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

The old war model is over, Mark Kukis writes, and today’s wars often end in a draw or just drag on.

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

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 aeon.com 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.

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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

“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.”