Why does the US field the best soldiers but lose so often?

Summary: As we begin another cycle of wars, we owe it to ourselves and our soldiers to ask the big question: Why do the best soldiers in the world keep losing? Here is an answer, stark and contrarian – but supported by overwhelming evidence. Failure to learn to do better might have ugly consequences. (This revises and expands a post from 3 years ago.)

Afghanistan war

Contents

  1. Scoresheet for our Afghanistan War.
  2. Why do the best soldiers lose so often?
  3. Fallows: we are the problem, not them!
  4. Why we lose.
  5. Worse news: overconfidence
  6. Other answers, all missing the point.
  7. Conclusions
  8. For More Information.

(1)  Scoresheet for our Afghanistan War.

How America boosts the Afghan opium trade.

By Andrew Cockburn in the April 2018 issue of Harper’s.

“The presidential candidate Donald Trump had repeatedly questioned the need for US forces to stay in the country. The military leadership felt otherwise, and once Trump was elected, they argued that he should send more troops and hang on for the long haul. This meant beating back efforts by Steve Bannon to hold Trump to his earlier isolationist instincts. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser, reportedly even showed the president a Seventies-era photo of miniskirted women in Kabul {e.g., here} as indication that the Afghans were not beyond redemption.

“Ultimately, the generals carried all before them. Late in August, Trump announced, implausibly, that he had ‘studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every conceivable angle’ and concluded that the top brass should have the open-ended commitment they demanded.”

Cockburn opens on the latest chapter in the long sad tale of the US military’s incompetence in Afghanistan. He tells it well, as the tragedy it is. He ends on a dark but certainly correct note.

“General Nicholson has said that the strategy endorsed by Trump last summer puts our side ‘on a path to win’ in Afghanistan. He is at least the eighth senior American commander to pledge impending victory in those sixteen years of war. He will doubtless not be the last.”

I recommend reading it! Cockburn’s analysis raises an important question: why do our forces lose to poorly equipped, untrained foes despite our vast power?

(2)  Fallows: Why do the best soldiers in the world keep losing?

The Atlantic cover: Jan-Feb 2015

James Fallows is one of the most perceptive journalists of my generation. When the Jan/Feb 2016 copy of The Atlantic arrived with his provocative title on the cover, I eagerly turned to it: “The Tragedy of the American Military.“ He clearly states the problem.

“Ours is the best-equipped fighting force in history, and it is incomparably the most expensive. By all measures, today’s professionalized military is also better trained, motivated, and disciplined than during the draft-army years. …Yet repeatedly this force has been defeated by less modern, worse-equipped, barely funded foes. Or it has won skirmishes and battles only to lose or get bogged down in a larger war.

“Although no one can agree on an exact figure, our dozen years of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and neighboring countries have cost at least $1.5 trillion …Yet from a strategic perspective, to say nothing of the human cost, most of these dollars might as well have been burned.”

Here is a simple but brutal statement of the truth from a 2016 article by Fred Reed.

“The military of Vietnam wasn’t very good at fighting, and neither is the military of today. GIs in Asia would assault a hill, usually of no importance, and, after three days, with the aid of helicopters, helo gunships, napalm, artillery, and fighter-bombers, would capture it. This would be called a triumph. The astute observed that if the Americans had to fight on equal terms, without overwhelming material superiority, they would last perhaps ten minutes.

“This is now a recognized pattern. Note that numerically superior and hugely armed American forces have been outfought for years by lightly armed Afghan goat herds. Since neither the wars nor the soldiers in them are of much importance, this doesn’t  matter.”

(3)  Fallows: we, the American people, are the problem!

So what causes this inability to win wars in the 6 decades since Korea? Much of Fallows’ article presents the critiques of the military reform community (largely ignored by the Pentagon). Then came the kicker, one of the most amazing non sequiturs I can recall. Fallows says it is our fault!

“Citizens notice when crime is going up, or school quality is going down, or the water is unsafe to drink, or when other public functions are not working as they should. Not enough citizens are made to notice when things go wrong, or right, with the military. The country thinks too rarely, and too highly, of the 1% under fire in our name.

“America’s distance from the military makes the country too willing to go to war, and too callous about the damage warfare inflicts. …We buy weapons that have less to do with battlefield realities than with our unending faith that advanced technology will ensure victory, and with the economic interests and political influence of contractors. This leaves us with expensive and delicate high-tech white elephants, while unglamorous but essential tools, from infantry rifles to armored personnel carriers, too often fail our troops…

“The difference now, I contend, is that these modern distortions all flow in one way or another from the chickenhawk basis of today’s defense strategy. At enormous cost, both financial and human, the nation supports the world’s most powerful armed force. But because so small a sliver of the population has a direct stake in the consequences of military action, the normal democratic feedbacks do not work.”

That is bizarrely false, as explained in Are we chickenhawks and so bear the responsibility for our lost wars since 9/11? The American people, perhaps unwisely, trust our military leaders to conduct our wars. Leave it to the experts! But the question remains: why does our powerful army so often lose in our modern wars?

(4)  Why we lose.

The finest non-technical answer is Fred Reed’s 11 reasons why we lose. Here is a brief excerpt. Read the fully essay!

“Note that the 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.”

G I Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired) has a more operationally useful answer: We consider the US military the finest soldiers in the world because we – and our generals – judge them by the criteria important to us. Not the criteria relevant to victory in war.

Our troops look good: tall, strong, healthy, good teeth. Our troops wield weapons that Buck Rogers would envy, fighting small wars with almost unlimited supplies. We fight people most of whom are poorly educated, lightly trained, and wielding simple weapons. But we we still lose, as they fight on their land against infidel foreigners.

Our troops are better educated than our foes. Most enlisted men have high school degrees. Many NCOs have some college. Officers have undergraduate degrees; many have advanced degrees. But this does not appear to help.

