Editor's note: This article is part of a Hoover series of essays on military history. 

In his opening speech to an assembled body of troops in the iconic 1970 movie Patton, the title character (played by George C. Scott) intones, “Americans play to win all the time. Now, I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost and will never lose a war. Because the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans.” The moviemaking moment was full of irony: as the movie character Patton inspired the troops who would soon go on to cinematically annihilate Nazi Germany, a newer generation of American soldiers was fighting and dying in a war in Vietnam that the United States would definitively lose.

The national track record in major wars since World War II would have the actual General George S. Patton Jr. rolling in his grave—three victories (Panama, the Gulf War, and Kosovo), one defeat (Vietnam), and four ambiguous outcomes (Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya). In the last three decades, the United States has toppled four regimes through force of arms; three of the targeted countries are currently basket cases of civil war and terrorism. None of the wars spawned by 9/11 have ended well. Why can’t America win its wars today?

In their adulation of the accomplishments of the Greatest Generation, Americans have forgotten why World War II ended so well. Yes, American armed forces triumphed over the forces of fascism, sending Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo into the dustbin of history. But military victory alone did not ensure that Germany, Italy, and Japan would emerge from conflict as liberal democracies committed to prosperity and human rights at home and a liberal world order abroad. It was, rather, the presence of US military forces, economic aid, and a political commitment from American policymakers to rebuild and restore these nations that ensured an enduring peace. Perhaps ordinary Americans may be forgiven for ignoring this reality, but senior political and military leaders should know better—that is, if they read and understand history, which regrettably all too many do not.

During the four decades of the Cold War, superpower rivalry constrained war-making in significant ways. Despite General of the Army Douglas MacArthur’s admonition that “there is no substitute for victory,” the Truman and Eisenhower administrations limited US aims in Korea once Chinese intervention ensured that the reunification of the peninsula by force of arms would come at great cost and potentially put at risk more important US strategic objectives in Europe. “I am under no illusion that our present strategy of using means short of total war to achieve our ends and oppose communism is a guarantee that a world war will not be thrust upon us,” stated Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Omar Bradley to Congress on May 15, 1951. But enlarging the war in Korea to include Communist China “would involve us in the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.”

Thirteen years later, the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson would be faced with a similar dilemma. In 1964, as South Vietnam crumbled under the weight of communist attacks, the Johnson administration, which regarded the Vietnam War as a drain of resources better used on Great Society domestic programs, employed the panacea of modern military technology—air power—in an attempt to bring North Vietnam to the negotiating table. When Operation Rolling Thunder failed, the president and his senior advisers struggled to devise a strategy to achieve US objectives at an acceptable cost.

The administration reluctantly decided to commit US ground forces to the conflict. But the president did so without mobilizing the reserves to forestall the public debate such a decision would generate. President Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara then lied to congressional leaders about the administration’s strategy, understating the level of commitment and the purpose of the force buildup. In confidence, the Joint Chiefs understood that victory in Vietnam would require the commitment of at least half a million soldiers for five years or longer. The president bought their silence with promises of future force increases. Despite significant reservations about the Johnson administration’s approach to war in Vietnam, in the end the Joint Chiefs endorsed a flawed strategy that they knew was inadequate to achieve victory.

Historians Allan Millett and Williamson Murray, pondering the evidence compiled in their three-volume study of military effectiveness from 1914 to 1945, concluded that devising appropriate strategy was the most important aspect of warfare:

No amount of operational virtuosity or strategic wisdom redeemed fundamental flaws in political [and strategic] judgment. Whether policy shaped strategy, or strategic imperatives drove policy, was irrelevant. Miscalculations in both led to defeat, and any combination of political-strategic error had disastrous results, even for some nations that ended the war as members of the victorious coalition. Even the effective mobilization of national will, manpower, industrial might, national wealth, and technological know-how did not save the belligerents from reaping the bitter fruit of severe mistakes [at the strategic level]. This is because it is more important to make correct decisions at the political and strategic level than it is at the operational and tactical levels. Mistakes in operations and tactics can be corrected, but political and strategic mistakes live forever.

The bitter fruit of a poorly devised strategy in the Vietnam War was 58,000 American dead and military defeat.

The wars waged by the George H. W. Bush administration in Panama in 1989 and the Arabian Gulf in 1991 had a better outcome. Among the reasons for success in these endeavors were clearly articulated and achievable goals, broad domestic and international support, the application of overwhelming military force, and clearly articulated end states that precluded a lengthy commitment of US forces in the aftermath of conflict. Kuwaitis were delighted at their liberation by coalition forces, and Panamanians were ambivalent enough about the departure of the dictator Manuel Noriega to preclude their taking to the jungle to fight on in a guerrilla struggle. The US return of control of the Panama Canal to the Panamanians a decade later helped to salve any lingering resentment.

The wars spawned by the terrorist attacks on the US homeland in 2001 have turned out less well. In Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, regime change has come easily; the aftermaths have been messy, bloody, and expensive. Neither the administration of George W. Bush nor that of Barack Obama proved capable of thinking through the end game to craft stability out of the ashes of deposed regimes. Neither administration wanted to mire the United States in long occupations and exercises in nation-building. The Bush administration came into office in 2001 specifically declaring that the United States would retreat from nation-building. Bush and his advisers, however, were thinking of the Balkans, not of Afghanistan or Iraq. When faced with the reality of reestablishing governance after the fall of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, the administration had little choice but to embark on long and costly occupations if it wanted to create stable outcomes in Afghanistan and Iraq. The alternative—to simply leave and let the chips fall where they may—was tried by the Obama administration in Libya. The result is a country torn by civil war and a safe haven for Islamist terrorists.

