Martin van Creveld reviews America’s mad wars

Summary: As we look back over 2018, Martin van Creveld reviews the sad history of our mad wars since 9/11. With his insights we can do better in 2019, if we try.

George W. Bush declares mission accomplished

Quick in, Slow Out

By Martin van Creveld. From his website, 27 December 2018.
Posted with his generous permission.

When 9/11 shook the world seventeen years ago the U.S was quick to respond. And the response, whatever else, was bound to be spectacular so as to make both friends and opponents see the hole through which the fish pisses, to use a colorful Israeli expression. A superpower – at the time, remember, there was only one – simply cannot afford to be treated the way Bin Laden and Co. treated the U.S. Such is the way of the world; had President Bush not done what the vast majority both in Congress and in the nation believed was both justified and necessary, surely a way would have been found either to coerce him or to sweep him away.

That said, right from the beginning militarily the prospects were dubious. Not because the target of America’s rage was far away, land-bound, and hard to access – those were problems that could be and were overcome, albeit at vast expense. And not because it was in any sense powerful – quite the reverse. Never exactly united, left in ruins following eight years of Soviet occupation and civil war, Afghanistan was not a country in any conventional sense. It had no government, only a decentralized, constantly quarrelling, assembly of different religious groups and ethnic tribes. It had no military – basically all they had was light arms, reinforced by a few outdated Soviet tanks they had captured. And scarcely what the citizens of modern state would recognize as an economy. Except for that based on opium, of course.

Victory poster

All this explains why, once the political and logistic pieces had been put in place, the operation went without a hitch, lasted but a few weeks, and ended in what, at the time, seemed to be complete victory. Some readers may even remember Sec/Def Donald Rumsfeld boasting about it at Fort Bragg. However, the resulting euphoria did not last long. Within a matter of months it turned out that, whatever the weaknesses of Afghanistan as a country and of the Taliban as a government, there was one thing they did have. Namely, a practically unlimited supply of men (here and there, a few women too) prepared to put their lives at risk in fighting the Big Bad Wolf; the one which, the way they saw it, had invaded their country in order to destroy their faith and their way of life.

By the mid-2002, at the latest, it was clear that the war could not be won and was, in fact, well on the way to being lost just as Vietnam and Somalia had previously been. Beset by hubris, however, those in and around the White House were reluctant to draw that conclusion. Eyes they had, but they did not see. Ears they had, but they did not listen. Instead they talked and talked. And what did they talk about? Well, about how they had made their country the most powerful in history and how this unprecedented power would enable them to repeat their “victory” in Iraq, of course.

At this point I have a confession to make. Almost from the beginning, I was convinced that the American campaign in Afghanistan, necessary though it might be, would probably fail. On that I turned out to be right. Where I turned out to be wrong was my belief that the people in Washington would learn from this counterinsurgency campaign as well as practically all others from 1945 on. Even as preparations for the war in Iraq, went on, I refused to believe they were meant in earnest; no one, I thought, could be that stupid.

To be sure, Saddam Hussein is long gone. However, from 1991 on he had never poised any real danger to anyone. Instead it was the U.S which, using the need to secure “Iraqi Freedom” as its excuse, became entangled in a war. Once it had been launched, it lasted fourteen years and cost the lives of thousands of troops as well as uncounted trillions of dollars. All to no profit that anyone can see. And all to achieve nothing better than turning the country into a vassal of America’s adversary Iran.

Next came the American decision to intervene in Syria. Here I must hand it to Barack Obama: Having inherited not one but two foolish wars from his predecessor, he was wary of launching a third. Originally the effort had little to do with ISIS at all. Instead it was intended to assist Syria’s “moderate” and “democratic” forces in their effort to overthrow their country’s President Bashir Assad who in turn was supported by Moscow. Only later, after it had become clear that those forces amounted to little if anything, did ISIS become the principal target. And even then the American force, originally limited to fewer than 200 troops, never counted more than 2,000 at any one time.

