Why Does America Keep Losing Wars?
The US spends hundreds of billions of dollars on wars and sends thousands of soldiers around the world to fight in them, but it seems unable to translate all that might into anything that could be called victory.
The Arleigh Burke–class guided-missile destroyer USS Spruance at Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach. Photo via Flickr user DVIDSHUB
It's time to admit it: America sucks at war. The last time we decisively defeated our enemies was 1945. Korea was a draw, Vietnam a defeat, the first Gulf War only a qualified success—Saddam Hussein stayed in power considerably longer than George H. W. Bush—Afghanistan and Iraq epic disasters for American foreign policy. The United States has more firepower at its fingertips than any empire in history but seems unable to translate all that might into anything that could be called victory.
Considering the United States spends more than $500 billion a year on war, almost as much as the rest of the world put together, we don't seem to be getting much bang for our military buck. If any other government program cost as much as the Pentagon with as little to show for it, Americans across the political spectrum would be up in arms. Instead, they mouth "Thank you for your service" and shrug at the size of the military budget.
This is not to say we don't win battles. In Afghanistan right after 9/11 I watched the US crush the Taliban in record time as a news cameraman. When I arrived in the country, the Taliban controlled all the cities and most of the countryside; the Northern Alliance, outnumbered and outgunned, ruled mere slivers of land. All us journos figured the war would be a long hard slog, at least four to six months, even with American help.
And then, we began to hear the pounding of B-52 strikes. A handful of Special Forces soldiers had secretly infiltrated across the Uzbek border. Dressed like mujahideen, riding Arabian stallions toward Taliban front lines, these trained spotters called in precise air strikes on enemies tanks and trenches. Northern Alliance commanders would point out the targets, the spotters would aim their lasers, the B-52s would aim, and, like magic, the Taliban's ancient Russian tanks would be transformed into heaps of blazing metal. Taliban soldiers soon abandoned their trenches and melted away. Barely a month after bombing began, the Northern Alliance marched into Kabul. Victory came so much faster than any of us expected.
Or did it? Fourteen years later, the American war in Afghanistan looks like a disaster. The country's government and people despise us, the Taliban once again control much of the country, and more heroin is exported than ever before. Afghanistan has become America's longest war, that early "victory" a mirage.
Iraq is no better. Back in 2003, the neocons crowed their invasion would transform the Middle East. They assured a dubious public that new Iraq would be democratic, pro-American, perhaps even pro-Israeli. The war and occupation would pay for itself, funded by expanding oil revenues. Democracy would spread throughout the Middle East, and our problems in that region would be over.
Charles Tripp, an Iraq expert at SOAS, University of London, says the neocons accomplished "exactly the reverse of what some of them thought they would achieve. The largest winner out of all of this has been Iran. America no longer shapes the politics. Iran is on the ground directing Iraqi forces." No streets in Iraq have been named after George W. Bush. Iraqis are not grateful we liberated them from a brutal dictator. Instead, more than 200,000 Iraqis have been killed, and 1.4 million have lost their homes. Christians and other minority groups have emigrated or been slaughtered. The country, once reasonably well integrated, has been transformed into sectarian ghettos. Had he a crystal ball back in 2003, even Dick Cheney might not have advocated invading.
America's losing streak began almost exactly 50 years ago. On March 8, 1965 , the first US combat troops waded ashore in Da Nang. Confident and proud, greeted by Vietnamese girls who garlanded them with flowers, they (and the rest of the world) assumed we would easily defeat our poorly armed rag-tag guerrilla enemies. Twenty years earlier, these young Marines' fathers had simultaneously crushed the mighty German Wehrmacht and the Imperial Japanese Navy. Now the world's largest, most modern military was facing off against rice farmers armed with AK-47s. It should have been a cakewalk.
Ten years later, after the deaths of more than 50,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, the North marched into Saigon, our allies hanging on to the skids of helicopters, desperate to escape. Though the US has had some easy wins since then—remember Grenada?—when it comes to major conflicts our well-trained, well-armed, and well-fed military has had a pathetic record since World War Two. What are we doing wrong?
Soldiers may well resent that question. Vietnam vets can argue vociferously that they didn't lose. In firefight after firefight, Americans crushed the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army. Even the Tet Offensive, which turned the American public decisively against the war, was actually a battlefield victory of American arms. The Viet Cong were slaughtered in the tens of thousands, their ranks so depleted they played little part in the rest of the war, replaced on the battlefield by the North Vietnamese Army.
But as Andrew Bacevich, a history professor, US Army Colonel, Vietnam vet, and longtime critic of American interventionism, explains, "It takes more than killing lots of the enemy to achieve success in wartime." The Viet Cong may have lost the battle, but Tet is when they won the war. Americans at home watching the Viet Cong capture the US embassy in the center of Saigon stopped believing the optimistic statements coming out of the Pentagon. More than 18,000 American soldiers were killed in 1968, and Americans realized the war was not winnable, at least not at a price they were willing to pay. Without civilian support, a drawdown of American troops was inevitable, as was the fall of the South Vietnamese government.
In a democracy with a free media, a long, pointless war in a faraway land is a tough sell—as it should be.
Let's imagine a counterfactual. Let's say the Vietnam War had not been televised, and America had not turned against Johnson's Indochina adventure. If the public encouraged the Pentagon to send more troops in order to capitalize on our battlefield victories, perhaps America could have eventually worn down the North Vietnamese Army and kept the Saigon regime in power. This, in a nutshell, is the argument made by grumpy right-wingers. The soldiers won the war, but the candy-ass civilians at home lost it. "Marines win battles, politicians lose wars," leathernecks will tell you.