Our officers write academic papers about military theory, but the Darwinian ratchet guarantees that our foes’ leaders understand 4th generation warfare. Our officers have MBAs but our foes ruthlessly employ the most brutally effective management methods via lethal trial and error. So they develop new methods faster, and so maintain an edge in performance. For more about this see this analysis by Wilson: The strengths of our 4GW foes; above all they learn faster.

Martin van Creveld’s Training of Officers: From Military Professionalism to Irrelevance (1990) gives the bottom line.

We Were Soldiers Once …and Young
Available at Amazon.

“Nowadays the medium and senior personnel of all modern armed forces undergo extensive school education. Nevertheless, even in today’s technological world the view that war is the best teacher of war still holds much truth. …

“Over the last 40 years in particular, professional militaries have suffered any number of defeats at the hands of guerrillas and other practitioners of low-intensity conflict – who do not in the ordinary course of things undergo staff- and war-college training but have instead the authentic daily experience of combat.”

Education is not the only advantage that fails to produce an advantage. Our soldiers have courage, but they fight people with literally suicidal bravery and determination. We Were Soldiers Once …and Young describes the first major combat by American troops in Vietnam at Ia Drang. That 34 day campaign saw a kill ratio of 12 North Vietnamese soldiers for every American. General Westmoreland and his staff in Saigon saw this as a success, proving that we had the advantage. His counterpart in Hanoi, Võ Nguyên Giáp, came to the opposite conclusion. Time proved who was correct.

War has its own calculus, which is not ours. The only relevant competitive advantage is an army’s ability to win in a specific time and place. Since Korea we seldom have that. We don’t have in Afghanistan.

(5)  Now for the worse news

Overconfidence is an infection capable of destroying the strongest army, and ran like epidemic through our forces during the 9/11 wars (and perhaps still does today). For a stunning example, see this by one of the top intellects on our side — Australian army officer David Kilcullen. He published “Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency“ in the May-June 2006 issue of Military Review. The advice was fantastic — when used by an insurgent. It was horrifically advice for our officers. Look at article #1.

“Know the people, the topography, economy, history, religion and culture. Know every village, road, field, population group, tribal leader and ancient grievance. Your task is to become the world expert on your district.”

It was vital for a company commander to know that the world expert on “his” district already lives there and probably was born there.  An American officer on a 6-12 month rotation could not develop comparable knowledge about the area, especially in so foreign a culture. It might be difficult for some of them to develop such competence so quickly in Watts or Harlem.

Despite its obviously bad advice, Kilcullen’s article was a big hit – widely recommended reading for company commanders before deploying. No surprise that both Iraq and Afghanistan were costly failures. See my review for more from this fascinating vignette of our mad wars.

(6)  Other answers, all missing the point.

There are a host of other answers to this question. “It’s the money” (incentives in the Military-Industrial-Complex). America’s foolish Grand Strategy. Our military is trained to fight “war” and 4GW is not war. Our general officers are incompetent. None of those grapple with the core issue.

Generals are spending the lives of their men (almost all men), plus vast fortunes from our national income, in failed wars. This is the equivalent of a football team touching a hot stove again and again. Why are our leaders (especially military leaders) indifferent to failure (e.g., the suffering and deaths of their troops)? Why do they not learn from defeat? That is the question.

This feels to me like doctors in 1800 wondering about syphilis. So many symptoms, all unrelated to each other. They speculated about a common cause, but could not find it. The Germ Theory of disease was first proven in 1808. The syphilis bacteria was found in 1905. This made possible research leading to effective treatment.

(7)  Conclusion

So it has gone in most of our wars since Korea, except for Saddam’s mad conventional war with the US in the first Gulf War. I see nothing in the visible future that will change this. This is just a first look at this vital question, a question that as a nation we close our eyes to.  But it is necessary to discover the answer. A belligerent nation with a military that loses wars is a hazardous combination.

Other posts in this series

  1. Why does the US field the best soldiers but lose so often?
  2. Why the US military keeps losing wars.
  3. Possible solutions, paths to a better future for the US military.

(8)  For More Information

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

  1. Is victory impossible in modern wars? Or just not possible for us?
  2. Why we lose so many wars, and how we can win — a summary at Martin van Creveld’s website.
  3. A powerful new article shows why we lose so many wars: FAILure to learn.
  4. Reforming the US Army: can be done, must be done.
  5. So many scandals in the US military: signs of rot or reform?
  6. Overhauling The Officer Corps to build a military that can win wars.
  7. How officers adapt to life in the Pentagon: they choose the blue pill.
  8. A step to getting an effective military. We might need it soon.

Essential reading for those who would like a more effective military.

The Path to Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs by Donald Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired). See his Wikipedia entry.

The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World by Sir Rupert Smith (General, British Army, retired). See his Wikipedia entry.

The Path To Victory
Available at Amazon.
The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World
Available at Amazon.

 

58 thoughts on “Why does the US field the best soldiers but lose so often?

  1. Begged question–best soldiers. They put their trousers on and lace up their boots just like ones everywhere else. I think they are probably less educated than some other professional military forces. And all that money goes to the upper part of the hierarchy, not the dogfaces who do a few years.

    1. Charles,

      Those are all interesting points! I’d like to see an actual analysis to see how our soldiers rank vs. those of other first world militaries.

      But the relevant comparison is with those we fight. Our troops are better educated (in a formal sense), better trained, better equipped — and lose.

  2. Best soldiers – this always comes down to the system of measurement.

    If we are looking for the best in terms of who can kill the most with the fewest losses – yes. The American soldier, technically military – is the best. But the goal of war and of fighting is to obtain diplomatic ends through violent means. And at that, the US success is mixed. We’ve lost most of the physical conflicts in the last 60 years (GulfWar1 might be an exception). We’ve bullied a few wins (Cold war?). Although all these things are temporary as everything is always in flux.

    The problem is as you pointed out that we are trying to win fights by stacking bodies, not by winning the wars. That old saw about tactics, strategy and logistics comes to mind, as does the “your goal in a war is to get the other guy to give up.” And guerillas usually just won’t.

