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Why the U.S. usually doesn’t win wars anymore

U.S. troops keep watch at the site of a suicide attack that targeted a NATO convoy in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, in April.

The United States generally doesn’t win its wars any more. Sometimes (Vietnam would be a leading case) we lose. Sometimes (Korea in the 1950s) they end in a draw. More often, as in the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan, then Iraq, and now the general muddle of endless conflict across much of the Mideast, the wars just drag on.

So writes Mark Kukis in an essay for titled “The Myth of Victory.” I thought it was a brilliant analysis and urge you to read the whole thing.

The old model of war sort of died with World War II. Countries or empires invaded other countries with big conventional armies, seeking to take them over. Other countries, using conventional military power, often got involved in one side or the other. Pitched battles were fought. Important land or strategic locations were won or lost. The old model wars ended when the loser surrendered to the winner.

Americans may still be thinking in those terms when they think about war, and getting into wars, and especially the urgency of the United States “winning” when it gets into a war. The new wars are mostly civil wars, in which the United States gets involved on one side but cannot quite get the other side to accept defeat and stop fighting. This seems obvious, in a way, when I write it (and I’m summarizing Kukis throughout), but it strikes me that many of us haven’t shifted our thinking about what “war” is nowadays and the hawks — like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, as two leading examples — who are always advocating for wars, bombing, boots on the ground, etc., don’t seem to get this new model.

Kukis, by the way, covered the Iraq War for Time magazine and is now lecturing and completing a PhD in history and international relations at Boston University.

Here are a few excerpts from Kukis’ essay:

“Last year, the US Army General Daniel Bolger published an account of his time as a commander in both Iraq and Afghanistan, titled ‘Why We Lost.’ Bolger, and other observers, explain the loss chiefly as a result of consistently poor strategic choices by senior military and civilian officials. Indeed, US leadership has made many bad decisions in Afghanistan and Iraq — the 2001 failure to capture Bin Laden at Tora Bora, the 2003 decision to disband the Iraqi national army, and the willful blindness to the rise of the Iraqi insurgency early in the occupation stand out as particularly consequential. The biggest mistake, however, might have been the presumption, widely shared among US political and military leaders, that military victory was ever possible.”

Afghanistan and Iraq

“The Pentagon had never seriously contemplated fighting a war in Afghanistan until 9/11 and yet, within weeks, US forces and their Afghan allies were overrunning the country. In 2003, Iraqi forces began crumbling within days of the onset of shock and awe, and Iraqi defence against the subsequent US ground invasion amounted to little more than a tactical retreat. But these momentary triumphs masked a deeper reality about modern conflict that troubled US pursuits from the beginning. Military victory in Iraq or Afghanistan was never, in fact, a real possibility. The very nature of war has changed so much in recent decades that military victory as we tend to imagine it, with winners and losers emerging after a fight with an unambiguous end, is utterly obsolete.”

Modern war

“When the US goes to war today, it typically becomes a party to internal conflict instead of a combatant against another country… From 1990 to 2005, there were 147 internal conflicts. Of those, only 20 ended with one faction legitimately claiming victory. Put another way, since 1990, less than 14 per cent of internal conflicts produced a clear winner. About 20 per cent produced a ceasefire. And about 50 per cent simply persisted. Statistically, the odds of the US coming up a winner in a modern war are perhaps as low as one in seven.”


“Superpowers and hegemons are also winning less frequently these days than they once did. From 1900 to 1949, strong militaries fighting conventionally weaker forces won victories about 65 per cent of the time. From 1950 to 1998, advantaged military powers claimed war victories only 45 per cent of the time. In the first part of the 19th century, superior powers won wars almost 90 per cent of the time. For hundreds of years, nations with the will and the means to raise strong militaries have wagered that the extraordinary investment of time, treasure and lives would yield rewards in war when the moment came. For hundreds of years, that was a safe bet – but not any more. For 21st-century superpowers, war is no longer likely to be a winning endeavour.”

Military spending

“In 2015, the US will spend more on its military than China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, the United Kingdom, India, and Germany combined.”

Comments (75)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/29/2015 - 03:33 pm.

    Key phrase–“interloper in a foreign culture”, neither valuing or understanding.

    Second key phrase–“rules of war”, as in what we try to follow and what is not followed by the others.

    Third key phrase–“support the good guys” as in what we couldn’t pick out to save our lives.

    Fourth key phrase–“hearts and minds” –see first, second and 3rd, and laugh.

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 05/29/2015 - 03:34 pm.


    It’s a Darwinian kind of deal. The kind of wars we are engaged in today, have evolved such that they exploit our weaknesses instead of engaging our strengths. For various reasons, America has always wanted to re-fight WW II, which is exactly the kind of war our adversaries go to great lengths to avoid. WW II type conflicts have been naturally de-selected by history.

  3. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 05/29/2015 - 04:32 pm.


    There is an enormous amount of rethinking that must go on (in both parties!) about modern war and modern war-like actions. Not only were Iraq and Afghanistan screwed up, but the same is true for Libya and Syria. We really need to figure out if there is *anything* we can do without making things worse. We need to figure out if there is *anything* we can do to fight against the types of ideologies that we’re currently fighting.

  4. Submitted by John Appelen on 05/29/2015 - 05:02 pm.

    Definitions Matter

    I think everyone would agree that the USA / S VietNam lost in VietNam.

    I think the 51 million people enjoying peace, prosperity and freedom in South Korea would say that they won.

    The Yugoslavian conflicts seemed to have ended successfully for those who live there.

    Afghanistan and Iraq pose an interesting question. The USA’s involvement was successful it that it gave them a chance at peace, prosperity, freedom, women’s rights, etc. Now can they seize it like South Korea, Japan, Germany, Yugoslivia, the Eastern BLOC countries, etc, or will they waste the opportunity?

    • Submitted by jason myron on 05/29/2015 - 06:33 pm.

      That question has already been answered

      when they dropped their weapons and ran in the other direction. The larger question was when did they ask for our help to provide them with a democratic initiative in the first place? Oh right…they didn’t. Do you know what matters more than definitions? Facts.

