Andrew J. Bacevich: Why Can't America Win Wars?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His new book Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War is due out in the spring.]

President Obama’s decision to escalate U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan earned him at most two muted cheers from Washington’s warrior-pundits. Sure, the president had acceded to Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request for more troops. Already in its ninth year, Operation Enduring Freedom was therefore guaranteed to endure for years to come. The Long War begun on George W. Bush’s watch with expectations of transforming the Greater Middle East gained a new lease on life, its purpose reduced to the generic one of “keeping America safe.”

Yet the Long War’s most ardent supporters found fault with Obama’s words and demeanor. The president had failed to convey the requisite enthusiasm for sending young Americans to fight and die on the far side of the world while simultaneously increasing by several hundred billion dollars the debt imposed on future generations here at home. “Has there ever been a call to arms more dispiriting, a trumpet more uncertain?” asked a querulous Charles Krauthammer. Obama ought to have demonstrated some of the old “bring ’em on” spirit that served the previous administration so well. “We cannot prevail without a commander in chief committed to success,” wrote Krauthammer.

Other observers made it clear that merely prevailing was nowhere near good enough. They took Obama to task for failing to use the V-word. Where was the explicit call for victory? “‘Win’ is a word that Obama avoided,” noted Max Boot with disapproval. The president “spoke of wanting to ‘end this war successfully’ but said nothing of winning the war.” Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard read off the same talking points. “The personal commitment of the president to pursue the war against the Taliban and al Qaeda until they are defeated was not there,” he lamented. “…To have rallied the country and the world, Obama needed to indicate he would lead a fight to win in Afghanistan, with the help of allies if possible, but with the armed forces of the U.S. alone if necessary. He didn’t say anything like that. He didn’t come close.”

Oddly enough, the military leaders to whom Krauthammer, Boot, and Barnes all insist that Obama should defer also eschew the V-word. McChrystal and McChrystal’s boss, Gen. David Petraeus, have repeatedly said that military power alone won’t solve the problems facing a country such as Afghanistan. Indeed, the counterinsurgency doctrine that Petraeus revived and that McChrystal is keen to apply in Afghanistan in effect concedes that violence alone is incapable of producing decisive and politically useful outcomes. Expend as much ammunition as you want: what today’s military calls “kinetic” methods won’t get you where you want to go. Acknowledging that battle doesn’t work, counterinsurgency advocates call for winning (or bribing) hearts and minds instead. And they’ll happily settle for outcomes—take a look at Iraq, for example—that bear scant resemblance to victory as traditionally defined.

That the post-Cold War United States military, reputedly the strongest and most capable armed force in modern history, has not only conceded its inability to achieve decision but has in effect abandoned victory as its raison d’être qualifies as a remarkable development.

Since 1945, the United States military has devoted itself to the proposition that, Hiroshima notwithstanding, war still works—that, despite the advent of nuclear weapons, organized violence directed by a professional military elite remains politically purposeful. From the time U.S. forces entered Korea in 1950 to the time they entered Iraq in 2003, the officer corps attempted repeatedly to demonstrate the validity of this hypothesis.

The results have been disappointing. Where U.S. forces have satisfied Max Boot’s criteria for winning, the enemy has tended to be, shall we say, less than ten feet tall. Three times in the last 60 years, U.S. forces have achieved an approximation of unambiguous victory—operational success translating more or less directly into political success. The first such episode, long since forgotten, occurred in 1965 when Lyndon Johnson intervened in the Dominican Republic. The second occurred in 1983, when American troops, making short work of a battalion of Cuban construction workers, liberated Granada. The third occurred in 1989 when G.I.’s stormed the former American protectorate of Panama, toppling the government of long-time CIA asset Manuel Noriega.

Apart from those three marks in the win column, U.S. military performance has been at best mixed. The issue here is not one of sacrifice and valor—there’s been plenty of that—but of outcomes.

A seesawing contest for the Korean peninsula ended in a painfully expensive draw. Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs managed only to pave the way for the Cuban Missile Crisis. Vietnam produced stupendous catastrophe. Jimmy Carter’s expedition to free American hostages held in Iran not only failed but also torpedoed his hopes of winning a second term. Ronald Reagan’s 1983 intervention in Beirut wasted the lives of 241 soldiers, sailors, and Marines for reasons that still defy explanation. Reagan also went after Muammar Qaddafi, sending bombers to pound Tripoli; the Libyan dictator responded by blowing up Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland—and survived to tell the tale. In 1991, George H.W. Bush portrayed Operation Desert Storm as a great victory sure to provide the basis for a New World Order; in fact the first Gulf War succeeded chiefly in drawing the United States more deeply into the vortex of the Middle East—it settled nothing. With his pronounced propensity for flinging about cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs, Bill Clinton gave us Mogadishu, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo —frenetic activity with little to show in return. As for Bush and his wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the less said the better.

What are we to make of this record?..
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More Comments:

John D. Beatty - 1/22/2010

Not clear exactly on where you want to go. It is clear that to YOU "long" is less than a decade, but then the conflict between 1492 and 1911 against the aboriginal Americans was, well, the "REALLY Long War?"

If you want "victory" each and every day and each and every war, buy a video game. Survival is far more common, and easier to see.

Ithi Sophonpanich - 1/22/2010

The article is meaningless without comparing the US to other countries and their number of victories in twentieth century wars.

Because I think the trouble is with Max Boot's definition of victory rather than anything else.

In such strict terms, most twentieth century wars, and not just the ones the Americans are involved in, tend to "painfully expensive draws."

This is because with total wars, there is no logical end to war until the whole population has been wiped out, which is what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and what the US has refrained from doing ever since.

It is difficult to imagine the sort of military victory that would prevent acts of terrorism, such as the Lockerbie bombing, which required little manpower and equipment.

Lastly, to impose Max Boot's condition of victory on another country would require something far closer to colonization than the US public can stomach, both in ideological terms and in financial terms.

Jules R. Benjamin - 1/21/2010

I guess America needs a different kind of military and a different definition of national security. Trouble is, as Rumsfeld used to say "you go to war with the army you've got." The changes called for go beyond generational change in the Pentagon. Sorry to sound like a conspiracy theorist but the greatest difficulties will occur if an attempt is made to change the relationship between the military and its budget. You just cannot spend in the 9-10 figure range without alot of fast, powerful, intimidating stuff. Change must also wait for a turn in public opinion and in Congress' fear of it. War is easy for us because we have enough stuff to fight several of them at once. We could never field enough Dari speaking negotiators. And what do we do with the sacrifices made by our (used to be) boys? Every war also helps us to dismiss the death of any but Americans. Why do they hate us? Stand in the path of a hell-fire missile and ask that. This and so much more.