    1. ACT,

      You are restating the problem, not explaining the cause. Why are we fighting this way after 16 years in the WOT, 45 years after Vietnam, and 70 years after Mao brought 4GW to maturity (the way to defeat our 3GW forces)?

  3. Despite superior soldiers and tactics/operations, we lose because at the next higher level, strategy, we are defective. And our grand strategy has been nonsensical, that is if we really have one.

  4. Oh, well perhaps this link would help then. Came accross it today, and was goign to drop it on our other discussion: “New Study: Climate Groupthink Leads To A Dead End.

    Let me give what I think pertains to this discussion we are having about the US military (the paper is mostly a reveiw of the history of global warming science and policy from about 1975 to today).

    A. it looks at the idea of Groupthink as talked about by Irving Janis (Victims of Groupthink 1972) Janis looked at US forgien policy items – specifically failures of intell on Pearl harbor, McArthours advance into No.Korea, The Bay of Pigs, escalation in Vietnam (1965) and in a later edition Watergate. Janis found 3 rules of groupthink.
    1. Everyone shares the common view (well if the metric is how many peopel the US soldier can kill ….)
    2. The shared view can nnot be subjected to external proof (sure we kill a lot, but are w winning? … well we are by howmany we kill!) [facepalm]
    3. This leads to an insistance that everybody must support the concensous in #2.
    B. Becasue most of us, even the very talented and smart don’t have time to check every fact that we get, we take a lot on recomendation – or second hand thinking. Seriously, do you know that glucose is c6h12o6 because you tested it? or because you let someone else tell you? I know I’m taking on the “voice of authority” that said, I’m willing for some other authority to come along and show otherwise.

    So given that humans will deny facts that don’t fit our beliefs. Groupthink has a lot to do with that. And the military is fighting the last war they won (WW2). The way to defeat a 4gw army, is with a 4gw army or a 5gw army. In abasence of anything better to work,

    And then there is the whole issue of “we didn’t come up with that idea”. It has been used in industry to prevent adoption of new things (the intermitant wiper is one example) and has occured in the military – see Christy tank, invented by an american, and sold to the Soviet Union in the 30’s. The chassis and suspension are simple and the basis for every tank they’ve had atelast from teh T-34 to the T90 of today.

    But I’m sure you really know the answer for the cause, it is the red pill/blue pill, and btw todays red pill is tomorrows blue (see line, maginot). Part of the problem related to the military is they haven’t seen a way of defeating a 4GW army. But this is because the 4GW army puts a greater focus on holding on and existance which puts lie to the 3GWs firepower. If we applied to our wargames the way we test or weapons systems (or for that matter any product or experiment) where it goes through some iteritive testing looking for flaws etc, we could find a way. But we aren’t putting our tactics into the field to do that. And out of need our enemies are evolving strategies to defeat us.

    Most humans absent being forced to, won’t go outside the box for new methods. Expecting them to is to live in a “what I would like to happen” reality.

    1. ACT,

      I agree with all that, but consider that a discussion of effects — not causes.

      Generals are spending the lives of their men (yes, almost all men), plus vast fortunes of our national income, in failed wars. This is the equivalent of a football team touching a hot stove. Again and again. To say that is “groupthink” does not explain their indifference to the pain and refusal to learn.

      This feels to me like doctors in 1800 wondering about syphilis. All those symptoms, all unrelated to each other. They speculated about a common cause, but could not find it. The Germ Theory of disease was first proven in 1808. The syphilis bacteria was found in 1905. This made possible research leading to effective treatment.

      *** Note: the link you gave went to a “nothing found.” I added a cite and working link.

    2. Larry,

      I tried typing up an answer, and realized I was not being any more coherent on putting forth my idea, so I dropped it. Sort answer would be, our leaders haven’t paid any penalty for not winning. Neither did a lot of dinasours until they did, or Roman Emperors, or Middle Kingdom Manderins, or…..

    3. ACT,

      You go to the heart of this question. Whatever the answer, we must realize that our success is not guaranteed. Failure is always an option.

      In a sense, we have chosen “failure” by our refuse to learn from experience.

    4. Larry,
      I was going to say that victory is only ever temporary also. No matter what the goal is. But that is just an extension of the Lord Palmerston quote. And it sounds to maudlin.

    5. ACT,

      Ultimately, everything in the world is temporary. But we can’t live under that insight.

  5. A long and not so new article on the topic, and a potential explantion (at least on the subject matter of high command), but a good one: “General Failure.

    On the matter of the tactical level, I often read observations from non american military analysts who are not that impressed with the “american way of war”, once the plethora of support is taken away (logistics, artillery and C4I): it seems to many of them that American officers see far too much their troops as semi-skilled labor made for a rather limited set of mechanical tasks (and training them that way), therefore greatly curtailing versatility, manoeuvering capabilities and, overall, the number of tactical options and possibilities, using a cornucopia of means for very limited objectives.

    Unfortunately, a good number of these analysts don’t write in english and are seldom translated (mean spirits in the Pentagon would say that if they don’t write in English, theirs views are wrong), but here’s an article on some of them (in Shakespeare’s own): Meet “France’s War Philosophers” by Michael Shurkin (a senior political scientist at RAND).

    1. Tancrede,

      This thread is a good example of comments at their best (i.e., most useful to me). They highlight flaws in the post. I was unclear about the problem, and why all of these answer are irrelevant to it. See the new section 6: “Other answers, all missing the point.” (a clearer form of my reply to ACT).

      As for the French and Brits and all the other nation’s experts saying “they’re better at it than we are.” That’s malarkey. Nobody has defeated foreign insurgencies with foreign armies since Mao brought 4GW to maturity after WWII (there are a few grey cases; are Brits “foreigners” in Northern Ireland?). For more about this see Why the West loses so many wars, and how we can learn to win.

    2. Tancrede, your 1st link is an astounding read, even for an old fart with over a 100 WWII books on the self. Regardless, these marginal commanders would of had little material change
      in the European campaign.

