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.
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.
(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.
(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.
“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.
Other posts in this series
- Why does the US field the best soldiers but lose so often?
- Why the US military keeps losing wars.
- Possible solutions, paths to a better future for the US military.
(8) For More Information
- Winning hearts and mind with artillery fire, 2008.
- Another example of winning hearts & minds with artillery, 2008.
- The trinity of modern warfare at work in Afghanistan – How we fight, from Vietnam to today.
- Presidential decision-making about Vietnam and Afghanistan: “You have 3 choices, sir”, 2010.
- About our operations in Kandahar – all that’s old is new again.
- Another echo in Afghanistan of the Vietnam War. Will we hear it, and learn?
- How the Iraq and Vietnam wars are mirror images of each other.
- The military takes us back to the future. To Vietnam, again and again.
- Stark evidence from our past about our inability to learn today.
- Secret government docs reveal a hidden truth about the Afghanistan War – Spoiler: it’s just like Vietnam.
- 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.