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 05/30/2015 - 06:40 pm.


        Are you saying that the Shiites and Kurds did not ask the USA for help in ridding Iraq of Saddam?

        This is how I posed it to my readers. Now a question for you. What would you have done in 2002?

        Please remember where we were:
        – No Fly Zones were being maintained.
        – Saddam was killing Iraqi citizens.
        – After ~10 years, Saudi Arabia wanted the foreign militaries out of their country.

        In essence, we had a killer tiger in an expensive time consuming politically unstable cage. If we relax the cage, the tiger would eat the Kurds and Southern Shiites.

        – Maintain cage indefinitely and hope. Kind of like Iran / North Korea but worse.
        – Walk away and let the Tiger eat our in country allies.
        – Kill the tiger and have faith that the Iraqi people wanted peace and prosperity.
        – Other?

        • Submitted by jason myron on 05/31/2015 - 02:19 pm.

          Not sure why you persist in using this tired

          “tiger” metaphor in describing Hussein, other than attempting to make him sound scarier to justify your opinion. There’s a long list of brutal dictators that were just as evil as Hussein that America had no interest in going after and removing.

          True revolution comes from within. Nearly every time another country has lumbered into these situation to “help,” the vast majority of the indigenous population are going to look at those troops as occupiers, not liberators. This isn’t WWII where the good guys and bad guys are well defined and wearing different uniforms. Civilians and their families get killed and their lives are destroyed. It doesn’t take long for the few people that were on the American side to start to view the “cure” as much worse than the disease, and that’s especially true in the case of Iraq. You should give Lando’s book “A Web of Deceit: The History of Western Complicity in Iraq” a read. It will spell out for you how the US did more to create the chaos there rather than help it.

          It’s amazing to me that some people have no qualms about spending a trillion dollars and thousands of lives on foreign policy blunders like this, but balk at spending a tiny fraction of that to help educate, feed, clothe and house the unfortunate that reside in their own country. Try worrying about THAT “tiger” and let other countries figure out their own system of government, not what we think is best for them.

          Republicans think that the rest of the planet doesn’t look at the US the same anymore and like to blame Obama (yet again) for it. In reality, it’s the arrogance of their belief that the rest of the world is pining away to live just like we do that fosters that perception.

          • Submitted by John Appelen on 05/31/2015 - 03:31 pm.


            To the USA, Saddam was a difficult alley cat who crossed into the wrong neighborhood and threatened US allies. (ie Kuwait, Israel, Saudi Arabia) Bad idea.

            To the Kurds and Shiites he was a Tiger who would have happily killed many of them once the “no fly zone” cage was relaxed.

            “spending a tiny fraction of that to help educate, feed, clothe and house the unfortunate that reside in their own country”

            Sorry for the source, but look at page 9. We spend a lot more domestically to help our poor.

          • Submitted by Bill Willy on 05/31/2015 - 10:57 pm.

            Uh huh

            Well said.

            As to your Heritage Foundation summary of the evils of every dollar being spent to help people in America, John, I know it won’t mean anything to you, but you really should consider the source.

            The amount of money that has been spent and wasted on the war in Iraq is off the charts (somewhere between two and seven trillion dollars), but I didn’t notice that mentioned. (It may be in there somewhere, featured as a “sound investment in America’s future” if it is, no doubt, but some of us can only look at Heritage Foundation propaganda so long), but saying “we already spend a ton on welfare” doesn’t justify spending even MORE on war.

            And as far as this whole, “We went into Iraq to free people from an evil dictator,” thing goes, I hate to beat a overly dead horse, but as you may recall, that wasn’t the reason we did that. That was the “Plan B” reason. We needed to invade Iraq because they had weapons of mass destruction which they were going to give to evil-doing terrorists who would use them to kill us all with mushroom clouds, remember?

            Anyway, as usual, well said, Jason.

            • Submitted by John Appelen on 06/01/2015 - 01:58 pm.

              Better Source

              I tried to find a source that would be more palatable to the commenters here, however the Left leaning publications seem unwilling to post how much the US Local, State and Federal governments spend each year on welfare, healthcare, food housing, training, etc for the poor. Based on the source I did find it looks like it exceeds $1 Trillion / year. And we pay this to folks who are safely living in a law abiding country so they can have a better life and have more kids than they can afford to raise.

              And you begrudge spending a tenth of that to assist women and children who are raped, starved, homeless, made slaves, kept uneducated, etc. I will never understand .

              • Submitted by Doug Gray on 06/01/2015 - 07:37 pm.

                “assist” them – how exactly?

                We had to burn the Middle East in order to save it? From Gen. Bolger’s book, here’s an example of how we “assisted” an Afghani village vote in national elections. We sent in troops to provide security, which in the event meant daily firefights with enemies who spent their nights encamped with women and children and commuted with them to and from the battlefield so that any attack on them would have caused civilian casualties. Three US soldiers were killed and a dozen or so wounded, along with scores of Afghani soldiers and police. On Election Day, about 100 villagers went to the polls.

                After the votes were counted, Hamid Karzai had won, 4,000 to 0. That obviously wasn’t right, so they held a recount. Karzai won that 10,000 to 0. The final returns were something like Karzai 14,000, everyone else 0.

                Was that — is the whole country of Afghanistan, with all it contains — worth three American lives?

                • Submitted by John Appelen on 06/01/2015 - 08:58 pm.

                  Good Question

                  That is a good question. Please remember though that there were 2 goals in Afghanistan:
                  – Stop the terrorist training camps
                  – Help women who had no rights and were not allowed to go to school


                  I don’t have answer, should the USA sit back and watch when terrorist training camps and severe human rights abuses abound? It is worth contemplation.

                  By the way, would it be worth taking the risk to help the woman in the alley? Or do we walk by?

                  • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 06/05/2015 - 12:10 pm.

                    I have the answer

                    Are you familiar with how much of Afghanistan the government actually controls? Its not much, and very few girls are going to school. There would also be nothing to stop terrorist camps, since most of the country is controlled by the Taliban. If they are indeed now absent, I expect that is because our other misguided war gave them better opportunties.