      It was either the OKH or Field Marshal Rommel, whom informed Der Führer, that unless the allies were turned back, at the beaches, the war was finished. By the end of June, the beachheads were secured and allied forces were moving inland.

      It was the beginning of the end for Mein Führer and Germany.

    3. Bill,

      (1) “these marginal commanders would of had little material change in the European campaign”

      Counterfactuals like this are fun and often useful, but we can only guess at them. My guess is the exact opposite. As Fred Reed says in this post, US military leaders are trained to refight WWII. I’ll bet they would do a great job at it. Much as the leaders of France and Britain were ready in WWI to refight WWI (they would have done a great job at it).

      (2) “It was either the OKH or Field Marshal Rommel”

      It was Rommel, in opposition to OKH. Germany’s general staff (Rommel was not a GS officer) believed they knew how to fight after years of combat on two fronts. Rommel attempted to tell them that fighting Americans was a different kind of war. As engineers say, a 10x increase in quantity is a change in quality. History, of course, proved him to be correct.

      Here’s a good look at Rommel’s history, and mentions why many German military historians consider him to be their General Lee — brilliant at the tactical level, adequate operationally, disastrous at strategy.

    4. “That’s malarkey. Nobody has defeated foreign insurgencies with foreign armies since Mao”

      Maybe it’s just not possible to do so. Maybe asking why the US military can’t defeat foreign guerrillas is akin to asking why American scientists can’t build a perpetual motion machine.

    5. PAT,

      “can’t defeat foreign guerrillas is akin to asking why American scientists can’t build a perpetual motion machine.”

      That’s not the relevant point. Not learning from failure, just repeating methods that have fail, burning our national wealth and spending the lives of our young men — that is the problem. Understanding why our military leaders act that way is the question.

      If they tried many methods and failed (which they have not), then they should tell us that this strategy will not work. That’s essential input from military experts to civilian policy-makers.

  6. The issue is not that we can’t win wars, it’s that we can’t win wars on the terms we wish to fight under. If we were as brutal as the enemy are willing to kill every last Afghan and let God sort them out, then we would win hands down (“winning” here meaning complete defeat of all enemies on all battlefields). Insurgencies are also nearly impossible to defeat when they have foreign support, and if we were willing to escalate military punishment of Pakistan or any other country until they gave up all support, then we might win (“winning” here meaning stability under a semi-friendly Afghan government). Or if we were willing to pour in millions of soldiers and civil administrators for decades, so as to administer Afghanistan as a colony, then we might win (“winning” here meaning stability under our own government, perhaps eventually turned over to the Afghans). But we are unwilling to do any of these things, so it is impossible to win.

    Note that I don’t advocate we undertake any of the above actions for moral and prudential reasons, and so for that reason I think we should pull out entirely from Afghanistan and other countries and carry out no more than punitive military expeditions to put fear into the rulers if they cross us.

    1. Purple,

      “If we were as brutal as the enemy are willing to kill every last Afghan and let God sort them out, ”

      That’s the fast track to hell. I suggest you consider what would be the response of the other Islamic nations to outright genocide — for no reason. What would be the response of the rest of the world to us revealing ourselves as homicidal maniacs. It’s not an useful option. It would make a bad situation worse.

      Since this comes up a lot, I’ve written several posts about it. I can post links if of interest to you.

      “Note that I don’t advocate”

      Understood! I’m not confusing you with the nutjobs who believe this is a good idea.

    2. ”Understood! I’m not confusing you with the nutjobs who believe this is a good idea.”

      I think those nutjobs would point to the Mongol perpetrated genocides as justification for this reasoning.

    3. info,

      “Mpoint to the Mongol perpetrated genocides as justification for this reasoning.”

      That kind of reasoning is why they are nutjobs. How is that a justification for genocide today? Also, were those worse than the many — many! — western “genocides”?

    4. ”That kind of reasoning is why they are nutjobs. How is that a justification for genocide today? Also, were those worse than the many — many! — western “genocides”?”

      Definitely 5% of the global population were wiped out and entire cities were exterminated for resisting. No one save for some were left alive. Many cities capitulated to be spared that fate. As far as i know.

      A very evil action with no moral justification.

  7. Or to put it another way, it’s not as if the goat herders are defeating U.S. soldiers like the Ewoks defeated Imperial Storm Troopers in _The Return of the Jedi_.

    “Why do the best soldiers in the world keep losing?” is not the right question to ask.

    The right question to ask is, “Why are goat herders more effective than U.S. soldiers in getting the population to do what they want?” When put in those terms, it is clearly not a question of raw military power.

    1. Purple,

      “Or to put it another way, it’s not as if the goat herders are defeating U.S. soldiers like the Ewoks defeated Imperial Storm Troopers in _The Return of the Jedi_.”

      That’s missing the point. All that matters in war is winning. Fighting is not the only way to win. It is not best way to win.

      “Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”
      — Sun Tsu (545-470 BC), from The Art of War.

      Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr. (Chief of the U.S. Delegation): “You know you never defeated us on the battlefield”

      Colonel Nguyen Don Tu (Chief, North Vietnamese Delegation): ”That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.”

      — From Summers’ On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (1982).

    2. Larry,

      If the question is, “Can the U.S. destroy a foreign 3rd-world government — killing much of their leadership, defeating organized military forces, disrupting their ability to command and control their territory?” — this is a matter of war, and the answer is demonstrably yes in Afghanistan and Iraq, in a few weeks and with a relatively small force.

      But if the question is, “Can the U.S. install a stable democratic government?” — the answer is demonstrably no, and my point is that installing stable democratic governments is not a matter of war and our mistake is to view it that way.

    3. Purple,

      “Can the U.S. destroy a foreign 3rd-world government”

      That’s a means, not a goal.

      “this is a matter of war, and the answer is demonstrably yes in Afghanistan and Iraq, in a few weeks and with a relatively small force.”

      That’s really missing the point. We had goals in Iraq and Af. Overthrowing the govts was a means to achieve those goals, and massively failed in both cases.

