Why America Loses Every War It Starts

Summary: What is more pitiful than a great state with a belligerent foreign policy, spending many times more on the military than all its foes combined, picking fights around the world (often with no rational reason for involvement) — yet losing to all but the least competent foes? That’s our America! After several generations of expensive failures, even our leaders have noticed. This new book begins to grapple with this problem, one of America’s most important. See the end of the post for other perspectives on it. I’ll post a review after we’ve moved into our new home.

Preface to
Anatomy of Failure:
Why America Loses Every War It Starts

By Harlan Ullman, Naval Institute Press (2017).

Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Every War It Starts
Available at Amazon.

Since the official end of the Cold War in 1991, remarkably, the United States has been at war or engaged in significant military conflicts and interventions for over two-thirds of the intervening years. Tens of thousands of American soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen have been killed or wounded in these conflicts.

  • Wars and conflicts in Iraq in 1991;
  • Somalia, 1992–93;
  • the global war on terror,
  • Afghanistan, 2001–present;
  • Iraq, 2003–present; and
  • Syria and Yemen since 2016.

These represent a total of nineteen of the past twenty-six years in which this nation’s armed forces have been engaged in combat!

Using the end of World War II in 1945 as a second starting point and including the Korean (1950–53) and Vietnam Wars (from 1959 – when the first Americans were killed – to withdrawal in 1974), Americans have been in battle for thirty-seven of the past seventy-two years, or well over 50% of the time. The record has not been impressive.

  • Korea was a draw.
  • Vietnam was an ignominious defeat, vividly encapsulated by the poignant image of the last Huey helicopter lifting off the roof of the embattled American embassy in Saigon.
  • The only outright victory of the past six decades was the first Iraq War in 1991, in which President George H. W. Bush had the sound judgment to limit the objective to ejecting Saddam Hussein and his army from Kuwait and then to withdraw the bulk of our forces from the region.
  • Tragically for the nation, Bush’s son, George Bush, presided over arguably the greatest American strategic catastrophe since the Civil War, the second Iraq war – a conflict that led to the rise of the Islamic State and is still being waged today, without an end in sight.

The reader can evaluate the outcomes of the other interventions cited above. Several observations that can be made about this history of repeated failure are almost as dismal the record itself.

First, few Americans are even aware of or concerned over how long this nation has been engaged in armed conflict over recent decades. It is quite a staggering length of time for a country that prides itself on its “exceptionalism” and its “peaceful” efforts to spread democracy around the globe.

Second, few Americans even ask why, given what we believe is the greatest military in the world, our record in war and military interventions is so failure prone. Third, we ourselves must ask: What can be done, in light of general public indifference, to ensure success whenever the nation employs military force in major conflicts or interventions?

This book examines the more significant American uses of force over the past six decades to understand why we lose wars (and fail in interventions) that we start. It also argues the absolute need to adopt a valid framework for making decisions – what I have termed a “brains-based approach to strategic thinking.” While some may regard this term as arrogant, the fact is that too often we have failed to exercise fully the grey matter between our ears, with disastrous results.

To succeed, sound strategic thinking must transcend or minimize the vagaries of politics, ideologies, simplistic campaign slogans, wishful ideas, and the inexperience that have (as the forthcoming chapters will argue) handicapped the nation’s last three commanders in chief and almost certainly will affect the current one. From these analyses, the book derives means for how to win, how to succeed in applying force.

To make this argument more vivid, vignettes about major events are interspersed throughout the text. To some, they will be controversial. To others, these vignettes will underscore on a personal level the larger reasons for failure and the damning impact of the absence of sound strategic thinking. Each vignette is an accurate summary of actual events, to the best of my recollection. A few circumstances have been altered to protect sensitive information or sources.

As with any work, shortfalls and errors are the responsibility of the author alone. The only responsibility of the reader is to keep an open mind in understanding why we lose the very conflicts we start.