                    The instinct to help is great. The problem is that we didn’t help – we accomplised nothing in Afghanistan and made Iraq much worse. You keep mentioning women, but women’s rights have taken a step backwards since Saddam, who was a secularist. The invasion has destablized the whole region. The best thing we could have done to “help” was to not get involved in the first place.

  5. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 05/29/2015 - 07:00 pm.

    The U.S. doesn’t really fight wars anymore,

    not in the old-fashioned sense of trying to conquer another country and incorporate it directly into one’s empire or of defending one’s self against such an attacker. World War II and perhaps Korea were the last wars in which this was true.

    U.S. military actions since then have followed one of two patterns: 1) Trying to oust a leader or destroy an internal movement that our Establishment (especially our business Establishment) doesn’t like, or 2) Trying to “fix” a dysfunctional country.

    For a nation notoriously ignorant of history, geography, and world cultures, this is an arrogant and dangerous habit.

  6. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 05/29/2015 - 08:55 pm.

    Pox Americana

    Not that I believe any of it, but wasn’t the reason for invading Iraq in 2003 to bring democracy and freedom to the Middle East? True, there were some concerns at the beginning that beating Saddam Hussein would not be a cakewalk, that the Republican Guards were about a tough an army as they come, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah, but the neocons who were behind this drive were claiming at least that this was the prelude to the reflowering of a democratic mideast.

    The American public was brought into line behind this dream by “Support the Troops!” and “Freedom isn’t Free” and “our Troops protect our Freedom.” In other words, “shut your face” if you disagree. But nobody has claimed that the U.S. went to war to “win” the war. “Winning the war” was about bringing U.S. values and presence to an alien and unwelcoming land and making sure the underlying population was not insufficiently grateful about it.

  7. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 05/29/2015 - 10:34 pm.

    Political will

    Or more accurately, the lack of it, is the difference between all the wars fought before 1950 and all the wars fought since.

    If you’ll click on my name link you’ll see the means of ending the war in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan if the commander-in-chief had had the will to use all the weapons in his arsenal as leaders of tribes and nations had done since the beginning of time.

    When I joined the submarine service in the mid 60s, I fully expected to die in battle. “They’re big and black and don’t come back” was our morbid motto. The only question we had was whether we would get all of our missiles off before one of the three Russian attack submarines that had been assigned to tail us had succeeded in destroying us first. Each missile carried multiple warheads and was capable of destroying a Russian city. We had 16 missiles. We would debate about how many we would manage to launch before the end came.

    In 1968, sitting at the bottom of Haiphong harbor after the Tet Offensive, we waited for LBJ to pull the trigger. He never did, obviously. Neither did Richard Nixon. Neither did George W. Bush when four Ohio class submarines sat in the Mediterranean off the coast of Lebanon awaiting orders to vaporize Afghanistan.

    Harry Truman was the last American president who had the courage to use every weapon in his arsenal. Those of us who served and were willing to die for our country, never dreamed that the most powerful nation on the face of the earth would rather lose a war than use all available means to win it.

    Any rationale offered for losing a war other than lack of political courage is simply overlooking the obvious.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 05/30/2015 - 09:59 am.

      And what would you have “won” by setting off those nukes?

      Let’s see. The Soviet Union broke up due to domestic pressures and a premier who was willing to let the non-Russian ethnic groups go. Russia is now more fascist (capitalist, authoritarian, and nationalist) than Communist.

      China today is also more fascist (capitalist, authoritarian, and nationalist) than Communist.

      Ditto for Vietnam.

      Suppose you had nuked Hanoi or Beijing or Moscow. The Soviet Union or China would have nuked the U.S. back, and either one might have done so on behalf of North Vietnam. That might not have affected you tucked away in your little submarine, but it would have been an unbelievably hellish nightmare for the rest of us.

      Furthermore, the rest of the world would have immediately considered the U.S. to be the Evil Empire, and rightly so, for nuking a country that was not directly threatening us.

      “Discretion is the better part of valor,” as it is said. If you can get what you want (a “business-friendly” country) without war, why not have a bit of patience?

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/30/2015 - 10:52 am.

      And vaporizing Afghanistan would accomplish what?

      Is that victory in a war where people genuinely want to live their lives in a way that is different than the way you think they should?

      Should everyone in a country die because a few people hosted the devil we created a decade or so before?

      It is so darn confusing watching a party that wants government off of their backs so they can live their lives the way god wants them to, but want the full deadly force of the government applied on those across the world that are living their lives as god wants them to.

      There is a difference between a hammer and a scapel.

      I personally think targeted killings of key people who drive attacks on the US and massacres in countries, as is being done now with special forces and drones, is infinitely preferable to vaporizing a country.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/30/2015 - 11:02 am.

      Political will

      I suggest you look up the term “Pyrrhic victory.”

      Since I think I know what your answer would be, I would like to pose this question to other readers: How many of you would be proud to live in a country that feels it has the right to “vaporize” every country with whom it has manufactured a dispute?

    • Submitted by jason myron on 06/01/2015 - 03:21 pm.

      ” all available means to win it.”

      I believe “Chemical Ali” was hung in Iraq for that very same mindset. Hence we come full circle….

    • Submitted by Theo Kozel on 06/04/2015 - 04:59 pm.


      If only we had the moral clarity required to ‘vaporize Afghanistan’ the world would be a much, much better place. Our problem, as a country that has enough weaponry to vaporize every square inch of the planet’s surface 150 times over, is that we don’t use every single means at our disposal in every single conflict we become part of to eradicate our foes, regardless of innocents harmed in the process.

      Thanks Dennis. You make things so very clear.

  8. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/29/2015 - 10:56 pm.

    Lets look at the options in Iraq, for instance (not necessarily mutually exclusive):

    1. Ally with the al-Qaeda affiliated Sunnis
    2. Ally with the ISIS affiliated Sunnis
    3. Ally with the Iran affiliated Shias
    4. Stay out.

    But there is drum beat to go back.

    And yet there is no definition of what victory means or a plausible route to victory.

    The last time territory gains meant anything, it was in the Korean War.