      “But if the question is, “Can the U.S. install a stable democratic government?”

      That’s the goal in the old “Mission Impossible” shows. Since 1950 it hasn’t been a goal of US policy anywhere I can think of.

    4. Now you have me confused. What was our goal in Iraq and Afghanistan if not to install stable democratic governments?

    5. Purple,

      (1) Iraq

      Our primary goals in Iraq were

      (a) To obtain bases (“enduring bases”) from which to project power across the Middle East. See some articles about those in section V here.
      (b) To obtain preferential access to Iraq’s oil.

      The original plan was to install Ahmed Chalabi as a puppet leader. But he proved to be unpopular, and we were forced to accept elections.

      (2) Afghanistan

      Unlike Iraq, there is little paper trail about goals for Afghanistan. But we’ve shown no interest in democratic govts there. I doubt any area expert considers that a realistic goal amidst the shambles of Af after generations of war.

      All we do know is that the reasons given were the classic Big Lie. The 9/11 Commission record shows that the decision was made by Bush Jr, Dick Cheney, and Karl Rove. Probably as part of their megalomaniac attempt to reshape the world (destroy the “axis of evil”). This nicely shows their madness at work.

      ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors …and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

      — From “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush” by Ron Suskind, New York Times Magazine, 17 October 2004.

      You might find it difficult to believe that American went to war in America with neither a plan nor rational goals. For evidence, see the Afghanistan Strategy Debate run by Andrew Exum in 2009. Many of America’s top geopolitical experts participated. It was a cacophony. Other than agreement this was nuts, there was little agreement on goals.

    6. Due to a WordPress system problem, a batch of comments were lost in the trash, including this one.

      Larry,

      From my perspective, I don’t see much difference between “install stable democratic governments” and “megalomaniac attempt to reshape the world (destroy the “axis of evil”)”.

      Afghanistan could have been a simple punitive expedition to destroy the Taliban top leadership — I understand it was within our power in the opening weeks to kill them and Bin Laden had we not unwisely left it to local “allies” to take care of. The Taliban would have reformed and continued with new leadership, but they would certainly have been much more hesitant to harbor terrorists actively scheming against the U.S.

      It was a colossal blunder to disband the Army and proscribe the Baathist party in Iraq since they were the only thing holding the country together. Had we wanted a puppet leader, it would have been more sensible to install a popular general rather than bring in an outsider — “People of Iraq, we saved you from the evil Saddam and his closest family and friends. General XX and the army will with the assistance of the Baath party will now patriotically serve their country by governing with justice in Saddam’s place.”

      I completely believe “America went to war with neither a plan nor rational goals.” And I think it is obvious we still don’t have a plan or rational goals. But since that’s the case, why would it be surprising that we aren’t winning?

  8. “Why do the best soldiers in the world keep losing?”
    Not to disparage the men in uniform, but are they really the best in the world?

    Is an Olympic athlete the best because they have the most expensive leotard, the highest number of personal trainers, the beverage with the most electrolytes?
    Or are they the best because they win?

    If these soldiers keep losing, then how can they be the best?

    What is the motivation to change, to engage in the deep introspection necessary for real reform, if you begin from the premise that you are already the best in the world?

    1. Todd,

      “If these soldiers keep losing, then how can they be the best?”

      I’m pretty sure everybody reading the post understand the context of my statement.

      “What is the motivation to change, to engage in the deep introspection necessary for real reform, if you begin from the premise that you are already the best in the world?”

      Did you read the post? That is answered quite explicitly.

  9. You cannot achieve victory without first defining it. Roosevelt’s definition was the unconditional surrender of Germany, Italy, and Japan, and his generals achieved it. Kennedy defined victory as putting a man on the moon, and NASA did it. What would the words “American victory” mean in Afghanistan? That it becomes a multi-culti democracy, imposing the same social system that’s tearing our country apart?

    Scorched earth is very effective against Muslims if you don’t mind killing a lot of women and children. Primitive peoples care nothing about morality; they perceive only strength and weakness. Kit Carson ground down the Navajo by finding and burning all their corn caches. The British had a rule that every time one of theirs was killed, the grave must be adorned with one hundred freshly severed enemy heads.

    If first-world nations (or China) ever restore patriarchy and return to high fertility, they will colonize every habitable corner of the Earth, subjugating and either replacing or interbreeding with the native populations. If not, the third world will colonize and replace them. Stasis is not an option.

    If humans ever colonize space, it won’t help the situation on Earth, because the most capable people will emigrate, leaving the Earth a rotting husk like England today.

    1. Dave,

      History does not agree with you. Also, the rest of the world either as or is catching up in tech. Your genocidal policy would destroy this nation like a bullet in the head.

    2. Due to a WordPress system problem, a batch of comments were lost in the trash, including this one.

      Sure, just like Turkey was “destroyed” by its genocide of Armenians and Greeks. That was a bullet in the head of the Ottoman Empire, which was terminally ill anyway. Germany wasn’t destroyed by genocide either, it was destroyed by invading armies that barely even knew about the Holocaust. The US Empire will never commit genocide, aside from its present attempts to crush “racist” white people, but it could well end in genocide as various nations fight over its remains.

      If technology is reaching the top of its S-curve and all the major players will soon achieve technical parity, then world domination depends on which nation’s high-IQ women can pump out more high-IQ soldiers and taxpayers. Cognitive ability is a huge force multiplier on the battlefield and in the economy, so low-IQ races will be killed, worked to death, or used as cannon fodder, as will feminists and homosexuals if they can’t be cured. As with the Russian Orthodox Church and all legal churches in China, religion will be taken over by the state and used to make men braver, women more fertile, and both sexes more patriotic.

      The only way out of this zero-sum Darwinian death match is to colonize the Solar System, which I don’t see happening in this century.

  10. Why do we lose? Because “the war on terror” as a perpetual institution was the end, not a means to any other goal. From the view of our neo-liberal elites, “misson accomplished” has been a true statement since 2001. How would “victories” help?

