Why we lose our wars

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist  |  Updated Nov. 14, 2017 at 11:06 AM
share with facebook
share with twitter
| License Photo

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Veterans Day is perhaps a most appropriate time to consider the wars and battles in which Americans gave their lives and shed their blood. Sadly, since the end of World War II, despite the heroism and commitment of our fighting men and women and despite the belief that the United States has the best military in the world, our record for success has not been good. Of course, we prevailed in the most important battle of the past 70 years: the Cold War, in which hardly a shot in anger was fired.

But since the Korean War that was at best a draw when it was ended by an armistice and not a peace treaty in 1953, the United States has lost every war it started and failed every time it used military force without just cause or a good reason. As disturbing as this fact is, most readers will not realize that since September 11, 2001, the United States has been at war or engaged in significant combat operations for 70 percent of the intervening years. That works out to five days out of seven.

The Vietnam War was an ignominious defeat in which over 58,000 Americans and conceivably millions of Vietnamese died. The only good news was defeat had no strategic consequences. The second Iraq War of 2003 was America's greatest strategic catastrophe since the Civil War. The Afghanistan conflict is still ongoing after 16 years, with no end in sight. And we started Vietnam and Iraq and mistakenly expanded the Afghan war into nation building that could never succeed

Lesser uses of force without just cause likewise did not work. While many regard the Cuban Missile Crisis a clear-cut success in 1962 following the disastrous Bay of Pigs Invasion, we provoked it. Sen. John Kennedy came into office in 1961 after running to the right of the Eisenhower administration and his opponent Vice President Richard Nixon. Despite knowing the Soviet Union was decreasing its defense spending and cutting its military, Kennedy embarked on a major defense buildup literally doubling the size of the nuclear deterrent force and enhancing conventional forces.

Cornered by his own military who opposed reductions, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev believed he could outflank America's nuclear and conventional superiority by placing existing, shorter-range nuclear missiles in Cuba. That of course did not work. Two years later, Khrushchev was out and Moscow began its own rearmament.

The Reagan administration falsely believed the Soviet Union could be defeated if provoked into an arms race. It imploded not because it was economically bankrupted but because its political system was brittle and crumbled of its own weight. Against the advice of his secretary of state he stationed Marines in Beirut. In October 1983, 241 were killed when a suicide bomber blew up their barracks. That same month, the United States intervened in Grenada ostensibly to protect Americans studying at St. Georges Medical School and to prevent the Soviet Union from building an alleged air base there. The operational commander informed the White House that the students were never in danger. And the "Soviet air base" was being constructed by a U.K. company in line with a decades-old policy of improving tourism in Grenada.

George W. Bush believed that by democratizing Iraq, "the geostrategic landscape of the greater Middle East would be transformed." Nonexistent weapons of mass destruction became the rationale. And the region was transformed -- for the worse.

Barack Obama wanted to end the "bad" war in Iraq in favor of the "good" war in Afghanistan. He drew "red lines" in Syria that were ignored. And he intervened in Libya to save Benghazi that led to Moammar Gadhafi's death and a civil war.

The reasons why we did not succeed in using our military apply to both political parties and administrations from Kennedy on. First, too often we elect presidents who were unready, unprepared and too inexperienced for office. Second, these presidents lacked good strategic judgment. Third there was a dearth of knowledge and understanding about the conditions in which force was to be used.

What to do about preventing future military failures is the subject of my latest book, Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Every War It Starts. What is needed is a "brains-based approach" to sound strategic thinking. This framework includes a national security framework for the 21st century; a means to ensure better knowledge and understanding of conditions; and the overarching requirement to focus on affecting, influencing and even controlling the will and perception of friends and adversaries.

Whether such an approach will be adopted is moot. But if not, one outcome is likely. Do not expect that our record in using force will be any better in the future than in the past.

Harlan Ullman has served on the Senior Advisory Group for Supreme Allied Commander Europe (2004-16) and is a senior adviser at Washington, D.C.'s Atlantic Council, chairman of two private companies and principal author of the doctrine of shock and awe. A former naval person, he commanded a destroyer in the Persian Gulf and led over 150 missions and operations in Vietnam as a Swift Boat skipper. His next book, "Anatomy of Failure: Why America has Lost Every War it Starts," will be published in the fall. Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.

Related UPI Stories
Trending Stories