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Tactical Success


Strategic Victory

Hoover Institution Working Group on Military History

Why America Cant Win Its Wars


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 wouldnt give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. Thats 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
warin 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 gravethree 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
casesof civil war and terrorism. None of the wars spawned by 9/11 have ended well.
Why cant 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.
Butmilitary 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 betterthat is, if they read and understand history, which regrettably all too
many donot.
During the four decades of the Cold War, superpower rivalry constrained war-making
in significant ways. Despite General of the Army Douglas MacArthurs 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

Military History


of the peninsula by force of arms would come at great cost and potentially put at risk
moreimportant 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.
Butenlarging the war in Korea to include Communist China would involve us in
thewrong war, at thewrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.1
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 technologyair powerin an attempt to bring
North Vietnam to the negotiating table. When Operation Rolling Thunder failed,
the presidentand his senior advisers struggled to devise a strategy to achieve US
objectivesat 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 administrations strategy,
understating the level of commitment and the purpose of the force buildup.2 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.3 The president
bought their silence with promises of future force increases. Despite significant
reservations about the Johnson administrations approach to war in Vietnam, in the
endthe Joint Chiefs endorsed a flawed strategy that they knew was inadequate to
achieve victory.4
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

Peter R. Mansoor Why America Cant Win Its Wars

save the belligerents from reaping the bitter fruit of severe mistakes [at the strategic level].
Thisis 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
canbe corrected, but political and strategic mistakes live forever.5

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 ManuelNoriega 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 decadelater helpedto 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.6 Bush and his advisers, however,
were thinking of the Balkans, not of Afghanistan or Iraq. When faced with the reality
of reestablishinggovernance 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 alternativeto simply
leave and let the chips fall where they maywas 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
faultlines. 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.

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In late 2006, after nearly four years of drift in US policy, President George W.Bush
made a bold decision to stake his administrations 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.7
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 MultiNational 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.8 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.9
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.10 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 wars 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

Peter R. Mansoor Why America Cant Win Its Wars

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
itsallies 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 nearperfect 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 capabilitiesthey
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 warand not just the nature of war
inthe 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 Americas 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 centurytactically and operationally brilliant forces that
nevertheless managed to lose two world wars due to the inability of their leaders
tothink strategically. The United States has paid a heavy price for its recent military

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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 nations wars.

1 Military Situation in the Far East: Hearings Before the Senate Committees on Armed Services and
ForeignRelations, 82d Congress, 1st session, part 2 (May 15, 1951), 732. One should also note,
however, that the long-term commitment of the United States to South Korea and the presence of
USforces there resulted in the stabilization of the country and its eventual rise as an Asian Tiger,
bothpolitically and economically.
2 H. R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
andtheLies that Led to Vietnam (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 31922.
3 Ibid., 261.
4 Ibid., 32728.
5 Allan R. Millett and Williamson Murray, Lessons of War, The National Interest 14 (Winter,
6 The Bush administrations assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, John Hillen,
had authored an article that declared nation-building beneath the dignity of the United States:
Superpowers Dont Do Windows, Orbis 41, no. 2 (Spring 1997): 24157.
7 Ryan Crocker, Dreams of Babylon, The National Interest, June 22, 2010, http://nationalinterest
8 Emma Sky, Iraq in Hindsight: Views on the U.S. Withdrawal, Center for a New American Security,
December 14, 2012: 8,
9 The Obama administration had also earlier failed to support the victor in the 2010 presidential
elections,Ayad Allawi, and instead backed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for another term in office.
As a result, a significant number of Iraqis began to lose faith in the political system, undermining
themomentum the surge had created.
10 The White House, Remarks by the President on Ending the War in Iraq, October21, 2011,

Peter R. Mansoor Why America Cant Win Its Wars

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Copyright 2015 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University

Hoover Institution Stanford University

Working Group on the Role of Military History

inContemporary Conflict

About the Author

Peter Mansoor, colonel (ret.)
from the US Army, is the General
Raymond E. Mason Jr. Chair of
Military History at Ohio State
University and a CNN military
analyst. His twenty-six-year
military career featured two
tours of duty in Iraq, including
as an executive officer to General
David Petraeus. His most recent
publication is Surge: My Journey
with General David Petraeus and the
Remaking of the Iraq War.

Hoover Institution, Stanford University

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Stanford, CA 94305-6010

The Working Group on the Role of Military History in

Contemporary Conflict examines how knowledge of past
military operations can influence contemporary public
policy decisions concerning current conflicts. The careful
study of military history offers a way of analyzing modern
war and peace that is often underappreciated in this age of
technological determinism. Yet the result leads to a more
in-depth and dispassionate understanding of contemporary
wars, one that explains how particular military successes
and failures of the past can be often germane, sometimes
misunderstood, or occasionally irrelevant in the context
ofthe present.
The core membership of this working group includes David
Berkey, Peter Berkowitz, Max Boot,Josiah Bunting III, Angelo
M.Codevilla, Thomas Donnelly, Admiral James O. Ellis Jr.,
ColonelJoseph Felter, Victor Davis Hanson (chair), Josef Joffe,
Frederick W. Kagan, Kimberly Kagan, Edward N. Luttwak,
Peter Mansoor, General Jim Mattis, Walter Russell Mead, Mark
Moyar, Williamson Murray, Ralph Peters, Andrew Roberts,
Admiral Gary Roughead, Kori Schake, Kiron K. Skinner, Barry
Strauss, Bruce Thornton, Bing West, Miles Maochun Yu, and
Amy Zegart.
For more information about this Hoover Institution Working Group
visit us online at

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