternal testament to how we are so animalistic

    And oh
    What a crying shame, a crying shame
    What we became

    I bow my head in the morning light and say goodnight
    I held her hand and I, I kissed her eyes
    Stumbled down the stairs and hang my self on high
    And I started for the town
    Lyin’ in the front yard, I died

  3. Fabius Maximus,

    “Let’s pick out battles. Fight where we must — where the stakes are high and we have reason to believe we can win.”

    This is the exact opposite of what we’ve been doing since 2001, and doubly so since Obama took over. It seems to me that our strategic goal is to engage on the peripheries of our “empire” where there is little risk to actually upset the delicate balances that exist.

    Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria are all pretty inessential to the functioning of the global economy or to our safety. We can blow them up and the blowback will stay abstract and non-existent for the vast majority of Americans. But, it gives the President toys to play with and the government freedom to do things in the name of defending the homeland and it gives the Generals plenty of cash.

    This sort of war is the most absurd sort of conflict, one which maintains the status quo. Therefore the stakes can never be high and we should not expect to win or lose because the point is to keep things as they are.

    PF Khans

  4. Gl0bal Gu3rrilas

    “Are you OK”
    “are you hurt?”
    “everyting is gonna be ok”
    (Off Dudy Swedish Police Officers caontaining a situation)


  5. You haven’t defined what winning or losing means. More importantly, you haven’t defined what it means to the people who start theses wars. Our leaders may not be define them the way you define them.

    1. Gloucon,

      First, losing is failure to achieve any significant benefit to the nation (it’s the common definition in military and political science). Second, the objectives for these wars were clearly set forth in US Policy statements — posted on this website (Goals and Benchmarks for our Iraq War). Third, as has been discussed extensively here, we all understand that our leaders might have “own goals” for the wars, involving costs to the nation but private benefits.

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