    And if by some chance they can’t keep us in the Middle East, we have a good narrative going for “Cold War Part Two” with Russia. The fall of the USSR certainly taught the minds behind the empire to always have a “Plan B” ready.

    1. Christopher,

      I don’t understand your answer. Here is my question.

      “Generals are spending the lives of their men (almost all men), plus vast fortunes from our national income, in failed wars. …Why are our leaders (especially military leaders) indifferent to failure (e.g., the suffering and deaths of their troops)? Why do they not learn from defeat? That is the question.”

      Your answer:

      “Why do we lose? Because ‘the war on terror’ as a perpetual institution was the end, not a means to any other goal.”

      How does that answer my question? Are our colonels and generals monsters? Do they give fiendish laughs when they look at the coffins draped with flags, seeing that they have prevented victory for another month?

  11. I used to game online with some guys, one of them was a Canadian guy who enlisted in the marines and did a couple of years in iraq. Sometimes he would chat about his experiences in Iraq with the group online. I was fairly engaged at the time with what was going on, what had gone on, and was pretty interested to hear what his impressions were first hand.

    The rest of the guys (americans, late teens to late 30’s) hated hearing about it.

    I couldn’t understand it, I was Irish and I wanted to know everything this guy thought was relevant, they were american and At War and they were just bored by it. The ironic thing was we were playing ARMA 2/3, which was based about hypothetical US interventions abroad.

    1. Gerard,

      I also have seen the same phenomenon. In 2008 my posts about our mad wars each received thousands or tens of thousands of pageviews. Now they get 500 to 1,000 each. We just no longer care.

      We saw this during the 2016 campaign. The WOT wasn’t an issue. Trump made some noise about slowing it. But once in office he appointed an all-star national security team (i.e., mostly those who had stars on their shoulders). Of course, they are expanding the war.

      I do not understand this.

  12. The lack of public concern about our pointless wars is another illustration of the growing divide between the body politic and the military. We now have a mercenary armed force, largely made up of young men from the flyover country, who otherwise have no good prospects. These are not children of the opinion leaders, so if they are hurt, it is not an issue. Meanwhile, the endless wars they are serving in gradually brutalizes even the best of them.
    If they can stay sound, they become professional soldiers, much like the Roman legionnaires.
    These professionals have to be deeply angered by the callous stupidity with which they are put into harms way for no obvious good cause.
    Historically, large standing professional armies have not been healthy appurtenances for republics or democracies.
    The US is living dangerously from that perspective, using the national army as a political plaything, sort of as a US style Foreign Legion.

    1. etudiant,

      I agree. Nicely said.

      “These professionals have to be deeply angered by the callous stupidity with which they are put into harms way for no obvious good cause.”

      Oddly, few are. Support for our mad wars remains quite strong among active duty and vets, so far as I can tell.

  13. Western armies have adopted the middle class values of the societies that fund them (and increasingly the SJW faction of those). Their enemies have not. Boiled down the Taliban etc are simply tougher than the NATO forces sent after them. They are more resilient and motivated. They can take more casualties. Live far rougher. Stay in the fight for years. Impose far tougher discipline. Operate without modern equipment. Fight without air cover. Without armor. Without GPS. Without drones. Without TGIF. Without Wifi. Without neurosurgeons.

    How many times have you heard a US officer say his aim was “to get everyone home in one piece”? I doubt any AQ leaders would list that as a priority.

    Essentially the military has taken on the culture of a police force in a crummy inner city. The problem will not go away (this is the problem with “COIN” and wars that are not essential or even important to US security) so do what you can but don’t put yourself out too much as you’ve got a long career ahead of you.

    1. setg,

      “the Taliban etc are simply tougher than the NATO forces sent after them”

      I very much doubt that is a factor. US (and NATO) forces have shown themselves to be willing to be as tough as necessary, and willing to take casualties. The avoidance of firefights by our foes demonstrates that (they don’t want to die). 4GWs are not won by being tough.

    2. What else do you call staying in a fight against the most technologically advanced force ever fielded? Tough? Stubborn? Dedicated? Take your pick but the Taliban are in the field and the NATO states largely left- because they wouldn’t put up with the human cost- and the US tried to leave.

      Take the “green on blue” attacks. The Taliban are willing to have it’s members go on what are essentially suicide missions. Any US equivalent? I guess could argue that the NATO forces are just as tough but smarter but that misses the point. If the Taliban were as worried about their skins as NATO the war would have ended in 2006.

    3. setg,

      “What else do you call staying in a fight against the most technologically advanced force ever fielded?”

      Smart, since they win. Especially since their primary weapon — IEDs — are safe to use. Their secondary tactic of “ambush and run” is also moderately safe, as wars go. The belief that they’re fighting us primarily in fair firefights is quite false.

      “Take the “green on blue” attacks.”

      Trivial in number and effects.

  14. Larry,
    Nobody by the guy getting killed is paying the immediate price for our lack of definition of victory in any of these wars. The Generals don’t, they still get pensions. The congress and senators don’t. The president doesn’t.

    Why? becasue so few are invovled and dying. But we are not paying the immediate price. We are paying a price but our brains are incapable of feeling it. The brains can think it, but not feel it. And until they feel it, at some level our actions won’t change. Yes I admit we all pay in taxes or future debt. That is not however perceived as a cost by our lizard brains. And that is where it is. Do our generals want to get our people killed? No but they also want to keep their jobs. And the civilian leadership has said “this is the job” But that leadership hasn’t said “this is victory.” Or if it does, it changes it once things get going. It is like the Pelopensian war. Any time the Spartians or Athenians could have declared victory and won the war, the leadership decided it could get a bit more by mission creap. And so they both lost Thebes won the Pelopensian peace afte rthe war.

    BTW, commenting on the ‘we all lose/die in the end” I’ll take a 5 year mark as victory. If we go and do X and declare “done” and it stays done for 5 years, we won. If it doesn’t, we either tied, or lost. Vietnam was at best a tie – we established a treaty 1973 and mostly left. But realistically was a loss – in 1975 the was unification under the Hanoi goverment. Grenada would be a win in this case. Although I’m not sure it raises to the level of ‘war’ so much as ‘military action.’

