Let’s try a defensive strategy in America’s wars, and win.

Summary: So many posts here describe how we are losing. Since we’ve forgotten, I’m reposting explanations of why and how we are losing — and how we can win in the age when 4th generation warfare (4GW) is the dominant mode of war. Step one: adopt a rational grand strategy. The original version was posted in June 2008. Since we have learned nothing since then, it is as true now as then.

“We should cultivate a reluctance “to travel a long distance to kill foreigners at great expense” unless we have great need.”
— Paraphrase of a post by Jim Henley.

World in the palm of my hand
Madness: we don’t hold the world in our hand.



  1. Can America do a grand strategy?
  2. First, lose the baggage in our minds.
  3. Second, some simple recommendations.
  4. Make more friends and fewer enemies.
  5. Don’t gamble. Adopt slow but sure tactics.
  6. Survive until we win.
  7. More about a defensive strategy for America.
  8. For more information.

(1)  Can America do a grand strategy?

“The {Athenian} masses voted …to kill every adult male citizen of Mytilene… to spare every adult male citizen of Mytilene… to put Alkibiades in charge of the Sicilian expedition… to put Nikias in charge of the Sicilian expedition. The Athenian demos voted for *everybody* at different times.”

History as Tragedy: The Peloponnesian War“. Brad DeLong, Professor of Economics at Berkeley.

Perhaps American cannot successfully implement large and complex geopolitical strategies, as discussed in The Myth of Grand Strategy. Perhaps this is a weakness inherent to democracies. Athens also had difficulty executing complex long-term plans, even when facing the risk of catastrophic defeat.

Athens’ leaders rose through a small number of career paths, none of which selected for strategic skills. Just like America’s elected leaders.

  1. We elect leaders who successfully market themselves using mass media. This requires a combination of pretty faces, excellent speaking skills, celebrity status, wealth, and ability to manage simple messages.
  2. Politicos often appoint workers in their campaigns to high offices, rewarding skillful fundraising and marketing (e.g., creating slogans, assembling a crowd at a suburban mall on a Saturday morning).
  3. Politicos often appoint professionals (i.e., experts) to high office following careers of good networking and avoiding mistakes. Or they appoint academics with good networking with no history of making decisions (who therefore made no mistakes).

Governments built with such people often find rational planning and competent execution to be beyond its abilities. This political structures that worked for American during the 19th century era, an era of small government, have not worked as well for us during the 20th century. The challenges of the 21st century might be even greater, hence the need to either reform our government or change our approach to geopolitics. Since the former is so difficult, let’s try the latter.


(2)   First, lose the baggage in our minds

Perhaps our failures in the War on Terror (WoT) result not from our foes’ genius but our confusion. We believe in universal human rights. This Western philosophy makes it difficult to respect other cultures, whose people who oddly believe that theirs are highest values. This reduces our ability to work with them and often makes conflict more likely.

Most Americans also believe in multiculturalism (i.e., all cultures are equally high). Cognitive dissonance between these incompatible beliefs explains much of America’s inability to successfully play geopolitics. We used George Orwell’s Animal Farm to create a synthesis of these clashing ideals: “all cultures are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

Strategy as chess
One of these things is not like the others

(3)  Second, let’s try a simple strategy

“Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”
— From Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War.

Perhaps we should rely on simple plans, especially ones that require little subtly and understanding of other societies. Here are four simple recommendations for a Grand Strategy.

  1. Make many friends.
  2. Don’t make new enemies or increase their cohesion.
  3. Don’t gamble. Adopt slow but sure tactics.
  4. Survive until we win.

(4)  Make more friends and fewer enemies.

We should strengthen our friends and weaken our enemies.

With respect to others … we should:

  1. Respect their culture and achievements, show them we bear them no harm and help them adjust to an unfolding world, as well as provide additional benefits and more favorable treatment for those who support our philosophy and way of doing things, yet
  2. Demonstrate that we neither tolerate nor support those ideas and interactions that undermine or work against our culture and our philosophy hence our interests and fitness to cope with a changing world.

— From chart 57 of “The Strategic Game of ? and ?” by John Boyd (Colonel, USAF), 1987.

Great regional powers are emerging, or re-emerging. We lack the strength to breat them all, like a cop eying new gangs entering the neighborhood. Let’s embrace them as part of the human pageant rather than disdainfully judging them by our ideas — and picking fights if they don’t bow.

Multiculturalism might work well in this new world (even if it is disastrous as a domestic policy). Certainly better than our meddling in the affairs of others. The people of the Middle East see us as foreign infidels sending drones to kill insurgents and civilians. This get the same response as Skynet’s flying drones in The Terminator: hatred, creating more and highly motivated foes. It’s a formula for disaster.

