Is victory impossible in modern wars? Or just not possible for us?

Summary: Slowly America begins to absorb lessons from our fails in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet as with Vietnam we prefer not to see too deeply. Mark Kukis at aeon gives us another incisive analysis of modern war that misses the mark, and so sets us up for the next failed war.  {2nd of 2 wars.}

The Arch of the Victory in Genoa
The Arch of the Victory in Genoa

Recommended reading: “The myth of victory” by Mark Kukis at aeon

“War isn’t like it used to be. Victory is more elusive & a strong military doesn’t count as much.”

Mark Kukis knows this subject well, having covered our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the major media and author of Voices from Iraq: A People’s History, 2003-2009, and covered the Afghan and Iraq wars for Time, The New Republic and Salon. This fall he and Andrew Bacevich will work on an open online course, “War for the Greater Middle East”.

I agree in spirit with this brilliant article. But his analysis repeats the mistakes of the previous military reform movement that burned brightly but was proven ineffectual by our wars after 9/11. In that sense it’s similar to the also excellent article by James Fallows in January’s The Atlantic, as I described in this post, and later here. They are complex, academic in nature, unfocused, and obscure the important lessons. They’re guaranteed to have little effect.

Refusal to learn

Kukis begins, as those advocating reform usually do, by stating the problem: America’s refusal to recognize the changed nature of modern war (aka 4th generation war, non-trinitarian war).

How could the Taliban have bested the United States? A more uneven military contest is scarcely imaginable when you consider the state of the two factions on the eve of 9/11. Before the US invasion, the Taliban had an army of roughly 30,000. Taliban forces hardly qualified as a real army, though. They operated more like a decentralised militia scattered around a mountainous country, with few roads and no communications of any kind. They had no officers. A rotating crew of regional commanders oversaw garrisons around the country. Most fighters went unpaid except for the occasional handout from a commander before they went on leave.

In the US, meanwhile, armories bristled with sophisticated weaponry and equipment. {Etc, — we have lots of stuff, more and better stuff than anyone, anywhere, anytime.}

After this strong start he draws a quite fallacious conclusion, based on a strawman assumption.

But these momentary triumphs masked a deeper reality about modern conflict that troubled US pursuits from the beginning. Military victory in Iraq or Afghanistan was never, in fact, a real possibility. The very nature of war has changed so much in recent decades that military victory as we tend to imagine it, with winners and losers emerging after a fight with an unambiguous end, is utterly obsolete.

The Second World War shaped much of the way Americans still think about their country and about war: victory entailed utter destruction of the enemy and a new world afterward.

Since WWII the world has been shaped by decisive military victories. Most anti-colonial wars were victorious, producing a radically new map of the world: Algeria, Vietnam, Afghanistan — scores of victorious wars. Most insurgencies are defeated, even the most sophisticated and creative, such as the Tamil Tigers. North Vietnam conquered South Vietnam.

He then notes the disappearance of war among great powers (due to the development of nuclear weapons).

In truth, both Korea and Vietnam provided early examples of the difficulty military powers face in waging modern war. Both were, in essence, internal conflicts, and internal conflicts have become the new norm in modern war. {Long discussion follows about the rise of insurgencies since WWII.}

Kukis then drops into the weeds. At the end I suspect most readers are confused with this numbers blizzard. He does not say what factors distinguish the losers from the winners. Size of the war, types of participants, methods used? It’s a jumble.

In these internal, fragmented conflicts, victory is elusive for any party involved. From 1946 to 1989, for instance, there were 141 internal conflicts worldwide. Of those, 82 ended when one party achieved victory. From 1990 to 2005, there were 147 internal conflicts. Of those, only 20 ended with one faction legitimately claiming victory. Put another way, since 1990, less than 14% of internal conflicts produced a clear winner. About 20% produced a ceasefire. And about 50% simply persisted. Statistically, the odds of the US coming up a winner in a modern war are perhaps as low as one in seven.

Superpowers and hegemons are also winning less frequently these days than they once did. From 1900 to 1949, strong militaries fighting conventionally weaker forces won victories about 65% of the time. From 1950 to 1998, advantaged military powers claimed war victories only 45% of the time. In the first part of the 19th century, superior powers won wars almost 90% of the time.

The Modern military power, but doesn't bring victory
Modern military power doesn’t bring victory.

