Why the US military keeps losing wars.

Summary: The previous post asked why the US fields the best soldiers but loses so often. Perhaps because “It’s not our fault” has replaced “No excuses.” Next in this series: ideas about solutions.

No More Excuses

My previous post asked why does the US field the best soldiers but lose so often? It provoked fascinating discussions in the comments here and elsewhere. Here are my guesses about possible answers. Given the hazards in our world, growing worse, this is among our most serious problem.

The Atlantic cover: Jan-Feb 2015

(1)  It’s the American people’s fault!

This is a popular answer. James Fallows explains in “The Tragedy of the American Military“ in The Atlantic.

“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. …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.”

The applause from military officers was deafening. It is not our fault! That is the mantra of armies that lose.

Even more common are complaints that the American public does not support wars like Vietnam or the WOT long enough, or with enough money – or does so with too many constraints (i.e., let the military “take the gloves” off and win). These are odd claims considering the massive devastation American inflicted in Vietnam and in Iraq, at such fantastic cost – with the WOT in its second decade. But to a losing military, no amounts of money spent or blood spilled are enough. Since more was possible, failure was not their fault.

Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam
Available at Amazon.

(2)  It’s the politicians’ fault!

“The disaster in Vietnam was not the result of impersonal forces, but a uniquely human failure, the responsibility for which was shared by President Johnson and his principal military and civilian advisors.”

— Last paragraph of Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam by H.R. McMaster (1997).

This is another excuse that never grows old. Failure is not the fault of the Army or Marines as institutions, or their culture, or their officer corps, or their methods. Let’s blame the politicians and the politicians in uniform whom they appoint as Chiefs!

The classic example of this is McMaster’s book about Vietnam. It helped catapult him from a captain victorious in battle onto the fast track leading from Lt. Colonel to Lieutenant General to National Security Advisor. His book was greeted with excitement by his fellow officers. Feel the enthusiasm in the reviews in Parameters, a journal of the Army’s War College. It’s not our fault!

(3)  Other excuses

These are just two from the vast armory of excuses fielded by the US military. Here is another from the history books, still deployed as needed today – a conversation after the negotiations in Paris which ended our war in Vietnam.

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).

A better answer: death of the “no excuses” military

Armies that lose respond to defeat with excuses. Armies that win respond to failure with “no excuses!” The Prussians got their asses kicked by Napoleon at Jena-Auerstedt in 1806. A group of senior officers – including Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Boyen, Grolman and Clausewitz – implemented deep reforms to the army. Subsequent generations built on them, eventually leading to their great victories in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

This is America’s tradition as well, although on a smaller scale (not yet having met our bête noire). After two years of defeats, some almost terminal, the Continental Army wintered in 1777 at Valley Forge. They could have issued cheerful press releases and given inspirational speeches to the troops. Instead they reorganized and trained despite the brutal weather and lack of adequate supplies.

The Battle of Kasserine Pass in February 1943 was the US Army’s first major engagement with Axis forces in WWII, and a brutal defeat. Eisenhower responded by sending Major General Lloyd Fredendall home and appointing Patton as commander of II Corps. There were also changes in organization and equipment.

How has America’s military responded to its defeats after Korea? After every failure we hear It is not our fault! Understandably so, for that is the most comforting of mantras. But it exacts a heavy price on an organization. It reduces the pressure that powers the painful process of learning and changing. Failure to learn is an illness that can offset any amount of power. So our military dresses up methods that have failed in scores of wars by foreign armies against local insurgents, trying them again and again.

Conclusion

“No Excuses” is the motto of armies that win. But that spirit appears dead in the modern US military. Perhaps that is why we lose. But reform is possible. See the next in this series for a path to a better future.

Blameless Forever!