Instead America could focus on building alliances and minimizing conflicts with our enemies. We need not applaud aspects of other societies that we consider wrong or evil, but should not presume that Americans stride the planet as gods. Leave it to the non-governmental organizations to carry the human rights gospel (literally translated as “good news”) across the world.  Let’s mind our own business, and help others when asked.

“Interaction permits vitality and growth while isolation leads to decay and disintegration.”
— From chart 29 of “The Strategic Game of ? and ?” by John Boyd (Colonel, USAF), 1987.


(5)  Don’t gamble. Adopt slow but sure tactics

For as long as he {Pericles} was at the head of the state during the peace, he pursued a moderate and conservative policy; and in his time its greatness was at its height. When the war broke out, here also he seems to have rightly gauged the power of his country. He outlived its commencement two years and six months, and the correctness of his previsions respecting it became better known by his death. He told them to wait quietly, to pay attention to their marine, to attempt no new conquests, and to expose the city to no hazards during the war, and doing this, promised them a favourable result. …

What they did was the very contrary, allowing private ambitions and private interests, in matters apparently quite foreign to the war, to lead them into projects unjust both to themselves and to their allies — projects whose success would only conduce to the honour and advantage of private persons, and whose failure entailed certain disaster on the country in the war.

— Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Book Two.

We can help the people of other states through research, free trade, and charity. We can give them military aid and training. We can respond when attacked, but leave nation-building to others. Wars are gambles. Today we take these risks unnecessarily, even recklessly. Perhaps it is time to return to the geopolitical strategy of our Founders. The following is as true today as it was when written:

I have always given it as my decided opinion that no nation has a right to intermeddle in the internal concerns of another; that every one had a right to form and adopt whatever government they liked best to live under themselves; and that if this country could, consistent with its engagements, maintain a strict neutrality and thereby preserve peace, it was bound to do so by motives of policy, interest, and every other consideration.

— George Washington in a letter to James Monroe, 25 August 1796.

(6)  Survive until we win

“My vision of the course of the Arab war was still purblind. I had not seen that the preaching was victory and the fighting a delusion.”
— From T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Chapter 30.

How to survive — even prosper — in the 21st century? Let’s work to build the best possible America. That does not mean autarky. We can help others with advice and charity, or help others with their wars.

The home court advantage is decisive in 4GW. The next posts describe how defense can win for us at lower cost in money and blood than our endless foreign wars. That means having a strong homeland security apparatus, excellent global intelligence about our potential enemies, and an offensive capability (used when needed). Time is our greatest ally, which is why you should bet on the West to win the clash of civilizations.

What to do with rogue nations? Developing global diplomatic mechanisms to punish them should be our primary foreign policy goal in the 21st century. Containment won the Cold War but more proactive methods are needed our ever-shrinking world.

What about non-state actors, perhaps the most serious 4GW threat in this century. Our failures in the WoT show that conventional warfare is ineffective against them. Let’s deal with insurgents as criminals, as the Founders provided for in Article One Section 8 of the Constitution. That’s how pirates were legally hung high when caught.

“One or two of them, perhaps, it would be wiser to kill without malice in a friendly and frank manner; for there are bipeds, just as there are quadrupeds, who are too dangerous to be left unchained and unmuzzled; and these cannot fairly expect to have other men’s lives wasted in the work of watching them.”

— From George Bernard Shaw’s “Man and Superman” (1903).

(7) More about a defensive strategy for America

This is just the introduction. See these posts for a detailed explanation of alternative geopolitical strategy for America. These posts give the revolutionary insights needed to win, even survive, in this new era.

  1. Why the West loses so many wars, and how we can learn to win — about the two kinds of insurgencies (we’re fighting the kind we can’t win).
  2. The Cult of the offense returns: why we’re losing the long war, & how to win.
  3. Darwin explains the futility of killing insurgents. It makes them more effective.
  4. Will we repeat our mistakes in the Middle East & lose, or play defense & win? — Ignore the book. This tells you how to eat soup with a knife. That’s how to win playing defense.
  5. How I learned to stop worrying and love Fourth Generation War. We can win at this game. — Contrasting offense and defensive strategies.
  6. Handicapping the clash of civilizations: bet on the West to win big.

Also see William Lind’s “Strategic Defense Initiative”! For an explanation of what we’re doing now, see What is America’s geopolitical strategy? (Spoiler: it’s quite mad.)

(8) For More Information — my best posts and the best book

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about our long war, and all posts about Islam, and especially — my best posts about the long war…

  1. The US Army brings us back to the future, returning to WWI’s “cult of the offense”
  2. How many troops would it take to win in Afghanistan? — Spoiler: lots. From July 2009.
  3. How many generals would Lincoln have fired to win in Iraq & Afghanistan?
  4. Business 101 tells us what to expect next from jihadists: good news for them, bad for us.
  5. Was 9/11 the most effective single military operation in the history of the world?
  6. Commemorate the 15th anniversary of 9/11 by understanding what followed.