True, the Americans brought with them some unique capabilities, especially in the fields of logistics – when it comes to logistics, no one can beat the Americans – reconnaissance, communications, and electronic warfare. In the end, though, it was not they but the Iraqi Army, the Kurds and Assad’s forces who did the fighting and suffered practically all the casualties. Yet the principal reason why ISIS was defeated was because, violating classic guerrilla doctrine, it tried to occupy territory and switch to conventional warfare at too early a stage. In any case the victory is not complete. Even as I was writing this piece, I came across a piece (Washington Post) that said its leaders had smuggled huge amounts of cash and gold out of Iraq and were ready to use it to finance terrorism around the world. As to the original objective, i.e. getting rid of Assad, forget about it.

In brief, a campaign that was started against one adversary failed. Having been redirected against another, it only achieved very partial success. On the way it got involved with so many friends and enemies as to make it dubious whether anyone could still make any sense of it at all. Least of all, the Neo Cons who are always eager to hurl their country into new and usually senseless adventures. And least of all, apparently, President Trump. Was the objective to smash ISIS? Was it to save the Kurds from their Turkish and Syrian enemies? Was it to prevent the Russians from becoming firmly established in Syria? Or to help Israel confront Iran? Or?

If I were an American I would thank God President Obama had the good sense to keep it small and not expand it the way similar campaigns did in the past. And high time, I’d say, to cut one’s losses; even if doing so requires that a false claim of victory be made.

———————-———————-

Martin van Creveld

About the Author

Martin van Creveld is Professor Emeritus of History at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and one of the world’s most renowned experts on military history and strategy.

The central role of Professor van Creveld in the development of theory about modern war is difficult to exaggerate. He has written 24 books about almost every significant aspect of war. See links to his articles at The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld.

OF more general interest are his books about western culture: Men, Women & War: Do Women Belong in the Front Line?, The Privileged Sex, and Pussycats: Why the Rest Keeps Beating the West.

To better understand our future, see his magnum opus – the dense but mind-opening The Rise and Decline of the State – describes the political order unfolding before our eyes.

His latest book is Hitler in Hell, a mind-blowing memoir “by” one of the most remarkable men of 20th century.

For More Information

Ideas! For shopping ideas see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about military strategy in theory & practiceabout our long war, about military strategy, about our incompetent senior generals, and especially these…

  1. Our generals reveal why we lost in Afghanistan, and will continue to lose.
  2. Why does the US field the best soldiers but lose so often?
  3. Why the US military keeps losing wars.
  4. Why America Loses Every War It Starts.
  5. William Lind: why America’s foreign policy fails so often.
  6. William Lind explains our mad wars – and how we can win.
  7. Washington spews lies at us about Syria while madness reigns.

Books to help us better understand our mad wars

Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Every War It Starts by Harlan Ullman.

The Good War: Why We Couldn’t Win the War or the Peace in Afghanistan by Jack Fairweather.

"Anatomy Of Failure" by Harlan Ullman.
Available at Amazon.
The Good War: Why We Couldn’t Win the War or the Peace in Afghanistan
Available at Amazon.

23 thoughts on “Martin van Creveld reviews America’s mad wars

  1. A comedy of errors, let’s hope Trump can do better. It’s hard to say if Trump bombed the hell out of ISIS but Nixon did the same thing before getting out of Vietnam. We can only hope.

    1. Ron,

      “let’s hope Trump can do better.”

      Or rather, “do better in the second half of his term.” So far he has followed the same script as Bush Jr and Obama.

      “It’s hard to say if Trump bombed the hell out of ISIS”

      The US armed ISIS. The US bombed Assad and ISIS (we don’t know in what proportions).

      1. Larry,

        “Or rather, “do better in the second half of his term.” So far he has followed the same script as Bush Jr and Obama.”