  9. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 05/30/2015 - 08:21 am.

    Overwhelming force

    It’s common for military strategists to re fight the last war, to apply the lessons they learned to the next conflict. The lesson the Viet Nam war taught many of us is to avoid incremental increases in force. The Powell doctrine, developed in the rice paddies of Southeast Asia, is that once it’s decided to go to war, America should enter with immediate and overwhelming force, to both shock and awe. These are the lessons we applied in the middle east.

    So how has it been working out so far?

    One thing it’s important to understand about this whole learning from history deal, is that our adversaries learn from history too, and for some reason they are often better at it. I think this is because in our discourses, we find ourselves cut off from certain views, certain ways of thinking. We develop strategies, rhetorical and otherwise to help us do this. Anyone who seeks to empathize and understand the strategies and motivations is attacked as unpatriotic and collaborationist. We way too easily except explanations and ideas, that appeal to our moralism and our vanity. We can afford to do this because we are protected by our wealth and our power, and our national self centeredness. Our adversaries don’t have or can’t afford these qualities, and make a point of not being deluded by them.

  10. Submitted by Kurt Anderson on 05/30/2015 - 08:36 am.

    Hello, Western Pacific !!

    Throw out the new book, bring back the old.

    This type of writing and commentary reminds me of Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis:

    The only point of writing it is to look back at it in embarrassment just a few years later, and to be reminded of how myopic we can be in the light of “current” events.

    Boundaries matter, especially the boundaries of our formal treaty alliances. We take for granted the soundness of our European and Pacific alliances and fail to realize how they provide a safe corral for our disputatious life inside the corral.

  11. Submitted by Amy Farland on 05/30/2015 - 09:14 am.


    look to where the oil fields are. and there you will find our military. and there you will find our designated enemies, including the Palestinians, who are sitting on oil which explains Israel’s latest interest in re-configuring its boundaries — . it is that simple and that complex.

    we need to divest ourselves from fossil fuels.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 05/30/2015 - 06:19 pm.

      Truer than most people know

      Back during the Vietnam War, some activists claimed that it was all about oil. At the time, I thought that statement was crazy, even though I gradually evolved from a “must stop Communism” stance to a “this war is pointless” stance. Then, 30-some years later, lo and behold, there’s talk of oil in the South China Sea.

      All those Middle Eastern countries have oil. Venezuela has oil. Chile has natural gas. Nigeria, where Boko Haram operates amidst great cries of horror from the Western press, has oil, while Kenya, where equally vicious groups are terrorizing people, has none. Even Cuba has oil, something I didn’t know until I went there and saw the oil pumps at work. Afghanistan has no oil, but the Russians wanted to run a pipeline through it. Mexico has oil, which is why the revolutionary movements in Central America looked like a threat. Saudi Arabia has more oil than anyone and can commit human rights violations with impunity. Indonesia has lots and lots of oil, so it was allowed to annex East Timor and half of New Guinea (where the people are ethnically distinct from the people of the Indonesian archipelago) with impunity.

      I’m seeing a pattern here. Anyone who has oil and plays nicely with the U.S. can go its merry way. Anyone who has oil and doesn’t play nicely with the U.S. becomes “a regional threat.”

    • Submitted by joe smith on 05/30/2015 - 06:44 pm.

      Or we have to use our own oil/gas, which we have in abundance.

    • Submitted by DENNIS SCHMINKE on 06/03/2015 - 09:07 pm.


      No. We just need to not get involved. The market will take care of the rest. In practice, the function of supply/demand/price will be painful, but it will make domestic production and ‘alternatives’ look a lot better.

      Let the EU defend their shipping lanes. Let the Mid-East become an unreliable supplier, and hence, be cut out of the market. And then, lacking foreign exchange, let them eat their oil and see how they like it.

  12. Submitted by Amy Farland on 05/30/2015 - 05:43 pm.

    War Made Easy

    War Made Easy.

  13. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 05/30/2015 - 05:52 pm.

    Who has benefited from these wars?

    I’ve heard the mob has an algorithm to determine who ordered a hit:

    1. Who’s still alive?
    2. Who benefited?

    Applying this simple algorithm does beg a somewhat different question: Why does the U.S. keep looking for and getting into more wars, given the atrocious results?

    Who sheds no tears about these fruitless wars, and in fact, want MORE wars – without limit of time, and despite the harm to our country? Who has profited most handsomely from these wars? Here’s a few:

    1. The defense industry.

    2. All the ancillary, civilian hangers-on to the military and the defense industry – you know, the people who subcontract to the main defense industry providers with parts, subassemblies, technical expertise, and so on; those who provide the food and housing; then there’s the contracted gun-toting security people who provide personal security for all the civilians and military in a dangerous zone; then there’s also…well, suffice it to say it’s a LONG LIST. They have all made A LOT OF MONEY from these wars. They want more.

    3. A newly grandiose national security state and all its apparatchiks.

    Do these entities have the political influence to pull off yet more wars?

    These industries not only have huge resources (read: money) to acquire that influence, but they also have a habit of shuffling their own people in and out of high placements in our government. They also have a habit, through their armies of lobbyists, of working all those subcommittees and committees in Congress, where the decisions are made to support these wars.

    I’d bet on more war. In these conditions, peace has slim chances.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 05/30/2015 - 06:56 pm.

      Excellent Point

      Korea – All citizens in South Korea. All people who like Samsung, LG, Hyundai, Kia, etc products. Since I have 2 Samsung TVs, Thank you.

      Viet Nam – No one except those we brought to the USA. We lost that one.

      Balkans – All the people who are now living there in peace and have not been ethnically cleansed.

      Afghanistan – All the girls who are now attending school, and not being made slave to their husbands. All the people who want to fight against the Taliban. The people of the USA who no longer have to worry about terrorist being openly trained there.

      Iran – The Kerds and Shiites who were being killed and tortured by Saddam and the Sunnis. Anyone who did want free speech. All Americans, for better or worse the Terrorist have focused their efforts there and not here.

      If you look for failure, I am sure you will find it. If you look for people who’s lives are better because of US efforts, you will find those also.

      • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 06/01/2015 - 02:28 pm.

        Let’s take another look

        Balkans: That was a European problem, and the European members of NATO did most of the fighting, as they should have.

        Afghanistan: Girls attended school in Afghanistan and women’s rights were making progress before the U.S. stupidly decided to start a proxy war against the Soviets. A coup by homegrown Marxists in 1978 (reported in the Japanese press when I was living there, but largely ignored by the U.S. press) led to further proposals for women’s rights. There were some resistance fighters who were genuinely anti-Communist, but the majority were the Afghan equivalent of rednecks who didn’t want their wives and daughters going around with bare faces or learning to read and write. But the U.S. foreign policy establishment didn’t care. They saw potential for fighting the Soviets without seeming to fight the Soviets, so they armed and trained the resistance, who turned out to be the precursors of the Taliban.
        Judging by what happened in the Soviet Central Asian republics, the Marxists would have done two things that they are indeed very good at: enforcing equal rights for women and promoting literacy.
        But no, our foreign policy “experts” acted like a bunch of 12-year-old boys playing Risk (R) and dragged the conflict out for 30 years.

        Iraq: Saddam Hussein was by no means the worst dictator in the region, and he suppressed the Islamic fanatics. Ordinary Iraqis could live their lives without being blown up by a car bomb while grocery shopping or being rousted out of their homes in the middle of the night or shot at checkpoints for panicking.

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 06/01/2015 - 04:11 pm.

          Another Game of Risk

          Knowing what we know now… Should we and Europe stand aside and let Putin make the Ukraine part Russia again? Should we stand aside and let China take over the South China Sea?
          Or should we pull back within our borders and let everyone else go at it? I can see arguments for both sides.

          The important thing to remember is that the USA profits from safe seas and stable trade. Being the world’s police is expensive, but it does enable the low cost goods, low cost services and large profits we love.

  14. Submitted by John Appelen on 05/30/2015 - 07:03 pm.

    What to Do

    I asked my readers this.

    If 5 guys are walking down a road and they see 2 guys beating and raping a woman in the alley, what should they do?

    I mean involving themselves would put their health and future well being at risk. The 2 guys may have a gun, they could die. Maybe they should just go home, kiss their wives and deny what they saw…

    The USA has a volunteer military and the money to help others. What should we do?

    And no we don’t have the resources to help everyone, so:

    Based on history there are 2 criteria.
    1. People need help
    2. Security of America or her allies are threatened

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 05/30/2015 - 08:08 pm.

      Just about any invasion can be justified by your criteria.

      Threats to our security are in the subjective mind of the beholder, often based on rhetorical spin.

      Considering the chaos we’re delivering, you wonder how this can be called “help”.

      Maybe we should stick to the clear and obvious, fundamental, and vital interests of the US.

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 05/31/2015 - 12:43 pm.

        Yes that is why we have a President and Congress to evaluate each situation.

        “Chaos we are Delivering”… I assume you are serious? That region has been in chaos for millennia.

        We probably could ignore them like we do Africa, if they did not have oil, Israel, and international terrorists that really really dislike tolerant modern societies and women’s rights.

        • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 05/31/2015 - 06:25 pm.

          Public trust

          If the US was governed by an elected Congress and even Presidency that was regarded as a sacred public trust and not something else that was bought and sold as elected office has become I would tend to agree with your view. But public office ceased to be regarded as a sacred public trust some time before Citizens United. Whether some area in the world is not in need of the protection of the US military force is just another “talking point” to goose up this or that politician’s numbers and electability and the price of access to US public office. I regret being so cynical but that’s how it is.

          • Submitted by John Appelen on 05/31/2015 - 11:16 pm.


            Should Bush 1 have let Iraq keep Kuwait? That is where this most recent chain of events started.

            Should Clinton have walked away once Saddam was stuffed back in Iraq?

            Should Bush 2 have walked away? Kept the cage up indefinitely? (ie no fly zone)

            Rarely do I have the wisdom to know with such certainty.
            “that’s how it is” vs “that’s how I see it”

            • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/01/2015 - 01:03 pm.


              There was some thinking before Kuwait was invaded that Iraq had legitimate grievances against Kuwait (tapping into Iraqi oil fields). The boundary between Iraq and Kuwait was also open to dispute.

              I would note that Desert Storm was the first time the US sent troops to fight and die to keep kings on their thrones.

            • Submitted by Doug Gray on 06/01/2015 - 07:53 pm.

              what if

              Should Bush 1 have pulled out after effectively destroying Saddam’s ability to fight back, thereby following up the most complete military victory since Ulm in 1805 with the worst-botched peace in recorded history? Should he have pursued the stated and settled US policy of regime change in Iraq by offering to hold the coats of anyone who would fight Saddam for him, which left him holding a lot of coats for which the dead owners had no further use? Should Clinton have followed the same policy by periodically launching cruise missiles Baghdadwards until he nearly ran us out of cruise missiles? Should Kennedy have intervened to prevent Saddam ever coming to power? Should Reagan have provided him with chemical weapons and other technology?

              Turning aside from the Taliban/Bin Laden to initiate a war of choice against a country that posed no threat and was effectively contained would not have been “walking away,” it would have been a much, much better policy decision.

              • Submitted by John Appelen on 06/01/2015 - 08:48 pm.


                So you would have recommended maintaining the “No Fly Zone” indefinitely to keep him “effectively contained”?

                Personally I think after ~10 years, Americans and our allies were tired of maintaining the cage. I think we were either going to pull out or attack. Yes? No?

                • Submitted by Doug Gray on 06/01/2015 - 09:20 pm.


                  That is exactly what I would have recommended. Containment worked against the Soviet Union for much longer than 10 years. It was working against Saddam, at a vastly lower cost in both money and lives than the disastrous and ill-conceived 2003 invasion.

                  • Submitted by John Appelen on 06/02/2015 - 08:22 am.


                    I just can not envision still seeing “No Fly Zone” updates on the news each night.

                    By the way, if you remember the invasion went great… It was the following insurgency / civil war where disaster occured.

                    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/02/2015 - 11:49 am.