One of the best explanations of our Long War, written in 1991.

Transformation of War
Available at Amazon.

The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz is one of Martin van Creveld’s greatest works. It explains the dynamics of the War On Terror. Which is amazing since it was written in 1991. History would have gone differently if our military leaders had acted on his insights. They heard him. He was and is a frequent speaker at conferences. His books are on major military reading lists. For example, in past years 3 of his books have been on USMC’s Professional Reading List (the 2017 list has one: The Changing Face of War: Combat from the Marne to Iraq). They just did not listen.

Here is the publisher’s description of The Transformation of War.

“At a time when unprecedented change in international affairs is forcing governments, citizens, and armed forces everywhere to re-assess the question of whether military solutions to political problems are possible any longer, Martin van Creveld has written an audacious searching examination of the nature of war and of its radical transformation in our own time.

“For 200 years, military theory and strategy have been guided by the Clausewitzian assumption that war is rational—a reflection of national interest and an extension of politics by other means. However, van Creveld argues, the overwhelming pattern of conflict in the post-1945 world no longer yields fully to rational analysis. In fact, strategic planning based on such calculations is, and will continue to be, unrelated to current realities.

“Small-scale military eruptions around the globe have demonstrated new forms of warfare with a different cast of characters — guerilla armies, terrorists, and bandits — pursuing diverse goals by violent means with the most primitive to the most sophisticated weapons. Although these warriors and their tactics testify to the end of conventional war as we’ve known it, the public and the military in the developed world continue to contemplate organized violence as conflict between the super powers.

“At this moment, armed conflicts of the type van Creveld describes are occurring throughout the world. From Lebanon to Cambodia, from Sri Lanka and the Philippines to El Salvador, the Persian Gulf, and the strife-torn nations of Eastern Europe, violent confrontations confirm a new model of warfare in which tribal, ethnic, and religious factions do battle without high-tech weapons or state-supported armies and resources. This low-intensity conflict challenges existing distinctions between civilian and solder, individual crime and organized violence, terrorism and war. In the present global atmosphere, practices that for three centuries have been considered uncivilized, such as capturing civilians or even entire communities for ransom, have begun to reappear.

“Pursuing bold and provocative paths of inquiry, van Creveld posits the inadequacies of our most basic ideas as to who fights wars and why and broaches the inevitability of man’s need to “play” at war. In turn brilliant and infuriating, this challenge to our thinking and planning current and future military encounters is one of the most important books on war we are likely to read in our lifetime.”

17 thoughts on “Let’s try a defensive strategy in America’s wars, and win.”

  1. FM-

    One of your best posts. For some context of Washington’s letter to Madison, we should probably consider the Citizen Genet Affair. At this time, Jefferson and Madison were still seduced by the philosophical underpinnings of the French Revolution without understanding the violence / anarchy initiated throughout that land.

    Citizen Genet Affair

    “On May 16, 1793 Henry Knox, Secretary of War under George Washington, sent a memorandum to the President advising him on how to deal with a situation involving captured British ships being brought into American ports, refitted as French ships, and partially manned by American citizens all under the orders of the French Ambassador Charles Genet. As a self-proclaimed neutral nation in the war between France and Britain, America could not withhold the ships, Knox argued, as it would clearly show favoritism for the French.

    This incident was the central element of what is referred to as the Citizen Genet affair. Genet had been sent to the United States of America to gather support for the French regime in their war against Britain. Arriving in April, at the port of Charleston, South Carolina, he was met with a great welcome. Ambassadors usually present themselves directly to the Head of State, but Genet took his time stopping to gather support along the way. When he did finally present himself in the Capital, he was welcomed by Thomas Jefferson as President Washington was gone at the time.

    Genet refused to listen to the administration when it repeatedly asked him to stop gathering support for France and to stop encouraging American citizens to fight Spain, an ally of Britain, in the Spanish held territory of Florida. His work culminated with the outfitting of British ships for French use and partially manning them with American citizens. Washington and his cabinet, including Knox, demanded his recall. Circumstances had changed, however, in France and the regime which had commissioned Genet was no longer in power.

    Knowing that Genet would most likely meet his end if he returned to France, he was allowed to stay in America although no longer as one representing France. He married, settled down, and lived out his life in peace.”


    1. Mike,

      Thank you for the kind words. This is the most poorly written in the series, due to it complexity — laying the foundation for the series — and my limited time to prepare it. I am glad the inherent power of the concept overcame my deficiencies in explaining it.