        Yes, I guess it would be up to us to make sure he does. Coulter is handling the wall on Twitter.

      2. Ron,

        Color me skeptical about our ability to influence elected officials, except in extreme cases.

        We guide the nation through political participation: organizing (advocacy, etc), supporting candidates with our time and money, and (least effective but still important) voting.

  2. “Afghanistan was not a country in any conventional sense. It had no government, only a decentralized, constantly quarrelling, assembly of different religious groups and ethnic tribes. It had no military – basically all they had was light arms, reinforced by a few outdated Soviet tanks they had captured. And scarcely what the citizens of modern state would recognize as an economy. Except for that based on opium, of course.”

    That has certainly been the norm in Afghanistan. But at the time of the U.S. invasion, the Taliban had established control over almost all of the country and had effectively eradicated opium production. A small point, but such carelessness makes we wonder if the author can be trusted on other points.

    “Next came the American decision to intervene in Syria.”

    No. Next came the intervention in Libya.

    “Here I must hand it to Barack Obama: Having inherited not one but two foolish wars from his predecessor, he was wary of launching a third.”

    He was not the least bit wary about launching the third. But he was a bit wary about the fourth.

    “Originally the effort had little to do with ISIS at all. … Only later… did ISIS become the principal target.”

    The initial meddling had nothing to do with ISIS, since ISIS as such did not yet exist. But that meddling helped ISIS gain strength, after which it became necessary to expand the intervention to deal with ISIS.

    It seems like van Creveld knows that he can not get away without criticizing Obama, but is anxious to minimize that criticism.

    “Least of all, the Neo Cons who are always eager to hurl their country into new and usually senseless adventures. And least of all, apparently, President Trump.”

    I suppose those are rhetorical swipes at people van Creveld does not like. But I can’t tell what he is actually saying, since they are not even sentences.

    “Was the objective to smash ISIS?”

    The objective of the operation against ISIS was to smash ISIS. What else would it be? It was necessary, unlike so many of our other actions. Of course, we can not militarily bring an end to Islamic extremism. But ISIS gave that extremism an enormous recruiting tool and massive funding. The “caliphate” needed to go.

    Van Creveld pulls off the difficult trick of making a completely unconvincing criticism of our foreign interventions.

    1. “I suppose those are rhetorical swipes at people van Creveld does not like. But I can’t tell what he is actually saying, since they are not even sentences.”

      Creveld is supporting Trump’s withdrawl from Syria.

      “In brief, a campaign that was started against one adversary failed. Having been redirected against another, it only achieved very partial success. On the way it got involved with so many friends and enemies as to make it dubious whether anyone could still make any sense of it at all. Least of all, the Neo Cons who are always eager to hurl their country into new and usually senseless adventures. And least of all, apparently, President Trump. Was the objective to smash ISIS? Was it to save the Kurds from their Turkish and Syrian enemies? Was it to prevent the Russians from becoming firmly established in Syria? Or to help Israel confront Iran? Or?”

      This is about the Syria war. We started with “Assad Must Go” and we ended with “Defeat ISIS”. After that, what is it the point of the USA presence in Syria exactly? This has never been made clear.

      ” If I were an American I would thank God President Obama had the good sense to keep it small and not expand it the way similar campaigns did in the past. And high time, I’d say, to cut one’s losses; even if doing so requires that a false claim of victory be made.”

      The ‘false claim of victory; is about ISIS being defeated, and ‘cutting losses’ is the order to withdraw from Syria.

      1. Cathryn,

        Thank you for explaining this simple essay to Mike. It’s probably a waste of time. Given the energy he devoted to not understanding it, my guess is that he will be able to not understand your explanation either.

  3. Well, Trump has shown more wisdom than Obama did regarding Syria. I can’t imagine Obama ever having ordered a pullout. I’ll point out that Nixon took four years to disengage from Vietnam, a war that was lost before he ever took office. Trump is farther along than Nixon was at this point, but we’ll see. The Deep State may decide to argue about the shape of the table.