Making sense of these numbers

Kukis’ numbers give the impression that there must be quite a few European colonies in existence, resulting from their 45% victory rate. In fact there are none. Zero. The only victories in colonial wars were those where the foreign power granted independence to the colony, and helped the local elites in the colonial polity to defeat the insurgents — trading away sovereignty for influence in the new State (e.g., in Kenya, in Malaysia).

Countless governments have defeated insurgencies since Mao brought 4GW to maturity after WWII (since there’s no limit on what defines an insurgency), just as they did before Mao — although the methods he developed tilted the odds.  But the big lesson is that armies almost always lose once they become the leader in large-scale fighting amidst foreigners’ conflicts, a simple fact lost in Kukis’ blizzard of numbers. It’s the golden thread linking the scores of anti-colonial wars to the Soviets in Afghanistan, the US in Vietnam, Iran, and Afghanistan, and so many other wars.

It’s a lesson we do not want to see, yet must see if we are to break this pattern of wars.

Difficult Chess Decision


Kukis goes for the big conclusion: “In Washington DC, even the rare critic of US military actions invokes the myth of victory.” Military victory is not a myth. Not in the past, not now, perhaps not ever. With State to State wars among great powers become suicidal, other forms of war have grown under the shadow of nuclear weapons.

We wage these wars with a trinity of force –popular front militia, firepower, sweep and destroy missions — despite its repeated failure. We refuse to learn to win, but others have learned. Until we change our ways there will be victories, but they’ll go to our foes. We must learn different ways of war — to gain and hold the moral high ground, to boost our local allies’ legitimacy in addition to their ammo stocks (a major theme in the FM 3-24 COIN manual, which our leaders ignored), and through our allies to share in the home court advantage.

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.

For More Information

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

  1. RecommendedThe battle that mattered most to America: the Pentagon vs. Military Reformers. It’s over.
  2. How our military reached its current state, so only desperate reform can save us” by Doug Macgregor.
  3. Reforming the US Army: can be done, must be done” by Donald Vandergriff.
  4. Are we chickenhawks and so bear the responsibility for our lost wars since 9/11?
  5. Does America have the best military in the world?



11 thoughts on “Is victory impossible in modern wars? Or just not possible for us?”

  1. There is a time and place for everything. What is the right configuration of force in one situation will not be the ideal in another. The offensive line of the New England patriots should not be expected to do well against the starting line up of the Boston Celtics in a basketball game.

    Ukraine demonstrates that the armored brigade is still the most effective organization to fight in the circumstances faced by both parties in the Donbass. The air assault brigade would be the most effective combat organization for fighting in the greater Middle East, against either a force similar to ISIS or even the regular forces like those of Iran, Iraq, or Syria. Only massive carpet bombing (or nuclear weapons) could resolve anything on the battle front between the two Koreas.

    But, when you are trying to conquer and oppress a total population, it is necessary to spread far and wide and to embed your military forces in company-sized units within each small town or village, and build up and maintain an armed militia from the local indigenous people. Such organizations get to know their terrain and population and can be very good at suppressing dissent and rebellion as long as they remain focused on the local area.

    If you are going to fight an organized military adversary(believe me, the Taliban and ISIS are organized), you have to set out to “find ’em, fix ’em, and finish ’em”. Air power can help in finding them. To a limited extent it can slow their movement. But it can’t finish them off.

    If you want to pacify them and then to suppress a civilian population, you need to maintain garrisons in their midst. Pacification and suppression operations are interminable. We should recognize that there is not going to be anything like “victory”. But there must be maintained a certain ratio of our soldiers to local militia to general population. Otherwise, our forces will just be shifting from one spot to another, putting down the resistance.

    What it all boils down to, is the failure of our strategists to embrace “victory”, and their insistence that only entities who are compliant with our new world order should govern. Our country wants to linger indefinitely in these foreign lands. So we come up with things like “4G” warfare to justify our constant involvement. If you want to avoid quagmires, then avoid civil wars. Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen…these are all civil wars into which we have interjected ourselves. Even in Ukraine -especially Ukraine- we have meddled where it should be none of our affair, unless of course, we think the whole world is our playground.

    1. Arthur,

      “Ukraine demonstrates that the armored brigade is still the most effective organization to fight in the circumstances faced by both parties in the Donbass.”

      I doubt that’s true.

      “The air assault brigade would be the most effective combat organization for fighting in the greater Middle East, against either a force similar to ISIS or even the regular forces like those of Iran, Iraq, or Syria.”

      Sixty years of history — scores of defeats by conventional foreign armies fighting local insurgencies — shows that to be quite false.