      Thank you for the note about the Citizen Genet affair. Given our debt to France for their essential help during the Revolution — both monetary and moral — that was a difficult decision for Washington to make. As always, he took the hard but correct path.

  2. FM, I agree with Mike, this is one of your best posts.

    One typo: “Leave it to the non-governmental organizations carry the human rights gospel” should be: “Leave it to the non-governmental organizations TO carry the human rights gospel”

    Something you’ve mentioned in prior articles but probably didn’t have room to mention is that the non-essential wars fought under the umbrella of the War on Terror has taught our enemies a great deal about the best methods to defeat us. This is not in the long-term interests of the US.

  3. For a start, learn not to take sides in civil wars, especially do not commit ground troops.

    Regime change is a code-word for doing just that. But our leaders just cannot see far enough ahead to know which side to support or to know not to support either side.

    1. Frederick,

      I find it amazing that even our best military officers conflate the two kinds of insurgencies: local government usually defeat insurgents, foreign armies almost never defeat insurgents. This has been shown by many studies — from the magisterial RAND to Harvard PhD dissertations. It’s a truth our military refuses to see.

      I first explained this in January 2007. Here is a clearer explanation: Why the West loses so many wars, and how we can learn to win. We doomed to consistent failure in our wars unless we see this.

  4. FM,

    I think of last year’s Superbowl. I also recall my little High School. Our coaches preached Defence, Defence, Defence wins Championships. Get 4 yards on all Offensive plays and we win Championships.

    The 6 years I was a student, we were State Champs. We beat 4A teams when we were 2 and 3A in non conference.

    So, I should never have thought the way I did about “going over there and stomp their behinds!

    Now after years of reading and studying, my simple, better educated mind deeply understands the outline of your post. So later tonight I’ll study.

    By the way, I look forward to your review of the latest King Kong.

    Mike, thanks for history lesson!

    1. Longtrail,

      I saw the new King Kong in the theater. I don’t know what to make of it. I plan to watch it again on Netflix. Maybe it will be clearer.

      The original film was a simple story. This one seems less so. The incompetent mad killer colonel. The unscrupulous scientists. The nobel competent woman. All stock characters in modern Hollywood. Is the film just a roller coaster ride (like Independence Day II)?

  5. It’s geared for teens by Hollywood, PG13 and Hollywood has an agenda. I saw lessons and parallels that are over those kids’ heads. For instance the obvious Kong/Cong.

    The other was the history of the island and Kong considered a god by the natives because he’s their savior and protector. Kong = MIC. In plot MIC/Kong definitely not a waste or overkill.

    The understory from the pilot, whose enemy became his best friend was good. The stupid Colonel who was blind with vengeance. And the “Good Guys” were saved and achieved their goals. The journalist got the story, the Brit’s got the girl and it appeared the pilot’s wife waited. Yay Hollywood!

    I figured you noticed some 4GW lessons in the movie.

    I watched it twice. Waited for RedBox so I could rewind and examine closely. I won’t go to a theatre and pay 5 times as much to get my eardrums blown out. I shall not enrich those hedonistic socialists of the movie industry.

  6. Can you fix the link to :
    Also see William Lind’s “Strategic Defense Initiative”!

    It leads to “dni.net”

  7. You are on the money with using Boyd as a blueprint. The problem is, are there any third generation disciples of Boyd out there in positions of influence? We could use a new fighter mafia out there right now among other things.

    1. AC,

      Good question. So far as I know, not at senior levels. There are rumors of some in the USMC, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

      The military operates in one respect like science as described by Thomas Kuhn. At any time there is a paradigm. Everybody follows it except those on the fringe. It cannot be disproved, only replaced. There are very powerful political reasons why the ideas of 4GW, Boyd, Martin van Creveld, defensive strategies, etc are not adopted.

      There has been lots of discussion about ways to change this. I plan to write about this, explaining why none of the usual hopes have any basis in reality.

  8. So what, in your opinion, would be the trigger to cause a paradigm shift? Hopefully that change comes before Boyd’s professional children die off or worse.

    1. BAT,

      “we unburden ourselves of belief in universal human rights.”

      How do you suggest we reconcile the conflict with multiculturalism? We consider our concept of “universal right” to be superior to other nation’s view of what are the highest values. The result has the stench of hypocrisy. As I said…

      We used George Orwell’s Animal Farm to create a synthesis of these clashing ideals: “all cultures are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

      I suggest we lose the hypocrisy. Of the two, multiculturalism makes good foreign affairs easier. On the other hand, we can believe our philosophy is superior to everybody else’s without being so pushy and sanctimonious about it. Much of China’s success is other nations’ relief at finding a banking and trading partner who doesn’t push them to adopt foreign values.

      Life is about choices.

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