    As for Afghanistan, the operation was successful, but the patient died. We chased out the Taliban in short order, and then stuck around and tried to nation build, or maybe free the Afghans the way that Lincoln freed the slaves or the Allied freed Western Europe. But Afghanistan isn’t the Confederacy or occupied France. We can’t just do simple punitive expeditions, we always have to liberate someone. It’s usually not possible. And even after we declare mission accomplished, we never, ever leave. We won a victory, and then violated Machiavelli’s dictum about trying to achieve more than victory.

    1. The Man,

      “I’ll point out that Nixon took four years to disengage from Vietnam, a war that was lost before he ever took office. Trump is farther along than Nixon was at this point, but we’ll see. The Deep State may decide to argue about the shape of the table.”

      The way I remember it, Nixon won the election with a promise to get out of Vietnam. Once in office, he proceeded to carpet bomb supply routes in Cambodia and Laos that set off huge demonstrations and we were out in two years.

      Lindsey Graham was mouthing off yesterday of a talk he had with Trump going well and delaying troop withdraw until three impossible goals are met. That better not happen, I’m waiting for Trump’s reaction.

      1. Ron,

        That’s not really correct. Nixon promised to end the war, but (being Nixon) had no plan to do so – but still intended to win. He quickly implemented Vietnamization: shifting US troops to a support role and reducing their numbers. Casualties dropped fast as combat operations were reduced.

        US Troops there peaked at 536 thousand in 1968. Protests accelerated, peaking in 1970 (eg, killings at the Kent State and Jackson State protests). In 1970 there were 335k; but only 157k in 1971. By 1972, there were 24 thousand. He announced the end of the draft in January 1973.

        The reduced draft callups quickly sapped the power of the antiwar movement.

        Then, as now, broad American concern about bombing was minimal. It was a checklist item for most protestors, but minor compared to American casualties and drafts.

      2. Larry,

        Thanks for the corrections. If I’m not mistaken, Nixon carried out bombing runs hidden from the public. For how long, I don’t know.

      3. Larry,

        Thanks for the links, it’s always an education here.

        I never knew about operations ‘Menu’/ ‘Freedom Deal’ and spoke as perceived by me at the time. Dark Times/Criminal for sure.

      4. Larry,

        ” We were fortunate. This could have gone much worse for us”

        Nixon got us out of Vietnam, looks like the hard way from what I know now. We should have never been there in the first place and didn’t learn our history lesson to this day.

      5. Ron,

        “Nixon got us out of Vietnam”

        Only in the sense that Nixon made the sun rise and set. Any president elected in 1968 would have gotten us out of Vietnam. Nixon successfully delayed that departure for several years, and his bombing (secret and overt) vastly multiplied the damage done to SE Asia.

  4. Mike, I’d add the following:
    Thanking God that “Obama had the good sense to keep it small and not expand it the way similar campaigns” — is this a mockery? How about the destruction of Libya or the surge in illegal drone warfare?
    If the Nobel committee had any guts, they would request Obama to relinquish his “Peace Prize!”
    Not to mention that all “costs and casualties” were stated only from one-sided perspective — are the hundreds of thousands lives and millions of displaced, impoverished and terrorized Iraqis, Syrians, Libyans etc. kindly omitted?

    1. Creveld is writing from the perspective that Obama was wise to not add an additional permanent garrison at ruinous expense to the nation’s balance sheets and graveyards, which is hard to argue with, and does not mean that the other parts were good.

  5. OK, Ladies & Gentlemen,
    Whether “War and Peace” or, more subtly: “War, what is it good for” conversations we all strive in bettering this world; by our limited means and (some of) our yet more limited expressions…
    I wish to all of you, and especially The Editor, a very fruitful and happy 2019. The best and, to all of us earlier born, the best of health, wishes by yours truly,
    JaKo

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