There are many reasons why nations lose wars. Sometimes small states are simply overwhelmed by large empires, such as Poland’s fall to Nazi Germany in September 1939 or the invasion of Finland by the Soviet Union in 1939. These outcomes are almost always foreordained by huge imbalances in manpower and national wealth, although the superhuman heroism of the Finns and the weather postponed their inevitable defeat for six months.
But such vast mismatches are history’s exceptions. And, on occasion, even the far weaker power can trump the advantages of numbers and resources of the stronger. The Greeks at Marathon, and a decade later at the battles of Salamis and Plataea, proved that even a massive Persian fleet and army did not doom the badly outnumbered Greek cause.
Generals, good and bad, can transform a war—at least up to a point. Had the Confederacy had leaders like Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Philip Sheridan, and George Thomas, it might have held out for years until offered a negotiated settlement. Had Gen. George Casey remained in command in Iraq after 2006, there would have been no surge and no American salvation. Without Hannibal, the Carthaginians would have lost the Second Punic War a decade earlier. Take Matthew Ridgway out of Korea and the Americans by February 1951 might well have been back to Pusan awaiting evacuation.
Technological inferiority—and the permanent inability to rectify it—on rare occasions can lose a war. Hernán Cortes had not one force multiplier, but several—Spanish steel swords, harquebuses, cross-bows, horses, cannon, and body armor—that allowed his conquistadors to craft the destruction of Aztec armies well more than ten times the size of the Spanish and indigenous allied forces at Tenochtitlan. Saddam Hussein in 1990-91 had no answer to the overwhelming American coalition that swarmed his air defenses in a one-sided bombing of Iraq—in the manner that Slobodan Milosevic was similarly outmatched by the NATO air armada that bombed him out power by 1999. Yet, in most cases, even clear weapon superiority—remember both the Russians and Americans in Afghanistan—does not guarantee victory.
How then do nations more often lose wars? In short, mostly by fighting them without careful examination of what are their political aims and whether they have the means to achieve them. It is common for most nations to go to war without its leaders telling the people either what political goals they seek through the fighting or whether they possess the resources to obtain them.
Amid this confusion, a sure way to lose a war is to shed allies and gain enemies. In 431 B.C. Sparta invaded Athens to begin the Peloponnesian War. Both sides had roughly commensurate allies. That parity helped to ensure a stand-off for the first ten years of the fighting of the three-decade long war. But after the catastrophic defeat at Sicily in 413, Sparta and the Peloponnesian League had been joined not just by Thebes, but also by Sicily and soon Persia.
The result was that Athens was defeated in 404 not by Sparta, but rather by the greatest Greek city-states and the Persian Empire combined. The volatile Athenian Assembly was probably right at the war’s outbreak that Athens may have been able to fight Sparta and its Peloponnesian allies to a stalemate, but it never imagined that it would end up fighting allied powers with far more combined resources than its original Spartan enemy.
By May 1941 Hitler had won World War II—at least in the sense that the area of most of the present European Union was under his control. Italy was allied, the Iberian peninsula sympathetically neutral, Russia a partner, America distant and not interested in war, and its sole surviving adversary, Great Britain, was isolated and weak. Yet, by invading the Soviet Union in June 1941, and declaring war on the United States six months later, the Third Reich gained far more powerful enemies than all those it had previously defeated.
Hitler had originally sold the war to his generals on reclaiming lands and glory lost in World War I. But had he warned them in 1939 that he was intent on soon declaring war on both America and the Soviet Union before defeating Britain, they would have thought him insane—especially given the fact that just twenty three years earlier, Germany had lost a winnable conflict on the Western Front by drawing the United States belatedly into World War I. In other words, like Athens, Germany lost to enemies that were not even conceivably enemies when the war started.
Another way to lose a war is to fail to envision how the enemy is to be defeated and whether there are sufficient resources to achieve such a strategy. Argentina in 1982 assumed taking the Malvinas was easy, and that the new female Prime Minister of Great Britain, Margaret Thatcher, lacked the machismo to take them back. Yet the Argentine junta did not have a clue about how to stop the British, should they attempt to liberate the Falklands—and lacked sufficient military forces, skill, and morale to inflict enough punishment on the British fleet to send it home in defeat.
By the same token Hitler never quite figured out whether he was to take Moscow, destroy the Soviet armies in the field, or occupy and steal the oil and resources of Russia, or all three—or which, if any, of such aims were in his means and would best lead to the most rapid defeat of the Soviet Union.