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. Winning hearts and mind with artillery fire, 2008.
  2. Another example of winning hearts & minds with artillery, 2008.
  3. The trinity of modern warfare at work in Afghanistan – How we fight, from Vietnam to today.
  4. Presidential decision-making about Vietnam and Afghanistan: “You have 3 choices, sir”, 2010.
  5. About our operations in Kandahar – all that’s old is new again.
  6. Another echo in Afghanistan of the Vietnam War. Will we hear it, and learn?
  7. How the Iraq and Vietnam wars are mirror images of each other.
  8. The military takes us back to the future. To Vietnam, again and again.
  9. Stark evidence from our past about our inability to learn today.
  10. Secret government docs reveal a hidden truth about the Afghanistan War – Spoiler: it’s just like Vietnam.
  11. 50 years ago the Battle at Ia Drang began our war in Vietnam. What have we learned since then?

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

Training of Officers: From Military Professionalism to Irrelevance by Martin van Creveld.

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.

37 thoughts on “Why the US military keeps losing wars.

  1. Martin Van Creveld’s book, “Pussycats: why the Rest keep beating the West” deals with this topic also. So does Bill Lind. We are a second generation military fighting fourth generation/non-trinitarian wars for no real reason other than we can. Our enemies fight because they believe in their causes – mostly to establish a caliphate and/or to eliminate kuffar – and they want to win. They think jihad takes them to heaven and we don’t believe in anything

    1. PRCD,

      That’s a sharp comment! I was going to mention Pussycats. But this post was already too controversial in its message, so I chickened out.

      I can’t imagine that MvC’s explanation is correct. But he’s been right a lot more often than I have been.

  2. Former marine. F**ked up officers kiss everyones ass for promotion. Awards given to others so that they owe a return debt. Civil politicians run wars or conflicts over generals. Political pay offs to military officers. US military is a big mouth paper tiger and enlisted persons are just looking for a job. Overall young persons attitudes toward “you owe me”. Etc etc

    1. Michael,

      So as a Marine, which of these behaviors did you own? Or is this more of “It’s not my fault!”, a collection of current excuses?

      “Civil politicians run wars or conflicts over generals”

      What a nice demonstrates the modern US military’s “Not Our Fault” attitude. Now Trump’s civilian leadership team is mostly generals. By your theory we should get different results. Time will provide an answer.

  3. These are not real wars in the conventional sense that they can be fought and won. The US has no intention of taking possession of any of these territories or fighting a “total war” to achieve “unconditional surrender” from an actual state entity that survives the fighting. In fact, “winning” cannot be defined in the context of these abominations that US politics has involved the US military in over the past half century.

    Easy to start a conflict. The idiots need to have an idea of what the end point is supposed to be, and whether or not such an end point is achievable using the rules of engagement with which they choose to saddle themselves.

    1. Good comment! My suspicion is that “victory” isn’t the point. Chaos and punishment is. Sowing chaos in an oil-rich country such as Iraq keeps that oil in the ground and keeps the price of oil high elsewhere (supply and demand). And our ruling class wants to punish countries that don’t do what they want.

    2. The Real,

      “Chaos and punishment is.”

      There is no need to make stuff up. The US government was quite explicit about our goals. Our programs in Iraq were focused (albeit incompetent) efforts to achieve those goals.

      “Sowing chaos in an oil-rich country such as Iraq keeps that oil in the ground and keeps the price of oil high ”

      The US is an oil consumer. Much of US policy since the 1970s consists of keeping the oil supply flowing at low prices (e.g, opposition to OPEC).

    3. Sean,

      (1) “These are not real wars in the conventional sense that they can be fought and won.”

      They are wars. They all have winners.

      (2) “The US has no intention of taking possession of any of these territories …In fact, ‘winning’ cannot be defined in the context ”

      Wars often have goals other than occupation. In Iraq the US wanted bases (the “enduring bases”) from which to project power across the Middle East, access to Iraq’s oil on favorable terms, and an ally.

      (3) “or fighting a ‘total war’ to achieve ‘unconditional surrender’

      VERY few wars are total wars. Very few end in unconditional surrender.

    4. ‘(3) “or fighting a ‘total war’ to achieve ‘unconditional surrender’

      VERY few wars are total wars. Very few end in unconditional surrender.’