  2. So regarding ISIS and the question of Victory, and how to share that ‘home court advantage’. This is not a question of SOF, armored, airborne, or any other tactical organizational or technique. Two ongoing current issues permeate the issue of ISIS. The Shia government in Iraq, and the issue of the Syrian War. These have created the vacuum which ISIS exploits. Any intervention focused solely on ‘defeating ISIS’ without consideration for these conditions, will fail. Supposing the possibility of a significant tactical defeat of ISIS by a western led coalition…failure to address these other issues will only enable the subsequent rise of an ISIS-type entity again.

    Always easy to identify a problem…much more difficult is what to do.
    1. Recognize that ISIS is a response to a local Sunni crisis in Iraq and western Syria.
    2. Recognize that re-establishing control of Al-Anbar by the Shia dominated Iraqi Government is not a viable or effective long term goal. (May as well tell the state of Texas it is now under receivership managed by California and New York).
    3. Recognize that Iraqi Kurdistan is worth full support as a sovereign entity.
    4. Recognize that Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraqi Shiastan, and Iraqi Sunnistan are all viable, coexisting Iraqi entities. Support them individually. Encourage mutually beneficial policies, but it is time to allow these entities, and their tribal constituencies, to thrive. The efforts put into balancing the Iraqi government are, at best, weakening the potential strength for Kurdistan and Iraqi Shiastan…Iraqi Sunnistan is already a gutted entity. Names mean something…Kurdiraq, Shiaraq, Sunniraq. Shia Iraq may enjoy support from Iran…but there is no more reason to believe that shared religion makes them willing to wholesale concede their sovereignty to Iran than there is reason to believe Canada will give its sovereignty to the United States. Instead of worrying about the Iranian boogeyman in the closet…who’s efforts to influence will exist regardless of single weak Iraq or regional Iraqs…worry about the real threat to local stability…the inability and unwillingness of Shia and Sunni Iraqi’s to share power in the same government structure.
    5. Recognize that Hafez Al-Asad is not going anywhere without external intervention. He seems to have consolidated his power where he is. So, a two state Syria…Syria and Assyria (Free Syria) becomes the goal. Support Assyria as the western bulwark against ISIS.
    6. Support Kurdiraq and Sunniraq against ISIS. Shiaraq stays out of it, whether through the professional Army or militias. This gives the Sunnis buy in to controlling their own destiny and disrupts the draw of ISIS as the Sunni caliphate to counter the Shia dominance of Iraq. This creates national draws for Arabs that play upon real fault lines, while still contributing to political stability.
    7. The real test of National Will, Foreign Policy, and vision for the United States will be the saber rattling from Turkey and Iran over a sovereign Kurdistan. However, this is assuaged in the real sense by the establishment of Sunni and Shia states. It is high time to perform some diplomatic aikido and turn this pressure point for the resolution of Iraq into an advantage. It has been played upon for too long because we have been unwilling to push the issue of Kurdistan. Instead of pushing, let us pull them, with us, and use their weight against them. The situation has changed…let us recognize it and use it to our advantage.
    8. The spectre of continued jihadis traveling through the region, Iranian supported groups, terrorism, etc… worse continues as now, but facing real political stabilization in Iraq. At best….local grievances elsewhere remain local.
    9. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iran, Egypt, Lebanon and the others. All watch…complain…recommend…threaten…but deal with the change in policy. We want them all to love us and they play on that, always hoping at the others expense. They know we want to influence their policy to our advantage….and we give them a wild card to use over us. They know ISIS is not a threat to them….they have local control in their countries / territory. ISIS may have local sympathizers, but the situation that facilitates ISIS in Iraq and western Syria is not their local situation. Hamas and Hezballah among other Semi Governmental Groups do not want to share power or join ISIS. They will not form a coalition or do more than speak against the realization of Iraq as 3 regions. Who will go to war to prevent the regionalization? No one. They will be surprised they were able to play us for so long.
    10. We have a blueprint for doing this….we did not try to force the former Yugoslavia together….we instituted a real peace among the pieces. I say Iraq may be simpler, because the pieces of Iraq, while squabbling, are not in a protracted hot war with each other. They have been making feeble attempts to power share with extensive American and western support…by supporting the regionalization of Iraq, we capitalize on whatever value lingers in our prior efforts. It will be much easier for governments of Iraq’s regions to cooperate, if they want, then for individuals in one government that is dominated by one group (that has little political incentive to share with the others). I offer the notion that the regional differences in Iraq are closer to the regional differences between Texas, Oklahoma, and Mexico. We would not propose including the three entities under one unified government to solve those differences…in fact that would politically weaken the stable political structure of each.

