To win we must first understand why we lose. Start here.

Summary: Since Vietnam, our military history has been one of failure against anyone who fought. To learn why, begin with Anatomy of Failure by Harlan Ullman. It is about the most important and most ignored aspect of US foreign policy. The conclusion will surprise most readers – and points to a better way.

Checkmate - last move in a game of chess.
ID 17013500 © Gustavo Andrade | Dreamstime.

America’s foreign policy has been increasingly militarized since roughly 1960. Now foreign policy seems to consist largely of sending carriers to threat upstart nations, stationing missiles or bases to threaten rivals, or using other methods of modern warfare (as the great book calls it, Unrestricted Warfare). The latter include trade sanctions and tariffs, cutting nations out of the global payments system, cyberattacks, assassination, and funding insurgents (we have used all of these against Iran).

So the big question is: why has the world’s ruling hegemon – the only superpower for 28 years – gotten so few benefits from such lavish use of its power? Harlan Ullman sharpens this to a razor point in his book, Anatomy of Failure, asking why does America lose every war it starts? This is the big question for US political experts, but one seldom even asked. Instead, they prefer to discuss our overwhelming nuclear and convention military power, our vast horde of well-equipped cyberwarriors (always shown only in a defensive role), our innumerable alliances, and our paramount role in the global economy.

We have a mixed role in raids on other nations (e.g., Grenada 1983, Iraq 1991, Somalia 1992-93, Serbia 1999). But against foes that fight – even relatively small numbers of untrained and poorly equipped insurgents – since 1960 we do not win. As Ullman succinctly gives the bad news.

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

“The simple answer is that no matter who or what party is in power and whether the president is seasoned or inexperienced, ideology, political expediency, and failure to pose and answer difficult questions or to challenge basic policy assumptions too often dominate and become surrogates for sound strategic thinking. Nor do we always fully understand the issues and consequences of action and inaction.”

To find the reasons for our repeated failures, Ullman gives brief but penetrating summaries of our military adventures from Vietnam to the present. This is the core of the book, and well-worth reading for anyone interested in geopolitical policy and military science. This book deserves to be a standard text in both undergraduate and graduate political science courses. It is the best I have seen of its type. Before determining why we do not win, we need to know what we have done that made us lose.

Ullman deftly tells this history of mistakes. The text flows well, with an appropriate focus on people – not abstractions. Few will agree with every one of his case studies, but they provide a brief and clear basis for discussion. Plus, he gives fun and illuminating vignettes from this grim history of failures.

But solutions, not analysis, are the point of the book. He gives two kinds. First, showing in hindsight how we could have won. Second, he explains why we failed. Here are a few of the scores of reasons he gives.

“{O}ne observation remains stunningly and regrettably unarguable – that since the latter half of the twentieth century, America has lost wars it started or provoked and has failed in military interventions for the same reasons. The fundamental source of these failures can be found in the overall absence of sound strategic thinking and judgment and in a lack of sufficient knowledge or understanding of the circumstances. …

“Whatever the nobility (or superficiality) of these aspirations, none succeeded: each proved unrealistic, too expensive, and thus impossible to achieve. In large measure, these aspirations arose from flawed ideology: unconstrained belief in American exceptionalism and moral superiority and in the ability of the U.S. military to resolve complex political, socioeconomic, religious, and cultural divides and conflicts. Such distortions helped guarantee the setting of goals that could never be met.…

“Fifth, politicization of almost every issue, including the most vital ones of war and peace, has played an outsized role. …

“One other reason for continuing failure rests in the lack of experience and the weakness, inevitably, of judgment in those elected to the Oval Office. …

“One reason is that in those cases brains and intellect were never fully applied, leading to misjudgments, mistakes, and misperceptions that ultimately created failure. Brains and intellect alone have been insufficient to inform and educate the elected leadership, to inculcate in its members a complete understanding of the grim fiscal realities and the current dangers to the U.S. military of uncontrolled internal cost growth.”