      This is very true. Western wars going back to Ancient Greece look for a victory through “decisive battle” which looks to have a battle that decides the issue. Think battle of Marathon, or Samalis. Or Battle of Waterloo. It doesn’t always work, especially if the loser doesn’t think it is decisive enough – see battle fo Cannae aka Rome’s third loss in a summer, over 250K soldiers total killed by Hannibal. Or equivalent to the US loosing the population of California today, in 3 months. However Rome refused to see it as a sufficent loss to surrender. And Rome did fight Carthage as total war.

      But even the American Revolution can be viewed as a series of decisive battles to close off theatures to the British until they negotiated peace at the treaty of Paris (1783) – Boston (1776), Saratoga (1778), Morristown (1779), and Yorktown(1781) While Yorktown was the only truly decisive one in my list other than Saratoga, The other two and similar were decisive enough that the British opportunities were limited

      This sometimes works for a western army fighting a non western army – Battle of Tenochtitlan in 1520 – decisive battles work and gain a lot of territory. More often, especially lately, either the decisive battle is used by the non western army to win the war – Dien ben Phu, or the western army is unable to get a decissive battle to ‘win.’ This is because like Ancient Rome verses Hanibal, the non westerners fighting a western army simply refuse to see the war as done or lost. This goes to a discussion of what ‘winning’ is, and for that matter what war is.*

      *TL;DR version – most of history, most peoples have lived in a state of war with their non related neighbors. It coudl be tribal if we look long enough ago, or just adjacent nations. It seems odd to westerners who have known mostly peace when not in declared wars. But the normal state has been wars with declared peace. This is after all what all those cross border raids, attacking of tradeships, merchant caravans, pilgrams and the like are. War under a different name.

    5. ACT,

      Thanks for the explanation about total war! Two more points.

      First, few states in history were capable of the level of mobilization necessary for total war (except against small neighbors). Look at the wars in Europe Westphalia (1648) and the French Revolution. Most were small, eventually becoming “the sport of kings” often fought by mercenary armies with little interest in dying. Ditto for the wars of the Hellenistic era (between Alexander and Rome).

      Second, regional wars throughout history were usually about changing rulers. Not extermination of peoples or changing social systems. Limited goals, limited wars.

      The belief that wars are usually “total” is an example of the “recency effect” in people’s perceptions. The recent past (e.g., WWi, WWII, the Cold War) is seen as representative of history.

    6. “First, few states in history were capable of the level of mobilization necessary for total war”

      Totally agree. Infact, we should seperate “Total War” from “Unconditional Surrender”. WW2, and the Punic wars were definately fought by at least one side at total and for unconditional surrender. Cortez taking Mexico, Pizaro taking Peru – these were unconditional surrenders but not total war.

      I’d argue WW1 was fought as total war, but not as unconditional surrender. Although maybe the Treaty of Versaille was effectively an unconditional surrender – I’m . The US Civil War was not total war for the North – many people miss things that were going on at the same time. The trans continental Railroad was largely built during that time. The founding of the many of the State Universities which were devoted to agricultural or mechanical technologies of the day aka “Cow Colleges” were founded then sch as the university of Illinois.

      I think one side goes to a ‘total war’ mentality when the people feel their existance is threatened. I think a side goes to ‘unconditional surrender’ mentality when they are so tired of fighting the same enemy they just want them exterminated (see Carthage, Rome, Punic Wars and Salt. Also see Rome, Jerusalem and “made a desert and called it peace”)

    7. ACT,

      “I’d argue WW1 was fought as total war, but not as unconditional surrender.”

      Unconditional surrender is one method in total war.

      “The US Civil War was not total war for the North”

      Total war is a method typically used by one side — the stronger side — in war. It has no precise definition. Wikipedia nicely describes two different definitions (although its entry does not note that they are different).

      Total War is warfare that includes any and all civilian-associated resources and infrastructure as legitimate military targets, mobilizes all of the resources of society to fight the war, and gives priority to warfare over non-combatant needs. The American-English Dictionary defines total war as “war that is unrestricted in terms of the weapons used, the territory or combatants involved, or the objectives pursued, especially one in which the laws of war are disregarded.”

      By the first def, the Civil War was not initially a total war. But it became one. The 1862 Shenandoah Valley campaign was a hard fought series of battles, but left the area mostly undamaged. In 1864 Union General Philip Sheridan drove the rebels out and torched the area, the breadbasket of the South.

