Why the World’s Biggest Military Keeps Losing Wars

Why the World’s Biggest Military Keeps Losing Wars

Add to Reading List
Add to Reading List

Before Korea, America never lost a war. Ever since, other than the first Gulf War, it hasn’t won any. In Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan America spent trillions of dollars, exploded countless tons of munitions, killed hundreds of thousands of enemy combatants along with innocent civilians and accomplished hardly any of the goals its leaders proclaimed when they sent their soldiers into battle.

America’s inability to translate its immense firepower into meaningful political effect suggests the $500 billion it spends annually on defence is wasted. In a recent article in the Atlantic Magazine, James Fallows asked the previously unmentionable question: how can America spend more on its military than all the other great powers combined and still be unable to impose its will on even moderately sized enemies?

I think the media generally ignores this question because the answers skewers shibboleths revered by both left and right. I spent much of the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, as a news cameraman embedded with the American military. I like American soldiers, enjoy their company, respect their bravery, their loyalty, their ethos: but hanging out on their Forward Operating Bases, I could see why the world’s most expensive military doesn’t win wars. Here are four factors worth considering, in descending order of importance.

Too much logistics, not enough combat.

They call it the tooth to tail ratio: the number of combat soldiers compared to the number in support roles. More than three-quarters of Americans in Iraq didn’t fight. A ridiculously large number of American soldiers spent their entire tour in Iraq “inside the wire”, barely leaving their huge prefabricated bases that felt more like Arizona than Anbar. 

My Baghdad based colleagues and I used to look forward to embeds so we could eat all American cuisine at the mess halls. Pecan pie, sweet ice tea, lobster and steak on Fridays, all shipped halfway around the globe. The logistical tail was wagging the combat dog.  In Afghanistan, the Americans had to pay off the Taliban so the supplies could get through.

I never thought I would say this out loud, but Donald Rumsfeld was right about one thing: the American military is too big and bulky. Special Forces are lean and mean and - not coincidentally - more successful. The one triumph of the misbegotten War on Terror was the rapid defeat of the Taliban in the fall of 2001. With almost no regular army involvement, a handful of Special Forces commandos slipped into Afghanistan, liaisoned with Northern Alliance units, and coordinated air strikes against Taliban positions. At the time, the Taliban held all but a few slivers of Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance was outnumbered, outgunned and heading towards ignominious defeat, but the combination of local boots on the ground, elite American scouts and massive American airpower proved unbeatable. Within a month, the Taliban recognized they had lost and faded away, at least for a few years.

The military would be more successful if it was smaller and more concentrated. America should shrink its regular army and focus on elite units who can get in, accomplish a targeted mission, and get out quickly. A smaller footprint solves a multitude of problems, both logistical and political.

Learn the Language

One desert night on a Marine base outside Basra, I chatted with an Egyptian interpreter hired by the US military.  Knowing that Cairene Arabic is vastly different from that of Southern Iraq, I asked him if he had any trouble understanding the local dialect.  He shook his head. “I have no idea what they are saying. I have a much easier time understanding you.”  His English was excellent, which is presumably why he got the job, but his comprehension of Basrawi Arabic was almost nonexistent.  But Marine officers, who inevitably spoke no Arabic, depended on him to explain what the locals were trying to tell them. Since the interpreter just made up what he thought his bosses wanted to hear, the Marines were operating with negative intelligence.

The moral: don’t invade a country if you are too lazy to learn the language. If you can’t understand what people are saying, you are operating blind. I’ve been told by American officials that up to 95% of the Iraqis imprisoned in American brigs were probably guilty of nothing. They were ratted out, perhaps by someone who owed them money, and the gullible Americans just locked them up. Imprisoning the innocent created unnecessary   enemies for the occupation. In 2003, most Iraqis were pleased at Saddam Hussein’s ouster. They could have been predisposed to support American aims, if the Americans hadn’t alienated so many of them for little reason. It is impossible to successfully conduct a war if you can’t distinguish friend from foe because they all look the same to you. If more American soldiers understood Arabic, their insight and awareness of Iraqi culture could have made a huge difference.

Fear of Casualties

One of the most moving moments of my time in Iraq was a memorial service for a young soldier, nicknamed “Doc”, a 19 year-old medic killed by an improvised explosive device in Diyala Province. Almost all of Camp War Horse showed up for the ceremony. We stared at his boots and dog tags while his comrades remembered his bravery and kindness. As the service came to a close, his Sergeant called roll. He barked out the dead man’s name; the silence was blistering, and unforgettable. Four Generals flew in from Baghdad to pay their respects. As well they should. The death of a young man is always a tragedy. But had generals in the First World War gone to as many funerals, they would never have been able to plot the next battle. 

The American military is deeply committed to force protection, to not losing soldiers.  Captains tell you proudly their primary goal is to get through the tour without any fatalities. This is an admirable sign of human decency, but it is not particularly bellicose. It is impossible to imagine William the Conqueror, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, or Patton focusing above all else on not losing soldiers. Historically, officers are happy to use their men as cannon fodder if it will help them achieve their objectives. 