                      “No Fly Zone” Updates

                      I would rather see one of those than the weekly body counts that were shown during Vietnam.

                      The invasion triggered, or perhaps more accurately, unearthed the insurgency/civil war. “Jumping off the roof didn’t hurt him–it was landing on the pavement that did it.”

        • Submitted by Bill Willy on 05/31/2015 - 11:32 pm.

          Just out of curiosity

          “Yes that is why we have a President and Congress to evaluate each situation.”

          I may have missed something I thought I learned in school, but it seems to me the Constitution says something about how “Congress” is the only group of Americans that can declare war, and I don’t remember that having happened recently:

          “The United States has formally declared war against foreign nations five separate times, each upon prior request by the President of the United States. Four of those five declarations came after hostilities had begun. James Madison reported that in the Federal Convention of 1787, the phrase ‘make war’ was changed to ‘declare war’ in order to leave to the Executive the power to repel sudden attacks but NOT to commence war without the explicit approval of Congress.”

          I don’t remember Congress doing that in the case of Afghanistan or Iraq, yet I’ve been hearing that we’re “at war” (and noticed a LOT of unquestioned legislation and spending devoted to “the war effort”) for the last 12 or 13 years.

          Like I say, I may have just missed something, but I don’t remember “Congress” declaring war. It seems to me the President “evaluated the situation” and pretty much just “declared” we were “at war,” and that was pretty much that.

          I’m sure you’re a deep believer in the Constitution, so maybe you could explain how it’s possible for a multi-year “war” to be entered into by the United States without Congress discussing or voting on and letting Americans know why they – each of our elected representatives – had passed that “declaration of war.”


        • Submitted by jason myron on 06/01/2015 - 06:48 am.

          “Chaos for milennia”

          Wait a minute… what happened to alley cats and tigers? That’s been the point all along. What makes you think that the US can lumber in after a thousand + years of turmoil and set things straight? And I don’t recall women’s rights and social/cultural progress being on the agenda within any dictatorship, so you hit on the true nature of this boondoggle when you mentioned oil. After that, it’s all moot as Israel can take care of itself.
          Every day that we continue this folly, we continue to create more terrorists, which in turn leads us to take more aggressive action that ultimately costs more lives, more money and earns us nothing but the continued white- hot hatred of millions. The “war on terror” is no war at all…just a slow capitulation to fear for America, which was exactly what Bin Laden wanted. The minute we invaded Iraq again, we surrendered to it. Now, it’s become nothing but a sick campaign slogan, a republican jobs program and a funnel to pump billions of dollars into the hands of corporate contractors.

          • Submitted by John Appelen on 06/01/2015 - 04:27 pm.

            Another View

            A different more cynical view would indicate that things are working out great.

            For ~14 years we have not had a huge terrorist attack on US soil. What if the goal of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars was not to help enslaved women, maintain stable oil prices, protect Israel, assist allies, shield people from ruthless dictators, give people a chance at self rule, etc… What if it was to keep the Islamic fanatics so busy fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan for their home turf that they stopped thinking of bombing the USA?

            If this is the case, are we winning or losing?

            I keep encouraging that we charter plains so our domestic terrorists can go to NW Iraq free of charge.

            • Submitted by jason myron on 06/01/2015 - 05:20 pm.

              Well, you’re arguing against yourself.

              Once again, violence and turmoil have been a fixture in the Middle East for centuries. Why invade their country and give them a common enemy? That was the ultimate result in taking Hussein out. Iraq and Iran were busy enough hating each other…until we intervened and threw the entire paradigm out of whack. By the way, Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.

              • Submitted by John Appelen on 06/01/2015 - 08:43 pm.

                Ironically the Iraq government is now our ally again since they need help. Maybe Obama had a plan all along, pull out until they came begging for assistance.

                I agree that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, however it made a prime arena to stir up the Shiite Sunni animosity. From this perspective it was like dropping a steak in between 2 dogs to prevent them from attacking you.

                By the way, since I look at topics from multiple perspectives. I often end up arguing against myself.

  15. Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 05/31/2015 - 05:08 am.

    “The myth of winning”

    Not sure what the author’s point is. The article says the definition of war has changed but continues to define “winning” using an old definition. The author quotes that 14% of modern wars have a “clear winner” without stating what that means.

    In WWII we did not eradicate leaders that want to take over the world. In this definition, we failed. We continue to fail in Afghanistan, Korea, and wherever else we feel threatened. In WWII we stopped our aggressors by bombing the hell out of them. Because of cell phones and twitter, we can no longer bomb the hell out of countries without social repercussions. Constrained by these new rules of war, the United States continues to fight aggressors who threaten us.

    That is what makes our veterans honored members of our society. They have fought for us. You can argue moral vs amoral all day, especially now that our aggressors have Facebook accounts and image branding, but in the end, through the fog of success and failure, our service members keep the world more secure. In that view, someone else’s narrow definition of “winning” becomes meaningless.

  16. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/31/2015 - 05:48 pm.

    I hate to say it but…

    This really isn’t that mysterious. Since WWII for a variety of reasons the European colonial model collapsed, and THAT’S why the US wars aren’t winnable for the most part.

    The historical fact is that with few exceptions US wars have been about empire or extending empire… or did you think 100 years of Inidian wars were about something else? Perhaps the splendid little war with Spain, or the war with Mexico before that?

    Both WWI and WWII were about empires, and the US response to the European colonial impulse. WWI the outbreak of a civil war among European empires that concluded with WWII. The Post war collapse of the colonial model ushered in the Cold War but essentially both Korea and Viet Nam US attempts to establish or repel colonial interests. Obviously such wars are unwinnable because the establishment and maintenance of colonies or even colonies by proxy has become impossible for a variety of reasons. Mainly the problem is that the “natives” are no longer poorly armed, instead of spears and rocks they have rocket launchers now.

    This is all really very obvious once you abandon the myth of military nobility. We have been on the right side in a few wars but our “wins” were always about imposing our will through military force. Once that model become untenable you’re not going “win” anymore.

  17. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/01/2015 - 11:57 am.