      But the Civil War was not remotely total war by the second definition. Even at the end, civilian casualties were relatively light for a war of such intensity. And the contemporaneous laws of war were mostly respected.

    8. “Unconditional surrender is one method in total war. Uncontional surrender is one potential goal in total war….

      Total war is one potential method of obtaining victory (aka goal). The two are seperate one describing the definition of the ‘victory conditions’ the other describing the means of getting them. (we may be looking at teh same coin from differing sides)

      “Wikipedia nicely describes two different definitions [for total war]”

      there are 3 clauses in the first definitioin. The US Civil war start to end doesn’t fit the 2nd clause – as I mentioned before there were a lot of other non war focused spending going on during the Civil War for the North. Im not sure it fits teh 1st and 3rd clause at all times, but really looking at the end is most approriate. *
      For the definition that Wiki quotes AED – yeah the clauses except for the last seem to apply the the US CW. But again because of the more limited nature of the war against civilians, who were not really targets of violence directly until the march to the sea and march north. And even in Sherman’s marches it was more pillage and burn than rape and kill. Similar with Sheridan’s rides. – although does it have to meet all conditions to be total war? or just most of them?

      I still say that the USCW wasn’t total, and wasn’t fought with the goal of unconditional surrender for the defeated. But I agree that there is plenty of room for disagreement on the means/methods and goals for the USCW

      *For a war that starts limited and grows to be all encompassing would to me seem to be one that becomes a total war. In this respect, WW2 for Germany started as a limited afair that Hitler thought woudl be over in 1942, but became total not just in the mind of teh Allies but in the German high command as it wore on. Thus it became total for both sides by end fo 1941

  4. Even if the war you start has a plausible outcome that counts as a victory, you must, as a democratically elected President, remember that your successors have no personal interest in preserving your achievements, and might casually toss your hard-won victory in the trash. See Bush’s victory in Iraq, Nixon’s victory in Vietnam, and Lincoln’s victory in the South.

    (I consider puppet governments secured by US military bases a victory, because that’s the outcome of WW2, and if that’s not a victory, what is?)

    1. Dimitri,

      “See Bush’s victory in Iraq”

      That Obama “tossed Bushes victory in the trash” is right-wing lie. We went into Iraq for three reasons.

      (1) To obtain preferential access to its oil – which we have not obtained.

      (2) To establish “enduring bases” from which to project power across the Middle East. Bush signed the Status of Force Agreement on 14 December 2008 that required withdrawal of all US forces from Iraq by 31 December 2011. That was a extremely popular treaty in Iraq.

      (3) Iraq is run by its Shiite majority, and an ally of Iran. We wanted Iraq as an ally of the US against Iran.

      As for Reconstruction — America is a democracy. There was little support in North for the continued military occupation of the South, and even less for the scale of social engineering necessary to give the ex-slaves civil rights.

  5. We lose because we are not brutal. We lose because jackholes like Tom Rick pontificate about our officers not being worldly, educated enough. I want Patton not a humanitarian.

    1. Gute,

      Thank you for that impressive demonstration of one reason we lose: an astonishing Failure to Learn. People said this in 2003 and are still saying it 2018. No amount of power can offset an inability to clearly see the world. See this from The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz (1990).

      “One would expect forces on which so many resources have been lavished to represent fearsome warfighting machines capable of quickly overcoming any opposition. Nothing, however, is farther from the truth. For all the countless billions that have been and are still being expended on them, the plain fact is that conventional military organizations of the principal powers are hardly even relevant to the predominant form of contemporary war. …Without a single conventional war being waged, colonial empires that between them used to control approximately one half of the globe were sent down to defeat through LIC’s …In the process, some of the strongest military powers on earth have suffered humiliation…

      “…how well have the world’s most important armed forces fared in this type of war? For some two decades after 1945 the principal colonial powers fought very hard to maintain the far-flung empires which they had created for themselves during the past four centuries. They expended tremendous economic resources, both in absolute terms and relative to those of the insurgents who, in many cases, literally went barefoot. They employed the best available troops, from the Foreign Legion to the Special Air Service and from the Green Berets to the Spetznatz and the Israeli Sayarot. They fielded every kind of sophisticated military technology in their arsenals, nuclear weapons only excepted.