In 1982, Reagan sent Marines into Beirut to try and stop the Civil War. When a car bomb killed 241 of them, he soon withdrew the entire force. In 1993 Clinton sent US soldiers into Somalia for a similar humanitarian purpose. When a few of them were killed and their bodies dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, the domestic political fallout was such that they too were quickly extracted. Our fear of death sends a message to our enemies. Despite apparent American strength, its enemies know if they have a little patience and inflict a little pain, the Americans will probably leave.

Only go to war if it is worth sacrificing your children. When Hitler invaded Russia, Stalin’s son went to the front, was captured and eventually died in a POW camp. Would Bush have been so happy to invade Iraq had he expected Jenna and Barbara to end up on point in Fallujah? Of course not. And that brings us to the last and most important reason America keeps losing wars.

War as Symbol

From a military perspective, the Tet offensive was a great victory for American arms. For several years the Americans had been desperate for the Viet Cong to stand up and fight, to stop hiding in the shadows. In February 1968, they did. Initially, they were successful.  For a few hours they captured the US embassy in Saigon.  For a few weeks they conquered the ancient imperial capital of Hue. But soon, the immense firepower of the US army took its toll. The Viet Cong were slaughtered, more than decimated, destroyed as a fighting force for the rest of the war. Tet was a great battlefield success for the US army. It is also the moment the United States lost the Vietnam War.

Vietnam was televised. Civilians watching at home did not see victory, they saw carnage.  They recognised that their President had been lying to them when he suggested that victory would be easy, and they wanted out.  

Fifty thousand Americans died in Vietnam. So did more than 2 million Vietnamese. If war were a numbers game, America would have been victorious. But war is ultimately a matter of will. The North Vietnamese were willing to suffer more than the Americans were, because victory was more important to them.

Lyndon Johnson only went to war because he feared being accused of “losing” Vietnam by congressional Republicans. Indochina was insignificant to America, important only as a symbol of US resolve, as a message to China and Russia that the US would stand by its allies, no matter the cost.

In 1975, Saigon finally fell. Other than psychologically, the effect on America was negligible. Likewise, in a few years, most Americans won’t know or care who controls Mosul or Helmand or South Waziristan. America lost in Vietnam, in Iraq, in Afghanistan   primarily because it had no real reason to go to war in the first place, no compelling national interest. Were Canada to invade North Dakota or Mexico to invade California, I suspect the US military and people would find the will to win.  But the American people, wiser than their bellicose elites, ultimately are unwilling to make sacrifices for mere symbols.

War, What is it good For? Absolutely Nothing

In 1910, Norman Angell wrote The Grand Illusion, a long pamphlet suggesting that a general war between the great powers was impossible. Of course, 1914 proved him wrong, and history professors since then have mocked Angell for his mistimed prophecy.  But on a deeper level Angell was just a bit ahead of the curve. He argued that in an intertwined capitalist economy, war was self-destructive. Even the victor would lose. 

Angell observed that no German personally profited from the annexation of Alsace in 1870. All land remained in its legitimate owners’ hands. When William conquered Britain, when Cortez conquered Mexico, their soldiers made fortunes. War traditionally was mostly an excuse for plunder. In the modern world, Angell argued, armies slaughtered not prospective slaves but potential customers. Today, in the developed world, war is pointless. China needs America to buy its manufactured goods. America needs China to buy its government debt. No geopolitical dispute can trump their symbiotic ties.

For the developed nations today, going to war is more a signifier than anything else. If their primary interest was oil, American diplomats would have told Saddam to grant exclusive contracts to select oil companies and he would have gladly complied in order to avoid invasion. But Bush, Cheney et al weren’t really interested in Iraq’s oil but rather in an opportunity to demonstrate America’s awesome military power, in order to cow the rest of the Middle East and the world beyond. It didn’t work out as they had hoped.

Had Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen been able to post YouTube videos of the horrific and pointless slaughter on the western front in World War 1, the British public would have sued for peace. In a democracy, with a free media, the horrors of war are a hard sell, especially when war serves little purpose other than to make the country or its leaders look tough. The most fundamental reason America’s huge military can’t win wars is that it doesn’t need to.


Keep up to date with the latest thinking on some of the day's biggest issues and get instant access to our members-only features, such as the News DashboardReading ListBookshelf & Newsletter. It's completely free.


Twitter Feed

RT @mybuchshelf: Are book collectors real readers, or just cultural snobs? – via @aeonmag

A collection of some of the best econ books of the year, feat - @ryanavent, @BrankoMilan, @g2parker and more...…

RT @mark4harrison: Blogged: Donald Trump and America's Incomplete Contract with Itself @warwicknewsroom @cage_warwi…

RT @NIESRorg: The weak pound in your pocket: @angusarmstrong8 continues to make waves with his blog post, this time in the @FT https://t.c…

RT @LSEReviewBooks: Review Archive: The Sharing Economy: The End of Employment & the Rise of Crowd-Based Capitalism by Arun Sundararajan ht…