    Anyhow, I suspect you already knew this. That the reason our army able to defeat anybody in the field can’t win the peace is because we haven’t declared what victory would be, or if we have, it is something a military itself can’t achieve (ex. “Democracy in every invaded nation!”)

    1. ACT,

      “Nobody by the guy getting killed is paying the immediate price for our lack of definition of victory in any of these wars. The Generals don’t, they still get pensions.”

      Quote from this post:

      “Generals are spending the lives of their men (almost all men), plus vast fortunes from our national income, in failed wars. …Why are our leaders (especially military leaders) indifferent to failure (e.g., the suffering and deaths of their troops)? Why do they not learn from defeat? That is the question.”

      You appear to believe that our generals are monsters, indifferent to wasting the lives of their men. Lots of historical examples. In those armies, morale is low. Recruitment is difficult. Retention is done by force. Mutinies are common. Does that describe the US Army, US Marines, or Special Operations Forces?

    2. Larry, actually I think my last paragraph would be the best statement

      “That the reason our army able to defeat anybody in the field can’t win the peace is because we haven’t declared what victory would be, or if we have, it is something a military itself can’t achieve (ex. “Democracy in every invaded nation!”)”

      The military either isn’t given a goal, or not given one it can acheive. Institutional blindness, patriotism and other factors prevent the Generals and such from being able to see this and say it. That isn’t being a monster, unless you think that say Gen Burnside was a monster for not being able to see he wasn’t fighting a battle he could win at Frederickburg in 1862. Or that Marshels Falkenhayn or Joffre at the Verdun. These leaders were just as blind to better alternatives as ours are today. Are they monsters for killing so many of their own men in futile attempts to victory? [For the record, at least in theCivil War and in WW1, each side had an idea of how to win – capture the enemy capitol/political leadership. That wasn’t as well definded in Vietnam, Afganistan, or Iraq. Or for the French in Vietnam either].

      I stand by my statement our presidents, congress and generals today do not paying a very high and immediate price for failure – in my prior examples of WW1 and Civil war, I think everyone was canned. I’m not sure that raises them to the level of “monster” unless everyone who kills people in any war is a monster, and there is never a good war. (note, that is an entirely different post ). I’m inclinded to think that they can’t plan very well for those sort of problems beyond the next month. Also Generals and Admirals are no more than messanger boys for the President and Congress. They do what they are asked “go into country X and occupy it” they are not in the end the ones responsible for deciding policy, although they do make recomendations.

  15. Dear Larry,

    This is very interesting. It helps me a lot to understand the counter-insurgency war that my own country Portugal fought in 1961-1974 in Africa, especially why the same army with the same leadership and counter-insurgency tactics won in one theater (Angola) and lost in another (Guinea; Mozambique was perhaps a tie).

    The main book written on this (this Wikipedia article is mostly a summary: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portuguese_Colonial_War) looks at the victory in Angola and points to the success of counter-insurgency tactics: mobile and aggressive units, hearts and minds, innovative tactics (e.g. horseback units), low firepower (too expensive…), terror tactics… But your posts made me think if the real factor wasn’t that the Portuguese army was not completely foreign there: colonization was almost 500 years old, not 100 like in other European colonies; the local elites and a significant european middle class identified the Portuguese army and wanted it to win; a large part of the insurgents were obviously dependent on the Soviets, so also a bit foreign; and the Portuguese army was c. 50% African at the end of the war, so ethnic differences were not so clear. In Guinea this was not the case, as the country was much less “europeanized” (insignificant european middle class) and the insurgency was more cohesive; and the Portuguese army lost control of the country regardless of using the same counter-insurgency tactics as in Angola.

    For your question on the US, this can help illustrate the point that effective local support may be more important than counter-insurgency or firepower; there are other case-studies as you point out, but this one shows the same western army at the same time getting different results in different theaters. The final conclusion is, I believe, similar to your views that US troops lose because they are fighting without local support.

    I also think that this war has two cautionary tales for the US:

    – In the end, Portugal lost the strategic objective of keeping Angola, because regardless of the military victory, it was politically unsustainable to keep colonies in the late XXth century. This is maybe an extreme example, and I believe that US leadership can get away with much more, but still it can illustrate how a war can be lost due to geopolitical factors, regardless of the quality of the soldiers.

    – The war ended when low-ranking officers of the Portuguese army got tired of dying for nothing (in 1974 it was clear that the colonies would be lost, regardless of who won the fighting), rebelled and toppled the government. Luckily we changed from dictatorship to democracy; often it’s the other way around. Again, this was an extreme case in a country where 50% GDP was for military spending and all males served 4 years in the army (2 of them in combat), but it illustrates how soldiers can get tired of dying for no useful purpose and may eventually do something about it.

  16. Well, I’ll quote B H Liddell hart as closely as I can. (My copy of Strategy is somewhere around here. I am annoyed that I can’t find it.) Adjust your ends to your means. A sense of what is possible is the beginning of military wisdom. In many cases our aims, even when we can be shown to have some, are unattainable, or not attainable by any means we are willing to employ. Our rulers know nothing of war, and have no idea what troops can and cannot do. Many of the problems we see with the military can’t be entirely separated from problems in the larger society. We are ruled by people who mostly know nothing about the military or about war, and are not about to listen to anyone who does.

    When Ike made the decision not to go to the aid of the French at Dien Bien Phu, he had some knowledge of war, and was willing to listen to experienced advisers. (I can’t recall his name now, but I believe the commander of the Pacific Fleet expressed serious doubts about how effective air strikes would be in the circumstances.) These people have no sense of what is possible, and no fear of the consequences of battlefield defeat. They can launch wars for frivolous reasons, fail to win them, and remain in power. They do not fear invasion and conquest by a foreign enemy, or electoral defeat as a result of battlefield failure.