      “They were also, to put it bluntly, utterly ruthless. Entire populations were driven from their homes, decimated, shut in concentration camps or else turned into refugees. As Ho Chi Minh foresaw when he raised the banner of revolt against France in 1945, in every colonial-type war ever fought the number of casualties on the side of the insurgents exceeded those of the ‘forces of order’ by at least an order of magnitude. This is true even if civilian casualties among the colonists are included, which often is not the case.

      Notwithstanding this ruthlessness and these military advantages, the “counterinsurgency” forces failed in every case.”

      For more about this, see Why the West loses so many wars, and how we can learn to win.

  6. I happened to be the Air Group Duty Officer on the night in October of 1973 when the Red Phone finally rang announcing Def Con Three. We had a bunker full of tactical nukes. The event focused even my young mind on the drop dead seriousness of the Cold War.
    While my less than shinning military career did not leave me with a great deal of admiration for the General Officers. In Vietnam from the gates of the Saigon Embassy, to Search and destroy carnage, to Khe Sanh, to the B-52 tactics over Hanoi, American Generals displayed a lethal incompetence. It appears now almost 50 years later their heirs have continued the tradition in the sand pile.
    Which brings me back to the Cold War, the one that REALLY counted. In all fairness to the American Military Elite while they royally screwed up Vietnam and most of the Middle East. They won the Cold War, and didn’t turn the world into a piece of charcoal while containing and defeating communism over 45 years. Credit where credit is due.

    1. Jennings,

      Thank you for your first person testimony! That’s always appreciated here. I have a question.

      “They won the Cold War” containing and defeating communism over 45 years.”

      How did they win the Cold War? I believe the USSR folded due to its inability to match the West’s rate of economic and technological growth. Our nukes contained communism (most of the CIA and military programs failed).

      “didn’t turn the world into a piece of charcoal”

      The President decides to use nukes. I recommend reading or watching “The Virtual JFK”, based on tapes of the high level meetings. The senior US generals sound like lunatics who wanted an atomic war. JFK was one of the few sane voices in the room.

  7. Larry,
    The Generals managed the Imperial walls for 45 long years without fumbling a terminally lethal ball. At the end of the day the Joint Chiefs ran a successful military defense all over the world, not and easy task.

    The warrior leader talents of the various Presidents was all over the charts during this period. The Generals were able to work successfully with all the Presidents.

    You seem a little like the left wingers of the era. Who took delight in promoting a stereotype of American Generals as incompetent nuclear war desiring psychopaths only held back by the peace loving politicians. That was unfair and untrue.

    It has now been forgotten, but after Vietnam the American military was near a nervous and logistical collapse.
    I am sure more than one vodka besotted retired Soviet General has lamented not going for a victory in this era.

    It wasn’t the fierceness of his Imperial Majesty Jim’ah Carter, but rather the ability of our Generals to maintain a credible deterrence under very very difficult circumstances, which deterred the Soviets in this dangerous era.

    1. Jennings,

      “You seem a little like the left wingers of the era. Who took delight in promoting a stereotype of American Generals as incompetent nuclear war desiring psychopaths only held back by the peace loving politicians. That was unfair and untrue.”

      First, that’s a nutty conclusion. Nothing here remotely justifies your conclusions. Second, perhaps you should be more careful before drawing conclusions. Here are a few of the posts on the FM website about our general officers.

      1. Do we need so many and such well-paid generals and admirals? By Richard A Pawloski (Captain, USMC, retired).
      2. Overhauling The Officer Corps. By David Evans (Lt. Colonel, USMC, retired).
      3. William Lind looks at our generals, sees “rank incompetence”.
      4. Careerism and Psychopathy in the US Military leadership, GI Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired).
      5. The cost of too many generals: paying more to get a less effective military. – reports by POGO and Don Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired).
      6. How did the US Army’s leadership problem grow so bad? by Don Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired).
  8. PS

    Perhaps one day we can have a thread discussing President Kennedy and his 1,000 day presidency. I believe it was an inflection point in the American historical arc.