    By the way…

    Howard Zinn and Chomsky talked about this for decades, if you like my comment above please know that it’s not my original thinking, I’m standing on the shoulders of much more informed and intelligent people than myself. If you don’t like my comment then phooey on yoooey:)

  18. Submitted by Sharon Fortunak on 06/01/2015 - 11:02 am.

    American wars

    Warmongering is all about profiteering and egos. It’s time to get off that wagon and start focusing on all the aging infrastructure. Who wants to be on the next bridge that collapses?

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 06/02/2015 - 04:55 am.

      Get off that wagon (!)

      “Under the leadership of President Eisenhower, the question of how to fund the Interstate System was resolved with enactment of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. It served as a catalyst for the System’s development and, ultimately, its completion. Title I of the 1956 Act increased the System’s proposed length to 41,000 miles. It also called for nationwide standards for design of the System, authorized an accelerated program, established a new method for apportioning funds among the States, changed the name to the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, and set the Federal Government’s share of project cost at 90 percent.

      “Title II of the Act – entitled the Highway Revenue Act of 1956 – created the Highway Trust Fund as a dedicated source for the Interstate System.”

      Those 41,000 miles of interstate (35W, I-94, I-90, etc.) were built for $141 billion dollars, or the cost of a little more that one year of the Iraq war. (Or, adjusted for inflation, maybe four or five years.)

      Fast-forward to today’s (May 20th) congressional status-quo:

      “Why Congress Can’t Solve America’s Infrastructure Crisis

      “Lawmakers can’t agree on how to pay for the Highway Trust Fund for the remainder of the year, let alone for the next decade.

      “On Tuesday, the House passed a two-month extension of the Highway Trust Fund, which is set to expire at the end of the month. The stopgap measure would prevent a damaging shutdown of infrastructure projects across the country, but as lawmakers spent an hour debating the bill, all they could talk about was failure. Despite bipartisan agreement that the nation needs a long-term program to repair and replace its aging roads, rails, and bridges, Congress has been plugging the trust fund like a driver who refills his gas tank one gallon at a time.

      “‘We have known for months that this day was coming, and we have made no progress,’ lamented Representative Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat. Minnesota’s Rick Nolan called the situation ‘a national embarrassment,’ while a third Democrat, Lois Frankel of Florida, said the 60-day patch was the equivalent of slapping silly putty on a cracked bridge. Republicans, whose districts contain just as many creaky overpasses and congested highways, complained about the extension in only slightly less dire terms. Senator James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican famous for his denials of climate change, told the Huffington Post that his own party was to blame for the absence of a long-term solution and said a ‘true conservative’ would support federal spending for roads and bridges.”

      But they just can’t seem to bring themselves to do it because… Because why?

      I don’t know. Maybe some of the people that claim to understand the Republican approach to things could clear it up for us.

      Good point. I agree.

  19. Submitted by Doug Gray on 06/01/2015 - 11:44 am.

    …And Why We Will Keep On Losing

    Apologies for the repetition, but the US will continue to need to spend twice as much of its GDP per capita on its military so that it can continue to win most if not all of the battles in the wars it will continue to lose until such time as those responsible for losing them (which as Mr. Udstrand and others point out is the same as starting them) suffer actual consequences for doing so rather than receiving promotions and Presidential medals. That is the real takeaway from Gen. Bolger’s excellent book, which I heartily recommend.

  20. Submitted by Joe Smithers on 06/01/2015 - 01:44 pm.

    Poor/missing math

    “Put another way, since 1990, less than 14 per cent of internal conflicts produced a clear winner. About 20 per cent produced a ceasefire. And about 50 per cent simply persisted.”

    What about the other 16%? 50 plus 20 plus 14 only adds up to 84%.

  21. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/01/2015 - 02:08 pm.


    I think this last war in Iraq was a crime against humanity and a war crime itself. That war was flat out unjustified aggression. I think members of the Bush cabinet may well find themselves on trial some day and THAT is the best chance we have putting a stop to these military misadventures.

  22. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 06/01/2015 - 08:25 pm.


    Here is a huge misconception: America is not winning wars because it can’t anymore; it is not winning them because it doesn’t fight them the way it did before. In WWII, the latest example of a won war, America did not hesitate to firebomb Dresden and drop nuclear bombs on Japan. Now, they were trying to be a “gentler” military in Iraq (I am not making it up by the way) and decided against dropping a small nuke on Tora-Bora. America, in fact, did win a war in Iraq – quickly, decisively, and with few casualties, – and then gave everything up for political correctness.

    But in order to win the war, one has to focus on winning the war and not on helping local population and placating war opponents at home. If a team doesn’t have a will to win or thinks about not hurting the opposite team, it will never win. Bin Laden said that people bet on strong horse and if America is seen as weak, it ends up losing, in people’s minds and on the battlefield. The winning now is not capturing territory but ending up with the government that, in most cases, does things that America wants – and it should be irrelevant whether this is done because of loyalty, gratefulness, convictions, opportunism, or fear.

    By the way, isn’t it ironic that America always spends years and billions of dollars training armies in other countries and then insurgents come and win quickly? Where there is a will, there is a way – and the other way around.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 06/01/2015 - 08:41 pm.

      Thank you for admitting that other than our sovereignty

      being invaded, we have absolutely no reason to go to war any more. Unless you prescribe to your statement that America is justified in taking out any government that it doesn’t happen to like? All that sounds like is the bully that forces the weak kids to give him their lunch money everyday. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the Founders didn’t have that in mind.

    • Submitted by Doug Gray on 06/01/2015 - 09:25 pm.

      ironic? i’d say predictable

      Can it really be that much of a surprise that a military establishment that has had the US military to do most of its fighting for the last decade or so has lost whatever fighting spirit it ever had?

  23. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 06/02/2015 - 12:11 pm.

    59 comments – 15 by one individual about 25%.

    This is one way the right wing seeks to create the illusion of “balance” – through the imbalance of never stopping the repetition, never leaving any rebuttal unrebutted, always attempting to get the last word.

  24. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 06/02/2015 - 07:18 pm.