Having backed into counterinsurgency and nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush administration floundered for several years in crafting a suitable strategy to win the peace in these war-torn lands. By the end of 2006, the Taliban was once again on the offensive in Afghanistan, and Iraq was coming apart along ethno-sectarian fault lines. Failure in either conflict would have been a significant victory for Islamists bent on attacking the West and destabilizing the Middle East and South Asia.

In late 2006, after nearly four years of drift in US policy, President George W. Bush made a bold decision to stake his administration’s legacy on a surge of US forces to stabilize Iraq and encourage political compromise among Iraqi elites. US military leaders also changed operational methods to emphasize counterinsurgency operations. The surge acted as a catalyst that accelerated other events, most notably the tribal awakening that eviscerated al-Qaeda in Iraq. But the Iraqi people could not emerge from the fires of civil war without assistance. As former US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker later wrote, “Iraqis certainly deserve credit for this transformation; but it would not have happened without intensive, sustained US engagement, particularly by those in the military who carried the surge forward. The hardest months of my life came in the first half of 2007, as our casualties mounted with no guarantee that the strategy would work. But it did, and the people of both nations owe a tremendous debt to those who fought to secure the Iraqi population, one hard block at a time.”

The surge offered Iraqi elites a chance to secure a peaceful future for themselves and their posterity, and for a time it represented a significant setback for al-Qaeda that tarnished its brand worldwide. Yet despite the manifest successes of the surge, the inability of the United States to remain sufficiently engaged in Iraq over the long haul led to defeat in the conflict. Emma Sky, senior political adviser to Multi-National Force-Iraq commander General Raymond Odierno, warns, “The United States should also learn that without an overarching political strategy, even the most successful counterinsurgency tactics cannot deliver sustainable change or irreversible momentum.” This proved the case when the Obama administration came into office and changed the overarching political strategy pursued by the Bush administration in Iraq. The Obama administration saw the departure of US forces from Iraq as the fulfillment of a campaign promise, so it acquiesced in their withdrawal at the end of 2011 without protest. When the last US troops departed, the United States lost much of the leverage that had enabled American diplomats to moderate the sectarian conduct of the Iraqi government and Iraq lost the one force that for nine years had tried to keep a lid on sectarian bloodletting.

In announcing the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, President Obama declared, “I would note that the end of war in Iraq reflects a larger transition. The tide of war is receding.” But in fact the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq at the end of 2011 represented neither the end of the war there nor the receding of war’s tide. Essentially declaring victory in Iraq, the Obama administration had opened the way for the revitalization of Islamist forces in Iraq (and their latest manifestation, the Islamic State).

In Afghanistan, the Obama administration put forth a half-hearted effort to surge reinforcements in 2010, but without changing the underlying strategy. The surge there succeeded in largely reclaiming Helmand and Kandahar provinces, but the Taliban was able to weather the blows and continue its campaign to topple the Afghan government. The limited commitment of surge forces in space and time, the ineptitude and lack of legitimacy of the Afghan government, and the presence of external insurgent sanctuaries were all responsible for the diminished success of the United States and its allies in Afghanistan.

The US military shares responsibility for the failure of America to finish its recent wars well. Prior to 9/11, defense transformation was predicated on future conflict against mirror-imaged enemies. Concepts such as network-centric warfare envisioned near-perfect knowledge from intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets. Accurate and timely information would lead to battlespace dominance, precision attacks on targets from extended ranges, and the execution of rapid, decisive operations that would quickly and precisely collapse an enemy armed force or regime at its center of gravity.

But advanced sensors and precision-guided munitions are technical capabilities—they are not a substitute for strategy. Regrettably, the Bush administration initially staked the outcome of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on the high-tech capabilities of US forces. The Obama administration is repeating this error with its reliance on drone warfare. Both administrations have misread the nature of war—and not just the nature of war in the post-Cold War era, but the nature of war in any era.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, the American military managed to repeat many of the mistakes it made in Vietnam, because America’s political and military leaders managed to forget nearly every lesson of that conflict. US mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan were the result of a pervasive failure to understand the historical framework within which insurgencies take place, to appreciate the cultural and political factors of other nations and people, and to understand warfare beyond the limited confines of tactics and operations. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may have been ill-advised, but both were winnable with the right strategy. As for Libya, the United States and its allies lost by default when they walked off the playing field.

The American military today is in danger of revisiting the history of the German military in the twentieth century—tactically and operationally brilliant forces that nevertheless managed to lose two world wars due to the inability of their leaders to think strategically. The United States has paid a heavy price for its recent military misadventures, but it is not too late to set right the strategic underpinnings of national security policy. A bipartisan consensus on strategic goals is essential to ensure policy remains consistent over presidential administrations. Most importantly, senior political and military leaders must think strategically, rather than chasing the crisis of the moment or falling for simplistic platitudes that offer little guidance and even less hope of a satisfactory outcome to the nation’s wars.

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