He also gives us formulas for success. Here are a few of his prescriptions.

“Sound strategic thinking combines three elements. First is the necessity of deep understanding and knowledge of the circumstances surrounding and encompassing the issues. …Second, administrations have failed to understand the changing strategic environments of their times. …Third, policy outcomes must be achieved through affecting, influencing, and even controlling the will and perception of the target or adversary. …

“First, know your enemy and his strategy. We did not. Second, do not let ideology, mirror-imaging, or conflation of tactical success and strategic victory obscure judgment. Do not allow intelligence to be distorted either to reflect groupthink or serve political expediency. Ruthless objectivity and questioning of basic assumptions are essential. Third, cultural intelligence is prerequisite for success.”

He is not wrong, but I doubt this advice will help future American leaders. His recommendations show the strengths and limits of his analysis. Most of America’s geopolitical leaders are intelligent, highly credentialed (book-smart), well-traveled, and experienced in US geopolitical discussions (if not real-world activities). They are people like Ullman. Ullman’s analysis as an insider proves that America’s foreign policy machinery is broken. As an insider, Ullman’s analysis shows that he cannot see how to fix it.

We need a different approach. Perhaps outsiders with different skillsets could examine our foreign policy and military machinery as systems – and see why good people in them so often make poor decisions. If we ever try this bit of common sense, their first step should be reading Anatomy of Failure.

Start by reading the preface.

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. See his Wikipedia entry.

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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If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about our military, especially these…

  1. Does America have the best military in the world?
  2. Is victory impossible in modern wars? Or just not possible for us?
  3. Why the West loses so many wars, and how we can learn to win – About the two kinds of insurgencies (we’re fighting the kind we can’t win).
  4. A powerful new article shows why we lose so many wars: FAILure to learn.
  5. The Cult of the offense returns: why we’re losing the long war, & how to win.
  6. Will we repeat our mistakes in the Middle East & lose, or play defense & win? – This tells you how to eat soup with a knife. That’s how to win playing defense.
  7. Darwin explains the futility of killing insurgents. It makes them more effective.
  8. Why does the US field the best soldiers but lose so often?
  9. Why the US military keeps losing wars.
  10. William Lind explains our mad wars – and how we can win.

Essential reading for those who would like to win occasionally.

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.


8 thoughts on “To win we must first understand why we lose. Start here.”

  1. Another perspective on geopolitical strategy

    “Winning” is a complex concept. Think about winning in poker.

    “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
    Know when to fold ’em
    Know when to walk away
    And know when to run …”

  2. I know its sounds crazy but maybe those loses don’t matter for the people in charge. For example win or lose the weapons manufacturers made a lot of money.

    1. Sven,

      Failure is not good for the geopolitical experts, civilian and military, who run our foreign policy. Failure is not good for Presidents.

      “For example win or lose the weapons manufacturers made a lot of money.”

      True. But I see no evidence that they were running our foreign policy – until Clown President Trump staffed his administration with executives from the arms manufacturers.

      1. Dig,

        That’s a great article. Thank you for posting it!

        It’s important to see that this is part of a larger trend: the cartelization of the US economy. Sector after sector is consolidating into a few high-profit, stodgy, financially-driven low-performance giants. For more about this, see Matt Stoller’s columns at his website BIG. It is a bipartisan policy to ignore antitrust laws. This is reshaping America.

  3. “True. But I see no evidence that they were running our foreign policy – until Clown President Trump staffed his administration with executives from the arms manufacturers.”

    And yet, Clown President is to be the only administration in most of our lifetimes who seems to care about keeping us OUT of wars.

    1. BrainDrain,

      “who seems to care about keeping us OUT of wars.”

      What wars has he kept us out of? He has expanded US forces in Afghanistan and Africa (AFRICOM) – one old war of the past and some wars of the future. He was within hours (or minutes) of starting a war with Iran (something no previous presidents were stupid enough to do) before saner voices talked him out of it.

  4. Pingback: Win/Lose? Win/Win? Lose/Lose?

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