Reprinted, by permission, from Harlan Ullman’s Anatomy Of Failure
(Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, © 2017).


Interesting in reading more?

See this excerpt.


Glowing endorsements from US policy leaders usually signal a book that either justifies their folly or offers chaff as recommendations (i.e., innocuous or specious). This is an exception. The failures of US military expeditions since WWII has become too obvious and dangerous. Even people who run the system have become alarmed and open to discussing new ideas. Who knows? Perhaps some day they will become open to trying new ideas.

“This book should be read by all practitioners and serious students of national security as the guide for avoiding failures and miscalculations in using American military power.”
Colin L. Powell (General, US Army, retired), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989–93) and 65th Secretary of State (2001-05).

“Ullman’s rigorous intellectual process is a meaningful contribution to the national dialogue. Every question he asks is one that should be asked and answered, however imperfectly, before our country jumps in or backs in to another military intervention, especially in an increasingly complex world of non-state actors, shifting alliances, and emerging power centers.”
John F. Kerry, Senator (1985-2013) and Secretary of State (2013-17).

“Harlan Ullman’s latest book is one of the most insightful assessments of modern U.S. military history. I highly recommend this book to presidents, policymakers, and the public alike as it recalls the lessons from our nation’s cautionary tales and guides us toward a safer, more peaceful future.”
James L. Jones Jr. (General, USMC, retired), Commandant of the Marine Corps; Supreme Allied Commander Europe; and National Security Advisor (2009-10).

Harlan K. Ullman
By US Navy Communication Specialist 1st Class Jaima Fogg.

About the author

Harlan K. Ullman is Chairman of the Killowen Group, CNIGuard Ltd, and CNIGuard Inc. He is a Senior Advisor of the Atlantic Council. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1963 and has a MA, MALD, and Ph.D. from The Fletcher School at Tufts University. He commanded destroyers and Swift Boats in Vietnam. He now serves as Distinguished Senior Fellow and Visiting Professor at the US Naval War College.

Ullman was co-creator of the “shock and awe” doctrine (aka “rapid dominance”): use of “overwhelming decisive force to paralyze the foe and destroy his will to fight. He has written seven books, including …

For More Information

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Essential reading to understand modern war

The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz by Martin van Creveld.

The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World by General Rupert Smith.

Transformation of War
Avilable at Amazon.
The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World
Available at Amazon.


14 thoughts on “Why America Loses Every War It Starts”

  1. Our own Queen Victoria’s Little Wars. It seems we’ve been going abroad looking for monsters to destroy.

    There are a number of reasons why we haven’t been good with the finish but I think the biggest is the lack of national buy in and not formal declarations of war. But, I think each conflict had its own reason.

    Checking my library now to see if the books available.

  2. The Man Who Laughs

    I look forward to your review, although from a certain perspective, Bush The Elder’s war wasn’t as successful as all that and a plate of fries. It initiated a years long siege of Iraq that was likely to end in either a humiliating collapse of the sanctions when the rest of the region (Or the world) developed sanctions fatigue, or some kind of attempt at regime change. I’d also point out that Bush The Elder may have been restrained more by the misgivings of the very large coalition he put together than any particular wisdom on his part. Finally, would it have meant the end of the war if Saddam had kept Kuwait?

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor

      The Man,

      “Bush The Elder’s war wasn’t as successful as all that”

      All your points are, of course, accurate. But, to be generous, we should grade our leaders on a curve. Bush Sr. looks like a genius compared with the rest of our war leaders.

    2. I don’t believe the Saudi’s supported us taking out Saadam. Saudi’s were more concerned about Iran.

      All in all we don’t do these well because we are not willing to be brutal. We started out that way with Afghanistan and then we started farting around – concern with U.S. casualties (valid to a point), nation building. We lost our way.

      1. Larry Kummer, Editor


        “All in all we don’t do these well because we are not willing to be brutal.”

        First, that’s not correct. As had been thoroughly documented, we’ve used torture and mass killing of civilians.