    And right

    Mr. Myron, I do not see how it is possible to misconstrue what I said but to clarify it – I never said that there is no reason for America to go to war. And since it is obvious that all international laws and the UN do not work (otherwise we would not have had wars and problems in every corner of the world), America is justified in removing governments it does not like because they are the bad governments. It is much better than China or Russia doing it. A teacher has the right to remove disruptive kids from the classroom – it does not make that teacher a bully.

    Mr. Titterud, considering that liberals outnumber conservative in comments on this site by about 3 to 1, what is wrong with trying to rebut all rebuttals? Clearly, out of 60 comments, 75% have been made by liberals.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 06/02/2015 - 08:25 pm.

      What’s wrong with rebuttal of all rebuttal.

      It is endless.

      Why not instead try to make a point well enough that it withstands rebuttal ??

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 06/03/2015 - 08:24 am.

        White and Black Hats

        I apologize if my method frustrates you, however I feel a need to question many comments here because they seem so absolute and stereotyping. Unions, Management, Poor, Rich, War, Social Programs are often portrayed as Good or Evil.

        My world is much more gray and fuzzy, so I question people when they blame one group or the other, instead of acknowledging that both groups have good and bad qualities. For example, I have no problem with employee unions, they have and do serve many good purposes. However, I am very concerned that Ed MN’s priority to reward longevity instead of performance is harming the opportunity of unlucky kids. So you may hear me praising unions for pushing for safety and training, and then railing against their steps/ lanes/ tenure efforts.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 06/02/2015 - 09:58 pm.

      Excuse me?

      “America is justified in removing governments it does not like because they are the bad governments.”
      Says who? So it’s okay if the US does it but bad if another country does? Exactly who or what gives America this right?

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 06/03/2015 - 07:59 am.


        I have to agree with you on this one. Kind of.

        I think America has an opportunity to help remove a government when the majority of the citizens in the country beg for assistance and the country attacks an ally. (ie Iraq) But we would have no role unless invited, except to apply sanctions. (ie Iran)

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 06/02/2015 - 10:31 pm.


      Ilya, Good point. And personally I think we should do a word count. Now those results would be interesting. Some of the comments are more like a short story.

  25. Submitted by DENNIS SCHMINKE on 06/03/2015 - 08:57 pm.


    The changing nature of the war certainly matters. So does the way we fought it.

    We and our Allies killed FAR more civilians in WWII vie more-or-less indiscriminate bombing of cities than we killed with two nuclear bombs. (I have never quite understood what all the fuss has been about in that regard.)

    As general Curtis LeMay said “We better win this, because if we lose we will all be tried as war criminals.”

    Probably because of the internet and instant global media coverage, we are just not willing to fight like that any more.

  26. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 06/03/2015 - 10:09 pm.

    Points and counterpoints

    Mr. Myron, yes, it is OK for America because in general it is a force for good in the world but it is not OK for China and Russia. If you do not see the difference between America and those countries, it is sad.

    Mr. Tetterud, why don’t you first make such a point that conservatives will not have a chance for rebuttal?

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/04/2015 - 10:31 am.

      A force for good

      Compare and contrast the Johnson Doctrine (domestic revolution in the Americas is not a local matter when the object is the establishment of a Communist regime) with the Brezhnev Doctrine (it is a concern of all Marxist nations when one Marxist government begins to tilt towards capitalism). The Johnson Doctrine was used to justify the invasion and occupation of the Dominican Republic, and the thinking behind it led to the support of corrupt and murderous regimes throughout Lain America.

      You and I see the difference between the US and Russia and China. Does the rest of the world?

  27. Submitted by jason myron on 06/04/2015 - 01:05 pm.

    A force for good?

    That depends on what side of the gun barrel you happen to be on. Once again, who granted the US the right to change the governments of other sovereign countries as it sees fit? No one…it does it by force which is why the schoolyard bully analogy is so apt. Blindly going along with that, especially when a certain political party that pushes that policy but spends the rest of their time complaining that their own government is evil and would screw up a two car funeral, is what’s really sad.

  28. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 06/04/2015 - 06:34 pm.


    Mr. Holbrook, everything is relative in this world. The “corrupt and murderous” regimes in Latin America you are referring to were still better than possible communist regimes if we go by what those regimes were doing in other places (Campuchia, Mao, North Korea, Stalin, etc.) And why do we care what the rest of the world sees? Obviously, most of the rest of the world is not exactly the paragon of virtue to emulate or trust…

    Mr. Myron, obviously, from the point of the Nazis, the Allies were not the force for good in the WWII. Does it mean that you cannot that force for good for yourself? And who may grant any rights to any country? The UN which is bankrupt and does the bidding of the dictators throughout the world? Again, the world should be happy that the only superpower in the world (or whatever is left of is after Obama) is America and not China or Russia.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 06/05/2015 - 04:02 pm.

      I don’t know how you closely you were watching Central America

      in the 1980s, but the Reagan administration was arming guerrillas to overthrow a government (Nicaragua) that was trying to bring health care, universal education, and actual elections to a country for the first time ever while supporting countries (El Salvador, Guatemala) that were carrying outright massacres of entire villages and blatant murders of their political enemies, and countries (Argentina, Uruguay) that were kidnapping political opponents off the streets, torturing them to death, and dumping their bodies in the ocean.

      Neither Cuba nor Nicaragua ever reached Khmer Rouge or Stalinist or North Korean levels of repression. Not even close.

      The Reagan administration used the propaganda tactic of calling every country and movement that wasn’t friendly to American business “Communist,” and a lot of Americans were uninformed enough to believe him. Yet if any countries ever needed revolutions, it was the ones in Central America. Their societies were downright feudal, with a REAL 1% that lived like kings and the majority that lived in tin and cardboard shacks. This is according to people I knew who went their as missionaries or Peace Corps volunteers or even tourists.

      Reagan could have stood by, let the revolutionary movements win, and then courted them with aid for their literacy, health, and rebuilding programs. Instead, he chose to ally the U.S. with the brutal oligarchs, who told their mostly illiterate soldiers that by torturing and murdering dissidents they were “fighting the enemies of God.”

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