Fabius Maximus website

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

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.

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.


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?