        Second, that’s one of the hard facts we refuse to see that dooms our efforts. Since Mao brought 4GW to maturity everybody has a poor record as foreigners fighting local insurgents, no matter how “brutal.” As Martin van Creveld describes in Chapter 6.2 of The Changing Face of War (2006):

        What is known, though, is that attempts by post-1945 armed forces to suppress guerrillas and terrorists have constituted a long, almost unbroken record of failure … {W}hat changed was the fact that, whereas previously it had been the main Western powers that failed, now the list included other countries as well. Portugal’s expulsion from Africa in 1975 was followed by the failure of the South Africans in Namibia, the Ethiopians in Ertrea, the Indians in Sri Lanka, the Americans in Somalia, and the Israelis in Lebanon. … Even in Denmark {during WWII}, “the model protectorate”, resistance increased as time went on.

        Many of these nations used force up to the level of genocide in their failed attempts to defeat local insurgencies. Despite that, foreign forces have an almost uniform record of defeat. Such as the French-Algerian War, which the French waged until their government collapsed.

  3. It’s Enhanced interrogation and we don’t systematically smoke check the masses. Your idea of brutal and my idea of brutal are much different.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      Whatever. The point remains that the “just use more force, more torture and more killing” has been repeatedly tried and repeatedly failed.

      We will continue to lose until that is realized. Refusal to learn is guaranteed failure.

  4. our only victory the first gulf war? have you forgotten our glorious victory over mighty grenada?

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      These scorecards consider conflicts. “Raids” are usually not included. Raids are typically conducted at overwhelmingly favorable odds, and even incompetent organizations can “win.”

  5. Finally some Afghanistan news today. Something drew the media’s attention. Headline: Taliban Offensive Blindsides Afghan and Coalition Forces.

    We and our Coalition are the next in the graveyard of Armies in Afghanistan. Taliban only has to survive to win. We can’t even beat them with all our technology and air power.

    To think I was for these stupid adventures when we debated them 17 years ago makes me ill. I’ve looked everywhere, studied hard and my outlook has radically changed.

    The people who changed my mind in this order: David Hackworth, Bill Lind, you, Chet Richards.

    Thank you. I’m doing all I can to help.

  6. Pingback: William Lind explains one reason our military can't win wars - Fabius Maximus website (blog) | Bible Prophecy In The Daily Headlines

  7. Some might consider it ‘carping’ and perhaps it is. And I understand the Two Iraq Wars theory. But I’d score Iraq call it a single war with a long cease fire.[Not unlike WWI and WWI being a single war, but long verbal wars over definitions tend to have no winners also] The US was ahead at half time but it wasn’t a win under Bush I and then losing in the second half under Bush II’s ‘leadership’.

    Grenada was a raid that was won and under the Grenada criteria then Panama was a raid? Rather like Ford’s Mayguez-related raid. Each were acts of war which, I contend, created a state of war.

    Since 1946 I’d score it all losses with Korea still a tie at half time.

    Isn’t the lesson of the 20th century around the globe and after is that the visiting team always loses with possible exceptions where the population desires the visitors to win, such as Crimea. And by contrast Switzerland hasn’t lost a war since since since what, the 1500s?

    1. Steve,

      ” Korea still a tie at half time.”

      Yes, that is what the article says. Which is why the forms of the statement for the US are usually to express it as “since Korea” or as “lose all 4GWs” (Korea was a conventional war).

      “Isn’t the lesson of the 20th century around the globe and after is that the visiting team always loses with possible exceptions where the population desires the visitors to win,”

      That’s a bit too broadly stated. The usual form is to say that foreign armies lose to local insurgents. That is, when a foreign army takes the lead role, they lose. It’s a hard conclusion (ie, the exceptions are tiny). The grey area is the definition of foreign. The UK defeated the Northern Island IRA, but the differences are so small in language and culture that the degree of “foreignness” is low.

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