Yes, but what if a war isn't worth winning? That sort of victory in Vietnam would have likely cost thousands of American lives and untold amounts of defense spending. But when Saigon fell in 1975, it made absolutely no difference to ordinary US citizens. We did not run out of rice; communism did not spread out of Indochina. On any genuine strategic level, holding on to South Vietnam did not really matter to US interests. By the same token, in ten years will anyone in Kansas care which armed band rules Helmand or Diyala?
In a democracy with a free media, a long, pointless war in a faraway land is a tough sell—as it should be. The control of some territory halfway around the world does not strike the average American as being vital to the security or prosperity of the United States.
The American foreign policy establishment rarely admits it, but the US is by far the safest country on the planet. Unlike China or Russia or Israel or Iran or Congo or Ukraine we have no enemies on our doorstep: Canada's to the north, Mexico's to the south, oceans are to our east and west. England survived Hitler because it is an island. Russia crushed Hitler because it is on a continent. America is both. Foreign policy wonks pretend distant lands are crucial to US security but, thankfully, the American people aren't generally convinced.
So why do we go to war at all? In the 2000s, many among the antiwar left believed America invaded Iraq because of oil. This is a rather naive view: Today China benefits more from Iraqi oil production than does the United States, and had Bush's agenda been to get Iraq's oil, he needn't have invaded. Every Iraqi I have asked agrees that if Hussein had been offered a deal in which he leased his oil fields to American oil companies in return for remaining in power, he would have jumped on it.
"In 2002, the US was the third-largest client of Iraqi oil exports," Tripp, the Iraq expert, says. "Saddam would have been very happy to normalize relations and increase oil production."
If it wasn't oil and it wasn't WMD, then why did we go to war in Iraq? You can talk about Bush needing a war to win the 2004 election or Cheney's desire to pump up Halliburton profits if you want, but mostly, the invasion came about because a significant strand of the American foreign policy establishment wanted to shock and awe the rest of the world with the might of the American military.
Back in 2002, the right-wing columnist Jonah Goldberg called this sort of thinking the Ledeen Doctrine, after the neocon Michael Ledeen, who Goldberg quoted as saying, "Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business." To the proponents of war, Iraq itself was incidental, a means to an end, more symbol than a real place. No wonder they didn't sweat the details.
A "Mission Accomplished" banner is a moment you can sell on television. The tedious work of building a bureaucracy is not.
Vietnam was the first televised war; since then our conflicts have become made for TV. American policymakers' careers rise and fall on the strength of their spin, so naturally the reality on the ground matters less than how it is seen back home. That's how you get situations where US administrators in Iraq are unfamiliar with the region and don't speak Arabic; that's how you wind up with the corrupt, incompetent Hamid Karzai as the American-picked leader of Afghanistan. A "Mission Accomplished" banner is a moment you can sell on television. The tedious work of building a bureaucracy is not.
I first went to war when I was 14. I lived in Saigon at the time with my father, a television news reporter covering the Vietnam War. One day, he took me out into the Mekong Delta to see the fighting. Along with his cameraman and sound man, we clambered onto a jeep and headed out of the city. If war is a heady mix of tedium, testosterone, and terror, that day was mostly tedium. We hung out with some ARVN soldiers for a while, then drove around searching for battle. To my father's disappointment we found no "bang bang" worth filming that day, but we did see something I will never forget. It was almost like a hallucination: in the middle of the jungle, connected to crumbling tarmac and then dirt roads, a pristine highway cloverleaf interchange that would have looked more at home on I-10 in Texas than in a Third World country.
Presumably some American corporation had gotten a contract to build roads for the US military. They knew how to build cloverleaf junctions to First World health and safety standards so that is what they did, out there in the middle of nowhere. It was unnecessary and inappropriate, but it fit in with their skill set and they got paid. A few days after we visited those ARVN outposts, they were overrun by the NVA. I wonder what the North Vietnamese thought of our immaculate highway interchange. I wonder if Vietnamese kids today use it as a skateboard ramp.
That interchange didn't help win the war, obviously, but it created some jobs and threw some paychecks at some contractors, which at times seems like the only real reason to send out our troops. Just about every Congressional district is home to a military base or an arms-manufacturing facility or some other place where our defense dollars go, making military budget cuts extremely unpopular. Lots of Americans (including me) made a good living in one way or another from the War on Terror. Average Iraqis and Afghans, not so much. If they were the ones getting paid, things might be different today. As Tripp says, "If people could see direct benefits, the Americans might have been able to create a larger constituency for the occupation, but money was spent on American contractors and scarcely any on Iraqis."
War is good for less and less these days. Developed nations obtain resources through trade rather than conquest, and as our economic interests become increasingly intertwined, a war between the great powers would be unthinkable, disastrous even for the winner.
None of America's wars of the past half-century really involved crucial national interests.
Were the United States to face a genuine threat to its national security, were Mexico try to reconquer Arizona or Canada invade North Dakota, I am confident America would find the wherewithal to defeat its enemies. But those scenarios are complete fantasies. None of America's wars of the past half-century really involved crucial national interests.
Bacevich cuts to the heart of the problem: "The biggest mistakes have been those made by the civilian policymakers who have committed the military to unnecessary and unwinnable wars." It is precisely because the wars were unnecessary that they are unwinnable.
If victory in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan had really been vital to American security or prosperity, the electorate would have been willing to risk their children's lives and perhaps even pay more taxes. If Iraq had been more than just a symbol to George W. Bush, he and his administration would have thought about the costs and consequences of the invasion. War focused on impressing the electorate at home is doomed to failure. The fundamental reason America can't win wars is because we don't really have to. Maybe we should stop fighting them.