  9. Piggy-backing onto Michael Miller’s comment, most people who serve and see the problems with the military – whatever branch it is – don’t want to spend their lives fighting a bureaucracy to change. The people who remain in the military like the bureaucracy. I remember listening to a SEAL officer who eventually became a vice admiral describe potential threats around the world to the USA. None of them materialized almost two decades later. He completely failed to forecast the rise of all of these non-state irregular forces. People in the military are trained to think like the bureaucracy which is always fighting the last war (wars between nation-states) rather than the obvious conflicts in front of them.

    There isn’t any one specific thing wrong with our military – it’s a lot of things and we need to begin reforms with the low-hanging fruit. I fear it’s going the opposite direction now that it’s increasingly seen as a laboratory for liberal experimentation. Now that women are going to ‘fight’, the last nail will be pounded into the coffin of our military.

    1. PRCD,

      “There isn’t any one specific thing wrong with our military.”

      That’s certainly possible. My guess (emphasis on *guess*) is that is not true. In my experience organizations with multiple problems usually have a core problem.

    2. If there is one single general root problem that would explain all those that are often described and don’t seem to really have much in common, I would go with Martin Van Creveld’s explication: it’s all the bomb’s fault. Since the integration of a fully functionning nuclear deterrent with several components and a more or less reliable OODA loop (just as important as the nuclear vectors themselves) actionable by the highest command authority, “real war” (not in the clausewitzian meaning) has become far more of a virtual exercice, a remote possibility for most people in developed countries. Even more after the end of the Cold War which made Western Europe a de facto strategic island and its protector, the US, an even less committed actor in what was then the only potential large scale, vitally threatening battlefield that had a hold on both imaginations and political class.

      Nuclear weapons have by far struck the hardest blow to the vital importance of classic forces and their management over long periods of time, leaving them prey to all sorts of various and conflicting interests: social experiments, foreign policies tryouts and partisan theories (let’s re-do the Middle East, what could possibly go wrong?), ultimate case of pork barrel politics with no question asked, moral platform for politicians who want to look like statesmen…. Such things can only happen on a grand scale when no real challenge is on the horizon. I blame the bomb first and foremost because its impact has been greater on the political class than on anything else, but other factors are obviously at play to produce the overall effect that is currently deplored not only in the USA, but also, via contagion (leadership and normative role and power of the NATO/US, protection umbrella of the US), in Europe. Professionalization and the end of the Cold War (at least what V Putin would like to see as the first round) have only reinforced the phenomenon of disassociation (of the public, political class, and high command cast) with military and security realities.

      In other words, could it not be a particular case of the ever dreaded “disease of victory” over a 60 to 70 years period?

    3. Tancrede,

      I agree that nukes have changed one form of war — state to state war, between major powers (i.e., those with nukes). But that does not explain the problem. See this from the first post in this series.

      “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.”

      ““real war” (not in the clausewitzian meaning) has become far more of a virtual exercice, a remote possibility for most people in developed countries.”

      Vietnam was a “real war” for the US by any measure. By most measures the WOT has been a real war, albeit a small one by casualties (but not in terms of expenditures).

    4. “I agree that nukes have changed one form of war — state to state war, between major powers (i.e., those with nukes). But that does not explain the problem. See this from the first post in this series.”

      I caricatured a bit by “blaming it all” on the nukes, but my point was, overall, to point out the major factors that have put an ever increasing distance between the realities, risks and sanctions of war and insecurity on one side, and the “civilian bubble” on the other. And chiefly for the latter, the political class. In countries that measure everything about war through the prism of state vs state “classical” war, that is enough: asymmetrical conflicts, so-called “nation building”, are still considered anomalies by the main operating system, something not to be fundamentally geared for on a structural basis because the main mission (being a deterrent to other states) remains first and foremost. And is likely to be considered even more of a priority with China’s rise as a threat and Russian “agitation” (on the margins). The evolution in NATO these last years has been geared towards a “return” of the “high of the spectrum” warfare: focus on large units, operational level of war, armored warfare….

