A powerful new article shows why we lose so many wars: FAILure to learn

Summary:  Slowly America begins to come to grips with its defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan, as experts provide simple easy explanations. Here we look at the 3rd such major article, a demonstration that the main lesson of our defeats is that we refuse to learn from them. Eyes tightly closed we stumble onto a rough road to the future.   {2nd of 2 wars.}

The Right Way to Lose a War
Available at Amazon.

 

 “Why Has America Stopped Winning Wars?

by Dominic Tierney
(Assoc Prof of political science, Swarthmore)
Excerpt from his new book

“Since 1945, the United States has experienced little except military stalemate and loss — precisely because it’s a superpower in a more peaceful world.”

Prof Tierney vividly demonstrates one reason America keeps losing: our US-centric view of the world. It’s all about us. As with health care and other public policy issues, we have little interest in the experience of other nations — and so draw stunningly bad conclusions on our little history.

Why does the United States struggle in war? How can it resolve a failing conflict? Can America return to victory? Today, these are critical questions because we live in an age of unwinnable conflicts, where decisive triumph has proved to be a pipe dream.

We can’t win, so obviously nobody can win. This displays an amazing blindness to history. The post-WWII era of anti-colonial wars ended in 1992 (i.e., Afghanistan vs. the USSR) with a series of decisive wins by local peoples over foreign armies. It’s been an age of victory parades, not unwinnable conflicts.

And then, all of a sudden, the United States stopped winning major wars. The golden age faded into the past, and a new dark age of U.S. warfare emerged. Since 1945, Americans have experienced little except military frustration, stalemate, and loss.

This drastically misunderstands the situation, but illustrates the US-centric world view which so hobbles US foreign policy. We are not in a dark age of “US warfare”. Armies of developed nations and armies of emerging nations have all ventured to foreign lands to crush insurgencies — and most suffered defeat. This “dark age” began when Mao brought 4th generation warfare (4GW) to maturity after WWII. Since then the odds have shifted towards the insurgents.

Transformation of War
A more useful guide. Available at Amazon.

Local governments still usually defeat insurgents, but local insurgents usually win once foreign armies take a leading role. They have the  fighting with the home court advantage (e.g., knowledge of the local language and culture; Tierney mentions this). See the For More Information section for studies about this record.

“Since 1945, the United States has experienced little except military stalemate and loss — precisely because it’s a superpower in a more peaceful world.”

No, that’s not why we lose.  It’s the fourth generation of modern warfare, with its own characteristics. We will continue to lose until we think more seriously about how to wage it. That means studying the history of all post-WWII conflicts. We must learn how to pick the conflicts worth our involvement (high stakes, with acceptable odds of victory), and learn what tools (e.g., aid, training, combat forces) work best in various kinds of conflicts. I see little evidence we have begun this process.

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

Pat Lang (Colonel, Special Forces, retired) writes a powerful description of the US Army’s diminished interest in the kind of local knowledge that winning these wars requires.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about military theory, especially these about the history of foreign armies fighting insurgencies since WWII …

11 thoughts on “A powerful new article shows why we lose so many wars: FAILure to learn

  1. Like a moth to a fire, I keep coming back with this theme: We don’t win wars because America’s leadership does not want to win them. Rather, we want interminable low-intensity conflicts, through which we frustrate the aspirations of people whose politics, culture and morals make us feel uncomfortable. “Nation Building”, “Regime Change”, “Decapitation/Targeted Assassination”: these are not strategies designed to win wars but rather to subjugate people and to control foreign territory.

    Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Syria are all examples of how we use just enough force to really mess things up and to make us the “indispensable nation”.

    In the case of Korea and Vietnam, our political leadership somehow felt that going for victory would draw us into a world (nuclear) war with the Russians. In the Korean war, all Truman had to do was order a halt once our forces had seized all of the Korean peninsula. That’s all the Communist Chinese wanted: assurance that we would not threaten their borders.

    In Vietnam, had LBJ applied the same strategy in 1967 as Nixon did in 1972, the war would have ended before Tet’68. The ports were mined. The country was blockaded, and cut off from China. Then he began B-52 carpet bombing of all Hanoi, Haiphong, and the Red River Valley. 11 days! in November 1972, and North Vietnam cried “uncle”! (And then Nixon gave the victory away, by calling off the dogs of war without forcing the total evacuation of all NVA forces from South Vietnam and Cambodia.)

    We won’t have victory, if victory is loosely defined as some kind of political outcome, especially if we expect to win the hearts and minds of the people, whom we subjected to war’s destruction and suffering.

    1. Arthur,

      You make exactly the same mistake at Tierney: you draw conclusions based only on our wars — ignoring the scores of similar wars since WWII by others. They were waged with extreme intensity — sometimes to the extent that the home regime collapsed (France from the defeat in Algeria).