In theory, Israel achieved a draw in its disastrous surprise attack during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, but it was considered a defeat, given that the Arab alliance gained postwar confidence and prestige while Israel lost its reputation of invincibility. Egypt’s Anwar Sadat accepted that he needed only to enter Israel’s occupied territories, not lose his army in the process, and sue for a cessation of fighting by the interested superpowers. In other words, Sadat articulated aims, means, and both how the war was to begin and end—at least enough to pull off a strategic victory despite being clearly outclassed by Israel.
The United States entered Vietnam ostensibly to stop communist aggression in the south. But a decade after the stalemated Korean War, it was still unsure whether victory was to be defined by ensuring an autonomous South Vietnam or defeating the North outright and reuniting the peninsula—or whether a nuclear Soviet Union once again could establish red-lines to deter U.S. tactical options. Nor did the U.S., at least before 1971, have plans of how to translate conventional superiority to strategic victory in an insurgent war, or the degree to which public opinion in a democracy would support the Vietnam War, which could not be won decisively in an accustomed three to four year duration.
Despite the inherent material and political weakness of the Confederacy, the absence of visionary generals among the top command, the weak leadership of Jefferson Davis, and the vast inferiority in manpower and materiel, the South nonetheless might have achieved a stalemated armistice—if only it had husbanded its resources and avoided a series of aggressive invasions northward that resulted in disasters, like Shiloh and Gettysburg. Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee both failed to realize that in the particular conditions of 1861, not losing to the Union, while exacting enormous enemy casualties from invading Union armies on Southern soil, was tantamount to deadlock and a negotiated settlement—in short, a victory by not losing.
Defeat often follows a failure to apprise the public, even in non-democratic and authoritarian societies, of the costs to come, or the existential importance of victory. A sense of national purpose, a moral cause, material rewards to be gained—all that means little to a fickle public if costs mount and stalemate ensues in a way never envisioned at the war’s beginning. Saddam Hussein had the rationale, the support, the means, and the aims to invade and occupy Kuwait in August 1990, and so he did. But he failed to apprise the Iraqi people that by doing so, he would likely earn a war with the U.S. and its coalition, much less that he could not win any such wider war that followed.
As a general rule, the public supports a war when it goes well and abandons when it does not—regardless of the government’s special pleading. Most who supported the Iraq War in 2003 did not by 2006, but some did again in 2008. The pulse of the war in Anbar Province—not the presence or absence of WMD, or the expansionary agenda of spreading freedom—won and lost and won back supporters.
Yet leaders never ask before they the fighting begins, “How long will the people support a war that does not appear to be winnable?” Such questions also hinge on the particular choices open for a particular public. For a desperate Russian people in 1942, it seemed that there was no alternative except to keep on fighting until the last Russian or German was dead. In turn, for the Germans under National Socialism, by 1945 the effort continued until the fabric of an entire society collapsed in toto.
In contrast, for Americans, 58,000 dead in Vietnam and ten years of fighting were deemed more than enough costs, especially for an optional conflict on whose outcome America’s future did not seem to hinge. Similarly, the Soviets quit Afghanistan in 1989 in a way they never would have at either Stalingrad or Leningrad.
Losing a war is much easier than winning one. Before the United States enters Syria, it should ask itself a series of questions. Can it take out the regime of Bashar al Assad easily? Answer—most likely yes, in the manner that the “lead from behind” air war decapitated Muammar Gadhafi’s rule. Is the aim of an American-led intervention to foster a postwar consensual government? If so, postbellum Libya reminds us that without Americans on the ground, Arab idealists usually go the way of the Mensheviks in Russia or of Abulhassan Banisadr’s secular socialists in Iran. In addition, Iraq warns us that putting U.S. ground forces into an Arab Middle East country could ensure some sort of constitutional succession—but most likely at material and moral costs that very quickly would be too high even for the present supporters who are calling for a “humane” intervention Syria.
If history is any guide, if we cannot articulate the purpose of entering Syria, the sort of government that we wish to follow the Assad regime, and how much blood and treasure we are willing to spend to obtain that end, then we may well lose the war before it starts.
Victor Davis Hanson, the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, is a classicist and an expert on the history of war. He is a syndicated Tribune Media Services columnist and a regular contributor to National Review Online, as well as many other national and international publications; he has written or edited twenty-three books, including the New York Times best seller Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power. His most recent book is The Savior Generals: How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars That Were Lost - from Ancient Greece to Iraq (Bloomsbury 2013). He was awarded a National Humanities Medal by President Bush in 2007 and the Bradley Prize in 2008 and has been a visiting professor at the US Naval Academy, Stanford University, Hillsdale College, and Pepperdine University. Hanson received a PhD in classics from Stanford University in 1980.