The Great American Failure

A wounded U.S. soldier. Vietnam, April 1967.

I spent a term at the University of Washington as a teaching assistant in an undergraduate course on the history of the wars in Vietnam. It was outside my PhD research and an eye-opening experience.

Among the interesting things that the professor did was bring in two speakers on successive days. One was a former US Army intelligence officer. He had served in country in 1968, survived the Tet Offensive, and developed a pronouncedly sceptical attitude toward war in general and the American war in Vietnam in particular.

The second speaker had been a Marine helicopter pilot in the late 1960s. He’d flown missions in Cambodia and Laos, which made me strongly suspect that he’d been working for the Company (i.e. the Central Intelligence Agency) for some or all of his time there.

The vet’s perspective was much different, although he agreed with the first speaker that the United States needed to get over the idea that everybody secretly wanted to be just like us. The primary difference in his view of the war was in terms of its ultimate outcome. To his way of thinking, the Americans had actually won.

There is a certain logic to this position if (and only if) your only metric for victory or defeat is the spread of communism. One might be tempted to point out, as I did over lunch after his talk, that the Republic of Vietnam did, in fact, succumb to takeover by communist forces in April 1975.

Yes, he replied, that was true. But in what country did the communists take over thereafter? His argument, simply put, was that the United States had shown by its actions in Vietnam that it would make the transaction costs of takeover so high that the communists had given up further attempts at conquest.

The myriad problems with this thesis were, sadly, not to be resolved in the time that the meal permitted.

Irrespective of how one views questions related to Vietnam, the results of US military interventions in the decades since the end of World War II have been decidedly mixed.

Vietnam does loom large in the American psyche (although perhaps not quite the way it did ten or twenty years ago), but it is worth remembering that before that there was the three-year-long conflict in Korea, euphemistically designated a “police action” by the Truman Administration, in which a stalemate was achieved at a cost of more than 54,000 US casualties and $67 billion.

True, there have been successes. In 1983, the American government managed to prevent the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada from falling into communist hands in an operation that was relatively painless in terms of blood and treasure, although it did burden the English language with the phrase “predawn vertical insertion.”

The post-Cold War era kicked off with the first Gulf War, which was also relatively painless (for us) and which seems to have given the US military establishment the impression that with the appropriate degree of shock and awe things could be had all their own way.

But, generally speaking, the sledding has been quite rough, both during the Cold War and after.

US counterinsurgency in Central America resulted in defeat in Nicaragua, and in violence approximating genocide in El Salvador and Guatemala.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 have given rise to unstable states and waves of self-reinforcing insurgency of which the various iterations of ISIS have been the most prominent.

This, too, ignores (as did the speaker mentioned above) that horrific human cost among those innocents for whom precision munitions and strikes were simply not sufficiently precise.

The question of why it is that the United States has been singularly militarily unsuccessful since the middle of the 20th century is central to a new book by Donald Stoker, a professor at the US Naval War College.

In Why America Loses Wars: Limited War and U.S. Strategy from the Korean War to the Present, Stoker argues that a central element of this problem is conceptual: the period since the WWII has been characterised by a failure to distinguish between what war is and is not.

Stoker brings a lot to the table in this project, two things of particular importance. The first is an intimate familiarity with the political and military history of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

Books such as this require such background to make their arguments plausible, and Stoker provides a wealth of historical examples and context in pursuing his objective.

Hardly less valuable to a project such as this is a thorough understanding of the work of Clausewitz, still full of relevant ideas at the distance of two centuries.

Stoker is the author of an exemplary recent biography of the great Prussian military thinker (Clausewitz: His Life and Work, published in 2014). Clausewitz is clearly foundational for Stoker, in substance and in the pursuit of the conceptual clarity characteristic of his work.

Stoker clearly recognises that there have been important changes in the nature of war in the post-1945 period.

Wars in which individual states or coalitions of states are less common, replaced by counterinsurgency and conflicts carried out by proxy.

But the distinction between war and peace is central, as is the question of pursuing victory versus seeking (or being willing to accept) some other outcome.

Stoker is brutally critical of various conceptualisations of limited war. These, collectively, seem to pursue aims short of (or different than) military victory.

The central problem is that the conceptions of limited war that have been proposed over the course of recent decades are muddled, confusing military and political aims in a way that makes the achievement of either markedly less likely.

War, as Clausewitz famously noted, is the continuation of politics by other means, But it is not, itself, politics. But there is still a distinction to be made between the two.

Stoker makes the point that it is characteristic of modern liberal democracies that they are not clear enough about what they are fighting for.

As such, they are also not sufficiently resolved about the means that they are willing to employ, creating complexities for military leadership.

Korea is, for Stoker, a prototypical example of the failings of liberal democracies.

The Truman Administration was not clear and consistent about the goals of the conflict, changing them as the military and political situations changed.

Truman had been taken by surprise by the original invasion of the south.

The prosecution of the war was spent trying to balance the competing perspectives of the military requisites (as expressed by MacArthur and Matthew Ridgway), geopolitical questions (to what extent was a direct conflict with China desirable), and the pressures exerted by families disinclined to sacrifice their men to a conflict tangentially relevant to US interests

Although much of Stoker’s argument is quite straightforward, it is still not entirely clear whether the point is simple clarity or rather the idea that wars shouldn’t be fought unless the goal is a tangible victory.

The latter point makes sense. Given the sacrifices required of those who actually fight the wars, the necessity of clear and achievable objectives, and the commitment to victory seem obligatory.

Still, there are also times when the situation is more complicated than will fit into clear and well-defined concepts.

Stoker, to his credit, acknowledges this at points, but it is often difficult to square his recognition of these complexities with his somewhat moralistically expressed the view that the United States often fights as if it doesn’t want to win.

Irrespective of these concerns, this is a timely book. Given that the current administration’s approach to geopolitics is strongly shaped by Mr. Trump’s attempt to render it all as a function of personal relationships, the requirement of the greatest degree of clarity in how military operations are conducted is of particular importance.

The US seems at this point to be careening toward a conflict with Iran.

Given the current president’s lack of either military experience and even a rudimentary understanding of the difference between the beatdown administered to Saddam Hussein and the consequences of war with Iran, the impulse to thorough consideration is a salutary one.

Why America Loses Wars is a volume with many virtues. Stoker’s prose is clear and forceful, and he possesses a wealth of background knowledge with which to illustrate his arguments.

Perhaps even more valuable is the impetus that it gives the reader to consider important questions.

This is one of those books in which, even if one does not necessarily agree with all of the conclusions drawn, the issues raised are of such importance that they require engagement.

In this sense, Stoker’s book is a valuable contribution to a debate that needs to be had in the current moment.

Photograph courtesy of Manhai. Published under a Creative Commons license.