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.
By Harlan Ullman
Naval Institute Press (2017).
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
— 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?
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).
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 …
- Owls and Eagles: Ending the Foreign Policy Flights of Fancy of Hawks, Doves, and Neo-Cons (2005).
- America’s Promise Restored: Preventing Culture, Crusade, and Partisanship from Wrecking Our Nation (2006).
- A Handful of Bullets: How the Murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Still Menaces the Peace (2014).
For More Information
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Essential reading to understand modern war