    So, there it is…my proposed plan for confronting ISIS. It is not easy…it will require unified efforts between the Department of State, Department of Defense, NATO, the UN, NGOs, etc. But it is workable, and to those who say it is not…I say look at the last ten years of Iraq on the ground. It is reality. That is the strength of this plan; it captures existing local solutions to challenge existing local problems of governance. That gains us home court advantages. This is the strategy the Pentagon should be advocating for Victory.

    1. A few corrections. I should, of course, have properly identified the President of Syria as Bashar as-Assad. Also, ISIS is, of course, in large part a response to a Sunni Crisis in western Iraq and eastern Syria (I wrote, in error, western Syria). Finally, while I mention Anbar province…I recognize that Anbar is not the only primarily Sunni province in Iraq, nor is it the only area in which ISIS operates, to include the major city of Mosul.

    2. I think it comes more down to a failure of actually appreciating what ‘war’ means now rather than any specific strategy or tactic. The issue with ISIS and its allied groups is that it in 4g war fashion, are transcending traditional notions of state borders and national identity. They are offering something that loyalty to a country or even a decent job in a modern capitalist economy can never give; meaning and identity.

      They are offering a 20 something youth the chance to be part of world changing history, part of an epic struggle of good vs evil where God himself is on your side and where death only means a greater honor and reward than what can be experienced on this earth. This is especially appealing to some kid in Iraq or Syria that does not have a job or prospects for a family, but it is just as appealing if not more in some ways for the kid who may have a job in London, but where that job means he is just an alienated cog in a machine and has no true responsibility or purpose other than getting a paycheck.

      There is simply no response a conventional military or national security establishment can offer to that situation. There is no enemy to fight or army to destroy, we can eliminate ISIS as a military force today and face an even more radical force and brutal terror attacks tomorrow. Its too late now even to just abandon and contain the Middle East, letting them figure out the future of their own countries and ethnic or religious conflicts. We can pull out all we have, and that might give us some respite, but we have too many potential recruits here at home and the ideology is no longer just about kicking the US out of holy places or fighting against Israel. I’m afraid our failed policies have created a transnational monster who’s appetites grow larger every day.

      I’m afraid that we need to start fixing our respective countries and start moving ourselves back in some sort of identity or sense of shared destiny. Local communities need to once again flourish and young people need to be given a definite place in society and purpose for their lives, with jobs that actually mean something and families that can ground them in the concrete reality of love for others rather than unending pursuit of transitory pleasures.

      We think we are fighting against some deranged lunatic group, but we are fighting against much more than that, we are fighting against the decay of our society and the exhaustion of our wealth and liberties so that a few plutocrats can gain some temporary benefit.

  3. FM’s quibbles do seem to obscure the essential issue that large-scale land wars appear to have permanently ended, for reasons discussed in Martin van Creveld’s book The Transformation of War. This is only partly due to nuclear weaponry. As van Creveld points out, a parallel development in the exponentially increasing cost + lethality of conventional weaponry renders even ordinary weapons systems increasingly unaffordable and horrifically destructive. Fuel-air munitions, for example, produce blast radii and overpressures comparable to low-yield nuclear weapons, but with conventional explosives. Because of this exponential increase in lethality + cost, even the wealthiest nations find themselves unable to deploy very many advanced weapons systems, leading to a death spiral of ever more expensive and ever fewer yet much more deadly weapons. This leads to situations like the Falklands War, where both combatants arguably lost because what they gained amounted to so little by comparison of the tremendous cost of the war to both sides.
    I believe what FM is missing here is the underlying point that military conflict at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century is giving way to economic conflict as the main flash points between civilizations.

    1. Thomas,

      “FM’s quibbles do seem to obscure the essential issue that large-scale land wars appear to have permanently ended,”

      Did you read the post? “He {MvC} then notes the disappearance of war among great powers (due to the development of nuclear weapons).” And in the conclusion: “With State to State wars among great powers become suicidal, other forms of war have grown under the shadow of nuclear weapons.”

    1. Winston,

      It’s fashionable to use “addiction” in all sorts of inappropriate contexts, but saying we’re “addicted to war” is imo going to far. We’re not in any rational sense of the word. The US support for these wars requires massive propaganda campaigns, each of which since 9/11 has proven less effective.

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

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

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