      ” Vietnam was a “real war” for the US by any measure. By most measures the WOT has been a real war, albeit a small one by casualties (but not in terms of expenditures).”

      And what followed Vietnam was the end of any form of actual conscription, thus a further level (and a big one) of separation between the civilian and political world and war. Add time (and generations), and the end of the Cold War (and the whole mediatic/psychological/politcal work that go with it), and the dish is ready.

      But to further my point above, what followed Vietnam inside the military institution? A gigantic reset: a big effort to forget everything (save for things at the purely technical/technological level) and go back to armored warfare and the “noble” classical conception of war between symmetrical opponents. Luck had it that a few luminaries were at the time still able to impart some changes: Boyd and the “fighter mafia”, but also the analyst who excavated the Russian experience of WWII and allowed a generation of US officers to get out of the German influenced conceptions of war by understanding and adapting Russian concepts (deep battle and operational level of war).

      But this was more happenstance than cause and effect: the default position of military institutions is “back to basics’ with an understanding of basics focused on purely symmetrical warfare. And in an atmosphere defined by peacetime conditions and few political incentives to reform, thus disconnecting further from any form of “checks and balances” via an absolutely undeniable reality. That which can only be provided by an existential threat, and a widely shared sense of an existential threat.

      Time is a big factor in all this. Time and distance from real war in a fuller sense. Vietnam was a real war but mostly for those who went and their families, with no existential threat (no risk of it going nuclear, no risk of invasion or significant damage to the mainland or even to its economy). That already puts some distance. End conscription and let 2 or 3 generations go by in the new landscape, and military realities exist mostly in Call of Duty.

      In 1792-1793, more than 80% of French generals (those who hadn’t already been “purged” or hadn’t fled the country) were sacked, and most had an actual knowledge of war and had lived it. In the 5 months of war in 1914 alone, 60% of French generals were also sacked or sidelined (definitively), and most had known war, symmetrical (Franco-Prussian war) and asymmetrical (colonies and other cases abroad).

      I can’t shake the feeling that it all boils down to that: the distance a society, and especially its political leaders, have with the phenomenon of war and insecurity as a real, constant threat somewhere in the back of their brains, over the long run. A minimal necessary culture of war that gives a real incentive to take the matter seriously beyond the superficial sentimentality towards soldiers (when we think of it…. Once a week or a month), and impact your votes and preoccupations.

  10. Ever since reading The Pentagon And The Art Of War by Edward N Luttwak I have tended to view the glut of senior officers as the root of all evil. There are entire chapters on the effect of too many senior officers on such matters as strategy and procurement. If you want a core problem, that’s my nomination. There are other problems as well, but addressing the officer glut would by itself be a game changer.

    I also remember reading The Battle For Hunger Hill by Daniel Bolger, in which he recounts his experiences commanding a battalion that was rotating through Fort Polk and facing the OPFOR there on exercises. (Almost all units who face the OPFOR at Polk get shellacked) From what he describes, our staff system seems inflexible and unwieldy.

    A couple of choices of books you might read. I’m not sure if either is in print, but you can hunt around.

  11. Larry,

    Perhaps there is a single thing wrong with our military, but who can agree on it? My point is that when you walk into a disheveled house, you start cleaning one thing and then move onto the next thing rather than discover the cause. Success in reform begets success. Go after the low-hanging fruit. With order in place, it’s easier to see what caused disorder.

    1. PRCD,

      (1) “Perhaps there is a single thing wrong with our military, but who can agree on it?”

      That’s missing my point. This isn’t an academic exercise to see whose paper gets the most applause. It’s an operational exercise to determine how to reform the army. Success in the answer comes from its ability to convince people in the fray that it is worth trying (i.e., an acceptable balance of cost-risk-reward).

      (2) “you walk into a disheveled house ”

      That’s a completely inappropriate analogy. First, we know what a clean house looks like, and how to clean a house. Second, there are not horrific consequences to trying a rational but different method of cleaning. It would be as if a decision to clean the bathroom first might result in being fired and blackballed from the industry — assuming that you had years of effort invested in your cleaning career.