  2. I have a OT question. Do you think that in modern warfare the killing effectiveness of men and women became equal as a result of gunpowder?

    Or are women still less effective than men in overall combat?

    1. infowarrior,

      That’s off-topic, but a fascinating and important question. People come here for reliable and definitive answers to such questions, so I will rise to the challenge. I don’t know. Here’s an explanation of why.

      (1) PRO women in combat: Why not open all jobs to women? That would mean screening out women and men together on the basis of their physical and mental characteristics. Women might be more than half of fighter “jocks” due to their faster reaction time, but less than 10% of infantry.

      (2) Against women in combat: Adding women to combat units might weaken small unit cohesion, something much more important than individual’s “killing effectiveness”.

      Rebuttal to the “con”: But that’s just a guess. The long history of women fighting in unconventional forces suggests otherwise, but I’ve seen no in-depth studies of this (there are probably some out there). Israel’s experience also suggests otherwise — with women as fighter pilots, field intelligence, artillery and the two co-ed border patrol battalions (the Caracal and the Lions of Jordan).

      If integrated units don’t work well, that does not mean that women should not be in combat, but that women should be in gender-segregated units.

      (3) Other than the purely utilitarian logic, there is the more important cultural logic. How will people react to large numbers of women coming home as cripples and in body bags?

      (4) Economic logic: How expensive are women troops compared to men? I’ve seen no studies about this. As usual when discussing vital issues in New America, we quickly hit facts we don’t want to see. It’s often said that its’ easier to get the nuclear launch codes from the Presidential “football” then data on disability for women (including pregnancy-related). My guess is that their rates are much higher. Disability benefits are paid for up to 45 years, and quickly add up to real money.

    2. ”If integrated units don’t work well, that does not mean that women should not be in combat, but that women should be in gender-segregated units.”

      What brought this on is the apparent ability of the mixed sex units of the YPG/YPJ units to be able to capitalize on the airstrikes by the US. But their capabilities outside their ethnic enclaves remains to be seen.

      ”(4) Economic logic: How expensive are women troops compared to men? I’ve seen no studies about this. As usual when discussing vital issues in New America, we quickly hit facts we don’t want to see. It’s often said that its’ easier to get the nuclear launch codes from the Presidential “football” then data on disability for women (including pregnancy-related). My guess is that their rates are much higher. Disability benefits are paid for up to 45 years, and quickly add up to real money.”

      It will be interesting to see. Considering the current case study that the Syrian Kurds can make.

      ”(3) Other than the purely utilitarian logic, there is the more important cultural logic. How will people react to large numbers of women coming home as cripples and in body bags?”

      Again ideological training on sexual equality seems to be have paid off for now.

      All in all though there is still the fact that women make up the limiting factor of reproduction and that risking women in war will inevitably result in reduced ability for the population to recover from war as well as preventing much future growth. And battlefield trauma possibly hindering birthing and raising up children.

      There may be other good reasons historical populations restricted women from war other than their obvious physical inferiority in hand to hand combat.

    3. infowar,

      I agree about the reasons in the past for keeping women out of the front lines. War was physical and dangerous. Loss of women could defeat a nation in the ultimate contest of demographics that so often decided the fate of peoples. Imagine if Russia had lost more women in WWII, in addition to a full generation of men?

      I don’t know how all that applies to today. Only a small fraction of people in the armed forces fight on the front lines. We have too many people by most metrics. It’s all unknowns.

    4. ”I don’t know how all that applies to today.”

      Different dynamics may apply today. But it seems that this women on the frontlines thing seems to be the result of core premise of leftism. Which is egalitarianism. Which is fallacious in its claim that equality is justice and justice is equality.

      Hence even if people are different the betters are cut down to size in order to achieve equality.

    5. infowar,

      I think you are overcomplicating the situation with all that ideology. The default position imo is that they should be treated as men unless there are countervailing reasons. Women, like Blacks and gays, so far have integrated almost fully into the military with few problems — despite the confident forecasts of certain doom if that were attempted.

      What is the reason to keep women off the front lines?

    6. I think I was referring to the YPG/YPJ reasons for appointing women in the 1st place in frontline combat

      ”The default position imo is that they should be treated as men unless there are countervailing reasons. Women, like Blacks and gays, so far have integrated almost fully into the military with few problems ”

      Agreed considering that technology acts as a force multiplier. And considering mechanization(Like the invention of exoskeletons) even disabled people may be able to fight. And parts of war is no longer conducted with great risk to the machine operator who can operate drones from the safety of his/her room.

      ”despite the confident forecasts of certain doom if that were attempted.”

      Weaknesses in systems do not often cause collapse on their own but such weaknesses can be exposed given sufficient pressures.

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