    At one time we were constrained in our ability to undertake foreign expeditions by the need to maintain the defense of Europe, and to avoid nuclear war with the Soviets. So the leash has come off. The Russians can no longer restrain our rulers, and we don’t.

    One problem with the military that Edward Luttwak wrote about in The Pentagon And The Art Of War is the glut of senior officers. I don;t think nearly enough gets written about this. We have enough Flag Officers to command and control a World War II size conflict. There are too many of them. David Hackworth pointed out that in Somalia, we had one General for every rifle company in the theater. In Not A Good Day To Die, Sean Naylor describes how an Air Force one star was issuing orders to a SEAL team in the Shah-i-kott from a command post in Dubai. It didn’t end well. I believe I said in an earlier comment that progress in Afghanistan seems to have stopped as soon as the place was declared safe enough for a three star and his bloated headquarters.

    One Liddell Hart quote that you can find online:

    “The downfall of civilized states tends to come not from the direct assaults of foes, but from internal decay combined with the consequences of exhaustion in war.”

    1. The Man,

      Very appros quote from Hart. I’ve heard the quote, but didn’t know the source.

    2. the man,

      ” These people have no sense of what is possible, and no fear of the consequences of battlefield defeat. They can launch wars for frivolous reasons, fail to win them, and remain in power. They do not fear invasion and conquest by a foreign enemy, or electoral defeat as a result of battlefield failure.”

      Exactly not paying the cost for getting it wrong. And not being able to have a task that their chosen tool can accomplish.

      Putting some numbers to what you said on this
      “. We have enough Flag Officers to command and control a World War II size conflict.”
      IIRC it was over 12million men in uniform at the end of WW2 witha bout 400 Star officers (O-7 and above) Today is is I think around 3million in uniform with over 500 star officers (O-7 and above). Part of the reason for this is bloat. Part of the reason for this is that certian commands are viewed as needing a certian level of officer to do them.

  17. It’s a loaded question but the fact there’s not much money in the “cheap, dangerous, dirty” conflicts the US is actually engaged in probably has something to do with the deranged strategic priorities.

    And the US military simply cannot take serious casualties. Even the loudest warmongers in America understand there would be severe political backlash if the US faced any serious casualty rate. In an age where “victory will go, not to those who can inflict the most, but to those who can endure the most”, it makes sense they will continue to lose.

    1. bratarah,

      (1) “but the fact there’s not much money in the “cheap, dangerous, dirty” conflicts”

      Then why the enthusiasm for them? Our generals love them. The neocons and conservatives love them. Hillary and her fellow liberals love them. (Of course none of those are unitary entities. There are exceptions. But I’m speaking of them as groups).

      (2) “And the US military simply cannot take serious casualties”

      Do you believe that taking more casualties would improve our results? It didn’t work that way in Vietnam. Defective methods produce casualties. We’re fighting lightly training, poorly equipped foes. We often outnumber them in combat. They avoid combat, for obvious reasons, unless they have a large tactical advantage.

      We should be winning like Germany did in 1940s France, running over them with few casualties. It’s a mismatch like Alexander the Great vs. the Persian Boy Scouts.

    2. There’s plenty of money to be made ‘losing’ these conflicts and not nearly as much to reforming the military. The recent F-35/ A-10 fiasco is a perfect illustration – phasing out a battle-proven aircraft suited for the wars the US actually fights in favor of an expensive lemon. It’s like the massive amount of procurement that was centered around the idea of a conventional war with Soviet forces in Western Europe – there was no chance of it happening but it paid for a lot of DoD contractors’ summer homes. The incentives for developing an effective force just aren’t there when disfunction pays so well.

      Saying the US ‘loses’ should be qualified though – most American’s ‘lose’ in the sense they don’t really get much from America’s foreign wars. Its mostly the low-ranking soldiers and millions of foreign civilians that really lose. The people that actually matter. e.g. Lockheed shareholders, don’t really lose at all and the wars can go off the rails so long as it doesn’t generate any organized backlash.

    3. bratarah,

      Let’s bring that comment down from the clouds to specifics. From my post:

      Generals are spending the lives of their men (almost all men), plus vast fortunes from our national income, in failed wars. This is the equivalent of a football team touching a hot stove again and again. Why are our leaders (especially military leaders) indifferent to failure (e.g., the suffering and deaths of their troops)? Why do they not learn from defeat? That is the question.

      Are you saying that our generals are monsters and don’t care about their men’s blood, and shed it for purely personal gain? There are many examples of this in history. In those armies, morale is low, recruitment is difficult, retention is done by force, mutinies are common. Does that describe the US Army, US Marines, or Special Operations Forces? If not, why?

    4. No, they’re not cartoon monsters that just want to watch the world burn – they’re part of an institution with a dysfunctional incentive structure. Going back to the F-35 example, a couple years ago there was a two-star general telling officers they were committing treason if they advocated keeping the A-10 in service. You have a situation where there’s widespread corruption and top officers advocating to phase out a simple, proven aircraft that will get people killed in the field because the replacement has been selected for the profits it will make defense contractors.

      You’re describing an extreme but the US military definitely faces serious recruitment problems (stop-loss, etc). Given recent campaign planks to make state college free in the US, I can’t imagine the kind of recruitment problems the US army would face if anything like free university ever came to pass.

  18. Well, looks like no one else has put forward this hypothesis here yet, so I’ll go ahead.

    I think it is possible that we keep fighting losing wars, in the Middle East at least, because we are being manipulated into doing so. Manipulated at a high level by agents whose primary loyalty is to a foreign power, which sees itself as a strategic beneficiary of our Middle Eastern adventures, even if United States performance in such adventures is dismal according to our own standards for success and even if the interests of the United States itself are subjected to objectively grave harm as a result of such adventures.

    To restate more succinctly: Maybe we keep fighting losing wars because we have allowed ourselves to become susceptible to foreign manipulation. Or, maybe SOMEBODY is winning our wars–it’s just not us.

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