      (3) “With order in place, it’s easier to see what caused disorder.”

      Again, that’s an inappropriate analogy. I doubt you can find any expert who believes the problems are as simple as “disorder” — or that there are simple “low hanging fruit” to fix. Goldwater Nichols was a logical first step, since the need for tighter interservice ops was obvious in WWII. It was hideously difficult to implement, and failed to achieve its larger goals.

  12. Is there any military on the planet that has seen as much action as the US military since WWII? I see a dichotomy between a supposedly”peace loving” ( insert laughter here if you like ) nation and one placed on a near permanent war footing. We’re supposed to be a democracy, yet we behave as an empire with what has for all intents and purposes turned into a “dictatorship” when it comes to using the military ( both political parties have very little difference between them on this issue). Why should our military change? There’s a continual supply of willing candidates to fill recruitment quotas, a virtual blank check from the treasury,a ready made war is always around the corner to grease the promotion ladder and a large segment of the populace brainwashed into thinking the military walks on water. There is no incentive for change.

    We’re not “defending” anything except the right to plunder the globe as our corporate-owned elites see fit, stomping on the weak nations and declaring it a tragedy if some(or a lot) of our young people come home in body bags. We have no credible threat of invasion and our nuclear “umbrella” wards off any but the suicidal. It isn’t a question of learning how to start “winning” wars, it should be one learning how to cease starting them. I fully believe the only thing that would curtail this is a return to the draft, but that will never happen since rich peoples kids would have to serve or be exposed as cowards. We need to chose between a return to republican democracy or continuing empire, I don’t believe we can have both.

    1. Kent,

      (1) “I see a dichotomy between a supposedly”peace loving” …nation and one placed on a near permanent war footing.”

      Yes. We are quite belligerent. If we continue to start fights, eventually we’ll get in trouble.

      (2) “We’re supposed to be a democracy, yet we behave as an empire with what has for all intents and purposes turned into a “dictatorship” when it comes to using the military”

      Let’s not shift the responsibility. The US public supported both Iraq and Af invasions. Congress was likewise supportive. No dictatorship, just the usual American mantra — “It’s not our fault.” We should put that on the currency, replacing E Pluribus Unum.

      (3) The rest is all sad but true.

  13. That’s missing my point. This isn’t an academic exercise to see whose paper gets the most applause. It’s an operational exercise to determine how to reform the army. Success in the answer comes from its ability to convince people in the fray that it is worth trying (i.e., an acceptable balance of cost-risk-reward).

    I could foresee this happening if there were no pensions or cushy jobs at defense companies at stake. Unfortunately, the flag and general officers have the opposite incentives. Perhaps senior NCOs could unionize and demand reforms. Their pensions would be at stake also. Reform takes much courage and willingness to lose financially. How many times have I heard, “I’ve almost done my 20?” If the whole military pension system was rolled over into individual Vanguard 401(k)s of some sort, people wouldn’t have any money at stake and reforms would be more likely.

    I am an engineer, so when faced with a complex, intractable problem I just start working on some aspect of it until I learn more about it. I try inputs and look at the outputs, like the montecarlo method. You and I, both desiring reform, can’t even begin to agree on where it should start. Imagine selling more people on the idea of reform.

    My analogy may be sloppy. It may be time to consider that the military is beyond the point of reform. We don’t even have the political will to end the madness of putting our daughters into combat arms.

  14. “We went into Iraq for three reasons.

    (3) Iraq is run by its Shiite majority, and an ally of Iran. We wanted Iraq as an ally of the US against Iran.”

    Uh, that’s quite an impressive re-imagining of history and reality. Iraq was led by the Sunni minority, not the Shia. It was an ally against Iran. We turned the country over to them by destabilizing it.

    And your economic determinism schtick wasn’t right then and it’s not right now.

    1. Adam,

      Wow. A double reading FAIL!

      (1) “Iraq was led by the Sunni minority”

      My statement is in the present case — “Iraq is run by its Shiite majority.” Not the past tense.

      (2) “your economic determinism schtick”

      That US leaders said that they sought economic advantages is not “economic determinism.”

Leave a Reply